‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ — The Strangest Book You’ve Never Read
The storybook nightmare of life in a small town is a hard lesson worth learning
To begin with, there’s the neo-Gothic title and the ghostly family portrait staring at you from years gone by. One glance at that cover and you know you’re in for a strange journey as soon as you open the book.
And indeed you are.
Wisconsin Death Trip is a nonfiction work published in 1973 that looks at the darker side of the great American Dream circa 1890 in rural Wisconsin. The story it tells is both laughably absurd and effectively unsettling. It is with pride that I say I have my own personal attachment to the book, but I’ll get to that later. First, a little background.
Author Michael Lesy came up with idea for Wisconsin Death Trip in 1972 while he was a student working on his master’s degree in American social history at the University of Wisconsin.
One winter afternoon he decided he needed a break from the books, so on a whim he walked over to the Wisconsin Historical Society building on the Madison campus to look around. After a while he came across a collection of portraits taken in the late 1800s by one Charles Van Schaick, the photographer and Justice of the Peace for the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin.
Lesy started poring over hundreds of Van Schaik’s photographs that afternoon, and as he did so he felt something sad yet illuminating emerge from the grim Scandinavian faces staring back at him.
His first impulse was to somehow tell the story of these pioneering people in the form of a documentary film. But he was quick to realize the more practical approach would be to compile these pictures in a book and let them tell the story instead.
He started sifting through newspaper archives of The Badger State Banner from the 1890s, picking out any bizarre reports that best complemented the dark vision he had seen reflected in Van Schaik’s subjects.
What he found was a treasure trove of stories referencing madness, suicide, disease, and crime in the hinterlands of Wisconsin. Quoting them verbatim, these snippets would become the other half of his picture book. By combining words and pictures in just the right way, Lesy hoped to create a black and white montage of images no reader would soon forget.
• “James Carr, residing in the town of Erin, Vernon County, was discovered dead in his log house recently, having died of starvation.”
• “Mrs. Carter, residing at Trow’s Mill, who has been in charge of the boarding house at A. S. Trow’s cranberry marsh, was taken sick at the marsh last week and fell down, sustaining internal injuries which have dethroned her reason. She has been removed to her home here and a few nights since arose from her bed and ran through the woods…. A night or two after she was found trying to strangle herself with a towel…. It is hoped the trouble is only temporary and that she may soon recover her mind.”
• “Lena Watson of Black River Falls gave birth to an illegitimate child and choked it to death.”
• “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.”
• “G. Drinkwine, father of Miss Lillian Drinkwine, attempted suicide a few days ago at Sparta. He swallowed a large quantity of cigar stubs.”
Or finally, this charming little sketch:
• “Frederick Schultz, an old resident of Two Rivers, cheated his undertaker by suddenly jumping out of the coffin in which, supposed to be dead, he had been placed.”
Setting aside the peculiar tenor of what passed for responsible journalism in those days, the question remains — were these incidents just isolated oddities, or were they more telling of what life was really like back then? Michael Lesy figured the answer to both questions was yes.
Reading through numerous newspaper accounts of suicide and mutilation and public intoxication in Death Trip one is left to wonder — only half in jest — if the entire countryside wasn’t awash with crazies.
Well, times were indeed tough back then, especially for farmers and homesteaders who had little money, to begin with. All across the country in 1893 a run of bank failures and the depletion of the gold reserve set off an economic depression that quietly became “one of the worst in American history,” and many folks in Wisconsin felt hardship like never before. No doubt a fair number did fall prey to madness and suicide as a result.
Back then, facing an empty bank account or a child rasping for dear life with Diptheria, or looking out over a season’s failed harvest and wondering how food was going to be put on the table, who wouldn’t question their ability to make it through another day?
In an interview in 2003, Lesy said that the aim of any book should be to “allow the reader the ability to free associate and not be lost.”3
That’s what the reader is invited to do with Wisconsin Death Trip once the pages start turning. The mind skims across the images and starts wondering what was going on in the lives of these people when their picture was being taken? What could have pushed some to the grisly extremes written about in the local papers?
In other words, maybe the good old days weren’t so good after all.
As books go, Death Trip defies convention in nearly every way. For one thing, none of the pictures carry any captions or descriptions The faces one sees throughout the book are nameless ghosts. The text has no clear beginning or narrative structure. The pages aren’t even numbered.
It’s a cover-to-cover read like no other you will find.
A Personal Connection
Much of my interest in all this stems from the fact that part of my family tree runs right through Black River Falls. At the turn of the century, my grandmother, Margaret Stamstad, was a girl growing up in the rural township of Irving, ten miles southeast of Black River Falls and Charles Van Schaik’s photography studio.
While only in her teens she had to endure the death of a sister from an unknown digestive ailment. Then some years later, tragedy struck again when her own son was born with a congenital birth defect involving his esophagus that basically prevented him from keeping any food down. It wasn’t long before he succumbed to starvation and died when he was only four months old.
That any mother could find the resolve to go on after such terrible darkness seems nothing short of a miracle, but maybe somehow miracles of that sort were more commonplace back then.
My grandmother had to run the family farm without her husband after he suffered a series of debilitating strokes and died in 1946. Then on top of all that was a diagnosis of breast cancer and a slow and painful recovery from a radical double mastectomy.
So…tough times? Most of us these days have no idea.
That’s the point of the book. By taking a long, unflinching look at the road that brought our descendants and each one of us to where we are today, it invites us to reflect anew on what we consider the trials and tribulations of our own lives.
That’s what makes this eclectic, entertaining, and totally baffling book what it is — a history lesson worth remembering.