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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Post-Reliable Wife reading.

A Reliable Wife.

After finishing A Reliable Wife (Which was crazypants in the best possible way, and which I will write about at length SOON), I put in three book requests at the library.

Coming, hopefully soon, will be:

  1. Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column, by H. G. Cocks  (According to Amazon, the author’s first name is ‘Harry’, which could either be the Worst Thing Ever or the Best Thing Ever, depending on the career of the person so named.  I mean, it would be a great name for a porn star.  Or, I guess, for someone who writes about the history of sexuality.  Which Cocks has.  But I’m going to stick to thinking of him as H. G., because it’s way less distracting.)
  2. Another one about the classifieds:  Strange Red Cow: and Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past, by Sara Bader.
  3. And Robert Goolrick mentioned this last one in his Acknowledgments (well, he called it his Beholden, but if I did that I’d be worried that people would think/call me pretentious):  Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, which sounds nightmarish but also fascinating.