January is a cold month in the Midwest, especially in Wisconsin. The temperatures routinely hover around the freezing point, and often dip much further below that for days on end. Snow often falls thick, covering the landscape in an unending blanket of white.
Still, people adapt. While they inevitably complain about the weather, they acclimate themselves to it relatively quickly. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that a large crowd of people had gathered around an intensive search taking place near the city of Plattville in southern Wisconsin.
Plattville’s early prosperity had come from lead mining. It gave the town an early economic boost that helped carry it past the days in the mid-1800’s when mining had lost its place as a major industry in the region.
Educational institutions and agriculture gradually took a position of overall prominence in Plattville, and the town continued to prosper. Through the next several decades into the 20th century, the city continued to draw from different sources to spur its growth, including the railroad and zinc mining.
While other mining towns died out, Plattville thrived. And so, did the people.
Just like the businesses that fueled their town, they adapted and changed with the times. As things changed around them, they acclimated to them, just as they had been doing with the weather for years. They grew flexible, strong, and resilient.
Now it was 1927, and these people had come from all over the region to watch for themselves transpiring before their very eyes. Their cars lined the road while they stood, watching several law enforcement officials from different agencies go about their work.
For days, many of them had been reading about a case making headlines across Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. While some of the cities and towns that were mentioned were no doubt known to some of the Grant County readers assembled in the woods that day, the latest developments had struck closer to their home than they probably ever imagined.
Almost unbelievably, it seemed very likely that everything was going to come to a head right there where they stood. They’d been reading about it, and now they actually had an almost one-of-a-kind opportunity to witness it all unfold.
Over a thousand men, women, and children stood, waiting patiently for something to happen. Some talked, others watched in silence. When one more car pulled up on the scene, few took serious notice. There were plenty of space in the woods to accommodate a few more people.
When the car came to a stop, it was police officers who stepped out. They casually walked to the back of the car and opened the back door, allowing a handcuffed, depressed-looking man in his early fifties to step out. While few – if any – in the crowd that day had ever met him, most of them had heard of him. His name was William Coffey.
After conferring with the officers who had accompanied him, he began to lead them through the woods. A short time later, he stopped, indicating that they should dig there. Several officials with shovels stepped forward and began to gouge at the cold, hard ground.
It didn’t take them long to be rewarded for their hard work. Reaching down, one of the men patiently uncovered what Coffey had promised them they’d find – the dismembered part of a woman’s body. Their work had just started.
Coffey dejectedly led officers from one grave to the next, and another body part was ground every time. Finally, Coffey had enough. He meekly asked if he could be taken back to the car and have a little time to himself.
One of the men, Juneau, Wisconsin County Sheriff Lyall Wright, agreed and allowed him to be taken back. About an hour later, Coffey was ready to go out one last time.
All of the life seemed to have drained out of him as he led officials to the last shallow grave, the one he had been dreading more than any of the others. In a hollow voice, he told the officers that this was the one. One last time, authorities plunged their shovels into the earth, throwing aside snow and soil. It didn’t take long for them to be rewarded with a grisly sight.
Lying half-frozen in the ground was a woman’s severed head.
This is what the crowd had come to see. Word spread quickly amongst the ranks, and they began to crush their way in to get a better view of the bruised and bloody head. The officers, along with some of their civilian workers, tried their best to hold them back. Vastly outnumbered, their efforts were almost hopeless, and they knew it.
Suddenly, a solution occurred to one of the officers. He shouted to the crowd as loud as he could, telling them that if they stopped trying to push their way forward, he would see to it that every last one of them got to see the head.
The steady push forward stopped. Pacified, the onlookers stepped back to a respectful distance, giving the officers plenty of room to perform their duties.
When they were finished, the officers made good on their promise.
Taking a large piece of canvas, they laid it out on flat on the ground. Carefully, they placed the head on it, allowing a full, unfettered view of the macabre object. Almost like managing almost any other large public exhibition, the officers formed the crowd into a rough single line to prevent anyone from approaching the head multiple times.
Once everything was in place, the crowd was finally allowed to approach.
Everyone was allowed to look as long as they wanted to. All ages came forward without caution or reserve, even children who were still young and small enough to be carried by their parents.
Eventually, the line reached its end, and the last few stragglers had their chance at a viewing. After what must have seemed like forever, the District Attorney asked everyone to go home.
No one moved.
Looking out at the assembly, the DA asked them what they wanted. A new cry went out, demanding to see Coffey. They had seen the body, now they wanted to see the man who had confessed to putting it there. Without hesitation, the district attorney looked at Coffey and ordered him to stand up on the running board of the car.
