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Wisconsin Death Trip (Wisconsin) Paperback – 15 Jan 2000

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Product details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: University of New Mexico Press; New edition edition (15 Jan 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826321933
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826321930
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 28.2 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 212,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


[This] is an impressive example of the poetry of history. . . . There can be no question that this original work makes us deeply feel one form that misery has taken; and in causing us to feel, as well as consider, "Wisconsin Death Trip "has enlarged on the uses of history.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 26 Sep 2000
Format: Paperback
First published in 1973, Lesy's book has been reprinted to tie in with BBC2's fictionalised account of "Wisconsin Death Trip". Lesy has put together an involving account of life in Black River Falls, Wisonsin, at the turn of the century. Original photographs and clippings from a local newspaper are combined with revealing literature extracts to create a vivid picture of a town struggling to survive into the 20th century. Visually the book is stunning, from the minimalist cover design to the pages of black and white photographs and the attractive lay out of the text. Lesy is an almost invisible editor, limiting personal comment to an essay at the end of the book and preferring to let the haunting photographs and spare yet affecting text tell their own, enthralling story.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Natchan on 4 Nov 2006
Format: Paperback
This is an absolutely fascinating book and, as my title suggests, it does indeed steal time. The news articles are just long enough to make you think, "I've got time to read one more" and of course, there is no way the next story could be more interesting that the last ...or could it? Each bizarre tale of oddity or woe is just as enthralling as the last.

This book does make you wonder, what on earth was happening in Wisconsin to make people act this crazy? Reading it, the answer is quite clear that the harsh situations these people were living in, were enough to make even the sanest person start to act a little strangely.

I originally bought this for the photography. I am a professional photographer and a keen enthusiast of early photography. This book most certainly did not disappoint. The photographs speak volumes of the era and give an insight into the workings of a fragile and unstable area. Charles Van Schaick's images are bold, delicate, strange (sometimes quite unsettling in fact), heartfelt, and in many cases quite pioneering. He has a photographer's eye unlike any I have seen before from his era.

I cannot recommend this book enough, it is by far one of my favourite books of all time, and I am certain that if you purchase it, it will have a place in your heart as well.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What an odd book, snippets from local and state newspapers around end of 19th century all about death by fair means and foul. A compelling read I couldn't put it down. The only thing that would have improved it for me would be names to identify all the fabulous photos of the people of that place and time. Would highly recommend this book for an unusual but very interesting read.
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By antonella on 21 April 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought this book because I saw a documentary of the same name.
It intrigue me a lot and the book has not been disappointing... great pictures and stories!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 74 reviews
173 of 177 people found the following review helpful
Mesmerizing 26 April 2005
By Peter F. Martyn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In the spring of 2000, I was sitting in the admissions office at Hampshire College, waiting to be interviewed. With some time to kill, I browsed a bookshelf featuring the works of Hampshire professors. One of these books was Wisconsin Death Trip. It caught my attention thanks to the Static-X album of the same name (of which I was a big fan at the time...no longer, though), so I pulled it from the shelf to find that haunting cover photo staring at me with its dark, blurry eyes. It drew me in, in a way that was far from comfortable. It left me no choice. I had to see what was inside.

As it turned out, I had a long wait for my interview, and I made it through most of the book. If it had been anything other than a sunny spring afternoon, I doubt the interview would have gone well at all. Suicide and murder, madness and despair, babies in coffins and grim stone-faced Lutherans. The images were haunting, and those conjured up by the simple matter-of-fact accounts even more so. This book haunted me.

Fast forward a year and a half, and I'm a first-year student at Hampshire. I walk into the bookstore and what do I see but Wisconsin Death Trip. I'm short on cash, but I buy it. I haven't really got a choice. Just about everyone who comes into my room gets to look at it. Fortunately, this is Hampshire College, so that probably helps my social life a bit.

Four years later, the Death Trip still holds a prominent place on my shelf. Every so often I take it out and open it, and inevitably I end up reading it cover to cover. This book is powerful, haunting, and above all else important. Uncomfortable as it may be, this is American history. This is a tale of the price we pay for progress. These are the souls who were caught in the gears of the machine.

In my time at Hampshire I had Mr. Lesy as a teacher. Towards the end of the semester, I asked him why he felt compelled to write this book. He told me that after looking through the images and articles used herein, that he realized that he was looking at "an American Holocaust." And that, he felt, was something that people needed to know about. I wholeheartedly agree.

Pick up this book and you will not put it down.
86 of 89 people found the following review helpful
By Larry L. Looney - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The first of Michael Lesy's books, 'Wisconsin death trip' is as harrowing and breathtaking today as when it was first published, back in the early 1970s. Utilizing a veritable treasure-trove of miraculously preserved glass negative plates taken in rural Wisconsin during the period of the 1880s-early 20th Century, and combining them with newspaper clippings and other snippets of local news from the area and era, Lesy has pieced together an amazing (if bleak) view of life in that day and age. Times were hard, and the challenges faced were many and daunting -- anyone bemoaning the state of life in America today should read this book...anyone who wants a truer sense of American history should read this book. You will never forget it.
On a related note, readers might be interested to know that this book inspired Stewart O'Nan's great novel 'A prayer for the dying' (also available through amazon.com).
70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
My Favorite Book 3 Dec 2006
By The Comtesse DeSpair - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"The pictures you're about to see are of people who were once actually alive." So begins historian Michael Lesy's masterpiece - a by turns touching and disturbing examination of life and death in a small Wisconsin town during the final 15 years of the nineteenth century. Lesy stumbled across a cache of 30,000 glass plate images made by a local town photographer named Charley Van Schaick and spools of microfilm from the local newspaper - and combined the most compelling of these images and newspaper excerpts to create a vivid examination of Victorian prairie life. Although there are numerous post-mortem memorial photographs to add morbid appeal to the book, the newspaper and insane asylum excerpts are what I find absolutely enthralling. If ever anyone tries to suggest to you that times were better "before", you might want to refer them to these matter-of-fact tales of murder, suicide, insanity, and lethal pestilence. Death was a constant threat and entire families of 6 children could be wiped out by diptheria in a matter of days. It's no wonder that so many were driven to suicide: the depth of despair that these people must have gone through is at times palpable.

