Billy Gohl


Billy Gohl

A.K.A.: "Timber Town Killer"

Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Robberies
Number of victims: 2 - 40 +
Date of murders: 1903 - 1913
Date of birth: 1860
Victims profile: Men (sailors)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Aberdeen, Washington, USA
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment. Later transferred to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he died in 1928

Billy Gohl (? - 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 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 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 imprisonment.

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.

Gohl, Billy

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

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 himself.

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 Cut.

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 magnetism."

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 from Hoquiam.

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.

Somebody started 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."

Gohl's headquarters 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 in.

"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 pillow."

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 pound anchor.

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 did.

"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.

Klingenberg declined; 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.