1851: John McCaffary, the last hanged by Wisconsin

3 comments August 21st, 2014 Headsman

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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1849: Washington Goode

Add comment May 25th, 2014 Headsman

America’s national debate over abolishing slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War is well-known. Not as well remembered is a different group of “abolitionists” — for death penalty foes, too, took this name,* and mounted a vigorous challenge against capital punishment, too.

In the main, they did not attain their ultimate objective, although Michigan in 1847 did become the world’s first Anglo polity to abolish executions.** But their contemporary-sounding arguments against the morality and efficacy of capital punishment did help drive important reforms, especially in the Northeast: narrowing the scope of the death penalty towards murder alone, and removing the spectacle of public hangings to the privacy of prison walls. Anti-death penalty scholar Hugo Bedau terms this the “first abolitionist era.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s American travels began in 1831 with a brief from the French government to investigate the prison system; in the classic Democracy in America that ensued, Tocqueville characterized Americans as “extremely open to compassion.”

In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years.

In Massachusetts, executions nearly ground to a halt … but they never quite got banned de jure. A committee headed by the very liberal legislator Robert Rantoul, who had cut his teeth as a young barrister defending an accused murderer in a death penalty trial, produced for Gov. Edward Everett a strong recommendation to take the death penalty off the books. The votes in the legislature never quite got there, but Gov. Everett would have signed it:

A grave question has been started, wheter it would be safe to abolish altogether the punishment of Death. An increasing tenderness for human life is one of the most decided characteristics of the civilization of the day, and should in every proper way be cherished. Whether it can, with safety to the community, be carried so far, as t permit the punishment of death to be entirely dispensed with, is a question not yet decided by philanthropists and legislators. It may deserve your consideration, whether this interestion question cannot be brought to the test of the sure teacher, — experience. An experiment, instituted and pursued for a sufficient length of time, might settle it on the side of mercy. Such a decision would be matter of cordial congratulation. Should a contrary result ensue, it would probably reconcile the public mind to the continued infliction of capital punishment, as a necessary evil.

Rantoul (and Edwards) had to settle for an 1839 law removing burglary and highway robbery from the ranks of potential capital crimes.

In practice, Massachusetts had not hanged anyone for mere theft in a number of years and by the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s scarcely hanged anyone at all.†

That tenderness of human life would meet what proved a decisive test with
Washington Goode‘s execution on May 25, 1849 for the murder of a fellow sailor over a romantic rivalry.

While philanthropists and legislators debated the merits of the rope in those years, Goode grew up at sea. There was a woman he called on when he made port in Boston, one Mary Ann Williams — married to someone else but kept by no man, Washington Goode included.

In 1848, Goode discovered in his lover’s boudoir a handkerchief given her by another seaman and soon enough started stewing over it. According to the circumstantial case that Goode’s jury ultimately accepted, he went out the next night, packing a wicked sheath knife and openly boasting to drinking buddies of his imminent revenge upon that Thomas Harding.

Later that night, the two rivals (plus Williams) all managed to run into each other in the same joint. Goode and Harding crossed words, then left that place one after another. Half an hour later, Harding had a sheath knife between his ribs. Nobody had actually seen it happened, but the identity of the murderer appeared self-evident.

However plausible the argument for Goode’s guilt and execution in the narrow case at hand, it could not help but be complicated by the execution-free years that had preceded him. Was this the most atrocious crime in Massachusetts of the 1840s? In 1845, a burgher named Albert Terrill had cut the throat of a prostitute on Beacon Hill, and set fire to her room; he had been spared execution.‡

Boston’s death penalty abolitionists mounted a furious clemency campaign, and again the arguments strike a familiar tone for present-day readers: the fallibility of the justice system (Goode maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows); the prospect that, were Goode indeed guilty, alcohol and passion had clouded his mind; and the manifest disproportionality between the extreme penalty that just so happened to be handed down to a poor black workingman when more atrocious crimes by better-connected Bostonians had lately merited far more lenient treatment. Thousands subscribed to petition, like this one, demanding mercy. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson fought to save Goode from the gallows.

But the Commonwealth was not moved.

Despairing, Goode slashed his veins during the night preceding the hanging in a vain bid for suicide. He would be hanged that day — after a physician stanched the bleeding and patched him so that Goode could die properly — seated in a chair. The fall broke his neck, and purpled some prose into the bargain.

The scene is past. A more fearful tragedy has never been enacted in our city. A more disgraceful scene never occured in any country. A stain has been made upon Massachusetts that ages can never wash away.

Ostensibly “private”, the jailyard hanging was readily visible from surrounding windows and rooftops in the neighborhood. Some shops in the vicinity even shut up their doors in protest, and hung up placards to make sure those arriving for a rented overlooking window knew it.

