Last Lake Co. public hanging in 1874

  • The executioner's ax used to cut the rope that hanged Chris Rafferty.

    The executioner's ax used to cut the rope that hanged Chris Rafferty.

By Diana Dretske
Posted3/16/2010 12:01 AM

The last public hanging occurred in Lake County on Feb. 27, 1874. Christopher Rafferty of Cook County was hanged inside the courthouse in Waukegan for killing Chicago police officer Patrick O'Meara.

On the evening of Aug. 4, 1872, Rafferty was in a saloon on South Halstead in Chicago. Two Chicago police officers entered and approached him. Officer Scanlon informed Rafferty they had a warrant for his arrest for a breach of the peace by making improper noise and disturbance in the city. Rafferty told the officers he would shoot if they laid a hand on him.


As Officer O'Meara went to block the front door, Rafferty shot him. He then turned and shot Officer Scanlon twice, but missed. Rafferty escaped the saloon, but was captured the next day, and Officer O'Meara died from his wound.

Rafferty was tried and found guilty of homicide and sentenced to be hanged. His attorney appealed on the grounds that the court did not change the venue as requested, and had not allowed evidence that Rafferty was intoxicated at the time of the shooting. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the appeal and ordered a new trial.

The second trial was held in Waukegan and Rafferty was again found guilty. His attorney appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court that the original warrant for Rafferty's arrest was invalid. It was determined that it was the practice of the police magistrate to sign a number of blank warrants and leave them in his desk. The warrants were available to police officers to fill out and use when they saw fit. Witnesses claimed that Officer O'Meara "had it in" for Rafferty, and used the illegal warrant to harass him. The defense asked that the charge of homicide be changed to manslaughter. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, and ordered a third trial which was held in Waukegan in October 1873.

When Rafferty was again found guilty and sentenced to death, a surprising list of individuals, including Mayor Colvin of Chicago, signed a petition asking the Governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. There seemed to be opposition to capital punishment and sentiment that the convicted man was of "good character." Elijah Haines of Waukegan was serving in the State Legislature and was also against having a public hanging. The governor declined to interfere.

Rafferty became the last person hanged in Lake County, preceded by William Bell for murdering Ruth Briden of Ela Township (1863), and John Kennedy for murdering Patrick Mahoney in Cook County (1865).