The six-shooters and holster of silent movie cowboy Bob Custer.
Frankfort firepower: the six-shooters of silent movie cowboy Bob Custer.

Capital City Museum

Field review by the editors.

Frankfort, Kentucky

The relics in local history museums are often predictable: a butter churn, a high school band uniform, maybe an old telephone switchboard.

Wax dummies of bodyguards, a doctor, and William Goebel as he lay dying after being shot.
Bodyguards surround a doctor trying to save Kentucky's assassinated governor.

Frankfort's Capital City Museum has none of those. What it does have are the six-shooters of a silent movie cowboy; a case of Swastika whiskey; and a bleeding dummy of Kentucky's 34th governor, moments after his assassination.

"Historically, Frankfort was a very violent town," said John Patrick Downs, curator of the museum. As if to underscore this point, the first exhibit in the museum is the replica buckskin of Stephen Frank, the town's namesake. He was murdered by Indians. The killings continued for the next 150 years -- stoked by Civil War, racism, mobsters, greed, personal insults, politics, liquor, and an abundance of firearms.

Maybe Frankfort wasn't Dodge City or Tombstone, but it was pretty bad.

The Capital City Museum (Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky) is in the former Capital Hotel, and it was here that soon-to-be-governor William Goebel was carried after he was shot by an assassin across the street. The doctor's office has been recreated on the exact spot where Goebel lay dying -- he was sworn in as governor, then died four days later -- complete with dummies of bodyguards and reporters. Any doctor with an office in Frankfort's main hotel was certain to be busy. According to the museum display, only two weeks before the assassination a gunfight in the hotel lobby left four people wounded and three dead. The surviving shooter, a former Kentucky congressman, was acquitted of all charges.

Kentucky riverboat diorama: white passengers, Shaker brooms, Kentucky hams, and a slave.
On the riverboat: white passengers, Shaker brooms, Kentucky hams, and a slave.

Label and wooden case of Swastika brand whiskey,
The Nazis ruined the market for Frankfort's swastika whiskey.

Goebel's killer, a Republican, was pardoned when the governorship returned to Republican rule. Goebel, a Democrat, was no angel: he had shot dead a political rival five years before his own murder.

The term "Frankfort politicians" was pejorative for years, according to an exhibit on the now-demolished Kentucky Penitentiary. The exhibit calls attention to "Honest Dick" Tate, who ran off with Kentucky's treasury (and was never caught), and John said that the association goes back to Frankfort's founder, General James Wilkinson, who was later found to be a treasonous spy (known as "Agent 13") in the pay of Spain. He was called the most despicable character in American history by President Teddy Roosevelt.

The exhibit does point out, however, that most Frankfort politicians are from places in Kentucky other than Frankfort.

One notable local scoundrel was John Fallis, the "Poor Man's Friend" according to the epitaph on his tombstone, which is also in the museum. Fallis, who John Downs described as "kind of a local entrepreneur," was a Frankfort bootlegger, pimp, and political boss. According to the museum exhibit, Fallis once shot and wounded half of Frankfort's eight-man police force, faked his own death by blowing up his fishing boat with dynamite, and then was murdered on a Frankfort street corner while shooting craps.

Fallis was buried in the city's fanciest cemetery (near Daniel Boone) but later dug up and buried elsewhere. "His son kept the tombstone in his yard," said John. "When he died the people who bought the house didn't want a tombstone on their lawn, so it ended up here."

Bent iron bars, a chunk of rock, and a prisoner-made knife: remnants of the Kentucky Penitentiary,
All that remains of the Kentucky Penitentiary, washed out by a Kentucky River flood.

Whiskey fueled the city's evil spirits; an entire room in the museum is devoted to showcasing the "incredible variety" of corn liquor distilled in Frankfort, which was once the largest bourbon producer in the world. Among the hundreds of bottles on display are obscure brands such as Old Woodpecker, Golden Phantom, and Frankfort's unforgettable Swastika Whiskey, which John said "turns heads every time people notice it."

Old yellow and red fireplug from 1933.
Frankfort's hero fireplug of 1933.

Many local curiosities fill the museum's galleries, including a home-made American flag, flown over Frankfort during its Confederate occupation by a Union sympathizer who, surprisingly, was not killed; and a model of the home of Robert Graham, who was killed when his house was besieged by a Confederate gang. The model was built by Graham's son, only ten years old when he witnessed his father's murder. "Most of the gang members," notes the exhibit, "were hanged." There are forensic facial sketches of unknown people dug up out of Old Frankfort Cemetery; a heroic hydrant whose water smothered a 1933 fire at the Kentucky Arsenal that could have blown downtown Frankfort to smithereens; and the fancy six-shooters of Frankfort-born Bob Custer, star of silent movie Westerns such as Galloping Vengeance, Trigger Fingers, and The Terror of Bar X. Bob failed to make the transition to sound, and found a second career as a Los Angeles building inspector.

John said that the museum hosts a "Murder and Mayhem Tour" every October where visitors are guided to the sites of "the various murders and shootings and lynchings and riots that happened in town." With Frankfort's frankly inescapable history of violent death, we felt obligated to ask John if the museum was haunted. "I spend a lot of time here by myself," he said, "so I'd rather not know."

Capital City Museum

Address:
325 Ann St., Frankfort, KY
Directions:
Downtown, on the east side of KY-420/Ann St., just south of its intersection with W. Broadway St.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-4 (Call to verify)
Phone:
502-696-0607
Admission:
Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Kentucky Military History Museum: Hitler's PlaqueKentucky Military History Museum: Hitler's Plaque, Frankfort, KY - < 1 mi.
Floral ClockFloral Clock, Frankfort, KY - < 1 mi.
Daniel Boone's GraveDaniel Boone's Grave, Frankfort, KY - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Heigold Facade, Louisville, KY - 46 mi.

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