An Oct. 7 re-enactment of a public hanging that took place before a crowd of 5,000 spectators in Mineral Point in 1842 has been postponed, leaving only a ghost of a chance the idea will be resurrected in the spring.
Chamber of Commerce officials who a year ago pleaded for publicity about the event, scheduled with an eye toward attracting tourists to watch a melodrama and Old West movies and shop, now would rather not talk about it all.
Instead of eating a box lunch and watching William Caffee -- actually, an actor playing Caffee -- step to the gallows in a fictionalized rendition of his demise, Mineral Point visitors on that October weekend can attend "Paper And Polymer Workshops." And on Halloween weekend -- the first choice for the re-hanging -- tourists will be treated to a performance of Edgar Allen Poe recitations.
The delicate sensibilities of the populace, the recommendation of a tourism consultant and the uncomfortable and unplanned connection to the November election referendum on the death penalty doomed the ambitious plans of a pair of local boosters.
\Shot in chest
Local writer Paula vW. Dail and Gayle Bull, owner of the antiquarian-rare-book Foundry Bookstore, hatched the idea more than a year ago, hoping to exploit the death-by-hanging sentence carried out on William Caffee, convicted of murder in 1842 by a territorial court jury.
Caffee killed Samuel Southwick with a single shot from a borrowed pistol that hit Southwick in the chest as he raised a piece of firewood at a housewarming party at the home of Fortunatas Berry, in Gratiot, near Mineral Point, in February, 1842.
Caffee was -- according to detailed accounts of the trial and hanging carried in the Galena, Ill., "North Western Gazette & Galena Advertiser" -- angry because he missed his chance to dance at the housewarming ball. Partygoers were admitted in order of their names being called from a list, and Caffee missed the call. Despite the well-meaning "expostulations" of several witnesses, his anger overtook him and, outside, he killed the elderly, lame Southwick.
But it was not the murder that attracted the attention of Dail and Bull and the temporary support of the chamber and local boosters. It was the account of the hanging and its lure of 5,000 spectators. Mineral Point is a tourist town, known for its artisan shops, historic "shake rag alley" and aggressive marketing. It needed a gimmick for the fall, and a melodrama based on a famous hanging and Mineral Point's "colorful era of frontier justice" was just the ticket, said Dail.
Also, over the years, the ghost of the hanged man made celebrated appearances at another local attraction, the Walker House, an inn that actually dates back to the days of the hanging.
"Sandy thought it would be a neat thing to re-enact the hanging of Will Caffee, and one night over a beer she asked me if I would be interested in writing a melodrama," Dail said. "We decided to put a different twist on it, and have more fun doing it -- make it a tourist attraction, like the Dead Man Days in Colorado." (For the past five years, the Chamber of Commerce in Nederland, Colo., has sponsored a March winter festival called "Frozen Dead Guy Days," a tongue-in-cheek celebration of a local Norwegian immigrant whose son had him frozen and left in a shed until the science exists to "re-animate" him.)
"The idea was that people would come and we would do the melodrama and people would buy box lunches at restaurants and go down there and sit and eat and wait for him to get hung, and shop," Dail said.
'A piece of history'
The play written by Dail was not historically accurate, but that wasn't the real point. The two women lined up local public officials to assume parts in the play, including Iowa County Circuit Judge William Dyke to play a judge, and the county sheriff, Steve Michek, to play the sheriff.
The two women said everyone was on board and they were ready to apply for tourism grants to help promote the event. A year ago, the director of the Mineral Point Chamber of Commerce, Joy Gieseke, was effusive about plans for the hanging re-enactment.
Lately, however, Gieseke has been hesitant to talk about it.
"It's not specific to the election, but it is just something we didn't want to highlight. Yes, it is a piece of history, but we didn't want to glorify the whole capital punishment thing," she said.
What really happened, say Dail and Bull, was a tourism consultant, veteran travel writer and adviser Gary Knowles, advised the chamber's tourism committee against it.
"(Knowles) put the kibosh on it. They got all their shorts in a knot and decided it was not a good idea to be advertising Mineral Point as a hanging town," said Dail.
"Without that (official) entity behind it, it was going to be hard to apply for a grant for it," she said.
She said it was a sad end, as the 50-minute play was written, Web pages produced, promotions begun, and "everything was kind of falling together for it."
"I thought that Mineral Point needed something to bring people into town, more than just a meal but a shopping day," Bull said. "Everybody we talked to really liked the idea."
She said if Knowles had talked to the two women before he advised the tourism committee to opt out and heard that the event was more mellow than drama, he might have changed his mind.
Not aspiring actor
Politics also entered the picture, with the Legislature deciding to place an advisory referendum on the November ballot seeking the public's input on whether to bring the death penalty back to the state.
Dyke, tabbed to play the hanging judge, said he supported the project in general, but when he sought the advice of the state Judicial Commission, he was advised to defer participation. "It was discouraged," said Dyke, an avid history buff.
"Simply, they said judges should not be taking part in such activities no matter how publicly beneficial it might be if (the event) is capable of being interpreted as in support or advocating one thing or another," Dyke said.
He was not that disappointed in losing the acting job. "I have no ambitions to be an actor. On the other hand, it would have been kind of fun."
Knowles, the tourism consultant, does not regret his advice. "My suggestion is that there is a lot of other history about Mineral Point that is more interesting than a hanging," he said.
Play isn't dead
Bull and Dail are undeterred. The play is not dead, Dail said, conspiratorially, tutting that "people are taking themselves and this too seriously."
"We fully intend to circumvent the chamber (of commerce) this time," said Bull.
In the spring, they suggest, there will be a hanging melodrama in Mineral Point, with all the tourist trimmings, including a ghost.
"We were mulling over ideas on how to pull this off," said Bull.
And then the Walker House specter re-appeared, encouraged by the venerable country inn's new owners, Joe and Sue Dickinson, who moved to the area from Washington state last year and bought the 1836 vintage building, which they are renovating. Joe Dickinson say they will support the melodrama if it is scheduled for the fall.
"We're from the West Coast and we've had it up to here with political correctness," he said.
Their reasoning is rooted in tourism economics, also. Previous owners of the Walker House have reported sightings of Caffee, sometimes headless, in and around the building. Though the building -- a Cornish pub and inn -- won't reopen until next year, a group of ghostbusters from West Bend showed up at the building hoping to chart Caffee's ectothermal mass, said Dickinson. Though there are no photographs, "everyone seemed to have a lot of fun."
Bull and Dail insist their endeavor is in good taste, a good draw for the community, and even instructive, if not historically accurate in every detail.
"It's a part of our history, and history is not always the way you want it to be," said Bull.