The Death House

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On the face of it, there was little in the life or career of John McCaffary to suggest that his name would ever be connected with the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. McCaffary, an obscure Irish immigrant who moved to the small lakefront community of Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the 1830’s, led no regiments in battle, built no railroads, made no great fortune, won no political office—in short, did nothing one would expect of a man whose name has earned an apparently permanent place in our history.

What he did do was kill his wife.

The morbid chain of events that led to McCaffary’s enshrinement began near midnight on July 23,1850. The marriage between John and Bridget McCaffary was less than two years old, but already it had become contentious. Squabbles were frequent, and neighbors often had been awakened by shouting matches and the sound of crockery being hurled about in the modest, yellow-brick home. But this night Bridget’s voice split the air with terrified screams, and the neighbors tumbled out to see what was up. They were too late, as the Kenosha Telegraph reported a few days later: “The woman whom John had sworn to love, protect, cherish and defend, was remorselessly and murderously dragged to the well; and the well was but the diameter of a hogshead, and the water was but 20 inches deep. The bloody hunter then, to be sure of his prey, jumped into the well, and stood upon her head, it seems, till the nerves of her body had become sufficiently relaxed to assure him that the vital spark had fled.”

McCaffary was nabbed immediately and taken to jail. In May, 1851, he was tried and convicted, and a few days later sentenced to hang, the judge going out of his way to discuss the reasons why: “It took some time, you did not cleave her down with a club, or stab her with a knife, or shoot her down with a gun upon a sudden impulse of passion; but you drowned her, and the evidence shows the fact that you did it not in an instant; that it could not have been done except by your effort and continuous act, and with difficulty; in that period you had time to reflect; in that time you must have felt her struggles .… These circumstances taken altogether, furnish an instance, almost unparalleled in the history of crime.…”

On August 21, 1851, McCaffary stood on a newly erected gallows before a crowd of about two thousand and uttered his last words: “I was the cause of the death of my wife, and I hope my fate will be a warning to you all. I forgive all my enemies. I forgive all the witnesses against me.…” The sheriff then triggered the mechanism that hoisted McCaffary into the air. Eight minutes later, he was pronounced still alive; ten minutes after that, he was pronounced dead.

And so John McCaffary was lifted into history, for he was the first—and the last —person to be executed by the state of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin, like much of the old Northwest, raised up a remarkable crop of freethinkers, liberals, progressives, and radicals in the nineteenth century. Among them was Marvin H. Bovee, a Waukesha County farmer whose cause was a national ban on capital punishment. It was, he wrote, “a dark spot resting on us as Christians. A life once taken can never be restored, but liberty can be given and restoration made to an unfortunate being who has been unjustly imprisoned.” The “dark spot” of legal execution had not visited Wisconsin overmuch; there had been only four during her years as a territory, and none after she achieved statehood in 1848—until the death of John McCaffary. But that alone was enough to quicken Bovee’s determination, and when he was sent to the state legislature in 1853, he began working for passage of a law to eliminate the death penalty.

He was joined in the effort by fellow legislator Christopher Latham Sholes, editor of the Kenosha Telegraph (and later the inventor of the typewriter), whose reaction to McCaffary’s execution matched Bovee’s own feelings: “It’s now all over. We hope this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.”

Between them, the two got the job done; Chapter 103, Laws of 1853, State of Wisconsin, was passed in July by both houses of the legislature and signed into law by Governor Leonard Farwell. From that date to this, the state of Wisconsin has executed no one, a fact that inspired the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1976 to petition the National Register of Historic Places to declare the John McCaffary house a structure worthy of preservation. In 1978 the Register complied, and the little two-story home with the grisly past became an unlikely monument to a death—and the quality of mercy.