(? - 1928) was an American serial killer who, while working as a union
official, would murder sailors passing through Aberdeen, Washington. He
murdered for an unknown period of time and was a suspect in 41 murders
until his capture in 1913.
Washington State had abolished the death penalty the
year before his conviction, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Those in favor of the reinstatement of capital punishment would often
cite him as an example of a prisoner who deserved to die for his crimes.
Gohl was employed as a union official at the Sailor's
Union of the Pacific. Before this he had been employed as a bartender
after returning broke from the Yukon. Already an accomplished criminal,
Gohl was suspected of being responsible for many of the large numbers of
deceased migrant workers that would be found washed up on shore during
his tenure as a bartender, as well as a number of other crimes.
As a union official, Gohl would use his reputation
and intimidating size to discourage strikes and "recruit" new union
members. The Union building proved to be a location that was ideal for
his crimes, both in providing victims, and in concealing the evidence of
Sailors arriving in the port of Aberdeen would
usually visit the Sailor's Union building soon after disembarking. There
they could collect their mail and, if they wished, set some money aside
in savings. Gohl would usually be on duty, alone. Typically Gohl would
ask if the sailors had any family or friends in the area. Then he would
turn the conversation to the topic of money and valuables. If the sailor
was just passing through, and would not be missed by anyone in the area,
and had more than a trivial amount of cash or valuables on hand, Gohl
would choose him as his next victim.
Gohl would kill most of his victims in the union
building by shooting them. Then after relieving them of their money and
valuables, he would dispose of them in the Wishkah river, which ran
behind the building and into the harbor.
According to some reports, there was a chute which
descended from a trap door in the building directly into the river.
Other reports state that Gohl would use a small launch to murder his
victims and dump the bodies directly in the harbor. Though suspected of
being responsible for the large numbers of sailors who would disembark
in Aberdeen and disappear, nothing was done to stop him until an
accomplice, John Klingenberg, was brought back to Aberdeen after trying
to jump ship in Mexico to escape prosecution, or possibly to escape Gohl.
Klingenberg was able to testify to seeing Gohl alone
with a sailor, Charles Hatberg, whose body had recently been found in
the harbor, soon before his disappearance. Gohl had already been
arrested for the Hatberg murder and was convicted of two counts of
murder, though suspected of 41 or more, and sentenced to life
The second count was for the murder of John Hoffman,
a witness to the Hatberg murder who was shot and injured by Gohl on the
night of the murder, and killed the next day by Klingenberg, for which
he was sentenced to 20 years.
Gohl was later transferred to an asylum for the
criminally insane, where he died in 1928.
Nothing of substance is known about Billy Gohl's first forty years, and the stories he told in response to occasional questions were riddled with holes, contradictions, and some outright lies.
By his own reckoning, Gohl was born around 1860, spending most of the next four decades as a laborer, sailor, or both. In 1903, he surfaced in Aberdeen, Washington, as a delegate for the Sailors' Union of the Pacific.
Gohl's stocky build and clean-shaven scalp made him memorable, but his tales about previous lives scarcely set him apart from the seamen he served. The union office, in those days, functioned as a combination mail drop, bank, and general employment office for its members. Sailors new in Port might check for letters, scan the list of vessels needing crewmen, or deposit valuables before they made the rounds of various saloons. In many cases, sailors back from months at sea had large amounts of cash on hand. An honest union delegate would hold the money in a safe until it was reclaimed. In Aberdeen, the spoils belonged to Billy Gohl.
His method was simplicity itself. When sailors turned up individually, Gohl checked the street for witnesses. If it was clear, and something of substantial value was entrusted to his care, he drew a pistol from his drawer and shot his victim in the head. That done, he paused to clean the weapon, stripped his prey of any extra cash and all identifying documents. Gohl's building had a trapdoor, with a chute extending to the Wishkah River, just outside, with currents flowing toward Gray's Harbor and the sea beyond.
Within a few years after Billy Gohl's arrival, Aberdeen acquired a reputation as a "port of missing men." No records exist for his first six years of operation, but authorities pulled 41 "floaters" out of the water between 1909 and 1912, suggesting a prodigious body-count. Most of the nameless dead were presumed to be merchant seamen, and Billy Gohl was among the most vocal critics of Aberdeen law enforcement, demanding apprehension of the killers, more protection for his men.
