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First published in 1973 this remarkable book about life in a small turn of the century Wisconsin town has become a cult classic Lesy has collected and arranged photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 by a Black River Falls photographer Charles Van Schaik


10 thoughts on “Wisconsin Death Trip

  1. says:

    After reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a story inspired by photographs I realized I had never added this strange and wonderful book to my list Essentially nothing than a series of photos and newspaper accounts from the late 19th century the book depicts a troubled slice of history as it recounts daily life in Black River Falls Wisconsin and its surrounding areas The newspaper excerpts tell woeful tales of suicide murdersuicides madness and sadness If anything good ever happened to these people it never made the pages of The Badger State BannerThe photographs in this book are what really draw you in and they leave a lasting impression Taken over a period of 20 years by photographer Charles Van Schaick they are a uniue chronicle of an American town Ladies in their Sunday best sit astride horses miserable looking families pose in front of their tiny homes while another man mows the lawn of a gorgeous mansion A group of men in black face is shown next to a photo of barbers and their customers My absolute favorite is a happy looking hatted lady holding a snake in each hand with a third draped around her neck Most disturbing are the many photos of dead children in their coffins Perhaps the most poignant is the photograph of a living baby posed with the photos of two dead siblings a grieving mother's only way to get a family portrait It's difficult to look at the pictures here and not wonder about the lives of the subjects depicted In fact this book has inspired at least two novels A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick and the brilliant though deeply disturbing A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'NanOriginally published in 1973 this book is still in print and readily available Many of the images can be viewed here a docudrama film has been made and is available through Netflix


  2. says:

    The time traveller stepped cautiously out of his machine and looked around the wide field The day was bright the country fecund He permitted himself a smile An elderly man was walking purposefully ahead of him “Good day to you” called the time traveller “Not now not now” came the reply “I have just this moment taken the life of my wife her sister and three of her cousins who were visiting I am in a hurry now to take my own I intend to swing shortly from yonder elm” The time traveller reeled back in alarm What was this? He cast his eyes about and noticed for the first time various dark forms dangling from the larger branches of the nearby trees But then his eyes were taken up by an altogether gayer sight – it was a cheerful bonfire in the mid distance As he approached he noticed various persons frantically throwing water from buckets onto the flames and he realised it was a domestic house ablaze “Come help us please” said one approaching “Ralph Chase and his intire family are still within – a local boy known as an incendiary has done this for sure –“ and he handed the time traveller a bucket but suddenly sagged to the ground and began convulsing A woman ran up and dragged the time traveller away from the moribund “Keep clear keep clear – he has the typhoid for sure” The time traveller turned to her and in terrified tones demanded of her “What God Forsaken place is this?”“Why sir” she said “this is Black Ferry Wisconsin 1896”This book is an affront to good tastea stone thrown into a ponda diatribean indictment of human beings in generala patchwork uilt of blood and deathan exercise in a particularly unpleasant form of voyeurisman original and extraordinary history essay a ripe example of the hipster’s fascination for the outre for its own sake a vision of HellWhat you get is a snippets from a couple of local newspapers from this small area of Wisconsin between 1885 and 1900 All the snippets are about suicide murder insanity and disease Check the name of this book – that’s right It’s not called “A Pleasant day Out in Wisconsin”b interpolated uotations from a couple of novelsc snippets from case studies of inmates at the Mendoza Asylum for the Insaned some bizarre photos by a local Wisconsin photographer all posed many featuring mannish women and men with frankly absurd tastes in facial hair – eg you shave all your face EXCEPT under your chin and your throat so where your chin ends there’s a big hair explosion – hmm attractive Note to self – must try this Oh yes several photos of babies in coffinse pompous essays by the authorcompiler and his professor pal Warren Susman if my old professor had written a piece this patronising for my first book I’d have photoshopped his face onto some SM porn and posted it on the university bulletin board The final essay by Michael Lesy might actually be pretty good but you know what? By the time I got to it I’d had enoughRandom example 1“A wild man is terrorising the people north of Grantsburg He appears to be 35 years of age has long black whiskers is barefooted has scarcely any clothes on him and he carries a hatchet He appeared at several farm houses and asked for something to eat He eats ravenously and when asked where he came from points to the east he secretes himself in the woods during the day and has the most bloodcurdling yells that have ever been heard in the neighbourhood”Random example 2“Henry Ehlers a Milwaukee butcher died from nosebleed His nose had been bleeding for 9 days He was 37 years of age and had been a great meat eater”Random example 3“The family of Henry Miller of Cedarburg is sorely afflicted A 6 month old child died of diphtheria a week ago and now a 7 year old boy is dead A few weeks previous 2 children had died all of the same disease One child survives out of a family of 5 children and that too is down with the disease”There's a great American traditional song called Railroad Boy which in retrospect encapsulates the casual brutality of many of these jarring anecdotes of damage I would have given the link for the great performance by Dylan and Joan Baez taken from Renaldo Clara but Youtube deleted that so here's just the words She went upstairs to make her bedAnd not one word to her mother saidHer mother she went upstairs tooSaying Daughter oh daughter what's troublin' you?Oh mother oh mother I cannot tellThat railroad boy that I love so wellHe courted me my life awayAnd now at home will no longer stayThere is a place in yonder townWhere my love goes and he sits him downAnd he takes that strange girl on his kneeAnd he tells to her what he won't tell meHer father he came home from workSayin' Where is my daughter she seems so hurtHe went upstairs to give her hopeAn' he found her hangin' by a ropeHe took his knife and he cut her downAnd on her bosom these words he foundGo dig my grave both wide and deepPut a marble stone at my head and feet And on my breast put a snow white doveTo warn the world that I died of loveAlthough in Wisconsin in the 1890s they were dying of a whole lot things than mere love


