Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc.

Search this site and our local communities. Wisconsin History Search Only

You may now join, or renew your SLAHS membership using your PayPal account, credit, or debit card.

Please use the following link to make a secure on-line payment.

About Us
Search this site
Monetary Donations

Artifact Donations

Buy A Brick Donation

Fundraiser Letter

Notable Links
Index to Wisconsin Brewery and Related Articles


Genealogy: Family Histories

James Butler Ax Murder of His Wife

Compiled and Edited by Michael R. Reilly

Last Revised 09/22/2007

Editor's Comment: While I don't agree on the method that James took to cure his marital problems, I have to wonder what drove this man to commit this murderous act. I look back at his life with the few documents available and see that at age 16 his father dies, and in 1860 he's the only one caring for his mother on the family farm. That's not to say that his siblings aren't helping out, but they have full-time lives of their own.

Now in 1860 he's a young man of 19; the farm isn't his to run, he's only a "farm laborer",  his mother is the "Farm Manager". So his life is being run by his mother.

In 1870 he finally married at nearly 30 years of age, but it's to a tall strong willed woman who has seen the world (born in England, lived in Canada, and traveled again with her brother to Wisconsin where she was probably employed as a servant. Perhaps it was James' mother who "found" her son a woman, perhaps a woman much like herself. I find no fault in women like these, but maybe James wasn't a man with a strong personality, and was dominated by them. With the marriage, he's finally "in-charge" of the farm, but mother is there keeping an eye on things.

When did he start drinking? Before or after his mother's death? And why did he drink? He says that he was abused on the farm by his family, isn't this likely to be the domination the women in his life had over him? Did they drive him to drink as a release from their control, or were there some other reasons? I don't think we'll ever know, but we might be able to imagine more what it might have been like for James, and why he finally acted to save himself.

Murder Near Waukesha


Drunken Farmer Hacks His Wife to Pieces With an Ax


Waukesha, Wis., July 7. - James Butler, a farmer of Lisbon, came home Monday evening in an intoxicated condition. in a quarrel with his wife he seized an ax, and almost hacked to pieces. Shortly after the quarrel Mrs. Butler was discovered by two of her children, and died soon after their arrival. Butler escaped and is still at large, but his capture is looked for soon.
Mrs. Butler was a woman much respected and liked by her neighbors. She was a hard-working woman and frequently did a man's work in the fields. She was tall and strong, and on more than one occasion had proved to be the equal of her husband when he would come home from one of his frequent debauches. About 8:30 or 9 p.m., Mr. And Mrs. Rankin, neighbors, heard a great deal of commotion among the Butler dogs. The noise was kept up at intervals almost all night. The fuel that the dogs raised a disturbance has caused some people to think that it may not have been Butler who committed the crime, while others say that the dogs were not friendly with Butler as he had frequently beaten them. The son, a young man of 21, said that he left home about 6:30 and that he saw his father about the house an hour previous to his departure for a dance in a neighboring village. When he returned home his mother had been murdered. Young Butler also stated that his father had acted "queer" during the past week, and would creep up behind his wife and make motions as if to strike her. Source. The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin) > 1897 > July > 7
James Butler, the farmer living near Waukesha who went home drunk Monday and killed his wife with an ax, has been arrested and placed in jail at Waukesha. He admits the murder and says that his family troubles had driven him nearly crazy.  Source: The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin) > 1897 > July > 8
Town of Lisbon Wife Murderer Taken to Waukesha for Safe Keeping
Waukesha, Wis., July 7. - [Special.] = James Butler, who is charged with having murdered his wife by cutting her to pieces with an axe at the home of her son in the town of Lisbon, this county, Tuesday night, was captured at an early hour this morning and brought to Waukesha. The capture was made by William Kuntz and his hired man, about two and one-half miles south of Delafield, in a barn owned by a brother of the prisoner. Butler made no resistance whatever.
Late last night a man was seen near the woods in the vicinity of the barn by Mr. Kuntz and he surmised that the man was Butler. He had an idea that when darkness came on the man would make for the barn, and the theory proved correct. He waited until nearly 3 o'clock this morning, when, in company with his hired man, he entered the barn and found Butler, who meekly surrendered. He said he had been in the woods all day and ventured into the barn last night to get a drink of water. He wore only a pair of trousers, shirt and boots. He talked freely about the crime and made no secret of it in any way.
On the way to this city he seemed to enjoy the ride and became very talkative. He practically admitted to his captors that he had murdered his wife. He said that he had been abused around the house so much that he thought it best to get her out of the way. He was rational in his talk.
It was not generally known here at noon that Butler had been captured and nothing was known of it at Lisbon. His examination will take place in the municipal court tomorrow morning. D. J. Hemlock will be his attorney. It is announced that his plea will be insanity.
Cold-Blooded Deed
The murder of Mrs. Butler by her husband, James Butler, at the old homestead a few miles north of this city, proved to be of a more inhuman and cold-blooded character than was at first supposed from the reports sent from Sussex yesterday morning. When the Wisconsin's representative arrived at the scene of the tragedy yesterday there were only a few neighbors and family about the house. Joseph Butler and sister, Sarah, are at the home, but do not seem to fully realize the extent of the deed. B. J. Hubbard, the hired man, told the facts as near as he knew them. He left the house in the afternoon and arrived home just before 10 o'clock. After unhitching his horses, he went to the house, and in the kitchen door he noticed an object which he took for a coat, but upon lighting a match, saw Mrs. Butler, horribly hacked and bruised, sitting upright, her head on her breast. Before lighting a match he felt for the object and discovered a head. He lit another match to make sure of his ghastly discovery, then left to notify the neighbors. He says that the body was warm when he first found it, and the deed was probably done about 9 o'clock. A physician was summoned, but he pronounced the woman dead.
Butler Had Been Drinking
Hubbard said that Butler was around the house most of all the forenoon, and appeared as if he had been drinking,  although that was nothing unusual, and nothing was thought about it. Both Joseph and Sarah Butler were away in the evening, and were not allowed to come to the residence until this morning. Mrs. Butler evidently was hulling strawberries, as a dish of them, nearly looked over was found by her side.

The axe with which the murder was committed was found lying on the floor near her, and was covered with blood. The axe was an old implement and had been used for driving stakes, etc., the edge was badly nicked and very dull. The appearance of the weapon was horrible, the head being covered with blood and hair.

Heard Dogs Barking
Mrs. Joseph Wilding, the nearest neighbor, says she heard the dogs at the Butler place barking very loudly shortly before 9 o'clock, a very unusual occurrence, and thinks that was the time of the murder. Her statement was that just after she and Mr. Wilding had retired they were disturbed by a call at the door, and on answering found Hubbard, the hired man. Mr. Wilding and father, who lives at the same house, went with the terrified man to the Butler place, and after assuring themselves that the state of affairs was as told, they started out to alarm the neighbors. Both of the men got into a wagon and drove to Sussex, awakening whom they could on the way, and after they had reached the village. Hundreds turned out and went to the scene of the crime.

Joseph Butler says his father was away from home between 10 and 11 o'clock in the morning and after 2 in the afternoon until nearly 5 when he (the son) left. At that time his father was under an apple tree, and had nearly emptied a pail of hard cider which he had purchased in the afternoon. Upon his departure the was no one on the house but Mrs. Butler.

Threats Against Mrs. Butler
George P. Wilson, of Pewaukee, a brother of the murdered woman, was at the house. He said he had frequently heard Butler threaten to kill his wife, but no one had ever given him credit for a sufficient amount of nerve to consummate a deed of that kind. Wilson had overheard him to say that he would kill her and start for Richfield, and all H--l couldn't stop him. The natural conclusion is that Mrs. Butler was sitting in the kitchen door picking over strawberries, when her husband struck her from behind on the back of the head, killing her instantly. He afterwards nearly severed her left arm, and terribly mangled her breast, also cutting her other arm and bruising her head. As he had spoken so often of going to Richfield, the searching party took that direction to hunt.
Verdict of Coroner's Jury

At 1 o'clock yesterday morning Justice of the Peace James Moyse swore in a coroner's jury, and that body viewed the remains before adjourning until 9 o'clock. The jury was composed of James Templeton, John Rogers, Richard Greenland Alfred Wilding, William Small, and John small. At 9 o'clock yesterday morning they returned the verdict that Mrs. Butler had come to her death by receiving wounds inflicted by an ax which was in the hands of an unknown person.

Mrs. Butler was born in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, England, and was 56 years of age. She came to Canada when she was 5 years of age and moved to Waukesha county at the age of 28. She was married to James Butler in 1870.
Trouble Over Property
The trouble back of the deed seems to be that several years ago Butler was adjudged incompetent to care for his property and a guardian was appointed for him. He was released about two years afterwards, and up to two years ago had full control of his property. At the latter time, however, his property was given over to his wife and children in trust, with the provision that he be kept at the recipients' expense the rest of his life. Since that time he has made his home at the farm, but leaves at will, without asking or answering questions. It is thought that he had been looking for the opportunity to commit the horrible deed for some time. There was very little money in the house , but knowing where it was, Butler made no attempt to get it, nor did he disturb anything. The property consists of nearly 150 acres of well cultivated land.
Scene of the Crime
The location of the house that was the scene of the crime is about 2 miles west of Sussex and in a very lonely vicinity. One farmhouse stands about a quarter of a mile east, but with that excerption there is no dwelling for a radius of a mile. The country surrounding is heavily grown with underbrush, and there are many groves. The house is of stone, and very prettily kept up. The front yard is full of flowers and shrubs, and a large flower garden is just in front of the house. From the appearance from the street today one would need to stretch their imagination a great deal before being able to realize that so foul a deed had taken place in so pretty a little home.

The funeral of Mrs. Butler took place this afternoon from the house. The interment was at Sussex.

Source: Centralia Enterprise and Tribune (Centralia, Wisconsin) > 1897 > July > 10

Murdered His Wife
James Butler, who murdered his wife by cutting her to pieces with an ax at the home of her son in the town of Lisbon, was captured at Delafield and taken to Waukesha, where he talked freely about the crime and made no secret of it. He said that he had been abused around the house so much that he thought it best to get his wife out of the way. Source: Stevens Point Journal, The (Stevens Point, Wisconsin) > 1897 > July > 17


Judge Dick Pronounces the doom of the Waukesha Wife Murderer
Waukesha, Wis., Dec. 20. - [Special.] - James Butler came into the circuit court at 10 o'clock this morning to receive his sentence from Judge Dick. When asked whether or not there was anything he had to say why sentence should not be passed upon him, Butler replied in the negative.

The sentence pronounced by Judge Dick was imprisonment during the life of the prisoner, in the penitentiary at Waupun at hard labor, with one day, the 5th of each month, in solitary confinement. The sentence took effect at noon today.

It was expected that arguments for a new trial would be made this morning, but nothing was done. However, the motion for a new trial may be argued later. Source: Centralia Enterprise and Tribune (Centralia, Wisconsin) > 1897 > December > 25


Given a Life Term
James Butler, who was convicted in Waukesha of murder in the first degree was sentenced by Judge Dick to life imprisonment at Waupun. Butler murdered his wife on July 5 at Lisbon. His defense was insanity. Source: Stevens Point Journal, The (Stevens Point, Wisconsin) > 1898 > January > 1

Home / About Us  / Membership / Search this site

Copyright Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc., , 2002 - 2016, Except as noted: All documents placed on the website remain the property of the contributors, who retain publication rights in accordance with US Copyright Laws and Regulations. In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, these documents may be used by anyone for their personal research. They may be used by non-commercial entities, when written permission is obtained from the contributor, so long as all notices and submitter information are included. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit. Any other use, including copying files to other sites, requires permission from the contributors PRIOR to uploading to the other sites. The submitter has given permission to the website to store the file(s) for free access. Such permission may be revoked upon written notice to the website webmaster. Website's design, hosting, and maintenance are donated by Website Editor & Webmaster: Michael R. Reilly (Mike)