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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: death penalty in Wisconsin


Wisconsin has had no death penalty since 1853, longer than any other state in the nation. Following the particularly gruesome public execution of a Kenosha murderer in 1850, reformers Christopher Latham Sholes of Kenosha and Marvin H. Bovee of Waukesha Co. organized to outlaw capital punishment. Both men were elected to the state legislature, where they lobbied extensively for the cause. On March 9, 1853, the Assembly passed the Death Penalty Repeal Act by a vote of 36 to 28, on July 8th the Senate concurred, and Governor Leonard Farwell signed the bill on July 10, 1853.

Three times during the years 1854-55 Wisconsin mobs lynched murder defendants, which persuaded many people to favor the re-establishment of the death penalty. In 1857 a bill was introduced to repeal the abolition of 1853, but it failed. In 1937 a bill was proposed that would have punished kidnapping with death, and bills making first degree murder a capital offense were introduced in 1949 and 1955. Since then, several Wisconsin legislators have introduced bills to re-establish the death penalty but none of the bills made it out of committee. In 2006 the legislature passed a resolution placing on the November ballot a non-binding referendum question asking voters if the death penalty should be re-instated.

[Source: "Brief History of Wisconsin's Death Penalty" by Alexander T. Pendleton & Blaine R. Renfert in Wisconsin Lawyer at]
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