Coffey obeyed. While the crowd drank in the sight of the 48-year old standing before them, he kept his head down and his eyes on the ground. A few short months ago, he had been happy and comfortable. Now he was standing in a stretch of remote woods in southern Wisconsin, put on display for the appraisal of a crowd of strangers.
Trying his best to endure the searching gaze of the crowd, Coffey’s mind began to wander back to where it had all gone wrong.
In 1926, William Coffey had a solid career dealing bonds in Madison, Wisconsin. He was tall with a large frame, and bore himself with a quiet dignity. William had wanted to be a minister earlier in his life, but that hadn’t worked out. Still, he remained outwardly religious and could talk as smoothly and confidently as many clergymen. His job required him to travel a lot, but he didn’t mind. It was just part of what he had to do, and after a while, you just got used to it. And sometimes on the road, you find the unexpected.
That same year, he met Hattie Sherman Hales in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Hattie was a 53-year old widow and former school teacher. She was very attractive, and looked younger than her age. When they met, Hattie felt an undeniable attraction to Coffey. The feeling was mutual, and they began to see each other.
Soon, they had fallen madly in love, and were married on September 15, 1926, in Winona, Minnesota.
The newlyweds then drove to Rockford, Illinois, to visit Hales’ family, including her sister, Anna, and her mother. The whole family was over the moon for the couple. Hattie’s first husband, George, had passed away six years prior, and it was fortunate for her to find love again.
For his part, William had explained that he had been going through a divorce from his first wife when he and Hattie had met. By September, his wife had died, leaving the door wide open to re-marry the true love of his life.
The Coffey’s stayed in Rockford for a few days, enjoying the company of their family, and also rejoicing in their union. The merry-making was ended when William announced that he had just gotten important news from Dubuque, Iowa. He was in the process of opening a business office there, and his presence was needed.
Everyone hugged, shook hands, and said their goodbyes. The Coffey’s left, smiling and laughing toward their new future together in Iowa. Life went back to normal.
Not too long after, Anna and her mother received a letter from Hattie. It was joyously received, and were always happy to receive news from her. The next correspondence they got was written by William. And the next. And the next.
Eventually, the letters started to detail how Hattie had met a man named St. Clair near Chicago. Over the course of several more letters, Hattie’s infatuation with this individual grew and grew. By this time, William and Hattie were staying in Ashville, North Carolina, where St. Clair had allegedly followed them. The infatuation began to quickly bloom into love.
Finally, two letters arrived in Rockford at the same time.
The first was addressed to William from Hattie. In it, she informed her new husband that she was smitten with St. Clair, and was leaving him. She didn’t think that it would be fair to just leave him with nothing, so in the letter Hattie offered William compensation for their dissolving marriage in the form of her shares in an Oil company.
The second was another one written by William to Hattie’s family. It detailed how he had found Hattie and St. Clair “together,” and that Hattie had run away with her new man. A short time after that, they received a postcard from William saying that he wasn’t going to chase after Hattie, choosing for her to be happy, even if it was with another man. As for him, he was headed to the mountains of North Carolina.
While they were saddened and upset over the way things had turned out, the family accepted things at face value and just hoped that they would see their beloved Hattie again. There was something odd about the letters and what was going on, but they weren’t sure exactly what.
Their first suspicions were raised when they realized that Hattie had stopped writing her letters herself. The last one that they knew for sure had come from her had been at the beginning of October. While they had received many letters since then, they were written by William. By the time they had reached North Carolina, the letters were typewritten with Hattie’s signature stamped onto it at the bottom with a rubber stamp.
In spite of Anna writing Coffey back and asking that Hattie write a letter back to her herself in her own handwriting, it never happened. There was something going on, and Hattie’s family was convinced that it wasn’t good.
Eventually, Anna came up with the idea of setting a trap for William. Her sister had a decent amount of money, including many moderately lucrative investments. Anna strongly suspected that William might be some kind of confidence man who was wanting to take Hattie’s money, but she needed proof.
The trap was simple. She wrote a letter to William, explaining that an oil company that her sister had invested in was having a director’s meeting in Elroy, Wisconsin. If he came, he could earn an easy $500. Anna and her brother-in-law approached the police, explaining what was going on, and told them about their proposed trap.
After hearing the story, they also began to suspect that there was something wrong, and helped set up Anna’s trap.
As expected, William showed up, attempting to turn in his bonds. He claimed that Hattie had signed them over to him. When they were examined, it was apparent that the same rubber stamp bearing Hattie’s signature had been used. Coffey was arrested by Sheriff Lyle Wright on the charge of forgery.
While he was taken to the jail and questioned, investigators began to look into Coffey’s story. Under police scrutiny, it quickly began to fall apart.