  3. says:

    There is no better evidence than this book that the concept of a simpler happier time is a straight up teleological mendacity concocted by some archetypal mom to make us all feel guilty for ipods and Lady Gaga It's the late 19th century in Black River Falls Wisconsin and everyone is offing themselves in the most esoteric ways possible shit is constantly on fire and roving bands of tramps are basically running everything


  4. says:

    Ran across this book when I was about 15 and it seared my teenage brain like hell Definitely had a visceral impact on my whole neural pathway development and all Looking back on it now I think I'd have to relegate it to the dustbin at least as far as it tries to be a history As an artwork it sticksMichael Lesy wrote his morbid Death Trip as a 20 something grad student at the University of Wisconsin after he discovered Charles Van Schaick's glass plate negatives in a reading room Lesy actually said that Death Trip was written as a subjective surrealist photo montage of text and image not genuine history Van Schaick's work simply provided the gloomy visuals to unrelated news clippings Unfortunately most people who pick up the book will read it as history It's actually an experimental art piece an artifact of the LSD generation that produced it and of surrealist theory Death Trip strikes me as being about Lesy's private dark fascination with death crime and disappearing things than it is about Wisconsin Given that caveat it's incredibly interesting as a personal existential statement a soup bowl to be combined and sucked on and enjoyed as Lesy wrote But it's not good history Lesy is a killer literary journalist and experimental artist but Death Trip shouldn't be taken at face value as local historyVan Schaick a small town photographer who flourished around the turn of the century but who died as recently as 1942 wasn't out to document angst or mass hysteria Lesy uses Van Schaick's photos to make a personal statement I've looked at most of Van Schaick's thousands of photos all of them are now digitized on the Wisconsin Historical Society's website Lesy pilfered the weiredest of Van Schaick's photos to use as a kind of theatrical backdrop in this book about people going crazy in small North Woods towns during an economic crisis Shit burns down people kill their families teenagers get lonely and lovelorn Honestly that sounds like a pretty good description of America in 2014 or human beings at any stage why Black River Falls Wisconsin in the 1890s?Actually the majority of Van Schaick's overall body of photos is a really interesting documentation of the destruction of the North Woods and of the Winnebago Indians Probably close to half his photos are remarkably honest studio portraits of Native Americans whom he had an immense respect for and whom he portrayed as real people not as fantasized Noble Savages like Edward Curtis did And unlike Van Schaick's predictable studio portraits of his white neighbors his photos of Native Americans just jump out of the frame Van Schaick was definitely not out to document a creepy little town and the human weirdness there and I think the use of his photographs in a book alleging mass insanity is a pretty flawed idea Van Schaick was a realist in the vein of Carl Sandburg who saw the reality of small town life like the great Midwestern poet did the people as hero and hoodlum phantom and gorilla but to call his work macabre as some do or to say that he depicted characters in an insane asylum is really stretching it His career was as interesting and remarkable as the much lauded Mike Disfarmer of Heber Springs Arkansas Unfortunately because he's been hitched to Michael Lesy since Death Trip came out in 1973 it's been hard to see Van Schaick through a less surreal lensLesy later wrote about his first encounter with the images that he used in Wisconsin Death Trip that What I’d done was to discover a massive amount of pain suffering and death in the middle of America In fact what I’d described was a holocaust without Jews A better book might have used Van Schaick's work to look at the dark memory of environmental destruction going on all around the Midwest and really all of North America at a time when everything old about the place except the rocks was being changed or outright obliterated The time period covered in this book was truly a Holocaust of nature Moreover a frightening book about the human experience doesn't have to be historical or as subjective and experimental as Wisconsin Death Trip It could be as contemporary as last week's CNN coverage But imagine piecing together a history of New York in the '50s from Diane Arbus' freak show or the history of America in 2014 from the most dismal news reportage and tie it together with some strange photographs and you have Lesy's book here a scream of a statement pieced together from detached journalese but not very accurate historyGotta say Lesy does leave a deep impression I won't deny that he writes strange and wonderful books Get his later non photo book The Forbidden Zone a journalistic foray into the death industry from the Omaha stockyards to an Asheville pathology unit and a Florida crime beat But that's really all this is impressionism Where Wisconsin Death Trip really triumphs is in giving the definitive jackhammer treatment to dreamy eyed fantasies about a Ken Burns America where everything is in golden technicolor and evening light The Wisconsin of the 1890s was dark in the same way the times we live in are barren and depressing Strip away fashion and hair dos and it's not hard to look around and see the sadness in the faces of Charles Van Schaick's sitters gradually becoming oursIn some ways I'm glad Lesy did what he did it was bold and beats dry American Studies Department political correctness any day As a cult classic the book has been influential enough to spawn a hard rock band an opera and a fiction documentary by filmmaker James Marsh with soundtrack by Yo Yo Ma and Mark O'Connor Look at it context and Death Trip is still a powerful ride on a loose powerline but the book is a creature of its own and has to be read that way


