"Then a queer disease attacked stock in the neighborhood and several head of cattle died. This caused great excitement and the German settlers of the vicinity accused young (John) Dalke of witchcraft. The cripple, instead of denying the report, claims he has supernatural powers. The neighbors threaten to lynch him."
Wisconsin Death Trip was written by Michael Lesy, and is a recounting of murders, robberies, suicides, and deaths that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the 1890's. The book itself is fairly straightforward; each event is laid out exactly as it was described in the Badger State Banner, the town's newspaper, and the records of the nearby Mendota Lunatic Asylum. These accounts are remarkably dry and matter of fact. They would be easy to dismiss were it not for the scores of archival photographs taken by the
town photographer, Charles Van Schaick. It was the discovery of over 3,000 pictures by Schaick that acted as the catalyst for the book. Lesy marveled at how many pictures there were of dead children in tiny coffins,
pictures that accompanied business failures, murders and arson.
The story he found was a bizarre one. In the 1890s Black River Falls, a small farming community primarily composed of German and Scandinavian immigrants began to feel the effects of a depression that was sweeping the nation. All of the mines in the county shut down, and the area began to hemorrhage its supply of able-bodied men as they went in search of work elsewhere.
"Marie Sweeny, who ran away from her husband at St. Paul and has been creating trouble in Ashland with her wild mania for smashing windows, has finally been captured. Reports from St. Paul say that she was a model wife and mother, but some injury to her brain completely changed her character."
Winter meant abject poverty and freezing cold, a diphtheria epidemic "causes so much grief and alarm that it is hard to induce the living to bury the dead." Food is extremely scarce. "Strong men were found weeping because their wives and children had nothing to eat, and next to nothing to wear." Asylum logs show various people being committed for religious mania, self-injury and derangement. Two young boys shoot a hermit and inhabit his house. A man shoots a woman who refuses to marry him, and then himself. Left with nothing to lose men began murdering their families. Women abandon their children, or like Mrs. John Larson, kill them. Children become murderers.
"Lena Watson of Black River Falls gave birth to an illegitimate child and choked it to death."
The town, as it seems, began to collectively go mad. These stories seem to draw an indirect correlation between this era and ours. Using the quotidian horrors of the age, without being didactic about it, Lesy is telling us that we were never as innocent as we've been led to believe.
"That was the first choice I made, not to try and explain the social-political-cultural history of anything. The stories are based on a respect for these individual tragedies and disasters. If the film lacks one thing, it’s a governing idea on that level--but it would have been a travesty.” - James Marsh
In 2000 filmmaker James Marsh released a documentary based on Lesy's book. He selected certain stories from the book to reenact, and with minimal editorializing, went about telling the story of the moral breakdown of Black River Falls. The stories are interesting and fast paced enough to relieve most of the viewer's boredom. Marsh renders the Black River Falls of the 1890's with a skillful hand, allowing the individual events to tell the entire story. His rendering of current day Black River Falls, however, is just retched. He doesn't have the budget or time to capture a solid impression of the town and rather than abandon the idea, he decides to proceed with a somewhat tepid review, one that is neither complete nor satisfying. Were it not for the name, the viewer couldn't possibly link the two visions of this town.
The entire film is shot in black and white, which is fitting to the topic. Marsh's cinematography is logical and well-considered. The film indicates a director who has some pretensions of technique, but who won't completely weigh the film down with them. Some minor problems can be seen in the reenactments; all of the murders are rather stylish and every dead child who is being photographed is visibly breathing.
Taken together, the film complements the book rather well. But the greatest weakness of both is that which James Marsh is most proud of: neither the author nor the director give us an explicit message. Neither of them sums up for us what these disjointed stories of death and mayhem mean, leaving the reader to cross some murky terrain on their own. This would be acceptable if they both hadn't spent so much time manipulating these accounts into a coherent theme, only to pretend that the stories should speak for themselves.
An interesting book for your coffee table, and a vivid, beautiful movie to watch. Both are powerful statements on death, nostalgia, and the formation of history.
"'Wisconsin Death Trip' a ghoulish tale of madness" Seattle Post-Intelligencer Oct. 26, 2001
"Wisconsin Death Trip" on Bookideas.com
"Wisconsin Death Trip" by Michael Lesy. University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Wisconsin Death Trip; Home Vision Entertainment