How a 19th Century Hanging in Kenosha Changed Wisconsin Law

A look back at one of Kenosha’s darkest moments.

On Aug. 21, 1851, C. Latham Sholes, the editor of the Kenosha Telegraph, arrived at a flat field a mile south of downtown Kenosha, where 2,000 to 3,000 people had gathered. It was one of the biggest crowds the small city had seen in the 16 years since it was first settled by Europeans. They came to see a man named John McCaffary executed.

One year and a month earlier, McCaffary had drowned his wife in his backyard cistern. He was the first man sentenced to death by Wisconsin courts, and Kenosha had turned out to watch. McCaffary walked out onto the gallows. He knelt with a Catholic priest for 10 long minutes in prayer, before standing and having the noose placed around his neck.

Sheri Nathan Allen placed a mask over his head, waited for the clock to strike 1, and pulled the spring. The rope hoisted McCaffary up into the air. He struggled, twisting and bucking violently for eight minutes before slowing. A doctor was brought up to examine him as he hung twitching and found that McCaffary was still alive. He was left hanging for 10 more minutes before his pulse finally stopped – a nearly 20-minute long strangulation.

The somber crowd dispersed as McCaffary’s body was taken down.

Sholes left that afternoon and went to work writing. In the next morning’s Telegraph, he published a detailed recounting of the execution along with an impassioned editorial.

“The last agony is over. The crowd have been indulged in its insane pas- sion for the sight of a judicially murdered man,” he wrote. “We hope that this will be the last execution that shall ever disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the State of Wisconsin.”

It was the first shot in Sholes’ campaign to abolish the death penalty. He was elected to the state Assembly later that year, and on July 12, 1853, Gov. Leonard Farwell signed a law abolishing capital punishment. McCaffary was the first and the last man to die by court order in Wisconsin.

On Aug. 25, 2020, Kenosha was on fire. Jacob Blake had been shot seven times by a police officer, and the three days afterward saw Kenosha overwhelmed with protests, violence and another shooting in which two were killed. Businesses across the city were burned down or boarded up – the perfect backdrop for cable news crews. If you drove anywhere near the Downtown and Uptown neighborhoods that saw the worst of the violence and vandalism, you would have experienced the slowest traffic you’ve likely ever seen in Kenosha. People were exploring, snapping photos, stopping to get out and look around at the destruction.

These two scenes, separated by a century and a half, are dramatically different but share a similar essence. Kenosha as the violent center of a shameful spectacle. Kenoshans as victims and perpetrators and gaping spectators in a much larger narrative with national and moral implications. Kenosha – the city where I grew up – at its worst. Kenosha as disaster.

There was a point during the McCaffary story, when Kenosha was just a town full of people gaping at a man as he slowly strangled to death. No one knew that the story wasn’t over, that Sholes would help Kenosha recover from the horriffic episode and prevent it from ever happening again.

Kenosha is still at that early point in today’s story, the dark part where people are still staring wide-eyed at the gruesomeness. No one can honestly say if this story has a good ending, or if the historical parallel ends here, but as I watch Kenoshans finally start to take down the boards on their windows and dismantle the fencing around the courthouse, I’m beginning to have hope that it does.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s November issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.