Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip

My first job out of college was in a medium-sized academic library at an arty college. I had picked it not only because it was an entry level job in a profession I wanted to pursue, but the quality and breadth of books now available to me was irresistible. One of the first books I took out was Wisconsin Death Trip, which I had always heard about, but never read.

In the late 1960s, historian Michael Lesy began his work compiling a collection of photographs (from glass plate negatives—truly beautiful historical specimens, enough to make this archivist swoon) and documents from Jackson County, Wisconsin at the end of the 19th century. First published in 1973, the book mostly contains photographs by Charles Van Schaik, taken between 1890 and 1910, around Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Death Trip overwhelms you by the amount of suicide, mental illness, murder, and mischief conducted by grim-faced God-fearing country people. Its strength is that it takes archival material and, by arrangement alone, produces something entertaining, morbid, and engaging. One woman, for instance, is obsessed with breaking shop windows and the reader follows her throughout the book as she is arrested repeatedly.

In 2000, Wisconsin Death Trip was turned into a docudrama. What I saw of it was well done, but I stopped watching after the endless amount of dead babies. The film captured a sense of doom and mortality more than even the book.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has an online collection of images used in the book and a Flickr set.

To find out more about the film, visit Wisconsin Death Trip.

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