This is the first of a two-part series a part of the weekly “Historical Musings.”
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 70 years ago when the entire 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 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, Illinois, 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 three 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 and Jerry being the oldest sons.
“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 lying 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 Koshareks’ 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 delivery man, on his morning rounds, found one of the men lying dead in the farmyard. 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 too 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 girlfriend 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 a distrust of banks by many people in rural areas existed.
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 continuation of this story will appear in next week’s Courier.