With Labor Day just over a week away, a new biography by professor Aaron Goings is a good choice for readers interested in our region’s labor movement history.
In “The Port of Missing Men,” Goings investigates the legendary “Ghoul of Grays Harbor.” The tale links a powerful, early 20th century labor leader in Aberdeen, Washington, to the deaths of dozens whose bodies were fished out of rivers around Aberdeen in the early 1900s.
The victims were disconcertingly dubbed the “floater fleet.” And, as local lore would have it, William Gohl was the “Ghoul.”
Born in Germany in 1873, Gohl as a young man spent several years at sea, sailing out of ports from Alaska to South America. He survived the dangers of hazardous working conditions, unsanitary living quarters and brutal oversight.
In 1903, Gohl was elected to serve as an agent for the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific. He settled in the brawling port of Aberdeen, which was soon to become the world’s largest lumber port. He quickly became known as a tough and effective advocate for his seamen brethren.
Operating as a “white-collar sailor,” Gohl conducted successful strikes for improved conditions for the seamen. He forcefully advocated for improvement of the waterfront district’s rough conditions.
That didn’t make him any friends among the business class, who felt threatened by his pro-union activities. Several local newspapers, likewise boosters of the “pro-business” status quo, were quick to disparage Gohl’s actions and to malign his reputation.
Eventually, he ruffled enough feathers that Aberdeen’s pro-business faction formed a citizens’ committee and hired a detective agency to dig up any dirt on him.
This was at a time when such agencies were developing a reputation for going the extra mile to please their employers by constructing cases that framed the innocent. Goings suggests this may have happened in Gohl’s case.
In early 1910, on flimsy evidence, Gohl was arrested in connection with the discovery of a murder victim found submerged in a nearby creek. Much of the local press suggested that Gohl could have been behind the demise of many more in the floater fleet.
By the time of the trial, Gohl already was considered a murderous fiend in the court of public opinion. His subsequent conviction and life sentence seemed inevitable; never mind that the floater fleet continued to grow after his imprisonment.
Gohl’s reputation as a serial killer lives on to this day. He has achieved a type of regional celebrity cult status. But after devoting time and careful scholarship into the matter, Goings thinks Gohl got a bum rap.
“The Port of Missing Men” offers an important reconsideration of Gohl’s life and work, and a nuanced look into the region’s labor history.