When madness settled over Black River Falls
For 15 years, a small town tore itself apart as if infested with demons. The photographer Charles Van Schaick documented the madness and shaped our ideas of the horror Made in USA with his photos
Black River Falls in Wisconsin was a small mining town. German and Scandinavian immigrants worked here until the mines were abandoned in the late 1880s.
The city fell into disrepair, many emigrated – over those who stayed, a black one descended insanity down. Presumably nobody would have remembered the decline, murder and horror if Charles Van Schaick’s photo plates hadn’t survived the city’s decay. He documented the hard life of the residents. A life in which even the happiest moments look strangely frightening. Of the 30,000 pictures that Schaick took, about 3,000 still exist.
The city photographer captured everything
Charles Van Schaick documented the moments of terror in addition to the souvenir images typical of the time. The ghost town had no shortage of them. In 1973 Michael Lesy told the story behind the pictures in the book “Wisconsin Death Trip” – since then a classic documentary of the horror genre. Lesly’s aim was less to report than to compose a “poetic story” of horror. The contemporary photographer and the later writer shaped the pictures that we take from the horror theme United States connect and which are still recycled in numerous films today.
The book follows the horror that happened in just 15 years between 1885 and 1900. In addition to the pictures taken by the city photographer, personal notes and the local newspaper were evaluated. The stories of the pictures and the book read like a season from “American Horror Story” – it is difficult to believe in a random concentration of horror. It’s a kaleidoscope of horrors of arson, cruelty, dementia, suicide, murder, incest and periodic outbreaks of diphtheria and smallpox. To make matters worse, Black River Falls was built on the sacred burial grounds of the Winnebago Indians. Hundreds of burial mounds are located in the region.
An endless terror
It’s a hodgepodge of stories like these:
A funeral director allegedly botched a funeral. The residents dig up the dead woman’s body again. She was buried alive, when she awoke underground with her fingers half bitten and devoured before actually dying.
Two little boys run away together. They murder the owner of a remote farm and live in the farmhouse for a summer. Until the dead man’s brother discovers them. The older boy is ten years old – he is going to prison for life.
An old woman is so disgusted with a rash on her back that she douses herself with petrol and then burns herself. Shortly thereafter, another grandma follows her example.
Young woman hangs herself after being dumped by her fiance Young men kill the fiancé because she chose someone else.
A farmer beheads all of his chickens, then burns down the farm and chicken coop because he believes the devil has come to Black River Falls. A woman drowns her three children on a sunny day on a beach while helpless bystanders look on.
A pious family takes in a tramp. Everyone eats dinner together. In the night he gets up and kills his hosts – then he shoots himself.
Primal fears take shape
The special thing about the deeds: they are all insane and make no sense, there seems to have been hardly any ordinary criminals in Black River Falls. Charles Van Schaick’s photographs with the people and their black, empty eyes look like the dark mirror in the well-known painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. The stories of suicide or insanity in the local press show what a time was really afraid of – what lurks behind the facade.
It came out briefly in Black River Falls.