To give you an idea of the sort of macabre fascinations you can find in these olde newspapers, here are some excerpts:

"The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears"

"Mrs. James Baty... died suddenly of a hemorrhage of the lungs. She leaves a husband, her family of 6 children having died of diptheria last summer"

"Mrs. John Larson... drowned her 3 children in Lake St. Croix during a fit of insanity... Mrs. Larson imagines that devils pursue her"

And my personal favorite:

"Mrs. Carter... was taken sick at the marsh last week and fell down, sustaining internal injuries which have dethroned her reason. She has been removed to her home here and a few nights since arose from her bed and ran through the woods... A night or two after she was found trying to strangle herself with a towel... It is hoped the trouble is only temporary and that she may soon recover her mind"

You don't see entries like that in newspapers anymore!!
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
a VERY one-sided--and thus limited--review 23 Oct 2009
By Erica Bell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is a true story.

When I was around 11 years old (I'm 46 now), we got this book as a Christmas present from my quiet uncle, who was a doctor far away. I pored over this strange book in horror. I said, "Mother, I think something's wrong with Uncle James. Why would someone give a book like this to us?"

About three years later, he gassed himself to death.

From my child's eye view, it was a book overflowing with black and white pictures of long-dead children: propped in coffins, posed in their lying-outs amidst prickly flowers and poofy silk pillows. It was filled with photos of wasp-waisted women and descriptions of the brutality of a diptheria death. I read about the "black membrane" of diptheria growing over the backs of countless babies' throats--of parents made desperate by the wheezing (and then strangling) of hundreds of children. It was riveting, immediate, terrifying: history whipped into a frenzy.

Honest to goodness, this was unspoken--but when I heard Uncle had killed himself, I wasn't surprised in the least.

I know there must have been more to the book (as reviewers here attest)--I do recall reading a few newspaper articles about madness--but all I truly remember, too vividly to ever forget, is a dead girl then my age, slumping at a grotesque tilt in a coffin, her eyes waxy and lids half-closed, with vine-like lilies circling her. They'd propped her coffin up in order to photograph it, for goodness sake. If you were ten, wouldn't that be all you recalled?

The book disappeared, and I didn't find it when my mother died. I'd dearly like to read it again. The Victorian-era obsession with children who'd gone to Jesus didn't make sense to my vaccinated, O.J.-nourished, moderately-exercised kid's mind, but I see it now: a world where people were MORE THAN LIKELY to lose most of their children to one of myriad childhood killers. The pittance they paid for their child's grave was all that they could give them--except their love, which I now know was no different from ours.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Taking a look at an era not unlike our own 18 Feb 1998
By John L. Hoh Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
At the end of the nineteenth century and up through World War II, sociologists debated human behavior and intelligence. Are people born predisposed to genius or moronity? Are they born with a genetic ability to be or become wealthy and others are born to be poor? Can one's environment affect one's intelligence and one's station in life, or is it a genetic quality?
Leading advocates of both positions certainly used a great deal of research to prove one point or another. Ironically, a leading advocate of the environmental influences of behavior eventually went into advertising, the greatest proof of environmental influences on individuals. And, in another bit of irony, Adolf Hitler influenced his audiences with propaganda to lead them to believe race and genetics determined who and what people were!
Michael Lesy's scholarly work (it was originally a thesis for his degree) takes a practical look at this debate. In fact, Mr. Lesy addresses that debate in his conclusion, as he relates the debates raging in ivory towers, his book in the main related the reality of the world in the heartland. These men in academia might not have known of the individuals who are named in the news reports, but their debate sought to answer those question that arose from these actions.
In reading these accounts, we realize that the only difference between "the good ol' days" and today is likely the speed of communications. Many of these articles were already several days, if not weeks, old when they printed; today they would be splashed on the front pages and people would debate what is happening to our society that it is eroding so. Attempts on others lives were frequent. Mental illness prevalent.
The photographs also tell a story. Infant mortality. Newlyweds looking to a bright future. Vibrant businesses. Artistic photographs that seek to illuminate certain features of a photo. These glass plate photos were what originally inspired Mr. Lesy to do this project.
Amazingly, these accounts are not from the large metropolitan areas, but from the rural areas of Wisconsin. At this same period, Wisconsin was the leader in Progressivism with Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette leading the state to lead the nation in enacting reforms such as Social Security, Worker's Compensation, and the minimum wage. So while the environment improved, the sad state of human affairs remained similar to the nation at large.
This book also proves to be a conversation piece. After reading it, I started bringing it to family gatherings. My grandmother remembered similar stories from her youth. My mother read similar accounts as she did geneology. Others were amazed that news reports then are eerily similar to news reports today. Obviously, the human condition remains bizarely similar. The "good ol' days" it would appear weren't so good.
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