A Fatal Fourth: A ‘Milwaukee Mayhem’ Story

Jul. 3, 2017
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A scene from Milwaukee in the 1880s, not far from the Hanley Saloon and Boarding House.

In honor of the Fourth of July, What Made Milwaukee Famous Presents a story from Matthew J. Prigge’s Milwaukee Mayhem about an 1880 tragedy that stained that year’s Independence Day celebration.

Mary Van Avery had been employed at the Hanley Saloon and Boarding House on Ferry Street just two weeks when she brought her daughter with her to work. The girl, two-year-old Mamie, had until recently been in the care of her grandmother. Young Mamie, who was sometimes known with a last name of Shea, was rumored to have been the illegitimate child of a prominent Milwaukee businessman. Mary had shown so little interest in the girl that the grandmother had made at least one attempt to have the child committed to a Catholic orphanage. Finally, she told Mary that if she did not come to claim Mamie, she was going to turn her loose to wander wherever she may. Mary retrieved the girl on July 4, 1880 and took her to the Ferry Street saloon the next day.

The saloon was situated within sight of the various piers and docks near where the Milwaukee River met the Menomonee River. It was operated by Captain Pat Hanley, who himself had a small child, eight-year-old Georgie. As Mary went about her job duties with Mamie in tow, Georgie watched the other boys of the neighborhood with jealousy as they set off firecrackers and small shells left over from the previous day’s celebration. Using a dollar he raised from selling a goat, Georgie walked to the south-side junk shop of D. S. Lederer and purchased an old breech-loading pistol. At the neighboring shop of gunmaker John Meunier, he bought a box of .22-caliber balls.

Back at the saloon, Georgie and his friends tried in every way to get the wretched old gun to fire. But the hammer was too weak to ignite the charge. Georgie found Mary in the kitchen, where she was scrubbing dishes with Mamie at her feet. He aimed the piece at the door and tried a few more times in vain to fire it, commenting to Mary that he could be arrested for playing with such an item. Convinced the pistol would never fire and having no interest in it as a mere accessory, he turned to Mary and asked if she could return it for him. Mary’s reply went unrecorded, but as she bent down to pick up her daughter, Georgie tried the trigger one last time. The hammer fell true and ignited the charge, propelling the ball across the room. It struck Mamie directly in the heart, just between two of her mother’s outstretched fingers. The girl died within moments.

Startled by the shot and the screams of Mary, Georgie ran from the scene. He was later found hiding in the city’s Third Ward. In order to stop the boy’s constant wailing, police had to assure him the girl was going to survive. When he was finally told she had died, he fainted cold. Back at the scene, Mamie’s grandmother was inconsolable. Newspaper accounts noted that her grief was far more visible than that of Mary. Police had to separate the two when the grandmother began to loudly berate Mary for bringing the girl to such a place.

In the days that followed, whispers were heard that suggested someone else had killed the girl and placed the blame on the boy, knowing he would never be charged with a crime. Police asked the still-shaken Georgie to load and fire the weapon to put these rumors down. At an inquest of the incident, neither man who had sold Georgie the weaponry was willing to accept any blame. “I sell on call without questioning the motives of the buyer or bothering about the consequences,” said Lederer, the man who had sold Georgie the gun. Meunier, who had supplied the balls, noted there was no law against selling ammunition to children and, had he not sold to the boy, another merchant certainly would have. A grand jury hearing the case levied no charges, but issued “censure in the severest terms” to the adults involved.

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