Weird tales from Wisconsin focus of new book

By Geri Parlin

06/05/07 - LaCrosse Tribune


Strange, unusual, bizarre.

That’s just what Chad Lewis was looking for when he decided to write “Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin, Strange, Unusual, & Bizarre Newspaper Stories 1860-1910.”

Headlines such as “Was It a Spook?” and “Woman Vomits Up Live Lizard.”

That last one came right out of the La Crosse Republican Leader from July 7, 1902, and it topped this story:

“What is believed to be a lizard was vomited up yesterday by Mrs. Mary Marshall, age 96, who makes her home with Mr. and Mrs. Lee Sieger at the Hotel Gross, 201 Vine Street. ... Mrs. Marshall has been bothered for some time by a severe pain in her stomach and yesterday she complained more than ever, so her daughter prepared a drink for her, made mostly of Jamaica ginger and gin. This beverage must have loosened the lizard, which was evidently attached to the lining of Mary’s stomach, and yesterday afternoon she vomited up the object. She claims it was alive when it came out of her mouth but that she accidentally smothered it when she gathered it up in a handkerchief. The lizard, if it is such, is light brown in appearance and is somewhat translucent. It is the opinion of Mrs. Sieger that her mother accidentally swallowed the lizard in some water when it was very small, and that it had grown in her stomach to its present length of six inches. The animal has been placed in alcohol and will be preserved.”

What’s not to like?

Or, if that’s too reptilian for you, let’s sample something a little more fowl, such as this story in the La Crosse Democrat on Aug. 22, 1864, titled, “Girl Dies of Broken Heart After Pet Chicken Is Killed.”

In 1861, George Teyser marched off to war, leaving behind a young fiancee. Teyser was killed, and his betrothed went into a fainting fit and “never recovered her reason entirely.” In her sorrow, she selected a chicken as a pet and trained it to sit on her head and peck crumbs from her lips.

“She would sit for hours caressing the chicken. Which grew into a sleek and pretty rooster as ever lived, and which formed an affection for its mistress truly wonderful. And thus the pair lived until three weeks ago when the chicken was killed by a dog. Since that time the girl grew languid, nervous, and disheartened, and finally last week she died with a broken heart.”

We never learn the chicken-loving girl’s name, but does that really matter in a freakish tale of affection?

Lewis was researching another book when he started finding these other bizarre stories. Five years later, he had enough for a book.

“Nowadays people say all the time, the world’s just crazy. Back then, the world was crazy, too. I didn’t change any of the stories.”

Had you picked up a copy of the La Crosse Daily Press from Sept. 17, 1900, surely this headline would have caught your eye: “Snake Eater Visits La Crosse.”

“There is a woman at a hotel on Pearl Street who eats snakes. She is closely guarded in a room on the third floor, where she wiles away the weary hours devouring the heads of rattlesnakes. Her name is Bosco and in many ways she resembles a snake. Her owner is a Klondiker who went broke and says that she is the best claim he ever struck. Bosco is awful to look at. Two repulsive tusks (eyeteeth) protrude from her mouth, and when she buries those weapons into the neck of her victim, it’s not long before the head of the snake drops down her throat while its body coils on the ground to become lifeless when the sun goes down. ... Both the day and night staff have kept their eyes wide open while on duty for fear that Bosco will sneak upon them and take a nibble at their heads. At the Winona, Minn. street fair it is said Bosco buried her teeth in the clothes of a curious boy, nearly disrobing the frightened lad.”

There are lots of ghost tales in Lewis’ book, because those are his favorites, even when they stretch belief. “Sensational headlines are nothing new and hoaxes weren’t out of the question.”

And the reporting was graphic and detailed, Lewis said.

“If it was a grisly, gruesome event, the paper didn’t leave out anything,” he said. “At that time, 1860-1910, people were closer to death. They talked about it more.”

For his research, Lewis spent hour upon hour reading microfilm. If he was starting the book today, he said, he’d probably be able to do most of his research online in about five months. And his research would likely have yielded this tale of toads tumbling from the skies above La Crosse, as related by the La Crosse Republican on July 12, 1878.

“Captain Moulton, being placed upon the rack by a reporter, duly testified and said that he was on a platform adjoining the depot and saw the toads fall from the sky. Not only did he see them as they struck the platform, but also saw them in the air before they reached the end of their aerial flight. This is good testimony and we submit it.”

“You hear these things and you see it in old movies and such, but you never think it happens in your own backyard,” Lewis said. “It shows that Wisconsin is a weird place.”

By the Book

Book: “Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin: Strange, Unusual and Bizarre Newspaper Stories 1860-1910”

Author: Chad Lewis

Publisher: Unexplained Research Publishing LCC

List price: $14.95

Online: www.unexplainedresearch.com

Geri Parlin can be reached at gparlin@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8225.

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