It’s a strange and violent time. Children are shooting each other. Economic depression is leading people to take drastic measures just to survive. People murder each other for no good reason. Drugs are rampant. Vandals destroy property just for kicks. It certainly is a horrible time…just not our time. This is Black River Falls, Wisconsin during 1890 to 1910.
WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (1999) started out life as a photography book. Michael Lesy was procrastinating working on a Master’s thesis in 1972 when he decided to browse a collection of antique portraits at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photographs were taken in the late 1800s by Charles Van Schaick, Justice of the Peace and town photographer for Black River Falls. Lesy became fascinated by the portraits of the young, the old, and the dead with stoic, hardened faces. Further research brought him to the Badger State Banner, the newspaper of the era. There he learned more about the town, how it had been filled with European immigrants and their offspring, miners and farmers. In just a brief period of time, the articles covered a massive amount of tragedy for such a small town. A combination of the mines closing and the resulting economic turmoil, a diphtheria epidemic that claimed a huge portion of the town’s children, and the general harshness of life on the plains, led to physical and mental health ailments, drug addiction, and violent acting out. Lesy published the photographs alongside snippets of articles to try and create a portrait of a very specific time and place.
The book was published in 1974 and became a cult hit. Twenty five years later director James Marsh finally adapted it to film. He combined the actual photographs with dramatic reenactments to flesh out the snippets of stories. He then combined it with footage of Black River Falls in modern times. The articles remain, narrated by the great actor Ian Holm. His voice brings humanity to the stories of children shooting their neighbors to take over their home for a summer, of parents committing infanticide, murders, destitute opera divas, and (my personal favorite) the continuing story of Mary Sweeny aka The Window Smasher. The former schoolteacher was known all through the state for doing exactly what her nickname said. According to Sweeny, sometimes the mania would overtake her. Sometimes it could be quieted with cocaine. Other times nothing would calm her except for smashing random windows. When discovered, the authorities would take pity on the woman and, rather than put her in jail, would put her on a train to another town. There the cycle would continue. Some blame her behavior on mental illness. Others suspect Sweeny just liked to travel and found this to be a way to get people to pay for her adventures.
A few words of warning: this is a hard movie to watch in many ways. There’s a series of photographs of the young diptheria victims post mortem that is heartbreaking. Another way it’s hard to watch is that it isn’t your typical film with a beginning, middle, and end. It really is just a series of snippets. Combine that with the calming voice of Holm, and it’s easy to nod off if you’re not fully rested. However, if you’ve slept well, the movie is worth a watch:
Question of the night: does your home town have any crazy historical stories?