Last week I spoke to members of the Better Business Bureau. I don’t know if anything I said made an impression, but I do know that something someone else wrote did.

Back in the nineties, a newspaper writer included many sad and disturbing items about what was occurring in his small town and surrounding rural area in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Here are a few that I shared with my audience:

“E. Y. Spaulding, who ran a dry goods store in Black River Falls, was last week taken with strong symptoms of derangement, a misfortune doubtless super induced by overwork and anxiety over business matters.”

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

“There seems to be an organized body of arsonists in Clark County judging from the numerous barn fires that have lately occurred in that locality.”

“John Kuch, a farmer living in the town of Oakland, was found in his barn the other morning hanging by his neck…. No cause was known. About 12 years ago, his father hanged himself in the same barn.”

“Mrs. Frederick North, a widow, was found dead the other day at Sparta with her head in a barrel of water. She was thought to have committed suicide.”

“News reached Beaver Dam recently of the suicide…of Edwin Miller, 20 years old. Miller shot himself in the head….He left letters for a young woman with whom he was madly in love.”

“Mrs. Jennie Jones of Oconto, charged with sending obscene matter through the mails, pleaded guilty in U.S. Court recently and was sentenced to a year imprisonment.”

“Fire at Cambridge, the other night, destroyed 13 buildings being the principal part of the town….The fire originated at a barn and was supposed to be the work of an [arsonist.].”

“Frederick Windex, an aged farmer committed suicide at Janesville by drowning himself in the pool where his little daughter had been accidentally drowned 2 years ago.”

“Early the other morning the barns Fred Kroeger, A. B. Piper, and W. F. Hanche, together with 11 horses, 13 head of cattle, farming implements, grains, and hay at Berryville were totally destroyed…. The fires were undoubtedly the work of arsonists.”

“Louise Lawrence, aged 39 years, a stout, burly fellow administered a terrible beating to his father…aged 82, at Manitowoc, from the effects of which the old man died.”

“Another suicide occurred in this city Sunday afternoon last. It was a man named Brent Simonson.”

“Mrs. Dora E. Nisson, wife of C. H. Nisson, committed suicide at Grand Rapids by drowning. She deliberately walked into the Wisconsin River in back of her home [and] lay down in about 3 feet of water….”

“Lewis Furham, aged 20 years was committed to the Northern Hospital for the Insane by Judge Millard at Dartford. He resided in the town of Marquette….the insanity is the result of hazing by boys.”

“Ferdinand Thieman, 10 years old, jumped into a cistern and drowned himself because his sister wanted him to go on an errand….The mother…was away at the time.”

“Mrs. John Larson, wife of a farmer living in the town of Troy, drowned her 3 children in Lake St. Croix during a fit of insanity. Her husband, on finding her absent from the house, began a search and found her at the lake shore…2 of her children lying in the sand dead. The third child could not be found.”

“General Grant Olson, of Pleasant View, was placed under arrest Friday afternoon last on the charge of adultery….The victims of the villain are his own stepdaughters, one of them being but 11 years old and the other no much older…one having become a mother nearly 3 months ago.”

“The society people of Kenosha are worked up over the discovery that a person known as ‘Mrs. Howe’ is not a woman but a man. He went there some time ago to get up a [festival] for a church, and several ladies joined in the performance. The peculiarity of her manners was commented on at the time, but none suspected the real truth. Now there is regret on the part of the participants that they joined ‘Mrs. Howe’s troupe of dancers.’”

“Bernfid Krause, of Little Chute, left church, walked to the bridge upon which he placed his coat, hat, and prayer book, and drowned himself in the Fox River. He was 72 years of age.”

“Poverty and no work caused August Schultz of Appleton to shoot himself in the head while sitting in his little home with his wife and 5 children.”

“Marie Sweeny, who ran away from her husband at St. Paul and has been creating trouble at Ashland with her wild mania for breaking windows, has finally been captured. Reports from St. Paul say that she was a model wife and mother, but some injury to her brain entirely changed her character. She ran away from home 2 years ago, and since then…has been in more than 100 different jails, serving short sentences for indulging in her wild sport.”

Very disturbing, would you not agree? And there was more, which I did not pass along to you. This pain and tragedy were expressed publically in the local paper.

Oh, did I mention these events all occurred in the nineties?

The 1890’s.

The above items all appeared in a nonfiction book that I own called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy published in 1973. I purchased it at a book sale mainly for the old photographs that it contained of Black Falls River, Wisconsin (and its surrounding area) from the decade of the 1890s. Recently I read in a national newspaper that historians were taking a retrospective look at the book and noting the turmoil exhibited during the ten short years. How is it, the newspaper writer asked, that so many disturbing events occurred in the space of ten short years? And in small town and rural America? Those questions propelled me to return to the book to read the text.

The 1890s was the most prosperous decade the U.S. had seen up until then. Yes, there was an economic depression during that era that made times hard for a lot of people, but it did not last as long as others have, and it was the exception. America was becoming industrialized. Inventions were taking hold. During this ten-year period, the automobile was heading toward its viability. The Wright brothers would build their plane in 1903. The telephone was already available, and the radio was to appear in not in the too-distant future.

The 1890s were the most stimulating years to date in human history. This caused some scholars of that era to speculate that the stimulation was impacting people’s nervous systems, especially those in rural and small-town communities that had previously experienced slow-paced and tranquil lives.

If you see an application today, then welcome to the club. With smartphones, computers, and social media, we receive more stimulation than ever. Consequently, more teenage girls are revealing a desire to commit suicide than ever before. Schools across our nation are experiencing mass shootings, almost always executed by males, in unprecedented numbers. The number of biologically born males and females confused about their sex and gender is astonishing.

You, like me, have possibly thought that drug abuse, crime, and mental illness have never been worse. Perhaps that is true. But the tragedies surrounding Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the 1890s remind us that we have lived through terribly tragic periods before. They got through it.

And we will too.


Photo by Everyday basics on Unsplash