“Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls…”

Between 1890 and 1900, the town of Black River Falls in Wisconsin was subject to a bizarre catalogue of murders, suicides, insanity, pyromania, a diphtheria epidemic, mutterings about witchcraft, window-smashing, and other acts of violence and vandalism.

These events were reported by Frank Cooper, an Englishman who edited the town newspaper. Charles Van Schaick, the local photographer, also recorded many scenes and faces from the town, while the records of the local asylum complete the picture.

Michael Lesy first brought the strange tales of Black River Falls to light in his 1973 book, “Wisconsin Death Trip.” Using the newspaper reports, photographs and asylum records, Lesy’s book offered an alternative take on America’s self-mythology, all the more timely because of the book’s release during the era of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair.

The documentary film, “Wisconsin Death Trip,” is an adaptation of the book, made by James Marsh for the BBC’s Arena series, though HBO Cinemax also provided funding. Marsh opts for a documentary collage that blends photographs of the period with black and white re-enactments of scenes acted out by ordinary people of the area. The modern day town threads through the film in colour, featuring Homecoming Parades and church meetings.

The early scenes of the film include a photographer taking a picture of a dead child, a practice not uncommon at the time. Children often appear in the film, as killers, or victims. But the mayhem cuts across the generations. Middle-class teacher Mary Sweeney, one of the film’s recurring characters, goes on a window-smashing spree, aided by a fondness for cocaine. At one point, after completing a tour of the state, she claims to have caused $50,000 worth of damage.

A young teenage Polish girl sets fire to her employer’s barn and house because she is lonely and homesick and wants some excitement. A fourteen-year-old German boy, in the company of his younger brother, shoots an old man and takes over his house, only to go on the run later. When he’s caught and sentenced to imprisonment, he does not react, unable to comprehend either what he’s done or what his own punishment means for him. A famous opera singer from Europe turns up, believing herself to have bought a nice property in a resort only to have her expectations disappointed. She sings for the locals, looking for a patron, but her ill-fitting false teeth interfere with her singing, and some doubt her identity.

The grave of a woman is opened for the purpose of removing her remains, only to find that she was buried in a trance. The body has turned over, one hand up to the mouth, the fingers half bitten off. It’s assumed she woke up to find herself buried alive and bit off her fingers in terror.

The film includes poignant stories, including that of the fifteen-year-old girl who drowns herself. She leaves her dress on the bank, with a note inside, in which she says “My father and mother abused me and kept me working hard, so I thought it best to end my life. Here is my dress. Goodbye all.” A mother drowns her children in the lake, and sits on the bank. She believes that devils are after her.

Black River Falls in the 1890s is a town with many German and Scandinavian immigrants. With harsh winters and an economic depression, the town becomes gripped by a wave of deaths and acts of violence and insanity. The Winnebago tribe of Black River Falls, forced out of the area, return to live on the outskirts, but do not feature in the stories of “Wisconsin Death Trip.” The events are very much centred on the violent heart of the small town’s white population.

Whether the tales of Black River Falls are repeated across American small towns of the period is hard to say. The town’s immigrant population must have arrived in the area expecting to better themselves, to participate in the American Dream. “Wisconsin Death Trip” suggests that many of them found something else. And yet the town is still there, and as one resident claims, it’s a great place to raise children. Cheerleaders, majorettes, church goers, Homecoming Queens are all there in the brief slashes of colourful contemporary footage. The residents of a retirement home are treated to an all-male choir singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in a scene that in its own way is just as bizarre as the events of the 1890s. In fact, the modern day town has its own dark undercurrents: a human head is discovered, and Jeffrey Dalmer and another serial killer are associated with the Wisconsin area.

The film’s events are narrated by Ian Holm, together with a whispering narration of patient cases from the doctor at the asylum. There’s a documentary about the making of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ on the DVD which is well worth viewing. James Marsh and the film’s director of photography also provide a commentary. In choosing ordinary people to play the characters, and shooting the re-enactments in black and white at 30 frames per second rather than the standard 24, Marsh and Eigil Bryld, the director of photography, create a strange, dreamlike collage that still retains a hold on reality. Holm’s narration of the newspaper reports is laced with irony, while the musical soundtrack is perfectly in tune with the period and location. Recurring characters like the wonderful window-smashing Mary Sweeney and Pauline L’Allemand, the Opera singer down on her luck, appear among the one-off stories. ‘Wisconsin Death Trip is a hypnotic piece of documentary film making. There’s a haunting beauty in its black and white photography, and the film’s themes transcend time.


This review was first published at Laurahird.com’s fiction and review site in 2004.