Struthers on Goings, 'The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest'

Author: 
Aaron Goings
Reviewer: 
David Struthers

Aaron Goings. The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020. 296 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74741-5.

Reviewed by David Struthers (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Labor (June, 2022) Commissioned by David Marquis (The College of William & Mary)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55963

When William “Big Bill” Haywood supposedly said “I haven’t read Marx’s Capital but I’ve got the marks of capital all over my body,” he could have been referring to Billy Gohl and all workers in the Pacific Northwest for that matter. Work was hard and life was harder as laborers in the region struggled to eke out a living, often for their very survival. In The Port of Missing Men Aaron Goings examines the history of labor, capitalism, and local politics through the life and the enduring local myth of the “Ghoul of Gray’s Harbor,” William “Billy” Gohl, a labor organizer who was rumored to have murdered between forty and two hundred men in Aberdeen, Washington before his arrest in 1910.

Goings smashes through the mythology to deliver a compelling and exciting story that is at once real crime and labor history. His conclusion is striking. Goings found no evidence to substantiate the wild claims of Gohl being among the worst serial killers in American history. By simultaneously deconstructing the origins of the myth and reconstructing Gohl’s life through the available sources (newspaper accounts, court records, census, penitentiary records, and city directories), the author brings us into a violent world full of labor exploitation, repression, and limited opportunities for the immigrant working class. To help us understand Gohl, the book examines capitalism from below and how its machinations impacted Gohl’s life course. The book interrogates capitalism and politics through Gohl’s life.

Wilhelm Johann Hermann Gohl was born in Germany in 1873 and Goings’s notes, in a manner that makes the book all the more teachable, that “Gohl’s home country and name are two of the few details of the man’s life that appear in multiple sources. Indeed, Gohl is a case study in the difficulties of researching the lives of itinerate workers, those who spent most of their lives toiling in anonymity” (p. 19). The author often brings his interrogation of sources into the book to the benefit of readers. Gohl discovered a life on the sea and found his way into the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific (SUP) in the early twentieth century. In July 1903 he became branch agent of the SUP local in Aberdeen and was a leading organizer during the 1906 maritime strike.

He met and eventually married Edith “Bessie” Hager, whose life has been sensationalized like her husband’s, including claims that she was a sex worker. At each turn, Goings contextualizes their lives through labor and social history, noting that despite the “sexist framing” of the claims of Bessie’s source of income, “working-class Grays Harbor women like Bessie were constrained in their life choices. As adults, most would marry or work for wages in low-paying service industries or sex work” (p. 47). Without a firm conclusion beyond the available evidence, Going’s noted that “both William and Bessie understood the precariousness of single workers’ lives in the early twentieth-century American West” (p. 99). The quality of the research and evenhanded evaluations humanize the book’s subjects, a quality taken from them through the mythologization of a supposed serial killer.

Goings argues that “while Gohl’s activism won real victories for working people, it also earned him powerful enemies” (p. 94). Central to his deconstruction of the serial killer myth is his effort to document both the number of dead bodies found floating in the harbor, a so-called “Floater Fleet” that he surmises came mostly from accidental drowning, and the enemies that Gohl’s labor organizing gained him. Through this accounting the author immerses the reader in West Coast labor history.

Goings notes that the SUP “was a microcosm of the entire Pacific Coast labor movement” (p. 67) as he draws connections to issues in other locations up and down the coast, including impressed sailors in San Francisco and solidarity strikes in San Pedro. Washington lumber and labor linked the state to the cities and ports along the coast: “While Aberdeen’s leading lights trumpeted the generous role they would play in providing San Franciscans lumber, working people argued that the ‘new city of San Francisco’ would be ‘the product of the workers’ hands and brains, not of the financiers’ credit in the money markets of the world” (p. 79).

Gohl was at the center of a multifront battle between labor and capital. Labor unions fought against building a Carnegie Library because they viewed it as a monument to the robber baron that the city would be forced to maintain after the initial grant. They suggested that every Carnegie Library should include the history of the Homestead Strike of 1892. A crucial event on the coast and in Gohl’s life was the 1906 maritime strike. In Aberdeen the strike included physical altercations and a shootout between unionists and the crew of a schooner. Goings notes that “Gohl was known to have carried a gun and was seemingly unafraid of confronting and even provoking nonunion workers” but argues that “it would be a stretch to claim that picket line fights and harassing scabs equated to the crazed, antisocial violence attributed to him by writers claiming to know of the man’s life” (p. 84). The union won the strike, while “organized capital fixed its gaze on Gohl” (p. 94).

The book is rooted in labor history from the likes of Bruce Nelson and Alexander Saxton and the gender analysis of Alice Kesler Harris. The many tie-ins would lead to productive discussions among students. For example, the Coast Seamen’s Journal compared the status of white laborers to slavery—“We have been assured that slavery is a thing of the past” (p. 25)—which would connect nicely to constructions of freedom in the North leading up to the Civil War and through industrialization. Furthermore, the racism of white trade unionists came part and parcel with their organizing against the bosses and Chinese laborers. Goings notes that “Gohl’s career was marked with a strong commitment to white supremacy. But he also fought for changes in laws and workplace practices that promised to improve the lives of maritime workers” (p. 101). Additionally, like many trade unionists in the period, they certainly did not adhere to the notion of “pure and simple” unionism by staying out of politics. On the contrary, Gohl believed that Grays Harbor laborers had been “bamboozled by political bunko-steerers, and they now have a chance to see that they must go into the political field themselves” (p. 103).

This book would be a wonderful addition to undergraduate courses because Goings captivates the reader through his exploration of the many aspects of life and labor and capitalism during this period. It would be an exciting addition to US surveys, local and regional history courses, and courses on the US West and labor. The book would readily lead to important discussions on the meaning of free labor, the concept of slavery in the minds of the white working class, the functioning of policing in this important period of carceral history, and how we remember the past.

Citation: David Struthers. Review of Goings, Aaron, The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest. H-Labor, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55963

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