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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

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In Living

Elroy native Hattie Hales Coffey got more than she signed up for when she married William Coffey in 1926.

The Rubber Stamp Murderer: Small-town Wisconsin's gruesome anniversary


The horror that befell Hattie Hales Coffey didn't end when her husband bashed in her skull and dismembered her corpse on their honeymoon 86 years ago this month.

A native of Elroy, in central Wisconsin, she was a 53-year-old widow working in Doerflinger's department store in LaCrosse when she met William N. Coffey, 48, a self-described social worker and bond salesman who swept her off her feet with Bible verses and grandiose dreams of entering the ministry and saving lost souls. After eloping to Winona, Minn. Sept. 15, 1926, the newlyweds spent a couple weeks with Hattie's sister in Rockford, Ill. William charmed everyone except the family dog, which refused to come near him.

The Coffeys' next stop was Dubuque, Iowa, where Hattie wrote to her sister of plans for a combined business/honeymoon trip down South. The letters continued for several weeks, but unlike the first one they were all typewritten and didn't really sound like Hattie. Her signature bothered the sister, too, and a handwriting expert told her Hattie's name had been imprinted on the letters with a rubber stamp.

Another family member in Elroy also received rubber-stamped letters. His aroused suspicions led him to the next Elroy Service Oil Co. stockholders' meeting, because Hattie owned $500 worth of stock in the company left to her by her first husband.

Sure enough, along came William Coffey with Hattie's stock certificates and a typewritten letter over her signature deeding them to him. Upon examination it was determined that her signature was stamped, and on Jan. 21, 1927, Coffey was arrested and charged with forgery.

The big question was, where was Hattie? At the county jail in Mauston, Coffey disclosed that on one of the stops on their honeymoon itinerary he and Hattie had met a "Mr. St. Clair," a suave, handsome fellow for whom Hattie developed an instant attraction. The feeling was mutual, Coffey said, and everywhere they went after that St. Clair turned up, too. They were camping in Asheville, N.C. in late October, according to Coffey, when he discovered Hattie and St. Clair in bed and fainted dead away at the sight. When he came to 20 minutes later, his wife and her lover were gone, leaving behind the letter from Hattie signing over her stock certificates to atone for the grief she'd caused him.

Coffey said he forged the letters from Hattie to her relatives because he didn't have the heart to tell them what a Jezebel she was.

That might have been almost touching in an odd, creepy way except for the fact that when he married Hattie Hales, William Coffey already had a wife and three children with whom he lived in Madison when he wasn't on the road. After that inconvenient disclosure, authorities in Madison went to the Coffey house and discovered suitcases containing clothing and jewelry that belonged to Hattie, plus several rubber stamps of her signature.

Apprised of her husband's situation, the first Mrs. Coffey declared, "He is not worth shedding a tear over. I am through with him for good. He hasn't been home much anyway."

On Jan. 24, Coffey confessed that he had killed Hattie – accidentally. It happened Oct. 10, he said, after an evening spent singing hymns in their tent pitched on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River across from Dubuque, when Hattie inexplicably flew into a jealous rage about an elderly female client Coffey had visited earlier. "... She kept at me, and the more she talked the madder she got. There was a bat near her bed, an indoor baseball bat. She picked it up and threw it at me. I caught it. I meant to throw it out of the tent, but it struck her on the head. Well, my God, what could I do? There she was, dead."

Blaming mental "spells" he suffered like ones that landed his father in an insane asylum, Coffey said he hauled Hattie's body to the middle of the bridge and dropped it overboard.

A day later the man dubbed "The Rubber Stamp Murderer" by the newspapers changed his story again. Or at least the part about tossing Hattie's body in the drink. After he accidentally killed her with the bat, Coffey said, he stashed the corpse in their car and drove to the outskirts of Platteville, Wis. With a butcher knife, "first I severed her feet at the ankles, wrapping them separately in newspapers. Next I cut off the hands at the wrists. I cut the legs off at the knees, wrapping them separately. I cut off the thighs at the joint. Then I cut off the head."

He'd buried each body part separately in Riter's Woods, five miles southwest of Platteville.

"I swear that I killed her accidentally," Coffey said. "I swear to God that's the truth."

More than 24 hours passed before Coffey finally admitted that he killed Hattie in her sleep – "I reached over and got the ball bat and struck her over the head. I then absolutely lost control of myself. I seized the hammer and hit her with it. I cannot tell how many times" – because "I was afraid this bigamous marriage would get back to my family in Madison."

That off his chest, reported the Sentinel, the "congenial, almost happy and conversational" Rubber Stamp Murderer "spoke of literature, religion and his aspiration to be a writer."

Meanwhile, the mortification of his victim was not yet complete. In a scene as macabre as anything hatched in the imagination of Stephen King, on the night of Jan. 28, about 3,000 residents of Grant County descended on Riter's Woods and, in the words of the Milwaukee Sentinel, "Search for the parts of the dismembered body of Mrs. Hale was made a pagan holiday."

"The ghoulish scene in the woods," reported The Milwaukee Journal, "probably never will be forgotten by those who saw farmers and Platteville residents, working by the dancing, flickering glare of a huge brush fire, remove half of the torso of a woman from its shallow grave."

Their fevered work was interrupted briefly when a car arrived bearing Coffey himself, brought to show authorities where he had buried Hattie's body parts. The mob surrounded the vehicle, 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.

When the big prize was finally unearthed, the Sentinel's correspondent described the scene:

"Hundreds surged toward the excavation beside which Coffey stood. They tore at one another to get a glimpse of the gruesome object taken from the hole, and then they became a stampeding, surging herd which threatened to trample officers and the yellow, clay encrusted object they had found.

"The crowd tugged and jostled, persons in front pushed by those on the outside, and when it appeared that they were about to overwhelm the two dozen deputies and other officers they were quieted only by a promise. Every one would be permitted to see, but there had to be order..."

It took more than an hour for the single-file line to pass by the blanket spread out on the ground. "Fathers came by with their sons, pointing out interesting details to the children," noted the Sentinel correspondent. "Women and young girls were in the line. They shuddered and gasped, but they looked."

"See what happens when a girl elopes?" lectured one mother to her daughter as they gawked at the severed head of Hattie Hales Coffey.

Following his final confession, Coffey was formally arraigned on a charge of first-degree murder at a cigar store in Lancaster owned by the local Justice of the Peace, who said he was too busy waiting on customers to go to the courthouse.

"The tobacco trade was interrupted (by the criminal proceedings)," said The Journal. "Then someone asked for 15 cents worth of fine cut and the arraignment was over."

Sixteen days after his arrest, The Rubber Stamp Murderer, a Bible in hand, entered the state prison at Waupun to begin his life sentence.

Poor Hattie was buried in Elroy away from prying eyes, finally resting in peace and not just in pieces.

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