frenchtown fiber

Chris Mundy and Kate House try to make art while navigating the crap life throws at them.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Wisconsin Death Trip

This is the now cult classic book "Wisconsin Death Trip." This book was published in 1973 and compiled by Michael Lesy who put this together for his college Thesis. I discovered it a couple of years after it had first come out. As a young teenager I was seriously creeped out by it, but yet really attracted to the images and stories. I remember forming the thought that rural poverty is arguably way worse than urban poverty. I've gone back to my home town library to find it several times over the years, and finally decided I needed to own my own copy. (That's when I really started appreciating Amazon.) The book is all 'factual' and filled with newspaper clippings of things that happened in Jackson County and other parts of Wisconsin in 1880's into the early 1900's. They come from the local newspaper and are written in a strange matter-of-fact way. Some of the stories are so outrageous, it shakes you out of any kind of idea that things were better in "the good old days."

All photos in the book are by Charles Van Schaick, who was a well-known photograher from Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the late 1800's to early 1900's. It's hard to say why Michael Lesy chose the photos he did, out of thousands of images. I always wonder if any of the pictures are of the people in the news stories.

Lesy was apparently trying to make the point that this place, Black River Falls, was way weirder than most small towns of that time. If you surf around on the internet, you find a lot of criticism of the book. Whatever the case, it is endlessly fascinating to me. (By the way, there has been a documentary film made based on this book. I was underwhelmed by it. It was OK, but does not have the impact of the book.)

Of all the images in the book, there is one that I really love. It is a woman who's hair is a crazy mess, and the expression on her face is positively other-worldly. (See below.)

I've used her in my art before, but right now she is in a fabric collage I'm working on. The one I have been complaining about. The scanner I used isn't wide enough to include the entire collage, but I think you can see enough of it. I have tried to create a sense of suffocation with all of the lacey bits closing in on her, as if she is being smothered by the late Victorian mores she labors under. I intend to add a lot more embellishments to this piece, but right now I am struggling with quilting her face. First I quilted around the edge of her face, and it popped out like a bubble. I quilted over her features and ended up altering her expression. Then I took all of that out and tried it in black thread. Major mistake. It ended up looking like eye-liner, she seemed glamorous, which was, once again, way wrong. I had to pick all that stitching out again. Now I was in danger of starting to shred the fabric. I quilted again, in white, around her features, and it is better. Still not great, but better.

I'm going to give you some excerpts from the book:
"Mrs. Lizzie Larson,of Merrillan, was adjudged insane and taken to the asylum at Mendota last Friday. Poverty and the loss of her husband were the causes which brought about the sad affliction. She raves about religion and imagines she is going to die. At times she has been so violent that it took 2 men to keep her from injuring herself and others. She has 4 children that are in destitute circumstances."
"Some time ago, the family of Julius Semrow of Freedom, father, mother and 3 choildren, were mysteriously poisoned twice within a week's time. Since that time... Under Sheriff Mitchel went to Freedom and arrested Alma Glimm, 16 years of age who had been an employee at the Semrow household. She was accused of having put 'Rough on Rats' in the food."
"Admitted May 9, 1899, Town of Garden Valley. American. Aged 21. Unmarried. lives at home with parents. First symptoms noted on December 28th, 1898. Religious mania. Thinks she has the power of saving people. Maniacal. Delusions and hallucinations. (Mendota State Mental Asylum record book, patient #8149)
"Aristide Griffel, known as 'Frenchy,' was arrested at La Crosse in the act of firing a barn on the North Side. He confessed to a multiplicity of incendiary fires that have occured in North La Crosse during the past 2 years. At least 50 fires can be laid at his door. Griffel had a mania for excitement, and this kind suited him best. He had always been the first at the fires and took great interest in the work of putting them out. At home he would keep the alarm clock continually ringing."
What the hell...?
One more.
"A woman who gave her name as Wilson died at Chippewa Falls from a criminal operation performed upon herself. Her parents live in Eau Claire... her brother took charge of her remains. The woman was young and pretty and visited every physician in Chippewa Falls to accomplish her object, but without success."
Just sad, sad, sad. I just don't think I can give you the real feel of this book. (And let's face it, most normal people would want to avoid this.) You just have to read it for yourself. When you absorb so many stories like that you get this feeling of compassion for all humans; maybe it is knowing that life is hard no matter when or where you were born and we all go through the same trials, some not so successfully. I also think of all the people who are gone and just fade into obscurity. I have so many photos of people that I bought for a dollar at antique stores. Who are they? Well, we know who 'Frenchy' is, anyway.


Marty's Fiber Musings said...

Hi, and thanks for the excerpts and photo from the book. It makes me wonder what she is seeing to give her that wild look. Keep up your good work.....

The Idaho Beauty said...

I ran across this book just prior to moving from Tacoma WA to WI. At the time we decided to relocate to WI, we knew very little about the state. You can imagine the raised eyebrows as we read through this book and contemplated our own fate once we moved to this state! What an introduction...

You are right, though. The images are haunting, the stories more so. If I remember correctly, there are pictures of dead people in it too. I just couldn't wrap my head around this concept of photographing the dead to remember them. And then, shortly after, I found in my own collection of family photographs several of dead family members. This still creeps me out, although I have a better understanding now of why that was popular in that time period.

Chris said...

To Idaho Beauty: I didn't even get into the post mortem pictures from that book on the blog. Nothing is as disturbing as a picture of a dead baby in a coffin. I think back then they were a little more up-close and personal with death. They may have prepared the body themselves, and the deceased were often laid out in the parlor. I've even seen pictures of mothers holding dead babies in their arms. Yikes. Anyway, I'm glad someone else has seen this book. Your comments are validating me!

Quiltplay said...

I had never heard about this until I read iton your blog. Now I am hooked. Have spent a good deal of time reading what was available on the net. It's all very fascinating and I will try to get a copy of the book.

Chris said...

Hi Quiltplay, It's pretty cool that you are interested in the book. It was reprinted in 2000 and isn't that hard to find. I'm about to put a follow up post on the blog...