In spite of what he had told Hattie and her family, William’s first wife was still very much alive. They had never divorced, and when William had married Hattie, he was still married to his first wife. Police were concerned with his forgery and bigamy, but they were even more concerned with Hattie’s whereabouts.
Investigators found several suitcases full of her clothes, which was identified and verified as Hattie’s by Anna. Around the same time, police received a call from Alberta Coffey, William’s first wife.
She explained that she had been looking at a picture of Hattie in the newspaper, and recognized the coat she was wearing as one that William had sent to the house. And there was more. Intrigued, two detectives, along with Anna and Robert Clarke, the District Attorney of Juneau County, went the Coffey residence.
Alberta explained that, a few weeks before, she had received two large packages full of women’s clothes. Anna was able to verify that it all had belonged to Hattie, including various pieces of jewelry.
Police had Hattie’s clothes, but not Hattie. She had simply vanished, and the only one that might have a clue what happened to her was a proven liar with a gift for bending the truth.
Undaunted, investigators prepared themselves to break William Coffey and find out what had happened to Hattie Sherman Hales Coffey.
Authorities came at William with the full force of the law and all of their experience. He openly admitted his bigamy and forgery, but still insisted that Hattie had left him, and that he had no idea where she was. He was questioned all day and most of the night before he was allowed to return to his cell to sleep.
The next day, William had had enough. Finally, he admitted that Hattie was dead, and that he had killed her. While Anna and her family were devastated by the news, they had already suspected that had been dead for a long time. While the blow was hard, they had mentally and spiritually prepared themselves for it.
William told police that he and Hattie had gone back to Dubuque from Rockford as planned. They made a tent in Wisconsin, in some woods near the Dubuque-Wisconsin bridge, and set out cots inside of it.
During the evening, the couple began to argue. Hattie accused William of having an affair, already seeing other women after being married for a handful of days. Things escalated, and, in the heat of the moment, Hattie took a child’s baseball bat that she kept and threw it at William, who was inside the tent at the time.
William caught it and, without thinking, immediately threw it back. It struck Hattie hard in the head, and she fell limply to the ground. Horrified, William ran out to see if she was alright. He quickly realized that the bat had fractured her skull, killing her.
Not really knowing what to do about his situation, he took Hattie’s body to the bridge, high above the Mississippi River, and threw it off. Then, he went back to the car and drove to Chicago. He sent the packages of Hattie’s clothes to Alberta, and then drove back to Wisconsin.
After a day, he went back to Chicago, cashed in some of Hattie’s bonds, then went to North Carolina. There, he came up with the idea to use the typewriter to convince her family that she had run away with the fictional St. Claire.
The Juneau County Sheriff’s Office immediately contacted police in Dubuque and told them the story, who began to investigate William’s story.
No matter what alternative theories police presented, William insisted that the murder had taken place in Wisconsin, not in Iowa. While he might have been telling the truth, William had a very good reason for saying this is he wasn’t. At that time, Wisconsin didn’t have the death penalty, while Iowa still did.
On the morning of January 26, Alberta Coffey and her father called detectives about collecting some more items that William had left there. When the detective, named Putnam, began to go through them, he found a grass sleeping mat, covered in heavy dark brown stains that looked like blood. Along with that, he found an axe, shovel, and tent.
When questioned about this new discovery, Coffey changed his story yet again. This time, he said that he had lied about throwing the body over the bridge. What had actually happened was that, after her accidental death, he had used a hatchet to dismember Hattie’s body. He had then buried the various pieces in a wooded area near Plattville. This was definitely in Wisconsin, where they had no death penalty. Definitely.
The police, still not entirely satisfied, kept up the pressure on Coffey. Finally, on January 27, 1927, he decided to admit what he claimed had actually happened.
Coffey claimed that while he and Hattie were in Dubuque, he had gone to visit an 80-year-old woman named Fannie Rider. He was able to collect $25 from her on behalf of the Central Howard Association, an Illinois-based organization dedicated to watching over how prisoners are kept and treated. After that, they drove across into Wisconsin and set up their camp, with two cots side by side in the tent.
In the early morning hours, Hattie woke William up to ask him about what he was doing with Rider back in Iowa. He said that Hattie was a very, very jealous woman and thought that he was having an affair. He insisted that he wasn’t. Hattie wouldn’t believe him, and in the course of their argument reached over and slapped him hard across the face.
He sat up, apparently startling her. Hattie reached down and grabbed a small baseball bat that she kept by the bed. Angrily, she brought it down hard on his thumb, smashing it. In pain, William reached up and snatched the bat from her and swung it.
