The wind, the wind! The blowing, the creaking of the house, the whistling of the windows! Will it ever stop? The constant, never-ending scream of the wind. Arrgh! Get the blue vitriol.
Well it is windy. I think the weatherman said 20mph, gusts to 35. And it is cold this morning, 24, but its been colder. My house is creaking and some of the windows are whistling – note to self: get those replaced – but its supposed to end by noon. My furnace is fine, my fridge is full and my Sweetie is warming up the espresso machine so I really don’t have anything to complain about. But the whining of the wind this morning reminded me of a strange book called Wisconsin Death Trip. If you have not come across this book in your travels, it is worth the journey.
First published in 1973, This book by Michael Lesy, is based on a collection of glass plate negatives taken by Charles Van Schaik in Black River Falls, Wisconsin from 1890 – 1910. The subject matter ranges from children in coffins, to farm animals, to family portraits of some of the grimmest-looking people imaginable. These are coupled with newspaper excerpts of suicides, murder/suicides, madness and misery. This period of history in the US was tough, because if you were either making your fortune or you were having a really bad time. The distance between city folk and country folk was pretty wide and the country people weren’t doing too well. There was drought, foreclosures, and poverty, and in Wisconsin, the weather didn’t help anyone’s attitude either. It gets cold, really cold, and it snows, a lot, and back then you had a bunch of kids to feed and you had cows or other animals to feed and wood to chop and water to thaw. When the wind whistled, it whistled loud and found every crack in the house. We are having a lot of pipe freezing this winter up here, and its a pain and a big inconvenience but back in 1893, you couldn’t just wrap the pipe in heat tape or use the hair dryer, hell, you had a well that froze up. Just going outside to get the water was a big ordeal, not to mention hauling it over to the barn once you dug a path through the snow. And then you had to go out to the barn a couple of times a day to make sure the trough hadn’t frozen over. If the well froze, you were melting snow.
And then there were the epidemics (smallpox, diphtheria), alcoholism, gangs of armed tramps, barn burnings…. well it isn’t surprising that old Ben hung himself after offing the family or Sarah drank blue vitriol when she discovered she was pregnant – again!. When I read this book for the first time, probably in the early 80’s, the reference to blue vitriol was new to me. And it came up more than once in Wisconsin Death Trip. Sure people were hanging themselves, using garden tool in unique ways, jumping in the lake with rocks in their pockets but drinking blue vitriol? I found out it is copper sulfate ( copper and sulfuric acid) but what the heck were they doing with it on the farm in the early 20th C.? It was pretty common on the farm since it was a fungicide, insecticide and a blue dye. Interesting enough, it was also used as an emetic, drink a little-you vomit….drink a lot-you die.
Because it just sounded so odd, it became one of those phrases you use in a family that if outsiders heard you they’d scratch their heads or have you committed. With us, whenever things got crazy around here or the wind didn’t stop blowing for 10 hours straight or you had a bad day at work, you’d say something like, “I can’t take it, where’s the blue vitriol.?” Sounds creepy? Maybe. But for us it was a way to lighten up a stressful situation. Too bad those farm wives in 1901 didn’t think that way. To them drink actually meant drink.
Now this may all sound pretty morbid and yes, some of it is, but this book is also fascinating. It will give you a different perspective on the “good old days.” Of course not everyone was behaving like this but some were. And it wasn’t just in Black River Falls, it was happening in other towns in Wisconsin, and in Iowa, and in Nebraska, and in Minnesota.
So hang in there. Winter will be over someday. The pipes will thaw. The wind will die down. No need to get out the hedge clippers, the rope or the blue vitriol.
PS: If you like Wisconsin Death Trip you might enjoy two fiction books that pull inspiration from WDT, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick and
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.