The first time I saw a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip was about a decade ago, during one of what seemed to be an endless succession of visits to Marshfield, Massachusetts during that particular time in my life. The friend with whom I was staying prevailed upon me to accompany her to a "get together" at the house of a man known for his New Age sensibilities and gracious manner.
"You'll love him," she told me as we drove toward the neighboring town of Norville, where Mr. Sensitive lived with his Lhasa Apso and an extensive crystal collection. "He's a truly gifted person with the most amazing energy. I know he'll make you feel right at home." Translation: I was about to sacrifice a couple hours of my life sucking down white wine, listening to the local New Age crowd discuss meditation techniques and then, if I was lucky, I might be able to convince my friend to stop at a bar for a real drink on the way back to Marshfield, The late 90's were a difficult time for me. My trips to Marshfield were an escape from some of the more uncomfortable aspects of that time period. My friend's attempts to indoctrinate me into her The 1890s were not a good time for Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Like much of the rest of the country, the residents of the small, remote Wisconsin town were suffering through an economic depression every bit as devastating as the so-called "Great Depression" of the 1930s. And like many other Americans during that last decade of the 19th century, the men and women of the small rural community experienced the effects of the nation's economic hardships on a personal level that was sometimes overwhelming, if not altogether ruinous. In the course of that one decade, the city of Black River Falls was host to the dissolution of a mining operation which served as its primary money-making enterprise, a crazed gunman who held 26 people hostage in a local church on what he claimed were God's orders, a rampant epidemic of diphtheria, a succession of unusually gruesome suicides, the murder of a farmer at the hands of two children, a number of unexplained deaths, a breathtakingly high rate of infant mortality, and regular bouts of window smashing at the hands of a middle-aged woman who claimed that she always took a dose of cocaine afterwards to settle her nerves.
That's a hell of a lot of tragedy for one little town to bear, you're probably thinking. Which is exactly what journalism student Michael Lesy was thinking when, in the early 70's, he happened to come into possession of a stack of old photographs documenting the horrible events visited upon the unfortunate citizens of Black River Falls nearly 80 years before. The photographs were the work of Charles van Shaint, the official photographer for Jackson County, Wisconsin, who, it would seem
spent an inordinate amount of time photographing the residents of the strange little burg, pointing his camera lens at everything from deceased infants to murderous siblings with paper bags over their heads trying to outrun lawmen on horseback.
Lesy's fascination with van Shaint's photographs prompted him to delve deeper into the stories behind the pictures, most of which were documented in contemporary news accounts. Lesy utilized excerpts from those accounts to provide the narrative of the book he went on to write. Wisconsin Death Trip hit the book stands in 1973, its title inspired by hippie vernacular in which the word "trip" is used to refer to a personal experience as well as to an actual, physical journey. Lesy's "death trip", with its stark, unfiltered newsprint and morbid, unsettling, sometimes surreal imagery, quickly became a cult classic. But it wasn't until 1999 that someone undertook the daunting task of trying to turn the strange little work into a feature film. In March of that year, Warner Brothers released a film version of Wisconsin Death Trip, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, The King) to mixed reviews. Like the book, Marsh's film draws heavily on the original photographs, recreating some of the events depicted in them and attempting to link them to modern day Black River Falls. The result is a film that one critic have called "disturbing, but empty", a sentiment that seems to be the prevailing one among critics and fans of the book. But of course, some books are harder to transpose into film than others, and a book like Wisconsin Death Trip, with its formless narrative and morbid imagery, is more elusive than most. Still, if nothing else, Marsh's film has turned a murky spotlight on Lesy's work and brought it to the attention of a new generation of fans.