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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Frontier Justice

Judge William C. Frazier arrived in Milwaukee on a Sunday night in June of 1837. Newly appointed to the Eastern Judicial District of Wisconsin, he had time on his hands that evening and joined a friendly game of poker at his inn. The stakes were small at first, but the wagers increased over the course of the night until "small sums seemed beneath their notice." His luck was presumably bad, since the next morning the judge delivered a speech denouncing the moral squalor of gambling. He declared that "a gambler was unfit for earth, heaven or hell" and that "the English language is too barren" to describe his abhorrence of it.

Milwaukee quickly came to hate Judge Frazier. When many residents had lost all their assets in the Panic of 1837, he wore white gloves and the most expensive clothes in town. He insisted that polite formalities be observed, but drank to excess at every opportunity. His bad reputation lasted decades after his death.

Frazier also ruled sternly from the bench, insisting that the letter of the law be observed. One of his best-known decisions concerned a pair of Indian warriors who had conducted a revenge attack against settlers in Dodge County. One of the victims, Ellsworth Burnett, was killed but the second, James Clyman, escaped after being shot. The assassins were brought into Frazier's court and charged with two counts, one of murder and one of assault. Frazier first found them guilty of Burnett's death and sentenced them to be hanged. The next day he found them guilty of assault, and sentenced them to five years' jail time and "a fine of five hundred dollars each." Since the death sentence had been levied first, it would have been carried out first, making the sentence for assault meaningless.

Hearing of the sentence, Governor Henry Dodge declared "it too severe to fine and imprison a man after he was hanged." He changed their sentences to life imprisonment, but a year or two later pardoned the Indians, who had only followed their culture's legal tradition that required "an eye for an eye."

Frazier did not fare as well. Returning by ship from a session in Green Bay in 1838, he drank himself insensible and was lowered ashore with block and tackle. Trucked to his lodgings, he never regained consciousness, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on January 15, 2014
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