Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Death to Capital Punishment

How Wisconsin Eliminated the Death Penalty

Death to Capital Punishment | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeChristoper Latham Sholes

Christopher Latham Sholes

A portrait of Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter. Sholes was an editor in Kenosha, Wisconsin and later continued this work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sholes invented the typewriter during his time in Kenosha. View the original source document: WHI 33920

August 21st marks an important Wisconsin anniversary. Our last execution took place on this date more than 150 years ago, when John McCaffary was hung in Kenosha for drowning his wife. The restraints that bound his arms and legs that day ultimately came to the Society's Museum collection as documentation of the last public execution in Wisconsin.

Christopher Latham Sholes

It was a particularly gruesome hanging, made more unsavory by the fact that the thousands of spectators who came to watch included some of the state's leading citizens and elected officials. Kenosha Editor Christopher L. Sholes (who also invented the typewriter) was appalled and he mobilized support to outlaw capital punishment. Sholes was elected to the Assembly a few months after the McCaffary hanging and succeeded in pushing through the legislature the provision that ultimately banned the death penalty in Wisconsin. Here is his March 5, 1852, speech that persuaded the Assembly to bar any further executions.

Death Penalty Outlawed

Today Wisconsin is one of only 12 U.S. states that prohibit the death penalty. The majority of nations prohibit capital punishment by law or in practice. Wisconsin's opposition to capital punishment may be unusual in the United States, but it is in line with the views of most European and industrialized countries.

The McCaffary case is described in detail here, and you can learn how it led to the abolition of the death penalty in this article from the "Wisconsin Magazine of History."

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See more images, essays, newspapers and records about capital punishment.