  5. says:

    I picked up this book after reading that it served as the inspiration for A Reliable Wife but it was just a bit too strange for me As a history buff I appreciated the photographic portraits and newspaper stories demonstrating the dark side of rural turn of the century Wisconsin But it felt as if the author was trying too hard to present the book as an experimental sociological art project which sometimes worked well but sometimes bordered on the ridiculous


  6. says:

    Reason for Reading In the book A Reliable Wife by Roderick Goodwin the author mentions in a note that this book gave him the idea for the atmosphere to set his own book in His characters read from the newspaper regularly and his description of this book made want to read it So I put an ILL reuest in for it right awayComments This is a very unusual book It is a collection of both photographs and newspaper clippings from the period of 1895 to 1900 from a newspaper called the Badger State Banner which covered local Jackson County news as well as having access to state wide news During this period the author contends that a certain presence of death and tragedy loomed over the agricultural towns of the American Midwest What became a mundane part of their everyday lives as reported in the newspapers now to us looking back seems to be a macabre era of historyThe newspaper articles which run from one liners to several paragraphs report on suicides diphtheria deaths baby deaths insane declarations window smashers arsonists found dead bodies deaths funerals charges of obscene letters sent through the mail and much plus repeated instances of the same over and over with each one different and many the same Suicides are rampant men shooting themselves in the head hanging themselves in the barn and one guy blew his head off with dynamite Women poisoned themselves with the plenty of rodent killers found on the farm drowned themselves in barrels and rivers or set themselves on fire one lady in a bath of kerosene The asylum must have been filled to the rafters with all the reports of committed people How many times I read of women with 8 to 13 children being committed as insane with symptoms of despondency and men who lost their jobs and wouldn't do anything were declared insane Of course then there were also the usual religious insanity the tobacco insanity the thinks the neighbours are after him insanity too All this and the other topics make for absolutely fascinating reading of a time when life must have been a hard road to travelThen along with the text between each year are sections of photographs which were taken by a local studio photographer Charley Van Schaick It was the finding of the glass negative slides that prompted the compilation of this book None of the photos are snapshots they are all photos taken because someone wanted them taken They are very striking and range from the morbid dead babies in coffins and old women who are scary to look at to studio shots of people but whose eyes are strangely lifeless and there are even some photos of picnics and local businesses The way they have been arranged though is not just a seuence of photos but is an artistic presentation I almost felt as if I were watching a silent movie at timesThe combination of the text and the photos together presents an unusual artistic viewing of social history in a manner not likely to be seen again I think this is only something to come about from the mindset of the seventies Both the preface and the authors ending thesis this was originally presented as his thesis at Rutgers suffer from a lot of seventies psycho babble but the history presented is unblemished and fascinating and macabre This is the type of book that would be a pleasure to own and dip into or just to come back to over and over for the pictures alone While not for everyone I highly recommended it for those who like me enjoy this sort of thing


