This Year Let Wisconsin Death Trip Take You to a Place You’ll Wish You’d Never Gone
By Charles Monagan
“By the end of the nineteenth century, country towns had become charnel houses and the counties that surrounded them had become places of dry bones. The land and its farms were filled with the guilty voices of women mourning for their children and the aimless mutterings of men asking about jobs. State, county and local news consisted of stories of resignation, failure, suicide, madness, and grotesque eccentricity.”
—Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
If you want to be haunted for real this Halloween, and not by the silly child’s play that these days passes for horror, I suggest you take a slow tumble through the pages of Michael Lesy’s wickedly disturbing Wisconsin Death Trip, a chronicle of murder, suicide and madness, arson and starvation. The experience will stay with you like a bad dream you can’t shake.
Wisconsin Death Trip was first published in 1973. Its large format consists of the artful placement of photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 by a Black River Falls, Wisconsin, man named Charles Van Schaick. The photos are interspersed with unsettling local and state newspaper clippings from the time, as well as snippets of novels, roadhouse records and recollections. The photos and clippings taken together make for a terrifying stew – of life and death in a godforsaken place. I’m not sure now exactly what caused me to purchase the book back when it first came out. Given its disturbing subject matter, I probably could have turned to any page and gotten pulled in. Maybe it was the first text entry on the first page, clipped from an 1885 edition of the Badger State Banner:
“I desire to express my thanks through the press to Dr. Cole, W.R. O’Hearn, and the other citizens of Black River Falls for aid rendered and sympathy extended for several months past since the amputation of my leg.”
Or maybe it was this one a few pages later:
“Lewis Durham, aged 20 years, was committed to the Northern Hospital for the Insane by Judge Millard at Dartford. He resided in the town of Marquette. . . . The insanity is the result of hazing by boys.”
Or possibly this one:
“Miss Polly Nichols, aged 62 years, committed suicide in the most horrible manner at Ogdensburg, a small hamlet near Manawa. She became impressed with the idea that a small sore on her back was a cancer and that it would kill her. She went into the back yard, saturated her clothing with kerosene, and then touched a match to it.”
The photographs add to the alarming narrative in their own way. Maybe they dominate the narrative. There are 140 of them, all black and white, of course, taken from a cache of 30,000 glass plate negatives left behind by the photographer: a ghostly white horse with its long mane unbraided, a baby in its coffin, a prairie choir, farmers in their fields, merchants in front of their shops, a madwoman, a boy mowing a lawn. In general, the photos, taken both in the studio and out in the field, show people at their best, or trying to be at their best, against evident hardship. But the nightmare parade of newspaper clips tells the underlying story:
“Henry Johnson, an old bachelor of Grand Dyke, cut off the heads of all his hens recently, made a bonfire of his best clothes, and killed himself with arsenic.”
“Curtis Hicks, the ossified man, died at his home in Racine. Mr. Hicks since 1879 has been a helpless invalid. About 8 years ago his joints began to stiffen and his flesh to turn to bone . . . For the past 2 years he has been traveling as a ‘freak.’ Hicks was formerly a well-known engineer on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul road. He leaves a wife and 7 children.”
“Mary Ricks, the Wisconsin window smasher, has put in an appearance at Eau Claire. She was taken into custody by a policeman as she was about to wreck a fine plate glass window.”
“The ‘woman in white’ was taken into custody in Marinette after scaring half the inhabitants of the city. She is evidently insane and dresses entirely in white with black crepe bands around her arms. She hid herself in the Sons of Veterans Hall and scared several members by stalking suddenly among them. It is claimed she was in a Michigan asylum for a year.”
While a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Lesy stumbled across several thousand of Van Schaick’s photographs at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. The more he looked at them, the more he saw a story he could tell. It being the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging, the story seemed to be an anti-heroic take on the American push west and the perils of being in a hard place where you maybe don’t belong. Wisconsin Death Trip became an underground classic. It’s gone through several publishers through the years and remains in print.
Wisconsin Death Trip was adapted to film in 1999—a sort of Ken Burns-like meditation with a punk attitude—which was called “creepily enthralling” by The New York Times. Images of Lesy’s book comprise the visual inspiration for various vignettes and the text from the book provides the narration, brilliantly handled by Ian Holm. The film was directed by James Marsh, who would go on to direct the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire and the feature film The Theory of Everything.
Perhaps best of all, the film version of Wisconsin Death Trip features music by John Cale, ex of the Velvet Underground.
The full film is available here:
So why not seek out the real thing this Halloween? Come visit a world where actual death and insanity, real people rather than special effects, rule the night. In fact, instead of gobbling down Kit Kats and candy apples, why not feast on a few of these:
“A man who will not give his name was found with his head upon the rails, near the depot at Rhinelander, awaiting the approach of a freight train which was being backed onto a siding. He was taken from his perilous position by force . . . it required the united efforts of two men to keep him from throwing himself under the wheels. He is a German about 35 years old and has been in this country 15 years.”
“Poverty and no work caused August Schultz of Appleton to shoot himself in the head while sitting in his little home with his wife and 5 children.”
“Mrs. Lizzie Dishane was adjudged insane at Janesville and taken to Mendota hospital. She went to Janesville to visit a friend at Emerald Grove – while on route she became violent. When the train pulled into the depot, she knelt in prayer. Her delusion is religion. She is 56 years old and has property worth $17,000.”
“Aristide Griffel, known as Frenchy, was arrested at La Crosse in the act of firing a barn on the North Side. He confessed to a multiplicity of incendiary fires that have occurred in North La Crosse during the past 2 years. At least 50 fires can be laid at his door. Griffel had a mania for excitement, and this kind suited him best. He had always been the first at the fires and took great interest in the work of putting them out. At home he would keep the alarm clock continually running.”
“Alexander Gardapie, aged 90 years, died at Prairie du Chien. He walked into a saloon, drank a glass of gin, asked the time of day, sat down, and died.”