The Day of the Dead is a holiday that, unlike its predecessor Halloween, has been long overlooked in much of the United States and other dominantly Protestant nations. Thanks to fast-changing demographics, though, it is finding its place on both the secular and sacred calendars here.
To judge by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, first published by Pantheon in 1973 and reissued in 2000 by the University of New Mexico Press, we’ve needed to observe the Day of the Dead all along—and several times a year, at that. Think of it as a sort of Midwestern response to the famed New York mayhem photos of Weegee, save that Wisconsin Death Trip finds most of its subjects at greater repose than the crumpled crime victims of the later photographer.
Underlying Lesy’s book is the work of a photographer named Charles Van Shaick, “careful and competent,” as Lesy says, who, beginning in the 1880s, recorded events in the daily life of Black River Falls, Wis., roughly midway between Madison and Minneapolis.
Lesy discovered a collection of glass plate negatives in the town’s archives, 30,000 of them. He reproduces many of them in these pages: photographs of long-maned ponies at first, giving way to photographs of town stalwarts, all lace collar and chin beard; of farmworkers; of passing circus types and hoboes; of the occasional ne’er-do-well or the man or woman who, it is quite clear from the set of the jaw or the look in the eye, is destined for difficult times ahead.
The photographs are, for the most part, perfectly ordinary (though one of a young woman standing in a canoe on a wind-rippled lake reminds me of one of the scariest scenes in Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents). The text casts doubt on them, though, made up of cut-up snippets from the local paper: “At Stevens Point an incendiary fire destroyed sale stables and 13 fine draft horses….. This is the ninth incendiary fire in the city in a week.” “Kenosha is again in the hands of a gang of tramps which have been making the outskirts of the town their rendezvous for the past 3 months.” “The first death from smallpox at Appleton occurred Tuesday, the victim being the 3 year old Schwanke boy.”
Lesy’s text is a record of barn burnings and public drunkenness, of apoplectic attacks and bank failures, of threatening letters and even witch sightings. By its account, people in Black River Falls must have had to attend several funerals a week, to say nothing of trials and sentencings. Trusting the combined words and images in the book, indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking that no one in small-town America was normal back then, and probably not now, either.
That’s the fuel of a Stephen King novel, of course, and of the daring poems of Edgar Lee Masters. I find looking at old photographs to be a haunting enough experience anyway, knowing that so many of the people who inhabit them, by simple mathematical elimination, are dead and gone. I know of no book so haunting, in that respect, as Wisconsin Death Trip. Boo!