William said that his intention, just as he had said in his earlier confessions, was to throw it outside of the tent. Regardless, he ended up swinging it straight into her temple. She fell back and didn’t move. Looking at her, he saw that her head was bleeding. Leaning over, he put his ear to her chest to listen for a heartbeat.
There was none.
Convinced that he had murdered her, Coffey got up and dressed. Wrapping the body in a coat, he carried it out of the tent and put it into the passenger seat. Quickly, he packed everything up and drove to a wooded area near Plattville and camped.
Over the course of the next day, he tried in vain to revive her, but Hattie was quite dead. There was nothing for him to do now but wait.
Once night had fallen and everything was dark, he stripped the clothing from Hattie’s body and began to dismember it using a butcher knife. He carefully wrapped every piece in newspaper, almost like a butcher preparing a cut of meat for a customer.
When there was only the torso left, he cut it open and buried the internal organs. He then cut the trunk in half, wrapping each in a blanket.
In his confession, William said that he took some time to think, surrounded by the dismembered pieces of Hattie Sherman Hales Coffey. As he did, he made sure to point out that he realized then that if this would have happened in Iowa, then he would have been put to death. But he knew he was well within the borders of Wisconsin, right in Grant County.
After driving this point home, he said that, even though he had no shovel in the car, he miraculously found one. It seemed to almost magically appear, and he couldn’t remember where it had come from.
He proceeded to bury each piece of Hattie in various spots around the woods where he was camped.
Now that they knew where she was, authorities quickly went out to find Hattie. Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin law enforcement agencies all went to the site, determined to bring this case to an end by recovering her remains.
After Hattie was found, the case proceeded rather quickly.
After pleading guilty, William N. Coffey was sentenced to a life sentence at the Wisconsin State Prison in Waupun, Wisconsin.
Alberta both divorced William and disowned his memory. While his son was somewhat insulated from his father’s actions in the Midwest, William’s teenage daughters were filled with disgust. They told reporters that they wanted nothing to do with him, and hoped to never see him again. Even before his ultimate confession in which he confessed to the murder and dismemberment of Hattie Hales, Alberta and his daughters had washed their hands of his memory.
The wounds caused by William Coffey’s actions cut deep, and hurt many. Hattie’s family was hurt by her death, the light that was her life snuffed out forever. Alberta Coffey and her children were hurt by William’s abandonment and betrayal.
Life, like the Wisconsin weather, can change quickly. You never know what you’re going to get from one day to the next. But you adapt. You complain, you suffer, you hurt sometimes, but you adapt. Alberta and Hattie’s families, caught up in one of the great storms of life, adapted and moved on.
William also had to adapt. Never granted parole, and never left Waupun again. In 1962, he died and was buried there, his life coming to an end after having caused so much pain to so many others.
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Ehrmann, Pete. The Rubber Stamp Murderer: Small-town Wisconsin’s gruesome anniversary. www.onmilwaukee.com
Mauston Authorities Hold Bigamist. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 1/22/1927
Foul Play Feared In State Mystery. Stevens Point Daily Journal, 1/22/1927
Madison Man Held; Woman Missing. Wisconsin State Journal, 1/22/1927
Net Tightens on Madison Salesman. Wisconsin State Journal, 1/23/1927
Missing LaCrosse Woman Held Dead. La Crosse Tribune, 1/23/1927
Confesses He Killed His Second Wife. The Oshkosh Northwestern, 1/24/1927
No Body Fond Near Dubuque, Report. The Capitol Times, 1/24/1927
Coffey Confesses Dismembering Body of Murdered Wife. Sheboygan Press, 1/27/1927
*Coffey’s Confession – Page 5
Coffey Makes New Confession of Murder. LaCrosse Tribune, 1/27/1927
Head of Slain Woman is Recovered. The Journal Times, 1/29/1927
Coffey Collapses After Hinting at Second Murder; Refuses to Say More. The Capitol Times, 1/29/1927
Question Coffey on Balzer Murder. Wisconsin State Journal, 1/29/1927
Bigamist Slayer Will Be Sentenced Tomorrow. The Capitol Times, 2/3/1927
Coffey Gets Life Imprisonment. Kenosha News, 2/4/1927
2 thoughts on “Frozen Secrets”
What a grisly exhibition indeed, though I can’t lie, I probably would be one of the people queuing up to see the body! I don’t believe that Hattie’s death was accidental, but if it was, he would have been much better off coming clean and not trying to hide the body. There’s definitely more than one episode of Columbo based around that premise, and it never ends well!
I agree on all points! I go see this kind of thing in museums and such now, so yeah, I’d probably be out there to see the head, too. I think Hattie’s Murder has been planned way before they ever hit Dubuque or Wisconsin. His problem was that he thought he was way more clever than he actually was. That and the whole liar/murderer part.