The Death Penalty in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society


The Death Penalty in Wisconsin

The Death Penalty in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

The death penalty in Wisconsin was repealed in 1853. It has had no death penalty for over 150 years, longer than any other state in the country. There have been attempts to re-establish the death penalty. However, most of these efforts failed to gather enough support to make it out of legislative committee.

Wisconsin's Only State Execution Spurs Efforts to Abolish Capital Punishment

In 1851, John McCaffary was the first and last person to be executed under Wisconsin state law.

More than 2,000 people gathered to witness his execution in Kenosha. He had received the death penalty for drowning his wife in a large backyard cask. McCaffary's arms and legs were bound by cotton and leather restraints before he was hanged for his crime.

McCaffary's execution played a crucial role in initiating a movement against capital punishment in Wisconsin. The movement was led by Christopher Latham Sholes who witnessed McCaffary's execution. Sholes was member of the state Senate and editor of the Kenosha Telegraph. He used his newspaper to editorialize against the death penalty. At the time, Wisconsin law stipulated that a death sentence was the only punishment a judge could impose on a convicted murderer. Opponents of the law argued that this harsh requirement caused juries to refuse to convict guilty murderers.

In 1853, Shoals , then a member of the state House, spoke against capital punishment for an hour and a half before his legislative peers. Marvin Bovee of Waukesha led the movement against the death penalty in the state Senate. Construction of the state's first penitentiary at Waupun was nearing completion in 1852. This made life imprisonment a feasible alternative to state execution. This gave momentum to the efforts of opponents of the death penalty. Sholes and Bovee's efforts culminated in the Death Penalty Repeal Act, which was signed into law by Governor Leonard Farwell on July 10, 1853. The Act ended the death penalty in the state.

Sporadic Public Support Fails to Persuade Wisconsin Lawmakers to Reinstate Death Penalty

The elimination of the death penalty has not always been popular. Several events in Wisconsin history persuaded people to voice their support for reinstating the death penalty.

Three separate lynchings of murder defendants by mobs between 1854 and 1855 encouraged many people to favor reinstatement.

Legislators have also introduced various bills to reinstate the death penalty.

In 1866, supporters of the execution of Civil War Confederate President Jefferson Davis tried to rally support for their cause by calling for the re-establishment of the death penalty in Wisconsin.

In 1937, a bill to make kidnapping a capital offense was proposed following the much publicized kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindberg's son in New Jersey.

These movements failed to persuade lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty.

Most recently, a November 7, 2006, advisory referendum asked Wisconsin voters to weigh in on the debate: "Should the death penalty be enacted in the State of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of multiple first-degree intentional homicides, if the homicides are vicious and the convictions are supported by DNA evidence?" Fifty-five percent of voters said they would favor the Legislature's restoration of the death penalty. Despite this slight majority vote, Wisconsin legislators were not bound by the results of this referendum and did not choose to reinstate the death penalty.