Wisconsin Death Trip

An image from "Wisconsin Death Trip."

Wisconsin Death Trip is a book I come back to again and again, although it chills me to my bones. In the early Seventies, author Michael Lesy assembled dozens of glass plate photographs, all taken in Jackson County, Wisconsin at the turn of the 19th century, and offering a strangely intimate view of life—and death—in a small town of the era. The Wisconsin Historical Society has set up a flickr stream showing some of the photos used in the book, including the stark, sad high Victorian funereal images, bleak towns and unsmiling overdressed women.

Lesy accompanied these with text taken directly from the local papers, mainly the Badger State Banner, stories of wild gangs of armed tramps, death by smallpox, and even tales of witchcraft. The result is unsettling, but completely compelling. The book became a touchstone in the early 1970s counterculture.

A sample of the text:

“Waunakee was raided by tramps the other evening and nearly every business house and many residences were burglarized. The occupants of dwelling houses in many instances were driven into the street at points of revolvers while other members of the gang ransacked the buildings.” [6/22, State]

A breeding stallion, one of the book's central images.