Wisconsin Death Trip

When Zippy and I lived in Anchorage, we took a black and white photography class at UAA. Our instructor (hey, Bob!), learned I was originally from Wisconsin and asked if I’d ever read WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. I had not. But I filed the title away in the dim recesses of my brain until a couple weeks ago when I came across the book while doing research.

Wisconsin Death Trip cover

From Wikipedia: “[Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy] is based on a collection of late 19th century photographs by Jackson County, Wisconsin photographer Charles Van Schaick, mostly in the city of Black River Falls, and local news reports from the same period. It emphasizes the harsh aspects of Midwestern rural life under the pressures of crime, disease, mental illness, and urbanization.”

This book dispels any notions about “the good old days,” with its pages of matter-of-fact newspaper accounts of death and insanity. It boggles the mind to contemplate living in that time and place, and the grim expressions in the photographs make me ache for everything those people endured. It’s not easy to read, yet the book is incredibly compelling; I feel almost obligated to finish it as a sort of tribute to them and their monumentally difficult lives. (One newspaper excerpt mentioned the small town where I grew up. A grave was excavated — the article didn’t say why — and when the coffin was opened, it was discovered the woman had shifted position inside because she’d been accidentally buried alive. As if life above ground wasn’t horrible enough during that time . . .)

What’s the takeaway from all this? I’m very grateful I did not live in Wisconsin in the late 1800s because I’m quite sure there’d be a notice in the newspaper about my admittance to the state psychiatric hospital. Unless I took the attitude of Mary “The Window Smasher” Sweeny, and broke plate glass windows wherever and whenever I had the chance.

In light of all I’ve read about life back then, smashing glass seems like a relatively healthy coping mechanism.


6 thoughts on “Wisconsin Death Trip

    • I’m reading the end pages now that lay out the stats regarding population, economics, mental health, infectious diseases, etc., and it was really so brutal at that point in time. And to be buried alive after all that? Unbelievably tragic.

      I’m going to cleanse my emotional palate by reading something light and fluffy.


  1. I’ve never believed that the good old days were so good–but on the other hand, newspapers have always reported the worst, most extreme news.
    WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is a heckuva title, though.


    • I’m with you on the myth of the “good old days,” but don’t think this is a case of the newspapers reporting the worst, most extreme news. This is a case of horrifyingly sad stuff getting reported in a matter-of-fact manner. That’s what really blows my mind about all this; those situations and conditions were the facts of life back then. Over and over again.


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