This is the second part of the 1950 Fanning brothers murder.
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 10 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,” Kosharek said with a chuckle. “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 of 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 goosebumps 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 almost 70 years old at the time. The Real McCoy, located about a mile west of the current Badger Bob’s along Highway A, was destroyed in a fire several years ago
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 often 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.”