One hundred fifty years ago, Wisconsin abolished capital punishment. Following a botched hanging in Kenosha in 1853, the Legislature put an end to the death penalty in Wisconsin and we have now gone a century and a half without it, longer than any other state.
The delegates to the convention that drafted our state constitution considered making a ban on capital punishment part of the constitution itself.
The idea had considerable support but some delegates noted that Wisconsin had no state prison. County jails, they argued, were insufficient to hold dangerous criminals for long periods. Thus the constitution remained silent on the issue.
By 1853, however, Wisconsin had constructed its first prison at Waupun and the legislature concluded that it had the means to protect society from violent criminals.
This development, coupled with the public’s revulsion over the life-demeaning spectacle of the Kenosha execution, contributed to the adoption of our ban on capital punishment.
This history is intriguing not only because it went against the grain of 19th century practice, but also because it anticipated the development of Catholic teaching on the issue.
Pope John Paul II employed a similar calculus in his treatment of the death penalty in Evangelium vitae. Citing the increased capacity of modern penal systems to protect society, and assessing these in the context of the sacred dignity of all human life, the Holy Father noted that the cases in which the death penalty could be justified are “so rare as to be practically nonexistent.”
End ‘culture of death’
The pope’s clarion call to end capital punishment as part of a larger rejection of a “culture of death” has proven difficult for some Catholics. Many may have concerns similar to those on the minds of Wisconsin citizens in the mid-1850s. Perhaps our state’s history can be helpful in resolving those doubts as they struggle to follow the Holy Father’s lead.
The 150 years since Wisconsin’s last execution have vindicated the people of our state and those legislators who acted in their name. Wisconsin has not been an unsafe place to live since that enlightened decision. As long ago as 1912 the leader of our prison system, then called the Board of Control, debunked the notion the death penalty deters criminals. Today, as then, our murder rate remains well below the national average.
Nor has our refusal to use violence as a solution to crime fostered a moral laxity in public matters. Rather, Wisconsin has long nurtured a reputation for clean and honest government that treats even modest wrongdoing as a major scandal and drives public outrage over current ethical lapses in Madison.
The first Wisconsinites served our state well in banning the death penalty. They also set an example that can and ought to give Catholics and their fellow citizens in other states the confidence they need to turn their backs on capital punishment.
All in all, the sesquicentennial of our state as a “death penalty free zone” should provide cause for solemn celebration and a quiet “thank you” to our ancestors who taught us such a priceless lesson in the value of civility and respect for life as public virtues.
John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.