Sunday, June 15, 2014


"The ghoulish scene in the woods probably never will be forgotten” 
– Milwaukee Journal

     It came in a plain brown corrugated box.  Inside were photographs mounted on curled decaying cardstock with white tags containing typed descriptions glued below each print.  The original negatives , wrapped neatly in a sleeve were also enclosed.  A typed letter accompanied the box: “These photos lived in an attic on Second Street for almost 70 years and were given to me in the 1990s.  Samuel Jones, a volunteer fireman who also worked for the Platteville police during the William Coffey investigation saved these pictures, which were to be thrown out.  I was told the story was in a Wisconsin Book about mysteries or crimes, so I found the book and made a copy of the chapter.  A gruesome story, but part of Platteville’s history.  I am glad that the pictures are being returned to where they should be.  If you investigate the story of the crime it is amazing how investigations have changed.”  The photos were interesting and some were very gruesome, for they showed a murderer leading the police to the woods where he had dismembered the body of his victim and buried the parts in various shallow holes.  The killer’s name was William N. Coffey.

     It happened almost 88 years ago.  In 1926 William Coffey, age somewhere between 42 and 51 (depending on the source), was a traveling bond salesman, married with a wife and three children living in Madison, Wisconsin.  He was well read in the Bible, claiming to have been a Methodist lay preacher. He had volunteered to lead Sunday school classes. On a trip to Lacrosse he met an attractive 53 year old widow named Hattie Hales who was a buyer for a department store.  He courted her, telling her that he was a wealthy, unmarried man who owned real estate in Madison.  They drove to Winona Minnesota and were married there on September 15, 1926.  After visiting her mother and other relatives in Rockford Illinois, they embarked on a long honeymoon motor tour in his car which was equipped with a tent attachment making it suitable for camping.  Her family never saw her alive again.

     For some months her family received letters supposedly typed by Hattie and “signed” in a strangely identical manner.  Hattie’s sister became suspicious.  Fearing that Hattie had been the victim of foul play, she laid a trap for Coffey.  Hattie owned $500.00 worth of stock in the Elroy Service Oil Company.  A stockholders meeting was arranged and a letter was sent to Hattie advising her of the meeting.  On the date set, William Coffey presented himself with the stock and a letter alleged to be signed by Hattie deeding ownership to him.  The Juneau County sheriff’s department was contacted and it was determined that her “signature” was really from a rubber stamp.  Coffey was taken into custody and questioned.  He said that he and Hattie had traveled to Asheville North Carolina where they had separated due to her involvement with another man.  He was charged with forgery.  When it was ascertained in interrogation that he had a wife in Madison, and had been married since 1903, he was charged with bigamy.

     Finally, under intense interrogation Coffey cracked.  He admitted that Hattie was dead.  He said that he had killed her accidentally while quarreling over his visit to another woman.  Over the next several days, he changed his story several times.  He finally admitted that he had intentionally killed her in the tent while she slept next to him. 

     After visiting Eagle Point in Dubuque on October 8, 1926, he said, they had crossed the river into Wisconsin, singing hymns as they drove.  One of the hymns was Goodbye, Sweet Day: “Dying like a dream – the shadows fold thee – Slowly thy perfect beauty fades away – Goodbye, Sweet Day.”

     They camped in the car that night in Bratton’s (also called Ritter’s) woods.  Shortly after midnight, he said, he was overcome by fear of his wife discovering his bigamous marriage.  “I killed her” he said “because I wanted to be free from her to cover up my sins with her.  I killed her, Hattie Hales, in the woods about five miles southwest of Platteville.”

     He used a baseball bat, and then a hammer, striking her repeatedly on the head.   He then told in detail how he waited at the camp all day on the 9th of October.  When darkness fell, he took her body and cut it into a dozen or more pieces with a butcher knife, and buried each piece in a different spot, wrapped in newspaper.  Coffey was taken to Lancaster, and then to a hotel in Platteville.

     On Friday January 28th 1927, more than three months after the murder, he was driven in the company of lawmen from Grant and Juneau counties in Wisconsin, and Dubuque County in Iowa to the woods to point out the places where Hattie Hales Coffey’s body laid scattered about.  Despite attempts to keep onlookers away, over a thousand people in about 700 cars descended on the location.  The crowd pressed close to watch the diggers expose the body parts.  “The mob surrounded the vehicle,” The Milwaukee Journal reported “and only went back to its gruesome fun after Coffey was stood up on the running board to let everyone get a look at him.”

     Judge Smalley looked down at William Coffey who stood with his head bowed. “Are you guilty or not guilty?” he asked.  “Guilty” Coffey replied.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment at Waupun.  On February 6, 1927 Coffey was taken to prison.  On that same day Hattie Hales Coffey was buried in Elroy.  He had been examined by “Alienists” (an archaic term for Psychiatrists) who found him perfectly sane, even though his father had gone to an insane asylum. When he was informed the week before that some of Hattie’s body had been found Coffey, knowing he would be in prison soon said “I would like to establish myself as a trusty.  There I would be able to help convicts and also find time to finish my book, ‘Hardscrabble.’”  Coffey entered prison holding a Bible.  He believed he had been forgiven of his sins.

We are very grateful for the donation of these photographs.  They are indeed a part of Platteville history, lore and legend.  As you may expect, no exhibition is planned.  These photographs will be filed and available for future researchers, who may be studying criminal investigation techniques of the period, historical sociology, or perhaps some other matter unforeseeable to us today.  We preserve not just the good, not just the bad, but the truth about the past.

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