Every once and a while a place will pop up that seems to draw to it an inordinate amount of strange phenomena and the weird. It is not always clear why this should be, but looking at thier histories and records it can clearly be seen that they have been host to more oddness than most, as if weird forces are drawn to them. One such bizarre place is a small town in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, which for around a decade in the 1800s became ground zero for an intense spate of disaster, murder, madness, mayhem, strife, demons, ghosts, and devil worship, getting caught up in a web of gothic horror that remains a horrifically grim but mostly forgotten chapter in history.
Located out in the wilds of the U.S. state of Wisconsin, just 39 miles northeast of La Crosse is the quaint small town of Black River Falls. The town was founded in 1839 by a sawmill operator named Jacob Spaulding, on land that had once belonged to the Ho-Chunk Indians before they were dispersed and assimilated by the European settlers pouring into the region. The town began to thrive as a booming sawmill industry took off along the Black River, and settlers came in droves, many of them of German or Norwegian descent, looking for a new life in this pleasant, well-to-do town. Then, starting from around 1890 something happened to this idyllic place, some dark cloud came hovering over and suddenly out of nowhere the town would be utterly besieged by chaos, disaster, calamity, insanity, suicide, murder and deranged mayhem, to become one of the most cursed settlements on record, caught in a downward spiral of horrors that would last for the next decade.
It started with the closing down of several of the sawmills in the area after a series of incredibly bleak and cold winters. The people who stayed behind in this freak weather were faced with the bitter cold and encroaching starvation, as well as the onset of an epidemic of disease, as well as a major flood which ravaged the area. The previously rather pleasant town, of which a newspaper reporter had once said “Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls,” had fallen apart so rapidly that there were whispers of witchcraft and devil worship. The wrath of nature and paranoia about supernatural forces, mixed together with their sudden joblessness and the added horror of the great financial depression gripping the nation at the time, lesser known but just as devastating as the one of the 1930s, all conspired to create a bleak and volatile environment that would become a breeding ground for the terror and grotesqueries to come.
There was a first a rise in random violence, fighting, delinquency, and degeneracy. People were caving into the stresses of the situation, and there was still the idea that some amongst them were causing it all through magical means. This would all graduate to more gruesome deeds soon enough, including suicide, mutilations, and twisted murders, and with Black River Falls it is hard to even know where to begin when trying to paint a picture of just how badly everyone lost their minds as the town unraveled and descended into madness and chaos.
In many of the cases it was a certain insanity that seemed to just creep in and possess some people, often leading to extremely odd behavior and suicide. Many of the cases are of just a general madness and mania, such as a woman who set herself on fire in order to get rid of a sore on her back, and another who went into sort of a trance, was buried alive, and then dug up again to find her dead and having chewed off half of her hand. There was also the farmer who decapitated all of his chickens and then burned down his farm after becoming convinced that it was possessed by Satan, a young boy who suddenly went into a hypnotic trance that would leave him mute for several months, and the world famous opera singer who moved to town, started making homemade Ouija boards, and was found roaming about eating live chickens. As all this was going on there were people running around raising havoc, such as a group of delinquents slashing the throats of cows, a serial arsonist, and another woman who would go around and break as many windows as she could. There were also many people who ran about town ranting about how they were being tormented by demons or witches. It was complete bedlam that seemed to infect people’s minds like a plague.
In many cases this sort of madness devolved into suicide, such as one case in which a farmer locked himself into his barn and began ranting about God before exclaiming “Here I go and the Lord go with me,” before blowing his head off with a stick of dynamite after throwing it into a hole and stuffing his head in after it. There was a drifter who was taken in by a kind family, during which time he sat at their dinner time and proceeded to shoot himself in the neck right before their horrified eyes. There was also a woman who flew into a panic and ran out to the woods to attempt to strangle herself with a towel, another family man who suddenly went to lie on some railroad tracks, taking four men to pull him off, after which he just vanished. Several people in town simply walked out into the frigid weather and allowed themselves to calmly die of exposure and many people were also found dead in their homes having died of starvation even with food lying nearby. Adding to the list is a man who asked the time of day and then drank himself to death at a bar, another who killed himself at the same bar by eating cigar butts, and another who ordered a drink and then blew his head off. On top of this countless people were being hauled off to insane asylums and it was as if everyone had just suddenly and completely gone stark raving mad.