But the first abolitionist era was even now giving way to the rising section tension about to tear the country apart. Even people who cared deeply about the death penalty usually cared moreso about slavery … and the stain of Washington Goode’s hanging would be blotted out by the far bloodier years to come.

* The anti-death penalty and anti-slavery causes had a good deal of overlapping personnel, too: slavery abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Lydia Child, and William Lloyd Garrison were prominent supporters of the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. (See The Death Penalty: An American History.)

** Wisconsin and Rhode Island both followed Michigan’s lead. None of those three states has conducted an execution since the mid-19th century, although Rhode Island did put never-used death penalty statutes back on its books for most of the 20th century.

† According to the Espy file‘s survey of historical U.S. executions.

‡ Terrill was acquitted by his jury in two separate death penalty trials — one for the murder, one for the arson. The verdicts were commonly believed to be acts of nullification by juries unwilling to sully their consciences with a death sentence. (Terrill’s barristers resorted to the embarrassing somnabulism defense.) “We infer that no person will hereafter be convicted of murder in the courts of Massachusetts,” the Boston Courier editorialized. “There is prevalent in society such a feeling of horror [about capital punishment] … jurors will not hesitate to acquit.” But after Terrill, backlash against the verdicts inverted the horror — since it now appeared that the tender scruples of jurymen proposed to hand villains carte blanche.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1846: The last civil executions in Portugal

5 comments April 22nd, 2010 Headsman

Portugal has not carried out a civil (non-military, non-wartime) execution since hanging two murderers on this date in 1846.*

Despite some impressively sanguinary exercises of capital punishment in its history, the Iberian nation has been in the European vanguard of death penalty abolition.

Writing on what turned out to be the eve of Portugal’s landmark 1867 renunciation of the death penalty for criminal offenses, the 1866 report of Britain’s capital punishment commission observed:

The last execution which took place was at Lagos, on the 22nd of April 1846. And it is right to state also, that ever since the definitive re-establishment of a liberal government in this country, capital punishments have never been very numerous. Thus during the 13 years which elapsed between 1833 and 1846, inclusive, out of 99 culprits condemned to death there were only 32 executed, and the sentences of the remaining 67 were commuted.

[Portugal] is, then, the only [country] in Europe in which the punishment of death has been for the last 18 years de facto suppressed. Public opinion has gone before the law: and the law, in effacing this punishment from its provisions, far from being in anticipation of society, will not do more than give its sanction to a fact which has long been accepted by general feeling, and which at the present day it would be difficult to contravene. Even if the punishment of death were to remain inserted in the text of our penal legislation, I think I may with safety affirm it would be impossible to meet with a Minister of Justice who would venture to recommend the King to withhold the exercise of the Royal prerogative of pardon, and who would have the heart to order the timbers of a new scaffold to be again erected on the soil of Portugal.

Despite an abortive feint at backsliding during World War I, the popular sense of the issue does not seem to have changed much in the interim.

The tragedy of man, ‘a postponed dead body’ as Fernando Pessoa said, does not need an untimely exit from the stage. It is tense enough without an end that is artificial and planned by butchers, megalomaniacs, potentates, racisms, and orthodoxies. Therefore, being human, we demand unequivocally that all peoples should have a code of humanity. A code that for all citizens guarantees the right to die their own death.

-Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, at a 1967 colloquy marking the centennial of Portugal’s formal abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes.

* There are some scantily documented World War II treason executions; the death penalty was officially abolished for treason (the last capital crime on the books) in 1977.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Portugal,Public Executions

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1906: William Williams, the last hanged in Minnesota

4 comments February 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.

William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.

When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”

Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

And the end had come.

Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.

First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.

Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.

Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.

As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Sex,USA

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1987: Jacek Lazar condemned

4 comments November 27th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1987, according to the sentence read to him in the climactic scene of The Decalogue no. 5,* fictional Polish criminal Jacek Lazar was condemned to hang for the senseless murder of a taxi driver.

The movie, plainly reflecting the director’s opposition to the death penalty, is the most overtly political of Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s ten-film cycle exploring the themes of the Ten Commandments. But it is far from tendentious.

The supposed date of the actual execution, depicted here, is not identified.

If one credits the dates, this hanging would be among the last performed in Poland. After April 1988, death sentences were no longer carried out, and Poland formally abolished the death penalty in the late 90’s — thanks in no small part to this film.

* Or Dekalog, per its Polish rendering. This particular installation of the series is also referred to as “A Short Film About Killing”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Fictional,Hanged,Mature Content,Murder,Poland,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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