From 1885 to 1890, a photographer named Van Schaick exposed more than 30,000 photographic plates to record the life of a small American town. In Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy has blended a selection of these images with quotations from five “voices,” two of them real: the words of newspaper editor Frank Cooper, and the state hospital medical records. The others are novelist Glenway Wescott, and two “mythical” voices of the town historian and town gossip. It’s hard to say whether the words or the pictures have more impact, since both are very powerful.

Life in America a little over a century ago: every illusion of it having been a kinder, gentler time is shattered here. Any cliche’ about life in the Good Old Days that you care to utter, this book disproves.
Children used to treat their parents better.
Right. Here’s an 82 year old man beaten to death by his son.
Parents used to treat their children better.
One woman, driven insane by “religious excitement” attacks her children and wrecks her house; another drowns her three children in the belief that devils will then stop chasing her. A man is arrested for incest with his two stepdaughters, 11 and 12. Another is charged by his 15-year-old daughter with being the father of her unborn child. A teenage girl sets fire to several buildings because her father whipped her. A mother chokes her illegitimate baby to death, another poisons herself and her ten-year-old daughter with arsenic. A man and wife are arrested for training their children to climb onto passing buggies and steal small items. A man sells his young son to a band of itinerant peddlers This stuff is, as the saying goes, right out of today’s headlines.
Authority figures, and especially public servants, used to get respect they earned and deserved.
Nonsense. Corruption and greed have always been present in people in the same proportions they are now. An alderman gets drunk and holds up the bank. A teacher is beaten unconscious by a 14-year-old girl Someone takes a shot at the treasurer of a failed bank.
People used to show gratitude to those who helped them.
A tramp attacks the son of family who have given him food and shelter. A hired girl poisons her employers’ family. A teenage boy, recently adopted from the state school, murders a four-year-old girl
It used to be that neighbors looked out for each other.
Town boys harass the Chinese immigrants. A wealthy farmer is charged with setting ten arson fires.

Times were hard, very hard, and social unrest was rampant. A number of mines closed and made 15,000 people destitute. Men hit the road, burned barns and slit the cow’s throats at farms that wouldn’t respond to their begging. One arsonist turned himself in, because his goal all along had been to go to jail, where they fed you. When an army of 250 tramps showed up, the townspeople acted with firmness. “They were marched to the river, made to wash themselves, given something to eat, and rushed out of town.” If an army of 250 homeless people showed up anywhere today, it would be a matter for military action.

The entire populace was at risk for mental illness, and anyone was apt to go off the deep end at any time, often triggering a chain reaction. Whole families would be carted off to the state hospital, one member after another. Even the well-to-do went insane for no discernible reason. The admitting diagnoses of women committed to the madhouse usually noted their affliction as religious mania, while for the men it was usually money worries and paranoia, and with both sexes insanity usually involved killing one’s own children.

A young woman suffers from a mysterious malady that makes her bark like a dog. A man trying to invent a perpetual motion machine is judged insane. A woman goes on window-smashing rampages, then uses cocaine to quiet her nerves. A boy has been unable to speak above a whisper since being hypnotized 4 months ago. A wild man is captured in the woods.

Things were pretty much like they are now. People swore that a sea serpent in the lake ate parts of five sheep. An 80-year-old man married for the sixth time. A woman was charged with sending obscene mail, another was discovered to have been posing as a man for fifteen years, and “Jake the Hugger” was apprehended. Plenty of wife beating went on, and you can have fun guessing from the photos which husbands were the tyrants. Daily existence was rife with assorted horrors.

Homicidal overreaction to slights is not a modern phenomenon, as we see from one of the news items. When body parts were found in a burlap bag and a valise, the truth came out: the victim had laughed at the murderer for reading the Bible. Gratuitous cruelty and random violence abounded. Grown men amused themselves by setting dogs on fire. A farm couple were found hacked to death with an axe. Those who violated the community standards too severely were set upon by masked avengers with horsewhips.

Practically every day brought new horrors: a woman found wandering the streets of Eau Claire with a dead baby in her arms; a woman exhumed from the grave and discovered to have been buried alive.

As if life weren’t tough enough for these folks, barely hanging on as they scratched out a living from the reluctant earth, arson was epidemic. One man alone was responsible for 50 fires. “He had always been the first at the fires and took great interest in the work of putting them out.”

Many of the photos in Wisconsin Death Trip are of dead children, propped up as if standing in their small coffins, and at first glance it seems pretty damn morbid. But in those days, the taking of a photograph was a major event, and children often died before it occurred. The coffin picture might very well be the first and last, the one the family would have always to remember them by. There was no shortage of ways to die. One family lost four children to diphtheria in the space of 5 weeks. People died of starvation, exposure, neglect, disease, accident, murder, and an incredible number of them by suicide.

They ingested morphine and strychnine and carbolic acid and insecticide and cigar stubs. They killed themselves in inventive and horrifying ways, like the farmer’s wife who cut her own throat with sheep shears. A man jailed for the murder of his wife killed himself by eating the springs of the bed in his cell. An octogenarian threw herself in front of a train and got cut in three pieces. There was suicide by dynamite and suicide by hammer and, unbelievably, self-immolation was a popular choice.

Aside from its intrinsic interest, this book with its very dark vision is useful as an antidote to the technophobes and retrogressives who claim that life was so much better before the automobile and TV. Hey: there were no good old days. There was no Golden Age. Get over it.