Overlooked & Underseen: Wisconsin Death Trip
If you’re reading this right now, you’ve made it through that fresh hell known collectively as 'The Holidays'. Congratulations! I barely made it out myself, and so here we are. I fucked up my finger while watching Rogue One (don’t ask) and now I’m struggling to do things because the tendon in one of my fingers is detached. It’s difficult to do most things, especially type. What I consider a hardship today is nothing compared to what the people of Black River Falls, Wisconsin dealt with back in the late 1800s.
Wisconsin Death Trip is based on a 1973 Michael Lesy book of the same name. Lesy’s book was composed of photographs, newspaper accounts, and an asylum book from the town of Black River Falls between 1890 and 1910. It’s an extraordinary book that was eventually turned into a film. The film is a documentary (with narration from Ian Holm) using the same information from the book and uses recreations to tell the story of happenings from Black River Falls and its environs from one winter to the next. Modern footage of the town, along with current goings on is juxtaposed against the events from the turn of the century. The amount of tragedy that befell that town of Wisconsin in the 1890s, coupled with the documentation of these events seems truly remarkable. I will warn you, there are several photographs of the dead, including children. Photographing the dead at the turn of the 20th century was not uncommon although it seems very macabre to us today.
The area of the state covered in Wisconsin Death Trip saw a lot of immigration from the Scandinavian area of Europe. As the film tells us, visitors to Norway and Sweden told stories of incredible amounts of wealth and endless forests to log in the area of Black River Falls. Many folks sold everything they had to emigrate to the Wisconsin only to find the land nearly barren of trees. They ended up destitute with no way to make a living. The film tells of many men/families who dealt with this in any number of ways from suicide to being admitted to the Mendota State Hospital for Lunatics. The film also showcases their superstitions and beliefs they brought with them to America including the use of a chicken in a boat in locating bodies missing in lakes.
The films highlights the account of several tragedies that happened in the area that covers everything from murder, disease, and mental illness. It follows people like Mary Sweeny, a mother who abandons her family in order to go around the area on a coke-fueled window smashing spree. She travels all over Wisconsin breaks windows and being jailed along the way. Eventually she, and many others, end up in the Mendota. The creepiest part of the film for me (along with all the death photos) is the way the narration of the Mendota State Book of Record is handled; it’s whispered. It’s eerie as fuck.
Wisconsin Death Trip is a unique peek into what life was life for folks in this small town in the late 1890s. The movie clocks in at a brisk 76 minutes and it’s available on YouTube. If you find the film intriguing (and here’s hoping you do), you’d be doing yourself a favor to pick up the book. A special thank you has to be given to David McMillion for turning me on to Wisconsin Death Trip. Without him, I might have never discovered the film or book.