Diving into Black River Falls

A gleeful recap of madness and murder in the last days of frontier America

One of the best days of my life was when a Dangerous Minds article about Black River Falls came up on my Facebook feed. The article states: “You might think you’re pretty goth ‘n all with your serial killer books…, but you are definitely not Black River Falls goth.” Having always been up for a challenge, I dove straight into Black River Falls.

The first thing that struck me was the existence of haunting photography that documents the Black River Falls story. Always one to greedily consume any gothic photography, my eyes took in the eerie dichromatic images. The town had a knack for producing disturbing scenes, and (lucky for us modern ghouls) local photographer Charles J. Van Schaick was there to capture them. His images are printed in the book Wisconsin Death Trip. Schaick captures the everydayness of the horror: stern mouthed families with hundred-yard stares, tiny coffins holding tiny bodies, the dark sunken eyes of a young woman.

So let’s get to the crime part. Well, long story short, the whole town basically went fucking crazy for ten years. From 1890 to 1900 the town and its surroundings were the epitome of the American nightmare; the county seat awash in suicide, insanity, depression, and murder.

The insanity and suicides are the most telling of the American nightmare that gripped the town. A man blew off his own head using dynamite, exclaiming as he lit the charge, “Here I go and the Lord go with me.” In the last decade of the 19th century, unemployment skyrocketed and the local banks collapsed. A man taken in by a kind family, steals from his lodgers, and shoots himself in the neck (THE NECK!) out of guilt and shame. A woman overtaken by “mania” walked into the night and froze to death on the roadside. Mania was a common affliction in the town. There are dozens of stories of people being hauled off to insane asylums. A woman drowned her 3 young children and was found sitting on the shore, looking out onto the water, one small soaking wet body sprawled near. There were also numerous suicides and murder-suicides over unrequited love. A woman appears in one of Schaick’s photographs of a Black River Falls wedding party, looking stricken. A short time later she punches her own ticket. She was in love with the groom.

The people of Black River Falls, many of whom were first generation European immigrants, suffered endless traumas. The land was sold cheaply to them, but it was apparently barren and largely worthless. The children starved and went shoeless. Knives covered in blood were found near the church. A father, drunk in celebration of his son’s birth, bashed in the baby’s brains and strangled his wife to death. A woman was buried alive, apparently in a coma. When she what exhumed (it’s not clear why) half of her fucking hand was eaten off in her frenzy to escape.

An old Opera singer shows up to town, her son builds her a shack based on the stage sets he used to build at a metropolitan opera. The boy steals cement to shore up the shack and crafts his own Ouija boards. Seriously Flannery O’Conner couldn’t even conceive of this shit. The epitome of a gothic town, Diphtheria breaks out, and consumes half of the town’s children. Shaick captures endless photos of tiny caskets, children buried shoeless, their large feet stick out stiffly. The grief that must have overrun this town’s citizens is an unimaginable nightmare.

The children who were spared by the Diphtheria were not spared the madness. A 9-year-old deaf boy shoots his older sister in the mouth. The bullet exits through her neck. A little girl sets fire to numerous structures for a little “excitement.” A 13-year-old boy and his 10-year-old brother laid-in-wait for an old hermit farmer. They shot him once in the heart and once in the head, for insurance. They then squatted and frolicked on the hermit’s land for a week until discovered. A man-hunt ensued for the older boy and he was chased down by a posse, remorseless upon his sentence of life in prison, and the violence in his wake.

The nightmarish shit that befell Black River Falls, Wisconsin wasn’t particularly novel for the time. Each occurrence in a vacuum paints a picture of hard scrabble, American frontier life, where margins were razor thin and babies were birthed in the dirt. But the Black River Falls incidents taken in the aggregate form a pathology. The horrors seemed to feed upon each other, and take-on a life of their own, slicing through the town, ripping out the seams of community, family and ultimately self-preservation.

For more info on Black River Falls, check out the book and documentary.