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Portage to the Past: Boys' mischief could have turned to tragedy

12:09 PM, Sep. 25, 2013  |  Comments
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It could be said that William and John McCunn of Lanark were just "boys" and could have been excused, but they were old enough to have thought things out before acting.

According to the Stevens Point Daily Journal, it was Friday, Jan. 31, 1896, when Bill, 19, and John, 17, sons of James and Ella (Benedict) McCunn of Amherst, started out for a crusade meeting after which the brothers headed over to Jens Johnson's place to a dance. It turns out the dance was by invitation only, however, so the boys did not go in. Instead, the two decided to go to Albert Jeffer's place to see Pete Peterson who owed John 50 cents.

The two boys took the cash and went to Sheridan to buy some chewing tobacco and had a bit of whiskey to drink. In his confession, John never made it clear whether the alcohol had anything to do with what then transpired, but it certainly did not make for sound judgment.

Returning back up the track to mile post 230, the two boys decided to place a rail on the track, but the rail was too heavy to lift, so heading further up the cut to the gravel pit, they found a steel rail near the track and grabbing one end, the boys managed to pull it across the tracks after which they went down into the wagon road and waited for the train.

At 1:35 a.m., a Wisconsin Central freight train heading north just ahead of a passenger train, struck the steel rail breaking it into three sections. Two of the pieces flew each side of the tracks and the third, four-foot section, fell under the train which passed safely over it. This was fortunate as this was at a point at which there was a high embankment on one side and a steep grade of 35 feet on the other side, indicating a real tragedy could have occurred.

Frank Wheelock, who worked for the railroad, was in Waupaca on Saturday on other business when he heard the news and he went to work on the case immediately. The speedy arrest and subsequent confessions were due to his diligence. Once he had ascertained who the guilty parties were, his job was made even easier when on Tuesday the two boys came into town while he was there. They were arrested under a warrant issued the previous day by Judge Murat. During the evening, they were taken before Justice Smith and made written confessions.

When arrested the boys were carrying weapons - William had a revolver and John a razor - and this was not their first brush with the law. They were purported to have robbed Gibbins Store at Lanark Mills as well as a robbing a peddler passing through the neighborhood.

The young men entered a plea of guilty to the charge of placing an obstruction on the track. In default of $500 bail, the boys were taken to jail. The lads petitioned Judge Webb to appear before him at the earliest possible time, which was Feb. 18.

The penalty provided for the derailment was one to five years in the state prison, and Judge Webb sentenced accordingly, giving William four years and John three years, both at Waupun.

Even though the boys' written confessions stated they were given of their own free will and both admitted guilt in court, 10 days after sentencing both claimed innocence, insisting their confessions were false. While recanting is not unheard of, one has to wonder since the Journal stated that "Sheriff Leahy put the boys in the sweat box and is satisfied they are guilty." The boys' father and brother supported their claims of forced confessions.

Eighteen months later, John was given a pardon by Gov. Scofield, the reason for the executive clemency being the now 19-year-old was terminally ill. John died in Sheboygan in 1905, at age 26.

William never married and died in Waupaca in 1955, at age 78.

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