Wisconsin death trip’

Scott Gordon

The engrossing, cavernous Bookman’s Alley houses mostly books but also aging relics like stuffed birds, World War I army helmets and early-20th-century cameras. One of the many books that provide glimpses into long-gone worlds housed there is Michael Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip.” In it photographs and newspaper items from 1885-1900 combine to deliver a discursive yet haunting portrait of Black River Falls, Wisc., a town which had more than its fair share of suicide, insanity, infant deaths, murders and arsons in the late 19th century.

Though Bookman’s Alley, 1712 Sherman Ave., is well-stocked, few of its books are cheap — most are well-chosen tomes geared to collectors willing to pay extra for well preserved, early-edition books. The 1973 first-edition copy of “Death Trip” I found had been kept dust free in a protective cover, unlike items found in most used book stores.

Instead of trying to write the book as a cohesive historical account of the town, Lesy compiled photos from more than 30,000 original plates shot by town photographer Charles Van Schaick and juxtaposed them with excerpts from stories in the town’s weekly paper, the Badger State Banner. Lesy notes in his introduction that Van Schaick, a “careful, competent” photographer, was less an artist than a simple portrait photographer for hire. Still the photographs here often are remarkably sharp and rich for their time.

“None of the pictures were snapshots … their deepest purpose was more religious than secular,” he adds. “Commercial portrait photography, as practiced in the 1890s, was not so much a form of applied technology as it was a semi-magical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.”

And the scenes Van Schaick recorded are rarely normal or casual. Even in fairly mundane family portraits, the subjects’ facial expressions take on unusual significance. In one, two grown brothers — one holding a rifle and the other a violin — wear the same grouchy expression as the older family members. In others a young woman or middle-aged man gives the camera a wide-eyed stare, seemingly terrified at the idea of photography (the book provides close-ups of some of the more amusing expressions).

Other photographs here have a more tragic significance. There are several infants photographed formally in their coffins, and one particularly striking photo of a dead person’s vacant bedroom. Also shown are some lighter oddities, including shots of an amputee wearing a crude prosthetic legs, a troop of male performers posing in blackface, and, inexplicably, a shot from behind of a naked muscleman flexing in an open field.

Reading the accompanying short newspaper excerpts provides readers with a piece-meal story of bizarre deeds, including items about someone lighting a dog on fire and a couple killing their horses to get insurance money. Overall, the book is more than just a morbid novelty — it is a unique historical document.