Crime and Punishment
Because man requires a reasonably safe and secure environment to live a civilized life, society has devised laws. But in our community, as elsewhere, there always have been those who transgressed the law. It was a Kenosha hanging that spelled the end of capital punishment in Wisconsin, but not an end to murder. Kenosha's earlier days were plagued by horse thieves and arsonists, safe crackers and slayers. Some were caught. Some were not.
Hangman's Work Here Changed Law
The story of the McCaffrey murder and hanging has been told and retold in newspaper and Sunday supplement articles over the years. As it happens, even with minor legends, the telling and retelling spawned , and then perpetuated, many errors.
Even the spelling of the principal character name has been disputed by historians for years. This account uses the McCaffrey spelling. That was the way Kenosha Mayor Michael Frank , who figured prominently in the case, wrote it in his diary. The court records also spell it McCaffrey-usually. Inexplicitly, in some cases the Court Clerk, Oscar Dane, used the McCaffery spelling.
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, in nominating John McCaffrey's home for inclusion in the National Register of Historical Places, spells it McCaffary. And Wallace Mygatt, who took the young city's census in 1850 the very week of the murder, spelled the name McAffrey.
In the north of Ireland, McCaffrey's birthplace, the traditional spelling is MacCaffrey, from the original Gaelic Macgafraidh, or son of Godfrey.
But ,truth be known, John McCaffrey used none of these spellings himself. Unable to write his name, much less spell it, he could only make his mark, an "X"!
This then, as far as can be determined, is his story.
John McCaffrey was born in 1820 in the northern part of Ireland, probably either in County Tyrone or County Fermanagh. It is not certain but he probably left Ireland during the terrible potato famine that drove so many Irish from their homeland in the 1840's. How and when he reached Kenosha isn't known; though he was living in the community as early as 1848.
He was, by all accounts, a hot headed Irishman, a laborer with a penchant for tinkering. He fancied himself an inventor and even claimed a plan for a perpetual motion machine-the persistent and elusive dream of many Americans of the day, searching for quick and easy riches.
Still, in the summer of 1850, the thirty year old McCaffrey (most accounts incorrectly give his age as forty) wasn't doing too badly. He had been working in the community long enough to have saved up $800 to buy a rather nice, new brick home in a good part of town.
His next door neighbors were Reverend John Gridley, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Arabella, who occupied a fine home, and on the other side,the Henry Mitchell family. Mitchell, 40, with a large house and many children, was a wagon maker who would establish in Racine a large wagon manufacturing, and later , automobile plant.Mayor Frank lived just three blocks away.
McCaffrey had been married only a short time to Bridgett.They took in boarders in the two upstairs rooms of the brick home. There was the young Daley family, a twenty-four year old Patrick, his wife Ann, and their four year old son, John. The Daley's had come to Kenosha from the Emerald Island, by way of Vermont, only a short time earlier.
The other upstairs room was shared by William Hackley, 22, a Yankee from New York that was a bricklayer, and 20 year old Patrick Hoy,a young Irishman who worked for a local livery stable.
But things were not blissful in the two story home on Kenosha's then west side. The sounds of crashing crockery punctuated the many loud arguments between John and Bridgett McCaffrey, according to neighbors.
On the night of July 22, the neighborhood was edgy anyway. The city was in the middle of a cholera epidemic that was taking one or two lives each day. And about 11 PM the night was broken by yet another McCaffrey fight.
There were loud angry shouts from the home; then a cry of fear from the back yard.
"Oh, John, spare me!Oh, John! Save me!"
Neighbors went to investigate. They spotted McCaffrey returning to his house. Asked where his wife was, he replied, cryptically, "She's bad enough!".
They soon found how bad off Bridgett was. She was head down in a five foot deep outdoor cistern, a large hogshead barrel sunk in the ground. His face was pressed into the mud at the bottom of the cistern. Her scalp was cut and there was evidence of a choking attempt. Death, though, was due to drowning in about 18 inches of water.
Police protection was scanty and an ordinance to improve patrolling was still being debated that summer. The neighbors were in a quandary over what to do. Finally, shortly after midnight, someone summoned Mayor Frank.
The Mayor threw on his clothes and rushed over to the McCaffrey home. Sizing up the situation, he sent for a constable and ordered the Irishman arrested on the spot.
The city's new two story courthouse and jail, located on the same site as the present police station, was under construction at the time. So McCaffrey was taken to Racine's jail.
On November 25, the grand jury was convened. Four days later a bill of indictment was returned. The defendant was arraigned and, continuing to deny any part in the death of his wife, he pleaded not guilty.
On December 5, 1850, McCaffrey's lawyers, A.G. Chatfield and E. W. Evans filed a motion for a change of venue, arguing that it would be "difficult , if not impossible, to obtain a fair and impartial trial in Kenosha county".
