Travel, History & Culture in America's Dairyland
John McCaffrey’s Body
John McCaffrey did a bad, bad thing.
His marriage -- never the model of domestic bliss -- ended on a July night in 1850 when the hotheaded Irishman beat and choked his wife before stuffing her headfirst into a barrel while she was still breathing.
Bridget McCaffrey drowned in 18 inches of watery crud.
A neighbor asked McCaffrey if his wife was inside the barrel. Well, ah, er, somebody was inside, he replied. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, that John McCaffrey.
“Your days are numbered.”
“I am now about to perform the most painful act of my judicial life,” Judge E.V. Whiton told the packed courtroom as he began sentencing the first person to be executed in the new state of Wisconsin. “By our law, the crime of which you stand convicted is the only one that is punishable with death.
”Whiton summarized the overwhelming evidence against McCaffrey, then, as if to convince himself that the death penalty was justified, Whiton detailed the “peculiar atrocity” that made the crime especially heinous.
“Your victim was your wife, she was a woman, and a woman, too, which you had promised to love and respect - but instead of loving and protecting her, you have imbrued your hands in her blood.
“If you had committed it under other circumstances, it might have mitigated your offense...You did not cleave her with a club, or stab her with a knife, or shoot her down with a gun upon a sudden impulse of passion, but you drowned her and the evidence shows that you did it in not an instant, that it could not have been done except by your effort and continuous act and with difficulty. In that period you had time to reflect. In that time you must have felt her struggle, you must have felt the throbs, you must have felt the tremor which immediately preceded dissolution.”
Whiton instructed McCaffery, who did not confess, to spend his final days repenting.
“It is my duty to announce to you that you have but a short time to live, your days are numbered. I feel it is my duty not as a judge, but as your friend, and let me entreat you to spend the remnant of your life in repentance of your sins.”
The judge concluded with a thought of the victim.
“The law allows you time to prepare for death, but it is one of the peculiar features of the murderer that he gives his victim no time to prepare for death. I was not acquainted with your victim. I know not whether she was prepared or not. I only know that no time was given her by you.”
“Early in the morning carriages flocked into the city,” wrote C. Latham Sholes, editor of the Kenosha Telegraph. A “morbidly excited” crowd of 3,000-4,000 people gathered. Accounts vary on the location: 66th St. and 10th Ave.; 66th St. and 14th Ave.; or 67th St. and 14th Ave.
McCaffrey was slowly transported from jail behind a parade of numerous officials, as well as the Kenosha City Guard, decked out in full dress uniform with fixed bayonets.
The crowd had to be quieted so McCaffrey could offer his penance. He knelt in prayer with a priest for 10 minutes. According to custom, McCaffrey was given the opportunity for final words.
He confessed publicly for the first time, and deputies shouted the killer’s statement to the crowd: “I was the cause of the death of my wife, and hope my fate will be a warning to you all. I forgive all my enemies. I forgive all the witnesses against me.”
The prisoner was blindfolded and a hood placed over his head. Then he waited. And waited. It would take five minutes until the 1 p.m. execution time set by the governor. Finally, the sheriff walked across the gallows and tripped a spring.
Death came by hanging, eventually. Slow strangulation, really. The primitive method used by authorities hoisted McCaffrey into the air rather than dropping him through a trap door. He struggled for 5 minutes. After a few more minutes physicians noted his pulse was only slightly reduced. McCaffrey lived at least another 10 minutes while dangling above the gallows.
Sholes railed against the execution in his newspaper:
"The last agony is over. The crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man. McCaffrey murdered his wife without the sanction of the Law, and McCaffrey has been murdered according to law. We do not complain that the law has been enforced. We complain that the law exists...“We hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin."
It was, and Wisconsin has prohibited the death penalty for 151 years, longer than any other state in the nation.
As a legislator, Sholes led the Death Penalty Repeal, signed into law by Governor Farwell on July 10, 1853. (Though, in the years immediately following repeal, vigilante mobs were in the habit of lynching murder suspects.)
A cryptic letter sent to the Kenosha Telegraph weeks before the execution indicated that Bridget McCaffrey’s soul was not resting in peace.
McCaffrey was buried in Green Ridge Cemetery, Kenosha. The house on 13th Court St. is a registered historic landmark.
Copyright 2002-2010, Michael Bie (Classic Wisconsin)
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