IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES: BLACK RIVER FALLS

Between 1890 and 1900, Black River Falls fell prey to an abnormal outbreak of crime, reported paranormal events, and tragedy.

Protestants behaving strangely. . . an outbreak of craziness—multiple murders, suicides, ghost sightings, epidemics, gun-toting teenagers, schoolmarms hooked on cocaine and general mental illness – all in a little town called Black River Falls.” — New York Times

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Black River Falls, Wisconsin, these days, is a typically scenic west-central Wisconsin community.  Approximately 40-miles north and east of Lacrosse, Black River Falls is a community of just over 3,600 residents, with plenty of outdoor recreation and tourist attractions. Today, it’s a far cry from the Black River Falls of the late nineteenth century.

Between 1890 and 1900, Black River Falls fell prey to an abnormal outbreak of crime, reported paranormal events, and tragedy: a string of murders and suicides, epidemics of diphtheria and smallpox, rumors of witchcraft and a series of catastrophic financial failures triggered by the collapsing national economy.

Was the town cursed? Did it fall victim to some sort of psychological plague, or was witchcraft the true culprit?

A sixty-year-old woman, afraid that the rash on her back would kill her, stepped into her backyard, doused herself with gasoline and self-immolated.

Black River Falls was a small mining town populated primarily by Norwegian and German immigrants lured by the promise of cheap land. The community began to fall into disrepair in the late 1880s when the inhospitable climate forced the mines to close, ending the town’s sole source of employment. A dense, seemingly tangible darkness settled over the town as the population died off, succumbing to poverty, disease, madness, murder, and worse. However, some of the events truly defied explanation.

In 1973, writer and researcher, Michael Lesy, told the terrible truth in his book called Wisconsin Death Trip, which was later used by British documentary director, James Marsh, in his film of the same name.  Marsh’s film is haunting, a black and white horror that evokes a distant past that nags like a recurring nightmare.

Lesy, and later, Marsh, did not flinch away from the horrific stories that could have been written by Edgar Allan Poe himself.

  • A funeral director was suspected of botching both the embalming of a local woman, as well as the burial itself.  When the woman’s body was exhumed from her grave, she was found to have been buried alive, her fingers half-chewed off in madness when she discovered her gruesome fate.
  • A sixty-year-old woman, afraid that the rash on her back would kill her, stepped into her backyard, doused herself with gasoline and self-immolated.
  • A young mother took her three children out for a day at the beach, and then drowned them, one by one, while the others watched.
  • A fifteen-year-old Polish girl burned down her employer’s barn—and his house—because she wanted some “excitement.”
  • A teenage girl, jilted at the altar by her fiancé, went mad with grief, hanging herself in the nearby Mendota Asylum. Meanwhile a young man, also jilted, shot his ex-fiance and then himself.
  • A divorced man shot his ex-wife and her family dead in the crowded town square.
  • An outbreak of diphtheria killed off a score of local children. The school was closed and the houses of the afflicted burned to the ground.
  • A formerly world famous opera singer moved to town and within a month was reduced to eating chicken feed to survive.
  • A young widow became convinced that witches were persecuting her.
  • A farmer decapitated all of his chickens and burned down his farmhouse, convinced that the devil had taken over his farm.
  • A drifter was taken in by a kindly family. He had dinner with them and as they slept, shot them all and then himself.

There were countless other tragedies that occurred during that time, as well.

Mendota Asylum, originally opened in 1860 as the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane, was truly a place where madness reigned.  The notorious Ed Gein, known also as the Butcher of Plainfield, murderer and grave robber, was housed there until his death in 1984. The facility seemed to become infected by the same tragic spate of events that took place in Black River Falls.

Poisonings and allegations of beatings and other terrifying conduct by caretakers was discovered.  Finally, in 1934, state legislative hearings were conducted concerning the deaths of Guy Clark Lyman and Marie Anderson in 1931. Anderson was found to have died from arsenic poisoning and Lyman was said to have died of pneumonia, although it was alleged that he was beaten by another patient or staff member. After ousting the doctors and staff who perpetuated the abuse to patients, the facility was renamed as the Mendota Mental Health Institute, and is still in business today.

The events that took place during that time were never satisfactorily explained.  Even now, 127-years later, rumors continue to circulate about what might have happened in Black River Falls.

As recently as 2009, authorities discovered a suicide pact and planned shooting at Black River Falls High and Middle schools, both of which were averted thanks to quick thinking on the part of school staff.

As trite as it may be, it should be noted that Black River Falls was built upon the sacred burial grounds of the Winnebago Indians (now known as the Ho-Chunk Nation), thousands of whom were shipped off to Nebraska. Credited with hundreds of burial mounds located throughout the region, those mounds are now surrounded by shopping centers and subdivisions.

So what really happened in Black River Falls?  One theory is that bacteria in the local river, source of the town’s drinking water, caused mass hysteria, paranoia, and death.  Another is that a coven of witches resided there and, in retaliation for the Salem witch hunts that had taken place several centuries earlier, were retaliating. In fact, a Salem witchcraft trial had taken place only twenty years earlier, in 1878.

Yet another theory is that the dead natives rose from their burial mounds and attempted to drive the entire town mad for stealing their tribal land.

Whatever the cause, it represents a dark time in the lives of those who resided in Black River Falls, and is likely one of the most mysterious unsolved mysteries known today.

You can view the entire 1999 documentary, Wisconsin Death Trip, on YouTube. But be forewarned: it’s not for the faint-hearted.

 

 

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