Wisconsin Death Trip (hereafter WDT) is a documentary made by James Marsh, and is essentially a collected series of vignettes based on and taken from the photos and newspaper articles featured in the 1973 book WDT. The fact that the book is called a “trip” is certainly indicative of the time that the book was published. The photos and the newsarticles themselves date from the mid-to-late 19th century and center around an area of West-Central Wisconsin. Somewhere like, Eau Claire and Black River Falls and Fairchild — you know these areas. The 1973 book came about when a UW student Michael Lesy (Go Badgers!) found a lot of glass-print photos and put them together with contemporary (for the photos) newsarticles that appeared in the Badger State Banner. (Go Badgers!)
The most of the movie is in a stark black and white, even the recreations of the newspaper articles. Life was stark back then, especially for rural Wisconsin. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the world was actually black and white back then. Especially when you have photos like this:
It’s hard for the kiddywinks to believe that little over a hundred years ago not everyone had access to a camera. One might actually only have half a dozen photos taken of themselves in their entire life, so it’s not outside of the realm of uncrazy that there was a trend of death photos. Couple that with the high infant mortality rate, and you got lots of pics of dead babies in coffins. Parents would even set up a tableaux of the child’s favorite toys and flowers for the photo.
Coupled with these images are the words from the newspapers themselves:
“A wild man is terrorising the people north of Grantsburg. He appears to be 35 years of age, has long black whiskers, is barefooted, has scarcely any clothes on him, and he carries a hatchet. He appeared at several farm houses and asked for something to eat. He eats ravenously, and when asked where he came from, points to the east. he secretes himself in the woods during the day and has the most bloodcurdling yells that have ever been heard in the neighbourhood.”
It’s almost romantic in a way, isn’t it? The words roll trippingly off the tongue that make you want to curl up with the newspaper. It’s almost a Penny Dreadful, for heaven’s sakes.
“Henry Ehlers, a Milwaukee butcher, died from nosebleed. His nose had been bleeding for 9 days… He was 37 years of age and had been a great meat eater.”
And that, my friends, is this poor sap’s entire newspaper eulogy. WDT is chock-full of death, dismemberment, poverty, disease, gloom, despair, and agony (on me … woh-o-oh) and yet still has a hero. Heroine, actually — Mary Sweeny:
Chick liked breaking glass. Windows and rocks were her milieu. She’d go over the whole damn state breaking glass. Tens of thousands of dollars. Mary’d get locked up, get back out, and go smash herself a window.
Well, jeez, what were her options in the late 19th century? Wear a corset, get married and drop a passel of kids or not and be oppressed by the man and not be able to hold a job (besides teaching or nursing) or vote or own property or attend college in most of the country — although women were allowed into the Normal School in WI in 1863, Mary probably couldn’t attend for one reason or another. Probably because of all the broken glass.
WDT is morbid and fascinating. Perfect for a gal like me. Perfect for making the Hubster worry about me. The WDT book has been on my Amazon wish list for a few years now and he refuses to buy it for me. I also want the picture book about the Mütter Museum and a new headlight housing for my car, and he has’t bought those for me either. Oh well.