Weird Wisconsin

By Ben Bromley

06/17/07 - Portage Daily Register

You probably think Wisconsin is a weird place to live today.

One peek at the newspapers shows there's some strange stuff going on. In Eau Claire there's a guy getting drunk and, trying to imitate a "Jackass" movie stunt, letting a buddy spray his genitals with lighter fluid and setting them ablaze. In Fond du Lac, there's a guy breaking into a neighbor's apartment and claiming in his defense that he is a werewolf. And in Oconomowoc, a guy thinks he hears screams in an upstairs apartment, grabs a sword and breaks in, only to find a neighbor who had been watching a dirty movie.

Crazy as all that stuff is, the headlines of 2007 have nothing on their counterparts of a century ago. A new book ?-- Chad Lewis' "Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin" -- shatters illusions of an idyllic, innocent past.

In reviewing newspapers printed between 1860 and 1910, the author found reports of shoes made of human flesh and a girl dying of grief upon the passing of her pet chicken. Not to mention a hay-eating maniac, a woman vomiting up a live lizard and toads tumbling from the sky.

"I think this book shows it was a crazy world back then, too," Lewis said.

A strange project

Lewis hadn't intended to provide a new angle on an era idealized by "Little House on the Prairie." But while researching the history of a building in Eau Claire, he kept running across odd news stories. He decided to collect these tidbits to illustrate that our sepia-tone nostalgia for the post-Civil War era may be misplaced.

He spent thousands of hours over the course of five years reviewing microfilm of newspapers across the state. "It probably took 10 years off the life of my eyes," he said with a laugh.

This 50-year period was interesting to study because it predates a lot of modern science that would have determined a person thought to have died of fright actually perished from a heart attack. Lewis said researching the book was like traveling back in time. "I got to hear and feel the way people in Wisconsin lived," he said.

Local news

South central Wisconsin is well represented in the book (see strange headlines). In Wisconsin Dells in 1907, civil engineers found the carving of a human face in the rocky cliffs along the Wisconsin River. In Spring Green, a gigantic prehistoric tusk was found in a creek bed in 1900.

Baraboo appears in the book three times, for an alligator sighting at Devil's Lake, a woman dying at the sight of blood and a man reappearing after having vanished for a year.

Although his 160-page book covers thousands of offbeat stories, Lewis acknowledges a more thorough and time-consuming review could uncover many more.

"These are really the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Lewis hopes readers will come forward with documentation of some of the phenomena reported in the book. Better yet, they're welcome to bring more "news of the weird" to his attention. His Web site, www.unexplainedresearch.com, features a message board where visitors can post such information.

"I'm hoping some of that surfaces," he said. "I'd hate for these stories to end here."

An adventure guide

Given that superstition and spiritualism were common during this period and that newspapers' standards of objectivity and accuracy varied, it's tempting to take a lot of the headlines with a grain of salt.

However, Dells historian Ross Curry confirmed the existence of the face carved into the river bluffs. He found it with his grandsons a few years ago, a quarter of a mile off the river on a canyon wall. Some say a railroad crew created the carving in 1857, Curry reported, while others believe it to be the work of Native Americans.

Lewis said people always have been captivated by unexplained phenomena. Granted, nobody has reported a sea serpent sighting in Lake Monona recently, but tales of ghosts and UFOs continue to generate buzz.

Lewis encourages readers to investigate these mysteries of the past. He hopes they will seek out that face carved into the Dells and ask their ancestors about such curious pieces of local history. "This isn't a normal history book," he said. "It really is a guide for adventure."

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