This post contains spoilers…read AFTER you’ve finished The Port of Missing Souls.
William “Billy” Gohl (February 6, 1873 – March 3, 1927) was an American serial killer who, while working as a union official, murdered sailors passing through Aberdeen, Washington. He murdered for an unknown period of time and was a suspect in dozens of murders until his capture in 1910. Spared from the death penalty by a request for leniency by the jury, he was sentenced to life in prison at Walla Walla State Penitentiary where he died in 1927 from lobar pneumonia and erysipelas complicated by dementia paralytic caused by syphilis.
Occupation and murders
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 were found washed up on shore during his tenure as a bartender, as well as a number of other crimes. In 1905 during the great waterfront strike Gohl was charged with “assembling men under arms” and is also alleged to have forcibly abducted non-union crewmen from the schooner Fearless for which he was fined $1,250 in the Superior Court. As a union official, Gohl used 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 their murders. 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 Grays Harbor. According to some reports, there was a chute which descended from a trapdoor 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/Hatteberg, whose body had recently been found in the harbor at Indian Creek February 2, 1910, soon after his disappearance on December 21, 1909. Hatberg had been shot with a .38 Automatic pistol which had been found in the salt flats by his body; the ownership was traced to Gohl. The Motive according to Klingburg confession was that Gohl claimed Hatberg had told a Detective Miller that Gohl had shot a cow a previous summer. Gohl had already been arrested in February 1910 for the Hatberg murder and was convicted of two counts of murder, though suspected of 41 or more, found guilty May 12, 1910 and sentenced to life imprisonment and taken to the State Prison June 13, 1910. Besides Hatberg, 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. (Hoffman had been killed December 23, 1909 after the Hatberg killing and had been robbed of $400.00 and also disposed of in the Harbor near Indian Creek. In July 1910 a human skeleton was found in Indian Creek; however, it is not known whether these were the remains of Hoffman.) Gohl was later transferred to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he died in 1927. He is buried in an open field above West Medical Lake, Eastern State Hospital.