Weird Inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

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

Wisconsin Death Trip

It’s amazing what you can find trawling through old newspapers from long ago. For fiction authors, old newspapers are a gold mine – from old classified ads to local and national stories. Forgotten names and forgotten faces. Eccentric ghosts from the past. People who actually lived, who were ordinary yet extraordinary in their own way. Funny, tragic, even frightening.

Their stories are there to be dug up if you’re ever looking for inspiration for your current or next book.

Sometimes you hit gold dust as Michael Lesy did for his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, later adapted as a documentary film.

The Background

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.

Just the sort of colourful and mysterious series of events that can or should pique a writer’s curiosity.

These events were reported by Frank Cooper, an Englishman who edited the town newspaper The Badger State Banner.

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.

The Book

Michael Lesy first brought the strange tales of Black River Falls to light in his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’

He began his project in the late 1960s while studying for a masters degree. One day he found himself at the Wisconsin Historical Society where the curator of iconography introduced him to the photographs of Charles Van Schaick. Lesy was struck by the portraits. Later he would say that “The whole experience that day seemed like a separate universe.”

Eager to know more about the people in the photographs and life at the time, Lesy started searching microfilm records of period newspapers. His project ultimately became his doctoral thesis.

Using the newspaper reports, the 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.

Of Van Schaick’s photography, Lesy would say in the book’s introduction: “Commercial photography, as practiced in the 1890s, was not so much a form of applied technology as it was a semi-magical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.”

There were 30,000 negatives left behind in the photographer’s studio after he died in 1940. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired 8,000 of them. (They have since acquired more.) Less than 200 were used in Lesy’s book. They included post-mortem photos of children in their caskets, a common practice at the time.

Sometimes these were the only visual records grieving parents had of their deceased children. Something to remember them by. It seems morbid today, but in the 1890s, death was very much a part of life.

Lesy’s book does not connect the snippets of newspaper articles to the photographs. It’s impossible to know if a particular face refers to the person in an article. There is also something cinematic about the book and Lesy originally wanted to make it as a film but couldn’t find funding at the time.

However, the book would go on to be adapted years later.

The Film

The documentary film, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip,’ the adaptation of the book, was 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 the picture of a dead child. 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.

Mary would make a great character for a novel. A rebellious figure, kicking against societal norms and leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. How much fun could an author have with someone like her?!

Then there’s the young teenage Polish girl who sets fire to her employer’s barn and his 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.

Again, this woman seems like a great template for a fictional character.

On a more frightening note, 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: “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.

The town – past and present (as of 1999)

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 American myth lies in the suburbs and the small towns and countryside. The Western is the archetypal American genre where nature and the local indigenous peoples are supposedly tamed by the civilising forces of the white man’s culture. The Winnebago people 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 area’s white population.

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.

It’s also one of those films – and this is true too of Grey Gardens – where historical eccentrics can be inspiration for modern writers. I can also recommend going through old newspaper articles on microfilm. I’ve spent a good many hours poring over forgotten stories.

If you’re ever looking for inspiration, a visit to a newspaper archive is definitely worthwhile. You never know what rabbit holes you might find.

It’s certainly true that Lesy’s original book, Wisconsin Death Trip, has inspired numerous artists, from composers and song writers, to authors like Neil Gaiman and his book American Gods and Stephen King’s novella 1922.

This post is adapted from a review on my Substack and an original review I wrote for an online site many years ago.

References and useful links

Wikipedia article on Michael Levy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip.

The real story behind eerie Wisconsin Death Trip.

Winona Daily News 1973 review of the book.

Philadelphia Inquirer 1991 review.

Charles Van Schaick photos at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

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