Long ago in Milwaukee, Mary Ann Wheeler planned a murder, shot her victim in broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses, then freely confessed to the crime. Yet jurors in two separate trials refused to convict her.
At about 10 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 14, 1852, John M.W. Lace, 35, was part of a small group looking at a display of photographs in the window of a bookstore on Wisconsin Avenue when 23-year-old Mary Ann Wheeler, a seamstress, walked up behind Lace, drew a double-barreled pistol from under her shawl, and shot him in the back of the head at point-blank range.
A witness, Mark De Wolf, said, “I don’t think he was alive when he struck the sidewalk.”
The sound of the shot drew the attention of a nearby deputy sheriff named John Shortell, who said, “I saw a lady with a pistol in her hand, and I made a step forward and took it from her … laid hand on her shoulder [and] said I should take charge of her. She said she shot John Lace, and was proud of it.”
In addition to the handgun, she was armed with a folding knife, which she apparently planned to use on Lace if the gun failed. Wheeler had purchased the pistol six weeks earlier from a gun maker, returning to the shop the day before the murder to ask for help loading the weapon. That same day she stopped at a different store to buy the knife.
As investigators looked into the shooting, a sad story began to take shape. Originally from Ohio, Wheeler moved to Milwaukee in 1849, where she found work doing piecework sewing for hat and dress makers. She also began a relationship with John Lace, a fellow tenant of her boarding house, despite being warned by her landlord that the man was no good. Matters between the two, in the prim words of the 1881 History of Milwaukee, “progressed in time into relations not permissible in good society.”
Wheeler was brought to trial before the Circuit Court in May 1853. Witnesses described her as virtuous but very poor, living in a dingy basement apartment and working diligently each day from early to late to support herself. And she was pregnant with John Lace’s child.
Her defense attorney told jury members he would prove, “That finding herself in that condition, she wrote several letters and sent them to Mr. Lace, soliciting an interview, and it will appear that her solicitations were disregarded; that he avoided her; that he would not go see her; that she could not meet him in the street to talk with him, that he would avoid her, that seeing her ahead he would turn off; that she could seldom catch his eye, or if she did, he would look scornfully at her, or would make a pretext to stop and talk with someone. … That finding herself thus pregnant, and thus neglected, she consulted a physician and resulted through his agency to instrumental means, to procure an abortion.”
Witnesses testified Lace, instead of helping Mary Wheeler, delighted in reading her plaintive letters aloud in taverns around the city. Wheeler’s attorney argued this violation of her privacy, coupled with temporary insanity caused by the defendant’s fear of her “breach of moral rules,” led to the shooting.
Citing a statement Wheeler made to investigators, A.R. Butler, district attorney, said she was simply a cold-blooded murderess, “[Wheeler said] she only regretted that she had not touched him on the shoulder that he might have known by whose hand he died.”
It was the first time a temporary insanity defense had been attempted in Wisconsin. The jury deliberated three days and nights, and failed to agree on a verdict.
A new trial was ordered, which lasted six days. The jurors deliberated for 16 hours and, at 4 a.m., returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Wheeler was immediately freed. Her family, including her father, an uncle, and a younger sister, had stood by her throughout the legal proceedings. After a short stay outside of the city at the home of friends, Mary Wheeler moved back to Ohio.
Press accounts from the time, quoted in the 1881 History of Milwaukee, were blunt. Lace was a scoundrel but his killer was quite sane.
The Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin newspaper stated, “Lace had not only rifled Miss Wheeler of her virtue, but he had the baseness to boast of it, and show her letters. A man who will show a woman’s letters, written in the confidence of love, deserves to be gridironed. The jury knew all this, and they felt it, and they brought in a verdict of not guilty, even when the letter of the law and the evidence would have pronounced her guilty.”
The Milwaukee Sentinel editorialized, “The conduct of Lace toward the prisoner … was wanton, cruel, unmanly, base in the extreme. Every honorable, every right-thinking man, must reprobate it in unqualified terms, and however reason might condemn, humanity would plead for, if not palliate the verdict of the jury. But all this constituted no justification in the eye of the law for taking his life. It would not and did not justify the verdict of the jury.”
But in 1852, the law said she was guilty but jurors looked at Mary Ann Wheeler, described by the Sentinel as “calm and self-possessed” but with “an air of subdued sadness,” and decided justice had already been served.