A framed woman's portrait surrounded by funeral wreaths and flower arrangements, with painted studio backdrop. A is cross on the left, with an arrangement spelling "rest" in front. (Photo by Charles Van Schaik, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)
A framed woman's portrait surrounded by funeral wreaths and flower arrangements, with painted studio backdrop. A is cross on the left, with an arrangement spelling "rest" in front. (Photo by Charles Van Schaik, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

The unsettling chronicle of 1890s small-town life is still in print and inspiring artists 48 years after it was first published.

In 1973, a book appeared with the intriguing title of “Wisconsin Death Trip,” a crazed-looking woman staring glassy-eyed from the cover. 

The book read like a history thesis on acid. Historian Micheal Lesy used photos from 1890s Black River Falls and juxtaposed them with newspaper stories from the era and records from the state insane asylum to paint a picture of the “psychic crisis” that gripped small-town America during the 1890s depression.

Photos of Dead Babies and Fantastical Beasts

The photos in the book were taken by Charles Van Schaick, a portrait photographer who had a studio in Black River Falls from 1885 to 1940. 

He took portraits of matrons and memorial portraits of dead babies displayed at their funerals. He also took candid shots of what he saw on the streets. His photos of a white horse with a mane that reaches the ground and a black horse that looks half starved are weirdly arresting. 

He documented lumber camps and tinker trucks coming through town. Van Schaick did so many portraits of local members of the Ho-Chunk Nation that they led to a 2011 book, “People of the Big Voice.”

Horse with a long neck and short back in front of a barn. Probably a breeding stallion of a carriage horse breed. (Photo by Charles Van Schaik, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

From Doctoral Dissertation to Cult Classic

The Wisconsin Historical Society owns more than 8,000 of Van Schaick’s glass negatives. Lesy discovered the collection when he was a college student in Madison, and later, as a graduate student at Rutgers University, did his doctoral thesis on Van Schaick.

For his book, he used 130 images from the 1890s, often cropping or inverting them and presenting them with no identification or context. The historical society notes that “historians continue to be appalled at this approach, but the general public continues to be intrigued and fascinated.”

Book Is Narrated by Newspaper Clippings From the Day

Lesy used news articles from the Badger State Banner to set the scene, stories written by local editor Frank Cooper about epidemics, fires, bank failures, mill closings, and the human suffering that followed. 

Readers learn that “Poverty and no work caused August Schultz of Appleton to shoot himself in the head while sitting in his little home with his wife and 5 children.” Or that “Mamie Weeks, a 15-year-old-girl at Beaver, has made complaint against her father Jacob Weeks of being the father of her unborn child. Weeks has disappeared.” 

Or, “An attempt was made to assassinate W. L. Seymour, cashier of the defunct Seymour Bank of Chippewa Falls. One shot passed between his arm and body and the other went wide of the mark.”

A smiling woman poses with three snakes around her neck and in her hands. She is standing outside, before an over-turned bench and trees, wearing a hat. (Photo by Charles Van Schaik, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

Notes from the State Insane Asylum

Lesy used the records of the Mendota State Hospital to paint a picture of mental illness and despair. Asylum records note that a farmer from Cleveland was admitted because he “believes witches and bad people are around. Sees them every day. Has destroyed or starved several hundred dollars worth of cattle, claiming that witches were the cause.” 

Another farmer, age 52 from Norway, was admitted because he was “deluded on the subject of religion. Is afraid of injury being done to him. Relations say he has tried to hang himself.” A woman, “Age 29, seven children … deranged in religion and afraid of everything, particularly of mediums.” 

A newspaper article alerts that “Milo L. Nichols, sent to the insane hospital a year or two ago after committing arson … is now at large and was seen near the old place early last week … he has proven himself a revengeful firebug.”

Death Trip Inspires Musicians and Filmmakers

The dark poetry of Wisconsin Death Trip fascinated many who stumbled across it. 

Author Robert Goolrick said it was the inspiration for his creepy Northwoods novel “A Reliable Wife,” and Stephen King has said it influenced his short story “1922.” The Bob Dylan movie “I’m Not There” used photos from the book, as did post-punk band Echo and the Bunnymen, in their album “Flowers.” 

A band called Static-X titled an album “Wisconsin Death Trip,” and it inspired an opera, “Black River.” 

In 1999, British filmmaker James Marsh directed a docudrama that reenacted some of the book’s newspaper stories and photos, with Madison-area actors playing roles such as “coffin girl,” “asylum guard,” and “hanging man.” The film is available on YouTube. 

A girl wearing a dress, with hat in hand, standing next to a stream. She is shown from the back, looking downstream and waving. (Photo by Charles Van Schaik, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)