What happened during the mysterious decade of doom?

Image from Wisconsin Death Trip, a film documentary produced by James Marsh and book published by Michael Lesy.


The good town of Black River Falls had a decade in which its citizens seemed to go insane, and death hovered above them like a black cloud.

If you were driving down the main streets of this quiet little town in Wisconsin, you wouldn’t have a clue that anything awful could ever happen here—

All-American, upper Midwest-y.  Nothing would even hint at the horror.  Visitors or citizens living there now might not know of the long nightmare unless it had been passed down in stories and oral history.  It is almost like the Decade of Doom never happened at all.

Black River Falls is a town of about 3600 residents.  What brought attention to this isolated town was a book published by an American Historian in 1973:  Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy.  Here all of the grotesque events that happened in the 1890s are chronicled with dates, places, times people–I left out motives because there were no motives.  There are pages in the book with newspaper clippings about the events on them.  Without them, you would not be able to believe such a pleasant town of today could have a decade filled with such gothic events.  But, it did.

The good town of Black River Falls had a decade in which its citizens seemed to go insane.  They became renegades, many of them.  They became thieves, arsonists, and yes, murderers.  They committed patricides, matricides, fratricides, sororicides, prolicides, and infanticides.  Could this happen again in another unlikely community, today?  What did happen?

Black River Falls, about 50 miles from Eau Claire, once belonged to the Ho-Chunk Indians until they were pushed out by European settlers, mostly from Germany and Norway.   The settlers appreciated the spot for the nearby river and its resources of fish, water transportation, and water power.  The town was actually founded by a sawmill operator, Jacob Spaulding, in 1839.

The town on the Black River became a sawmill hub.  The many sawmills provided ready employment for the citizens and gave them prosperity.  Some became very wealthy.   All of this false security went haywire in the 1890s and continued to do so for ten long years.  Was it something in the water—a poison, perhaps, a hallucinogen? Was it a massive form of hexes and witchcraft?  Was it a curse for stealing and tainting the land?  Chaos and disaster ensued.

For some unknown reason, several of the sawmills closed down.  Perhaps they had exhausted the nearby resources.  Massive unemployment resulted.  This was followed by abnormally harsh weather.  Crops had failed.  Some residents died of the cold and actual starvation. 

Things were bleak, but then the river flooded in a major way, destroying livestock and property.  There was a national financial depression at the time which made things worse—it was not as bad as the one in the 1930s, but it was bad.  All of these laid the groundwork for what could be described as terror and grotesqueries to come.

The Decade of Doom was filled with starvation, massive and bizarre suicides, unusual, and often unbelievable accidents, depravity, chronic and acute illnesses, mutilations, murders, animal cruelty, claims of demonic possession, and insanity.  Descriptions of some of the murders and suicides are too gruesome to mention here.  People roamed the town muttering insane thoughts aloud. 

One man reclined on the railroad tracks and it took four men to pull him off, in the nick of time.  Some of the exposure deaths, happened because people just went into the cold and calmly willed themselves to die.  Some of the starvation deaths happened with nourishing food within an arm’s reach of the victim.

Some people were able to be taken to insane asylums in the middle of the horror.  The people in photographs of Wisconsin Death Trip have a plastic look to their facial expressions, adding to the sense of macabre.  

After ten long years of this mayhem, the quaint town of Black River Falls fell back into settled normalcy.  It is like evil spirits all about were too exhausted to continue their antics.  Still, some curious new residents and visitors claim to reside in haunted spaces—small remnants from the Decade of Doom. 

Just a thought:  a journalist had once said of this quaint little town:  “Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls.”

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious, Indeed, a collection of true stories about the bizarre and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts