Residents of the rural Milton farming community say they are fortunate to live among a tight-knit group of friends and neighbors that in many cases goes back several generations. It’s a closeness that has transcended the modern infringements of the 21st Century.
If that is true today, think how strong that closeness and the strength of those bonds were seventy years ago when all of the country was putting itself back together following the second great World War and some in the relatively remote portions of our community continued to deal with the financial hardships of the Great Depression just a decade earlier. It was truly a time when neighbors looked out for one another.
In the spring of 1950 when two men were found bludgeoned to death with an ax on their remote farm along Lima Center Road about four miles east of Milton, an entire farming community was shocked, stunned, frightened and left to wonder at the now rapidly-changing landscape of their very existence.
The bodies of elderly brothers John and Pat Fanning lay where they fell for two days before being discovered on a late Monday morning in March by a bread truck driver making his standard, scheduled delivery to the modest farm home. It took time before Rock County Sheriff Miles Sweeney and his department detectives could piece together what transpired on the 100-acre farm located in the Town of Johnstown about a mile south of Townline Road. It wasn’t until two days later, Wednesday, March 22 that a nephew of the Fannings was arrested in Rockton, IL for the double homicide.
Within hours of being arrested, 44-year-old Thomas Chesney told police he killed the reclusive Fanning brothers on the morning of Saturday, March 18, seeking money he was certain the hermit brothers had stashed somewhere on the farm.
During the anxious days prior to Chesney’s arrest, the entire farming community east of Milton was on edge. Farmers were urged by authorities to not venture alone out to their barns and families were told to keep their children indoors.
Jim Kosharek was 3-years old at the time of the murders but to this day can relate the anxiety felt by an entire rural township over the stunning crime. The Kosharek family farm was across Lima Center Road from the Fanning farmstead. It was there that Francis and Verna Kosharek were raising a family of five children, Jim the oldest son.
“Dad would be over there a lot,” Jim Kosharek said. “Mom would wash their bib overalls for them.”
The Kosharek children were too young to have many first-hand recollections of the real-time events. But their father was noted around the region as a prolific storyteller to the point where he was nicknamed “Windy” and the incident was a topic of many supper-time conversations.
It was across the road to the Kosharek farm to where Elsemore Howe fled after he discovered the body of John Fanning laying on the porch of the Fanning home. Howe, was a delivery truck driver for the Jaeger Baking Company of Janesville. Howe backed his truck down the long Fanning driveway and up the Kosharek’s drive to get help. The sheriff’s department was called and Francis went over to the Fannings to see what had happened. As Howe had described, the elder Kosharek found the body of John Fanning on the porch and then located the beaten body of Patrick in a stall of a barn.
Under a page-width headline on the front of Monday’s Janesville Daily Gazette that screamed “2 Men Found Slain South of Lima”, the third paragraph of the news story stated “Four squad cars carrying county authorities converged on the farm in an obscure farming area, shortly after a bakery deliveryman, on his morning rounds, found one of the men lying dead in the farm yard. The top of his head shot off or bludgeoned.”
Thus began the Gazette’s extensive coverage of the incident. It was news coverage from a by-gone era of both journalism and policing. The reporting portion of the newspaper’s written coverage was thorough and accurate without being overly dramatic or sensationalized. Yet the photographic coverage presented by the paper would be considered taboo and cheesy by today’s standards. Many of the photos are images to which no modern-day law enforcement agency would be party. Most of the photos appear to have been staged to include many of the main characters of the written story.
The paper’s coverage began on March 20 with photos of Howe and the farmhouse. A third photo, however, showed Sgt. Lorenzo Cain and Undersheriff E.A. Silverthorn examining the barn stall where Patrick Fanning was found, the caption describes the bloodstains visible on the stall’s partition. The coverage ended less than a month later with an April 18 story that included a photo of District Attorney Robert Daniel reaching into the backseat of a car to shake Chesney’s hand. The car was transporting a smiling, handcuffed Chesney to the state prison in Waupun to begin serving a life term for the murders.
An interesting research twist reveals that not a word of the double homicide was written in the Milton Courier, despite the fact the tragedy occurred less than five miles east of Milton. The obituaries of the Fanning brothers did not appear in the Milton paper.
That seems odd some 70 years later given the nature of the crime and its effects on the neighborhood. Chesney’s confession, a 14-page document gleaned from an extensive interview conducted by Sgt. Cain and Undersheriff Silverton detailed the brutal and cold-blooded nature of the crime. Much of the interview was printed by the Gazette and illustrated Chesney’s seemingly nonchalant, indifferent tone toward the murders.
Not much can be gleaned from the newspaper clippings about Chesney’s past, other than he frequented Whitewater-area taverns. His mother was a sister of the Fanning brothers. Chesney was described as living a hand-to-mouth existence, hiring out as a farm hand to earn infrequent paychecks or cash. In the five years prior to the incident, he had been in and out of trouble with Whitewater police for petty crimes including theft and writing bad checks.
Whitewater police chief Russell Ashbury recalled numerous conversations with Chesney and on all occasions found him “talkative” and “willing to reveal his most personal secrets and business.” Ashbury added that every time Chesney was confronted with a bad check he’d passed, Chesney would be apologetic and make good on the bad paper. Chesney had lived with the Fanning brothers for a while until the previous September when he stole $100 from Pat Fanning.
Through the early spring, Chesney hired out as a hand at a Town of LaGrange farm and lived in a room at the Walworth Inn, a hotel in Whitewater.
Jim Kosharek related the neighborhood rumors about Chesney’s motives.
“My dad knew him a bit and people were saying he had a girl friend who wanted him to get a better car and nicer clothes,” Kosharek said. “He was sure the Fanning brothers must have had money stashed.”
Kosherek noted that in the years following the world war and Great Depression, it was not uncommon for reclusive bachelors to attempt to scratch out meager existences on 40- or 80-acre plots of land.
“I think back on that time and I can remember a number of older bachelors who farmed in the area,” Kosharek noted.
Reclusion often bred rumors of stashed money and valuables in farmhouses around the region. That was especially true in the years following the Depression when existed a distrust of banks by many people in rural areas.
In retrospect there was no reason to believe the Fanning brothers were wealthy. “Long Jack” and “Short Pat”, as the brothers were known by neighbors, lived on the 100-acre farm their entire lives. As the brothers grew older, the crop land was rented to other area farmers. Rent money was the main source of income for the brothers, who also hired themselves out for farm labor as best they could. Patrick Fanning, in fact, had about $180 on him the day of the murders, money he’d earned for helping a neighbor split wood.
The worlds of the Fanning brothers and Chesney collided on St. Patrick’s Day when Chesney decided to end a full day of drinking by heading out to the Fanning farm in search of cash. In his confession, Chesney said he’d been drinking in Whitewater taverns most of the day until about 6:30 p.m. when he caught a bus heading west on Highway 59. He got off the bus at the Lima Cemetery and then walked about two miles south to the Fanning farm.
Once there, Chesney found Patrick Fanning in the barn and the two began to argue over money. Chesney said Fanning repeatedly told him to get off the property. Chesney instead went into the house where he talked to John. After a while, the two brothers went to their rooms and Chesney slept overnight in a chair downstairs.
At about 5:30 a.m. Friday, March 18, 1950, Chesney awoke and went out to the barn. He was looking for a money box he thought was kept there. Soon Pat Fanning appeared and the two resumed their argument from the previous evening. Patrick Fanning again ordered Chesney off the property. The argument escalated to a physical fight and Chesney told detectives he grabbed an ax that was leaning against a stall where chickens were butchered. He told detectives he struck Patrick Fanning in the back of the head with the blunt end of the ax.
He described to investigators where and how Fanning fell in a manger stall in the barn. When asked if he knew Fanning was dead, Chesney said “yes.” When asked what he did next, Chesney said he headed toward the house. When asked his intentions, Chesney replied:
“To get rid of them both. . . as long as one was gone they both might as well go.”
Chesney said he left the ax on the porch and went into the house and talked with John. Chesney said they talked for about ten minutes but he did not mention to John what had just transpired in the barn. When John walked out the door, heading for the barn, Chesney said he followed, grabbed the ax and struck John on the back of the head as he went down the three-step stairs of the porch. He left John lying, sprawled with his head on the ground at the bottom of the stairs and his feet on the steps.
That’s the scene that greeted Howe about 55 hours later when he arrived with his bread truck and alerted Francis Kosherek and sheriff’s deputies were called. In those two-plus days, Chesney was busy but appeared to be in no hurry to flee the area.
He ransacked the home and barn in search of the money he was certain the brothers had stashed. Investigators estimate Chesney left the farm with about $300. He went back to Whitewater where he bought clothes and a car – a 1934 Chevy. He was seen in Whitewater taverns, bragging to people he was flush with cash.
“I guess he showed up at bars still wearing the clothes from the murders,” Jim Kosharek said. “He had blood stains on him but back then no one thought anything of it thinking he had probably just butchered a hog or chickens.”
Apparently Chesney was unaware that once investigators were called to the crime scene, he was almost immediately identified as someone police sought to question.
“Of all things, dad ran into him the next day (Tuesday) in Whitewater,” Kosharek said. “He said ‘Hey! The cops are looking for you!’”
It was a conversation the elder Kosharek perhaps came to regret. Police were aware Chesney was somewhere in the area and urged neighbors to take precautions.
“Dad got pretty nervous,” Jim Kosharek said. “He thought that after he saw Chesney in Whitewater he might show up at our place.”
When Francis was out in the barn, he discovered a depression in some loose hay in the mow and was convinced it was a sign Chesney was on the premises.
“Mom said dad came in from the barn white as a ghost,” with a chuckle Kosharek said. “He was convinced Chesney had hollowed out a spot in the hay mow and that’s where he was staying. It was probably just where some of the hay had settled.”
Nonetheless, it is a tale that reflected the nervousness of a rural neighborhood as rumors circulated of Chesney’s whereabouts and potential motives. On Wednesday evening, March 22, the neighbors breathed a collective sigh of relief when word came that Chesney had been apprehended in Rockton.
A whirlwind of court proceedings followed and were concluded within a month. The process was accelerated by Chesney’s desire to confess and get on with his life in prison. Chesney refused legal counsel and threw himself onto the mercy of the court, which found him guilty of second-degree murder in the slaying of Patrick Fanning and first-degree murder for killing John Fanning. Rock County Circuit Judge Harry S. Fox sentenced Chesney to a life sentence on April 17.
In a strange twist, it was revealed during the proceedings that Chesney was named as the sole heir of the 100-acre farm in the will of Patrick Fanning. Whitewater attorney Easton Johnson presented the court with a will drafted in 1947 on behalf Patrick naming Chesney as heir to the farm. Patrick Fanning signed the will with an “X” indicating he did not know how to write. John Fanning did not leave a will.
State law prevented Chesney from coming into possession of the farm and the property likely went to any number of other nieces and nephews of the Fannings.
A footnote to the story was provided by local author Linda Godfrey who devoted a segment on the murders in her 2005 book Weird Wisconsin. Godfrey provided an account of the murders with an assist from Richard Fanning, whose father was a nephew of the Fanning brothers. The story ends with this account from Richard Fanning:
“It was the late ‘70s. I was at Edith’s Bar in Richmond out on A. It’s called the Real McCoy now. But I’ll never forget it. This guy walked in the door, he was tall, gaunt and scary looking. I got goose bumps from him. I thought that’s a really creepy-looking guy. Later old Edie came over to me and said, ‘You see that guy? You know who he is? He’s Tom Chesney.’ I almost fell off the barstool. He’d just gotten out of prison.”
Chesney would have been about 70 years old at the time.
A search of area obituaries in regional newspapers failed to produce Chesney’s date of death.
The house and out-buildings of the family farm stood for several years and Kosharek noted that the property became known around the area as being haunted. In her book, Godfrey wrote that in later years there were potholes dug around the property by people who remained convinced the brothers had buried money or valuables there.
Larry Skelly, whose family owned property adjoining the Fanning farmstead, said that during the early 1970s he and his friends often went to the Skelly orchard swimming pond on summer days. He said at times the group would trek up the hill to the Fanning property in the evening and build a campfire near the foundations of the long-gone buildings.
“We’d get telling stories and every time we went up there someone seemed to have a new story they’d heard about the murders,” Skelly said. “Things would get quiet and we’d all get freaked and get out of there.”