Besides madness and suicides there was also plenty of flat-out murder. One woman who was convinced that she was being stalked by “devils” gathered her three children, took them out to Lake St. Croix, and then calmly drowned them one by one. In another case two young boys ran away from home, killed a farmer, and then squatted on his land until the farmer’s brother came to check on him, after which they shot at him too and also killed a police officer before being apprehended. The mayhem continues with a drifter who was taken in by a family, then proceeded to kill all of them in their sleep and then shoot himself in the head, a father who beat his infant to death and then tried to strangle his wife, and a recently divorced man who shot his ex-wife and her family right in the middle of the town square. These are only a few of the many murders that occurred at the time within a mere decade, and it is a shocking amount of horrific, sickening violence for such a small rural community, and James Marsh, director of a 1999 documentary on it all, has said of this town’s grim affliction:
The town of Black River Falls seems gripped by some peculiar malaise and the weekly news is dominated by bizarre tales of madness, eccentricity and violence amongst the local population. Suicide and murder are commonplace. People in the town are haunted by ghosts, possessed by devils and terrorized by teenage outlaws and arsonists.
All of these disturbing cases and many more were first compiled and published in 1973 by American historian Michael Lesy, in his book with the amazing title Wisconsin Death Trip, upon which Marsh’s documentary of the same name is based. The book is an eclectic and deeply unsettling hodgepodge of old newspaper clippings, commentary, and hundreds of photos from the era in no particular order that range from the slightly off-kilter and disturbing to pure nightmare fuel. Even the most mundane of the photos presented are permeated by a certain sinister, macabre quality, holding some indefinable sense of dread, and the site These Strange Fascinations has said of these:
Interestingly, one of the most disconcerting things about Wisconsin Death Trip is that many of the images are not, at least on the surface, dark, bleak, or….well…icky. And yet they still somehow manage to convey a sense of indigenous eeriness. Included among the visual artifacts of the town’s dreariest decade are photographs of children performing in a school pageant, local musicians posing with their instruments, midwives proudly displaying newly born infants, and livestock. But even such seemingly innocuous subject matter can’t fully expunge the sense of strange dread imprinted on the images. The expressions on the faces of the children performing in the school pageant seem to reflect a jaded awareness of the local duress. The musicians look happy enough, but the drabness of their surroundings is so oppressive that their smiles take on a weirdly plasticine quality.
In modern times the town of Black River Falls has a population of 3,600, and has become a quaint, peaceful haven for campers and hikers, with many of the visitors who come here completely unaware of the dark and cursed malevolent history of this place. Yet, of course with so much anguish and utter horror so concentrated in one place there have been numerous reports of hauntings and paranormal phenomena throughout the town to this day, and paranormal investigators make regular visits here. One recent such account typical of such activity comes from Ghosts of America, from a witness who says:
I moved into my Black River Falls Apartment a little over a year ago. Within about six months strange things started happening. My wife and I have both had the experience of feeling someone sit next to us on the bed. About a month ago I was turning from the kitchen into the hall leading to the bedrooms when I came face to face with a full bodied apparition of a middle-aged woman. She vanished, but I got a really good look at her never the less.
On another more recent occasion I saw my cat staring at a place on the wall near the ceiling adjacent to the living room closet. I went to see what she was looking at, and I saw a yellowish colored orb float across the ceiling and disappear into the closet. The cat then went to the closet and stared at the door. When I opened the door she ran quickly away, though the orb was no longer visible to me.
As far as is known the horrors only lasted until a little after 1900, after which the town settled back down into some sort of normalcy, the evil passing. What was going on here during that period of bleak darkness? Why should so much weirdness, catastrophe, disaster, disease, panic, insanity, and murder all descend upon this one small town out of the blue? Was it the stresses of the era and the effects of pressure stirred up by the depression of the time, dissolving the American dream and sending these people into a whirlwind of panicked chaos? Was it some sort of poisoning or mass hysteria? Or was it something darker still, perhaps the land itself relenting against them, an ancient Indian curse, or, as many at the time claimed, the Devil himself come to visit? We will probably never know for sure, and the tragic decade of doom from Black River Falls remains an unsettling, very disturbing glimpse into a part of ominous history that has long remained buried, and probably always should.