Wisconsin became the 30th state in 1848, twelve years after the U.S. Congress created the Wisconsin Territory in 1836.

On July 23, 1850, an Irish immigrant farmer named John McCaffary, who had arrived from Ireland in 1837, killed his wife, Bridgitt (nee McKean).

They had been married less than two years, but according to their Kenosha neighbors, there was much yelling and broken crockery on a regular basis.

But one night, Bridgett’s screams were terrified rather than angry. The neighbors were concerned enough to investigate and discovered a wet and muddy John stumbling away from a cistern, where Bridgitt had been drowned in about 20 inches of water.

John McCaffary House in Kenosha, WI. In 1978 this house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Teemu08 via Wikimedia Commons.

An investigation wasn’t required and John was jailed until his trial in May of 1851. John was found guilty of willful murder. The judge declared that John did not murder his wife in a single passionate act, but that it had taken long enough that John had time to notice Bridgett’s struggles and to reflect upon and cease his actions. John was sentenced to hang.

Turns out, this was the first execution since Wisconsin had become a state two years before.

On August 21, 1851, a crowd of 2,000-3,000 people gathered to watch John hang. (I’m not going to go into the disturbing historical habit of treating executions as entertainment. Maybe in a future post.) John stood before the crowd and admitted he was the cause of Bridgett’s death and then was hoisted up into the air.

As sometimes happens with executions, all did not go as planned. John’s neck was not broken and it took about 18 minutes of struggling for him to strangle to death.

Burial marker of John McCaffary, Green Ridge Cemetery, Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was originally buried in an unmarked grave. Photo by MattHucke via Wikimedia Commons.

In part due to the gruesome nature of this particular execution, and in part due to the fact that many people don’t agree with executions in general, a movement was created to abolish the death penalty. In 1853, the Wisconsin state Senate voted for that abolition and the governor signed the bill into law.

So John McCaffary is the first, the last, the only person to be executed by the state of Wisconsin.

And just so you know, there are 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, that do not have the death penalty. In three other states, the Governor has declared a moratorium on using the death penalty, even though it is still legal. I assume a change in governor could change the rules in those three states.