In preparation for working on a project about local tales, I was reading a book published in 1881 about the history of Milwaukee. There was an entire section dedicated to the most heinous murders that had occurred in MKE by 1880. Since I was really searching for the tale of a Black man who was murdered and whose ghost was supposed to have roamed the streets of Milwaukee in the late 1800s, I wasn’t as interested in the other tales I read, but you might find some interesting, or at least some of the generalizations I could come up with from the chapter.
One fact I found interesting, beyond the killings, was the seemingly light sentences. Several of the cases were determined to be manslaughter rather than murder, and many sentences were 20 years or less. Also notable is that nearly all of the sentences had a single day of solitary confinement at the start of the time, but one guy got solitary once a year, maybe because he killed his wife. I saw no death sentences, though there was one story that included a Lynch Mob.
Interestingly, the book considered the most heinous crime to have been one where two vagrants killed a guy named August Tesch, took $5 and a pocket watch, and headed out of town, later blaming each other. Both denied it, saying the other did it, then both pled guilty to avoid worse than life in prison. I assume it was considered to be so bad because of its randomness and danger to the rest of society. Today, we’re probably a bit desensitized to a mugging gone wrong, but I can see where it might have caused fear at one time.
One angry husband hit his wife in the head with an ax handle, then the blade AS SHE HELD HER BABY. Another husband just shot his wife on the back porch and apparently waited inside with some friends for authorities to show up. Mr. Fetke, who killed his wife while holding the baby, is the one who got life with solitary once a year.
One mother, Maria Wagner, who was in bad health and seemingly dying, killed her son named Carl with Opium, slit her wrists, and then jumped into the cistern (after taking off her slippers first). The tone of that story in the book was interesting because it seemed to sentimentalize her decision to take her son with her.
Another domestic case involved Alba Dennett, a dad who took his 1 year-old baby, strangled him, and then threw the body in the river in a bag with a brick because he’d run off with another woman and apparently didn’t want his wife to have the child. That guy got caught when authorities were able to piece the story together after a boat found the child months later, but, as of 1880, the dad had yet to come to trial because he escaped from jail by filing through the iron bars.
Speaking of the long arm of the law at the time, another guy who murdered someone fled, then was seen twice in other states. However, the police department did not have the money to spend to go and get him, so that was that. Imagine it: just kill someone and head out to Kansas or Iowa and you’re safe. Sorry if the last two paragraphs make the old MPD look kind of Barney Fife-like, but that's what I read.
The last entry was about Sophia Bauer, described as a “comely, intelligent-looking German girl,” who had an illegitimate child, then killed it after its birth = Six months in prison. In some ways, I get it, since she posed no threat to society, but I am certain the sentence today would likely be longer, and it would cause more outrage. Plus, no one would describe a young mother who just killed her baby as comely or intelligent-looking today.
Go ahead and read the stories yourself:
And if you remember which book has the story of the Black dude wandering the streets of Milwaukee after his death, let me know. I could not find it in Haunted Wisconsin.