Gohl's downfall was precipitated by a timepiece and his own attempt at cleverness. While rifling the pockets of his latest victim, Billy came upon a watch bearing the engraved name of August Schleuter, from Hamburg, Germany. Alert to the potential for incrimination, he replaced the watch and dumped the corpse as always. When the "floater" came ashore, Gohl was on hand to identify Schleuter as one of his sailors, renewing demands for a thorough investigation of the murders.
This time, Billy got his wish. It took some time, but homicide investigators learned the victim was, in fact, a Danish sailor named Fred Nielssen. He had bought the watch in Hamburg, from a craftsman who identified each piece he made with an engraving of his name. Gohl's effort to identify the corpse as August Schleuter smacked of guilty knowledge, and detectives finally built a case that brought him into court, in 1913, on a double charge of murder.
Gohl was rescued from the gallows by Washington's repeal of the death penalty, in 1912.
Convicted of two slayings, he rebuffed all efforts to compile a comprehensive list of victims. Even so, publicity surrounding Billy's case was adequate to win restoration of the death penalty in 1914.
Safe in his prison cell, with no evidence to support further trials and possible execution, Gohl counted the years until his death, of natural causes, in 1928.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of
Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
Billy Gohl was a short, rounded fellow,
tough and thick. There are many tales attributed to him. Some say that
he bombed a cigar store. Other's say that he shot up boats staffed with
non-union sailors. Some folks even credit him with shanghaiing numerous
sailors into tedious lumber boat crews. But no matter what's attributed
to him, Billy Gohl was definitely a nasty son of bitch.
The most common description of Gohl's crimes
revolve around his life in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1903, Billy
Gohl became a delegate for the Sailor's Union of the Pacific in
Aberdeen, a salty lumber town. No one really knew where he had
come from, but his loose lips and ability to talk faster than most
people thought made him a natural for the job.
Typically, sailors would come to the union office to
look for work, check their mail, or stash valuables and money before
wandering around town looking for liquor and pussy. Gohl became the head
honcho of the Union office by 1909, and tended to man the operation by
Between 1909 and 1912, Aberdeen became known as a
violent port from whence sailors would not return. Usually, the missing
sailors would float to the shore, dead from a bullet wound to the head,
their pockets emptied. Around 200 some odd bodies were found in the
waters around the Big Cut between 1903 and 1913, and most of them were
thought to be sailors.
Gohl was very vocal about the slapdash nature of the
police in Aberdeen at the time. He berated them for not being able to
solve the heinous murders of his men. He called for more protection for
sailors and demanded law enforcement apprehend the killer.
In fact, the killer was Billy Gohl. When a sailor
came into the office to deposit their fistful of newly acquired cash,
Billy would nod at them knowingly and lock the front door so they would
not be disturbed. As soon as the coast was clear, he'd shoot, stab, beat,
or strangle the man, take all his valuables, and drop the body into the
ocean through a trap door he had installed in the floor.
Eventually, after doing this around 52 times, Gohl
fucked up. He found a pocket watch on one of his victims engraved with
the name August Schleuter. As he suspected that selling a watch
with the name of the dead man on it would get him caught, Gohl left the
time piece on the body.
When he was called down to the shoreline to identify
the body a few days later, Gohl said "Yep, that's August Schleuter. He
came in a few days ago to check his mail." Unfortunately, the man's name
was in fact Fred Nielssen. Gohl was convicted in 1913 and spent the rest
of his life in jail, saved from the executioner by Washington's 1912
repeal of the death penalty.
Gohl died in prison, most likely with a prolapsed
rectum, in 1928.
Billy Gohl of Grays Harbor
Murray C. Morgan
Billy Gohl was a short, round-headed,
heavy-shouldered man in his forties. He had brown hair, which he wore
parted in the middle, bartender fashion; and, indeed, he sometimes
tended bar. His eyes were big and blue and wide-set-honest, you might
say. In an era of free-flowing mustaches he went about bare-lipped. His
chin was square, his neck short, his chest heavy. He was tough and he
looked tough, which was no disadvantage in the Grays Harbor of the Big
Billy was a great
talker. His conversation centered on his business pursuits and his
hobbies. If the reports of his listeners to policemen, sheriffs, and
grand juries are to be credited, his conversations were unforgettable.
You'd start chatting with Billy about the weather, and the next thing
you knew he was launched into a recital about a house he had burgled, a
hotel he had burned, a ship he had pirated, a man he had murdered, or a
deer he had shot out of season.
