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Murderer's Execution Restraints

Arm and leg restraints that bound
John McCaffary, the last man executed
in Wisconsin, 1851.

(Museum object #1976.249.1–.2)

It cost Kenosha County just 75 cents to purchase these cotton and leather restraints that would later bind John McCaffary’s arms and legs during his execution. On August 21, 1851, a little more than a year after he had murdered his wife, McCaffary became the last man to be executed under Wisconsin’s death penalty.

The evidence that convicted McCaffary contains little motive for his crime. Just before midnight on July 22, 1850, McCaffary’s neighbors heard his wife, Bridget, screaming, "Oh, John, spare me" and "Oh, John, save me." The neighbors rushed to the house to find a wet, muddy McCaffary headed back to his home. When asked what had happened and where his wife was McCaffary responded only, "She is bad enough." The neighbors investigated further and discovered the still warm body of Bridget McCaffary submerged in 15-20 inches of water in a hogshead that had been placed in the ground as a cistern. A doctor later pronounced her dead from drowning.

At McCaffary’s trial on May 23, 1851, the jury’s verdict read, "Guilty of Willful Murder," and Judge E.V. Whiton called all the courtroom to "Listen now to the sentence of the Court: The sentence of the Court is that you John McCaffary, be confined a close prisoner in the common jail of this county until the time appointed by the Governor of this State by his Warrant, for your execution, and that at that time, you be hung by the neck until you be dead."

Between 2000 and 3000 people witnessed the execution, which was held just south of the City of Kenosha. Before a white hood was placed over his head, McCaffary said in a low voice, "I was the cause of the death of my wife, and I hope my fate will be a warning to you all. I forgive all my enemies. I forgive all the witnesses against me..."

A few minutes later the sheriff placed the rope around McCaffary's neck and stepped on the spring that hoisted McCaffary into the air. The crowd watched McCaffary struggle for five minutes and after eight minutes doctors began checking his pulse which they found had slowed slightly. The doctors periodically checked McCaffary's pulse for an additional ten minutes until he was finally declared dead.

The gruesome hanging of McCaffary prompted a new movement against capital punishment in Wisconsin led, among others, by Christopher Latham Sholes. A member of the State Senate in 1849 and editor of the Kenosha Telegraph, Sholes used his newspaper to publish an editorial the day of the execution stating, "We do not complain that the law has been enforced. We complain that the law exists.... Let another system of punishment be adopted and other means used to reform the criminal."

Sholes was elected to the State Assembly in the fall of 1852 and the following spring he spoke for an hour and a half against capital punishment before that body approved its abolition. On July 10, 1853, after the Senate had also voted to abolish executions, Governor Leonard Farwell signed the bill into law, formally ending the death penalty in Wisconsin.

[Source: Cropley, Carrie. "The Case of John McCaffary," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 35:281-288 (Summer 1952).]


Posted on August 11, 2005

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