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Wisconsin and the Death Penalty | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wisconsin and the Death Penalty

Wisconsin and the Death Penalty | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Interior of a cell block at Wapun State Prison.

Wisconsin State Prison Cell Blocks, 1893

Interior of the cell blocks in the Wisconsin State Prison at Waupun. View the original source document: WHI 25635

Wisconsin has been without the death penalty for over years. Efforts to re-establish the death penalty have been introduced several times in the last century but most failed to gather enough support to make it out of legislative committee.

But on November 7, Wisconsin voters will weigh in on whether the state should resume executions in an advisory referendum that asks: "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?" What was the outcome of this? Should be revised sayting something like, the last time wisconsin voted was 19xx. The outcome ....

While the vote will not be binding on the Legislature's future actions, it could set the stage for the death penalty's return. (Not relevant to araticle anymore)

It was 155 years ago when more than 2,000 people in Kenosha watched John McCaffary dangle from a noose, his arms and legs bound by cotton and leather restraints, and writhe for several minutes before his body went limp. McCaffary, who had drowned his wife Bridget in a large backyard cask, was the first and last person to be executed under Wisconsin state law. And his case played a key role in the effort to abolish the death penalty.

The gruesome hanging prompted a new movement against capital punishment in Wisconsin that was led by, among others, Christopher Latham Sholes, who had witnessed the execution. Sholes, a member of the state Senate in 1849 and editor of the Kenosha Telegraph, used his newspaper to editorialize against the death penalty. At the time, Wisconsin law required that the only sentence a judge could impose on someone convicted of murder was death, which opponents argued caused juries to refuse to convict otherwise guilty murderers.

In 1852 Sholes was elected to the state Assembly, and the following spring he spoke for an hour and a half against capital punishment before the Assembly. Marvin Bovee of Waukesha led the effort in the state Senate. Opponents of the death penalty were assisted by the fact that the construction of Wisconsin's first penitentiary, Waupun, was nearing completion in 1852, so life imprisonment became a feasible alternative to death. Both Sholes and Bovee's efforts passed the Legislature and the Death Penalty Repeal Act was signed into law by Governor Leonard Farwell on July 10, 1853.

The elimination of the death penalty has not always been popular. Three separate lynchings of murder defendants by mobs in 1854-1855 led many to favor the re-establishment of the death penalty. Legislators have also introduced bills to bring the death penalty back at various times throughout Wisconsin history — in 1866, for example, when supporters of the execution of Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought to increase support by re-establishing the death penalty in Wisconsin, or in 1937, after the Lindbergh kidnapping, a bill to make kidnapping a capital offense was proposed.

With the death penalty on the ballot this year, voters will get to make their voices heard this Tuesday on an issue that hasn't been before Wisconsin for more than 150 years. (Not relevant to araticle anymore)