"Nice weather for ducks,"
a bartender in a saloon on Wishkah remarked one evening shortly before
Christmas in 1909 when Billy rolled in out of the rain.
Billy slapped his
sou'wester across his thick thigh, settled himself solidly against the
bar, and said, "I've got to kill Charley. As long as that scissor bill
is walking around, I'm looking right into the penitentiary." Charley was
never seen again.
A cigar-store operator,
whose competition had driven Gohl into temporary bankruptcy, told police
that Billy approached him amiably on the street and remarked, "You ain't
going to be in business so long yourself." That night the hotel housing
the cigar store burned to the wet ground-two guests along with it, one
of them being an elderly Swede who had annoyed Gohl some years before.
Billy was in excellent spirits when he next saw the burned-out tobacco
man. "Ain't it funny how things work out?" he said. "I never dreamed
there'd be a bonus in it."
One night in a bar he
explained to a considerable group how he had rigged the bomb. "I used
electricity to set it off," he said. "I had the damnedest time. I
fastened the cord to his light circuit, but the son-of-a-bitch hadn't
paid his light bill, and it was turned off. I had to run a wire in from
clear across the street to make it go."
The burned-out tobacco
man felt the police should take the matter up with Billy. So did Sig
Jacobson, a former associate, who complained to the authorities that
Billy wouldn't pay him for the infernal machine he had used to start the
fire. A detective was sent around to see Billy, but he came back with
the word there was nothing to it. (It was not impossible to get arrested
in Aberdeen at this time; Mac DeLane, the proprietor of the Pioneer
Liquor Store, who happened to be an enemy of Gohl's, was jailed for
smoking a cigarette on the street.
Billy could be
remarkably persuasive. A man who shot a friend at Gohl's suggestion told
a jury, "Billy looked at me and said, 'You take him,' and I knew I had
to. There wasn't anything else to do. He had a great deal of animal
During one eight-month
period while Gohl was active forty-three bodies were found floating in
Grays Harbor. Some had been shot, some slugged, a few showed evidence of
poison, and the majority appeared simply to have drowned after falling
or being pushed into the water while drunk. These anonymous dead men,
culled from the hordes of migrant laborers who had flocked to Grays
Harbor to cut trees, came to be known as the Floater Fleet.
Billy Gohl was credited
with launching most of them. If he was responsible for even half of the
floaters found in the harbor during his day, Gohl was America's most
prolific murderer. Over a ten year period the fleet numbered 124.
Gohl first appeared in
Grays Harbor in 1900 one of many men who drifted in broke from the Yukon.
He said he had been born in Austria, though one police report credited
him to Madison, Wisconsin, and another to Bergen, Norway. He found a job
in a waterfront saloon, where he attracted attention with a tale about
eating a man during a cold snap near Whitehorse.
He is said to have
picked up bonus money by recruiting seamen, usually unconscious, for
misery ships that called at the Wishkah mills for lumber. A bartender
could be most useful when shanghaiing was necessary to round out a crew.
But this story may be libel, for that is one of the few crimes Billy
never boasted of committing, perhaps because he soon graduated from
barkeep to agent for the Sailors' Union.
Gohl was an effective
agent. Aberdeen became one of the first ports on the Pacific Coast with
a union hiring hall. People seldom talked back to Billy. Once during a
strike, when there were rumors that a citizens' committee in neighboring
Hoquiam was planning to intervene, Billy strapped on a pair of forty-fives,
cradled a shotgun in his elbow, and boarded each streetcar as it came in
As he searched the
passengers he explained blandly, "to make sure there ain't nobody going
around town illegally armed."
In 1905 the captain of
the lumber schooner Fearless, which was tied up in port by a strike,
sneaked a non-union crew aboard, cast off, and headed for the Pacific. A
runner bounded up the steps to the union hall, over the Pioneer Saloon,
and reported the getaway. Billy recruited a boarding party, commandeered
a launch, and put out after her. The seagoing pickets were sighted as
they approached the schooner in the dark.
shooting. The gun battle lasted half an hour before the Fearless escaped
over the bar, which was too rough for the launch.
Later Gohl was arrested.
The papers said he was charged with piracy, but actually it was "aggravated
assault." He was fined twelve hundred dollars. On leaving court be
remarked, "It'll be worth every penny of it, for advertising.