The petition noted that McCaffrey was "a Fasdown Irishman from the northern province of Ireland" for whom there was a strong prejudice and hatred among the "Connaught Irishmen" of whom there were many in the city. Seven persons filed supporting statements with the court, agreeing that community prejudice would prevent a fair trial.
But 15 other county residents submitted sworn statements denying local prejudice. Jeremiah Quade said he know of no feud among Kenosha's Irish. And one L. Crocker, who had transported McCaffrey to jail in Racine in July, said the defendant had told him that he could get a fair trial because "if I have any friends, they are in this county".
Circuit Judge E. V. Whiton denied McCaffrey's motion to change the trial's location.
The trial began May 6, 1851 , at the start of the spring Circuit Court term. Throughout the week and into the next, witnesses called by the State's Attorney General S.P Cone, assisted by J. R. Sharpstein, state's attorney and F. S. Lovell, paraded to the stand in the newly completed courthouse.
On May 15, after deliberating 90 minutes, the jury found McCaffrey guilty of first degree murder. Ten days later Judge Whiton pronounced the mandatory death sentence, as provided for by the laws enacted when Wisconsin had become a state in 1848. Subsequently, defense motions by lawyers Chatfield and Evans , claiming-probably correctly-trial errors were denied.
Spring ground into summer with McCaffrey locked in his jail cell in the basement of the courthouse. His execution was set for August 21st.
The execution day dawned hot. The sun was barely up when people began arriving in Kenosha from the rural area and beyond the county line. At 10:30 AM a crowd had gathered outside the courthouse for religious services by a number of city clergymen. Their sermons were preached in voices loud enough to be heard by the condemned man in his basement cell.
Meanwhile, a scaffold had been erected on a sandy knoll about a half mile "out in the country". There is some dispute as to the exact site. By one account the execution site is now part of the Frost Company plant. Another gives a location closer to 67th Street and 14th Avenue. And a third, the recollection of a man who was a child at the time of the hanging and recalled the circus-like atmosphere of the day, was a spot near 423 Strong Street, an address that would be today 1025 65th Street.
Shortly after noon, two deputies and Sheriff N. R. Allen took the shabbily dressed, heavily whiskered McCaffrey from his cell to a closed carriage. Slowly the carriage headed south on Ann Street, now 11th Avenue, followed by a procession of constables and the Kenosha Home Guard.
Two or three thousand people had gathered near the gallows. Mayor Frank later described the crowd as "quiet"; others called it "morbidly excited".
McCaffrey was led was led to the steps of the platform and seated beside a priest. They knelt in prayer for ten minutes. Later however, his church-not identified-refused his body for burial and it was laid in a secret place.
Sheriff Allen read the warrant for execution. McCaffrey had until then steadfastly denied killing his wife. But according to an account in the Kenosha Telegraph, which the reader may or may not believe, the condemned man now confessed.
In a hardly audible voice, the paper reported, McCaffrey said :"I was the cause of the death of my wife and I hope my fate will be a warning to you all. I forgive my enemies. I forgive the witnesses against me.".
Then he shook the Sheriff's hand and they mounted the platform. Allen adjusted the noose. He tied a red kerchief over the condemned man's eye's and pulled a loose black bag over his head.
Peering at his pocket watch, the Sheriff waited patiently for the last seconds to pass. At exactly 1 PM he "walked across the platform with a firm tred, stepped on the secret spring, and the prisoner was hoisted into the air.".
Today, in those states which employ hanging as their form of capital punishment, things are all much more scientific. The condemned man is dropped through a trap door, the fall carefully calculated to break his neck and cause instant death. The Kenosha execution was, simply, slow strangulation.
McCaffrey struggled for about five minutes. According to the newspaper accounts, after eight minutes he was unconscious and physicians checked the pulse. It was "only slightly reduced". His heart continued beating for another ten minutes. He was pronounced dead and the body lowered to a coffin.
Editor Shole's detailed account of the hanging was intended to increase the readers revulsion. To this he added: "The last agony is over. The crowd has been indulged in its insane passion for the sight of a judicially murdered man. McCaffrey murdered his wife without the sanction of the law and McCaffrey has been murdered according to the law. We do not complain that the law has been enforced. We complain that the law exists.".
Two years later, spurred by the efforts of Assemblyman Sholes, the Assembly voted 36 to 28 and the Senate 14 to 9 to abolish the death penalty.
Of the McCaffrey case, Sholes wrote: "We hope this shall be the last execution that ever shall disgrace the mercy expecting citizens of Wisconsin.".
[From: "Kenosha Kaleidoscope:Images of the Past", by Don Jensen, published by the Kenosha Community History Committee, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 1985, article noted to be previously published in the Kenosha News.]
Copyright © 2001, Robert W Fay LLC. All rights reserved
Monday, October 01, 2001