Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy.

As planned, I borrowed a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip through interlibrary loan, and hoo boy — I’m going to have to buy myself a copy.  I haven’t read it start-to-finish — it isn’t that sort of book — but I’ve been picking it up and paging through it on a daily basis, examining the pictures and reading the newspaper excerpts.

Backing up:  After discovering a collection of 1890’s-era photographs¹ in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, the author combined those images with snippets he pulled from the archives of the local newspaper.  If you read A Reliable Wife and felt that the background noise of tragedy and horror was over-the-top and unbelievable — well, believe it.  Because it’s on every single page of this book:

The 80 year old mother of an imprisoned man threw herself in front of a train and was cut into 3 pieces.  She was crazed by the disgrace.  [7/5, State]

The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears.  [8/3, State]

Mrs. John Sheehy of Manitowoc committed suicide recently by cutting her throat with a small case knife and was found dead in the woods by her house.  [4/24, State]

John Kuch, a farmer living in the town of Oakland, was found in his barn the other morning hanging by his neck. . . .No cause was known.  About 12 years ago, his father hanged himself in the same barn. [1/16, Local]

Lena Watson of Black River Falls gave birth to an illegitimate child and choked it to death.  [10/9, Town]

Frederick Windex, an aged farmer, committed suicide at Janesville by drowning himself in the pool where his little daughter had been accidentally drowned 2 years ago.  [10/30, State]

Wisconsin Death Trip is page after page after page of that.  It’s the kind of reading that will make you think about just how overused words like ‘misery’ and ‘tragedy’ and ‘heartbreak’ are — that we use them so often and so easily that when they are actually applicable, they seem washed-out and weak and trite.  And that sometimes when we read books or watch movies that involve situations that seem just a little TOO Look-At-My-Clever-Literary-Parallels!-y, we should remember that sometimes, this is the way that life unfolds.

If that makes any sense.

All that, and it’s still utterly fascinating — for me, each one of those newspaper excerpts was like a short story.  Well, a really upsetting, really short story with no explanation or resolution that was, unfortunately, not fiction.  But still sort of like a short story.  I’m always telling patrons that one of the things I love about Deadwood is that because the world those characters live in is so harsh, the decent things that they do shine all the brighter — with only this book to go on, it would be easy to assume that that brightness was absent in Black River Falls from 1885 – 1900.


¹Many of which can be seen here.

Book source:  Interlibrary loan.


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2 Responses to Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy.

  1. tulip says:

    I just got A Reliable Wife yesterday from my hold shelf at the library. It’s my next book for sure. I need to get the DVDs for Deadwood. I have seen a couple of episodes but we didn’t get HBO steadily when it was on.

    • Yeah, Deadwood is definitely one that needs to be watched in order — my library has had Seasons One and Two for a few years, with no complaints from patrons, but all of a sudden, there’s been a run on them and everyone is clamoring for Season Three!

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