  7. says:

    I recently read and loved A Reliable Wife The author Robert Goolrick claimed this book was his inspiration Wierd wierd wierd Disease Mental illness Corruption Deceit Murder Crime Psychosis Love affairs Suicide Death Lots of death This is a bizarre book a collection of newspaper articles and historical photographs from Black River Falls Wisconsin from the 1890's to 1910's This book paints a bleak picture of harsh working conditions unsavory social connections and a genuine hardship amongst the community A reviewer from Library Journal summed it up succinctly the whole package seems to confirm that the good old days were actually awful


  8. says:

    Wisconsin Death Trip doesn't entirely deserve its cult reputation The tedious Freudian opening and closing essays and the super groovy 1970s art collages get in the way of the reader's enjoyment of its morbid and interesting little nuggets of American history


  9. says:

    great book for overly moody man children who think a passing interest in death makes them deep


  10. says:

    According to photojournalist Ted Grant “When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes But when you photograph people in black and white you photograph their souls” In a sense then a photograph becomes a link to eternity one that toys with resurrection making what is absent present Photographs become something like an immortal object undead and we wake the dead thing each time we look at them making us witnesses to that eternityMichael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip sets out to capture a time and a place Black River Falls Wisconsin shortly before and after the turn of the 20th century The book was published in 1973 and is assembled from photographs of Charles Van Schaick a local photographer who captured images of the town and its residents and is juxtaposed with newspaper clippings from the Badger State Banner a weekly newspaper tasked with reporting both the mundane and the morose goings on in Black River Falls and surrounding Jackson County It was edited by Frank Cooper and his son George whose style of reporting consisted of small chunks of copy written in a pared down matter of fact styleNone of the pictures carry any captions or descriptions however so the faces one sees throughout the book are nothing than nameless ghosts and the book itself has no clear beginning or narrative structure It’s an “alchemy” as Lesy calls it of carefully chosen fragments of history layered together “It’s a way of using pictures and words to tell a story” he notes “I wanted to provide people with an experience” By treating images and excerpts in this way Lesy gives birth to a new kind of “poetic history” that makes tangible the experiences that other kinds of history writing often overlook For most Americans the last decade of the 19th century was a time when great fortunes were to be made For many others however that time period was one of economic dislocation when the gap between city and countryside rich and poor grew ever wider Industries were shutting down leaving people unemployed and desperate Faced with economic depression a brutal climate and a diphtheria epidemic that decimated its infant population a good number of the citizens of Black River Falls most who were recent German and Scandinavian immigrants went berserk and many found themselves incarcerated in the nearby Mendota Asylum for the InsaneWomen killed themselves over grief at the death of their children Men killed themselves for lack of work A brother and two sisters go insane within weeks of each other a woman poisons her baby with strychnine another slashes her stomach with a butcher knife and a man blows his head off with a stick of dynamite In separate incidents two elderly women douse their bodies with kerosene and set themselves ablazeMany historians concern themselves with American aspirations and hopes but few with its fears and delusions which is why Lesy’s book remains one of the bleakest most devastating accounts of rural American life ever published It offers us a uniue opportunity to face not the America Dream but the American Nightmare The town of Black River Falls Wisconsin eventually recovered but this small town will forever be remembered for the many terrible events that took place in the span of just 20 years