Wisconsin can be pretty creepy, if you're looking in the right places. Here in Milwaukee we've got tales of haunted music venues (The Eagles Ballroom), college campuses (UWM's Johnston Hall) and residences (Mary Nohl's infamous "witch house").
Venture out of the city and the tales get even better.
Today, the small Wisconsin town of Black River Falls, for example, is a tourist's and camper's destination, but according to the weird findings of writer Michael Lesy, it was the last place on Earth you'd want to be in late 19th century.
It was the bizarre, ongoing series of disturbances that befell the tiny town during this time that inspired Lesy to author "Wisconsin Death Trip," an illustrated account of the untimely downfall of almost an entire community during the 1890s.
Originally published in 1973, the book has become something of a cult classic among historians, the curious and chasers of ghosts. Lesy spent years collecting and arranging photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 by a Black River Falls photographer named Charles Van Schaik, of which there were more than 30,000.
Lesy found something of a surprising trend among the 200 images he chose for his book. There was evidence of murder-suicide pacts, rampant vagrancy and people murdering others out of sheer boredom. It was if the whole town had gone mad.
Lesy smartly arranged excerpts from the "Badger State Banner," the Mendota State Asylum record book and clips from the writing of Hamlin Garland and Glenway Westcott with the stark images to create an interesting and mystifying journey through the doomed rural faming village.
The result is, truly, a Wisconsin death trip.
"The town of Black River Falls seems gripped by some peculiar malaise and the weekly news is dominated by bizarre tales of madness, eccentricity and violence amongst the local population. Suicide and murder are commonplace. People in the town are haunted by ghosts, possessed by devils and terrorized by teenage outlaws and arsonists," notes James Marsh, who, in 1999, adapted Lesy's book into an equally unsettling feature film inspired by actual events.
Fittingly, Marsh, the film's producer Maureen Ryan and the rest of the crew stayed at the gothically-inspired Brumder Mansion Bed & Breakfast, 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave., during their stay in Milwaukee and shot some of the film within its walls.
An American nightmare
Black River Falls, it turns out, was actually enduring the effects -- socially, morally, psychologically, physically -- of the great depression of the 1890s, which never made the history books the way that the Great Depression of the 1930s did.
There was an increasingly growing problem of death, decline, delinquency and degeneracy, and it is this side of the story that Lesy chooses to tell, both visually and through written word.
"Many historians have concerned themselves with American aspirations and hopes, few with its fears and nightmares," Rutgers history professor Warren Susman writes in the book's forward. "Lesy offers us a unique opportunity to face not the American dream, but the American nightmare, a nightmare reflected not only in the mind but in other kinds of behavior as well."
See it for yourself
The city of Black River Falls is now a thriving town on the west side of the state filled with quaint shops, cozy lodging and even its own brewery, Sand Creek Brewing Company, 320 Pierce St.
The best option for a scare factor, however, might be to grab your own copy of "Wisconsin Death Trip" -- they're all over the place in Black River Falls, as well as online -- and book a campsite in the area. The Black River State Forest, nearly 68,000 acres of pine and oak forest, takes reservations May through October, although you can take your chances on a site at any time of the year.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”