his defence was somnambulism

Recently I read Wisconsin Death Trip, a collection of late 19th century photographs by Jackson County photographer Charles Van Schaick, mostly in the city of Black River Falls, and local news reports from the same period. This is an extract of some of the text that accompanied the incredible photographs

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“Harry Davis, coloured, was convicted of burglary at Oshkosh. His defence was somnambulism.

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Christ Wold, a farmer near Poskin Lake, committed suicide by deliberately blowing off his head with dynamite. He put a quantity of explosive in a hole in the ground, laid his head over it and touched off the fuse.

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Henry Ehlers, a Milwaukee butcher, died from nosebleed. His nose had been bleeding for 9 days. He was 37 years old and had been a great meat eater.

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Mrs Johanna Soll of Fond du Lac, who had been an invalid for some years, recently expelled a big frog from her stomach. Her young son was with her at the time and his story is corroborated by the family physician.

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John Pabelowski, a 16 year old boy of Stevens Point, was made idiotic by the use of tobacco.

At Marquette, Mrs Nesbitt, a well known church worker, and Miss Kaufman, both having horsewhips, attacked a welder named Edward Patten, while he was at work in the Stevens factory. They claim that Patten had been slandering them.

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Mr G Drinkwine, father of Miss Lillian Drinkwine, who committed suicide a few days ago, attempted suicide at Sparta. He swallowed a large quantity of cigar stubs.

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Jack the Hugger, or James Moore who for more than 10 years has followed the occupation of waylaying lone women after sundown and hugging them then disappearing before assistance could reach them was caught and taken to the office of Mayor Hoskins. There after a rigid examination he admitted he had committed the offences of which he was charged. On the advice of the Chief of Police, he drew his final pay check and left for the north.

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60 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Crazy! I love this.

    Jack the Hugger. Yeah. Maybe when I’m tired of living, I’ll become a serial hugger.

    I knew a guy who quit smoking by eating the entire contents of a rather full ashtray. He was sick for days, but never smoked again.

    • He’s lucky he didn’t die. Wonder how his liver is?

      • Did he vomit them back up? That would be ghastly

      • Well, he’s dead now. Had his throat cut in Mexico. He was my roommate for a while until we found out that he was wanted in Texas for raping a 15 year old girl. Found out when we saw his picture on the front page of the New Orleans Times Picayune. We suspect that the girl’s people had him offed after he fled.

        Long way to go to say, dunno.

        He did puke — like inside out puking.

  2. This all happened in one town? I half-expected to find out that there was some contaminant in the water/air that made them all crazy.

    • Yep, most of it in Black River Falls

  3. Drinkwine! What a surname.

    • Fantastic isn’t it?

  4. Somnambulism sounds like a fancy affliction. It’s common sleepwalking! I had no idea. My daughter used to sleepwalk and it’s creepy. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and she’d be standing in the hallway weeping. She had no memory of it the next morning. Thank god that stopped.

    • For the moment …. (cue creepy music)

      • My little brother did the same for years on end. Used to scare me to death when he touched my face in the night.

  5. “Most recently, the book was adapted into a bluegrass, roots-rock opera

    Ummm…. i think i’ll sit that one out…

    • Me too. I generally can’t abide musicals

  6. I’m convinced that Wisconsin is the wackiest state in the U.S. I once visited a fish museum and saw a display of all the fish hooks that had been removed from one gentleman. They have stuff out in their yards in Wisconsin that you’d never find in any thrift shop or WalMart. You can drive down the road for miles and see one oddity after another – strange sculptures, odd homes – for me, it’s a paradise of peculiarity. So, nothing surprises me about the tales you’ve told but they were mighty entertaining! I sure do miss Wisconsin.

    • I am in WI all the time and don’t see these things. I must be in the wrong part.

      • LOL! I have lived in WI for 27 years, but am not a native. You’re right! There’s something in the water. (Dahmer, Gein, etc.)
        Anyway… I own this book & it’s a fascinating glimpse into small-town America during the depression years of the 1890′s. The tales seem goofy to us now, but lives were so different then. No welfare. No unemployment checks. No food stamps. No social security.
        If you were a woman and your husband died (or disappeared working in the north woods), within a very short time you and your children would be utterly destitute and starving. Not metaphorically starving — REALLY starving. Quite a few stories in this book about moms who killed their kids & themselves to escape agonizing starvation/ freezing death in the winter.
        Medicine was mostly just comfort-giving. Life expectancy was about 47 years for male babies.
        Treatment for depression, bi-polar, or other mental distress was unheard of. A brain tumor would be diagnosed as “went insane”.
        Alzheimers (or late-stage syphillis) would cause grandpa to forget where the jar of gold coins was hidden, thus causing grandma to starve.

        The focus of the book is west-central Wisconsin, but I suspect that a similar book could have been compiled about many other frontier locations in the USA.

        A fantastic book if you can find it.

      • I bought my copy from a second hand shop. Still cost me $30.00 but the photos were so worth it

  7. It is great, isn’t it! They all are mad there.

    • Have you been to Wisconsin 63?

      • Never been to America. Must be pretty rural there …

  8. These people are sooo much more palatable than the foods you suggested in your previous post.

    • Sorry Archie, I forgot about your tender tum

  9. Crazy town? Maybe Jack the Hugger never got hugged as a kid.

    • That’s an excellent theory Terra

  10. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Soll, I’m afraid you’ve got the frogs.” How very strange.

  11. Did she gobble the frog instead of kissing it in the hope of finding her prince?

    Is that the original suicide bomber?

    Was Jack the Hugger really rigid?

    So many questions…

    • Rigidity is subjective

  12. love you blog its great :)

    • Tony! how did you slip through my akismet?

      • Not *that* Tony?

      • No, not *that* Tony. He’s too busy shopping at Armani to drop by the gimcrack

  13. So she did have a frog in her stomach. Strange thing.

    • I sincerely doubt it

  14. Re: Mrs. Soll – so that’s what happens when you kiss a frog hoping he’ll turn into a prince!

    • I thought that was how one contracted genital warts

  15. The use of tobacco turned some guy idiotic? I thought that was a prerequisite.

    • My son is a smoker :-(

      • I won’t make the anticipated crack about my own spouse’s nicotine habits then … =)

  16. Clearly life used to be far more interesting.

  17. There’s something otherwordly about these photographs…..I wonder if we’ll look as strange to people in 100 years time as these people look to us.

  18. Excellent. Have you seen the film made of the book? Well worth a watch!

  19. Millions have been made idiotic by tobacco.

  20. This is a great book! I read it years ago. There’s depression on. Armies of tramps roam the countryside. Desperate suicides include a guy hanging himself with barbed wire and a woman drowned by sticking her head in a bucket. And so on…

  21. Yeah, I agree, I think the teen was idiotic BEFORE the use of tobacco!
    And somnambulism IS a valid excuse – he was just ahead of his time. Now if they had Ambien back then, you could blame a world war on it! (Trust me – I went for a test drive of our car while on the stuff, and have no memory of a half-hour’s drive!) 8O

  22. “At Marquette, Mrs Nesbitt, a well known church worker, and Miss Kaufman, both having horsewhips, attacked a welder named Edward Patten, while he was at work in the Stevens factory.”

    Whoa. o_O

  23. your blogs are so eclectic….like a box of bloody chocolates!
    ( and a bit mad) like a box of frogs

  24. Is it just me or did folks in the old days always look stoic and creepy in their photographs? Why is that?

  25. A book full of old photographs you say?!
    NICE!

  26. Some of these are so sad but I warm to Jack the Hugger xx

    • Yeah, I was thinking how nice it would be to be hugged instead of the usual thing one could anticipate if being accosted after sundown by a strange man.

  27. I believe one is supposed to kiss the frog prince, not eat him.

  28. I love this to bits Nursie. Might have to find this book!

    • Your local library might have a copy melbo. I found mine in a second hand shop.

  29. Definitely going to have to look into getting this book.

  30. Woah. Dangerous place alright. Makes Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland and south Los Angeles look like summer camps for church kids. Snort.

  31. My GOD! Hugging women and then running off? What is the world coming to?

    I loved the nude back shot — I need a poster of that for my massage room.

  32. The obits we get at work are never this fascinating. Although my favorite one in recent memory said: “She will be remembered for her love of iced coffee.”

  33. That thing with the frog….I wish my brain wasn’t so visual. Your blog is like an epic blockbuster film.

  34. A frog, eh? That’s a new one


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