1851: John McCaffary, the last hanged by Wisconsin

On this date in 1851, the domestic abuser John McCaffary (or McCaffrey) was publicly hanged in Kenosha, Wisconsin.* His crime — singularly ill-concealed — was a noisy row with his wife Bridgett that ended with him tipping her into a rain barrell and holding her in it until she stopped moving.

Neighbors alerted by Bridgett’s shrieks arrived to find the newly-minted widower redwet-handed, and his late wife stuffed in the backyard butt.

There had been a few executions in Wisconsin before McCaffary’s, but this was the first one after Wisconsin attained statehood in 1848. It was attended by a large crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers — a third of them female, to the special chagrin of newsmen.

And those 2,000 to 3,000 onlookers, as it turned out, witnessed something never to be repeated. From that day until this, the state of Wisconsin has never again put a human to death.**

The crowd played a part in that eventuality. Wisconsin was a reforming northern state — in a few years, the anti-slavery Republican Party would be founded there — and the spectacle of public enjoyment under the gallows struck as regrettable the sorts of people who, say, write Madison Democrat editorials. (“Murder before the people, with its horrors removed by the respectability of those engaged in its execution.” (Source))

Christopher Latham Sholes, a Kenosha publisher whose main claim to historic fame was later inventing the first commercially successful typewriter,† was seated in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1852 as a Free Soiler. He too had denounced the execution in his newspaper — “the crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man … we hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.” (See It Happened In Wisconsin, 2nd, or this link.) As a legislator, he put his political capital where his editorials were and spearheaded a successful campaign to get rid of capital punishment.

On July 12, 1853, Wisconsin followed the example of its neighbor, Michigan, and abolished the death penalty full stop.


Burial marker for McCaffary in Kenosha’s Green Ridge Cemetery, erected in 2001. ((cc) image from Matt Hucke.) The McCaffary house on Court Street is also a registered historic landmark, and possibly haunted by Bridgett’s ghost.

There’s a handy roundup of resources related to the McCaffary execution here.

* The present-day name. Kenosha was then known as Southport.

** According to Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States, there was an 1868 Wisconsin execution under Oneida (not Wisconsin) law, conducted on tribal lands.

† Said typewriter also debuted the now-standard QWERTY keyboard layout.

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