Gohl seldom missed an
opportunity to expand his reputation for violence. One of his stories
was that after the Fearless returned he sent word to four of the scabs
that another non-union boat was waiting to sail. "After I got them on my
boat," said Billy, "I took them out to the bar at low tide. I made them
get out on the spit. Then I held a gun on them until the tide came in."
A private detective was
hired to check on Billy. He's just trying to scare people," the operator
reported. "He's all talk."
were in the union hall, a gaunt, narrow room with flaking yellow
wallpaper. A scattering of scarred tables stood stark under bare light
bulbs. There were some rung-sprung chairs and sturdy splintered benches.
One day a friend told Billy that a rumor was going around town that
Billy sometimes killed sailors who left money with him for safekeeping
and then dropped the bodies through a trap door into the Wishkah.
"That's silly. There
ain't no trap door here," said Billy. "And if there was it would just
open into the saloon." Then he took the man by the arm and led him to
the window. "Tell you what I did do, though. The other day some Swede
came in and gave me some money to hold for him while he hit the crib
houses. I told him something was up. I thought a scab boat was coming
"I got him to put on a
logger's outfit-there was some old stag pants around-and I told him to
go out and sit on those pilings down there and keep a lookout for the
boat. When he got out there I got my rifle and shot him from here, right
through the head."
In 1909 there was a
shift in political alignment at the city hall. Billy was arrested for
stealing a car robe. He was indignant. "A auto robe, for Chrissakes!" he
said. He was acquitted when a friend who rustled cattle on the Chehalis
River said he had bought the robe at a pawnshop and given it to Gohl.
Gohl brooded about the
fact of his arrest. Rumor reached him that the cattle rustler had been
seen talking to a deputy sheriff. It was then that he told the barkeep
at the Grand that he would have to kill the man. When the barkeep
mentioned some weeks later that be hadn't seen Charley around, Gohl told
him, "You won't. He's sleeping off Indian Creek with an anchor for a
A report of this
statement reached Montesano, where the sheriff decided Gohl might not be
joking. He waited for a day of low tides and went to Indian Creek. Not
far off shore he found Charles Hatberg's body, weighed down by a twenty-five
Gohl was arrested. He
denied everything. "It's a frame-up," he said, and many believed him.
Their confidence was shaken two months later when the schooner A. J.
West returned from a run to Mexico. Aboard her was a very nervous seaman
named John Klingenberg. He had been seen with Gohl the night Hatberg
disappeared. He had tried to jump ship in Mexico, but the captain, who
had received a telegram from the sheriff, kept him aboard.
On its return run the
schooner was held up two weeks at the Grays Harbor bar by adverse winds.
The delay, said Klingenberg, "left me in a highly nervous state." When a
sheriff arrested him at the dock he was anxious to talk.
Klingenberg said Gohl
had asked him to go along to kill Hatberg so Hatberg couldn't tell
anyone what he knew. They had gone to Indian Creek, where Gohl kept a
small schooner. There they met a man named John Hoffman. Gohl asked
Hoffman to go with them to Hatberg's cabin. After they were on the
launch Gohl drew his gun and shot Hoffman in the back, wounding him.
Hoffman begged for his life.
Gohl sat on his chest
and shot him through the forehead. They threw his body overboard and
went on toward Hatberg's. "He'd have been in the way," said Gohl. Near
the cabin they ran on a mud bank. Hatberg came out in a skiff and rowed
them ashore. The three men spent the night in the cabin. Klingenberg
said he didn't sleep much. The next morning Hatberg rowed them out to
the launch. "You take him," said Gohl to Klingenberg. And Klingenberg
"But," he told the
deputy, "I didn't shoot him in the back." Gohl and Klingenberg went back
to Aberdeen together. A few days later Gohl suggested to Klingenberg
that they go for a walk alone on the beach.
the next day he shipped out for Mexico.
When brought to trial
for his life, Gohl maintained that Hatberg and Hoffman were somewhere in
Alaska, tending lighthouse. He didn't know exactly where; didn't have
any idea whose body the sheriff bad found off Indian Creek. The State
then brought Hatberg's arm, which had been pickled, into court so the
jurors could examine some identifying tattoo marks.
Gohl was sentenced to life. He was
later transferred from the state penitentiary to a hospital for the
criminally insane, where he died in 1928. Klingenberg was sentenced to
twenty years in prison.