Explaining The Scope And Purpose Of This Document. Inspiration. Attraction To The Lurid.
The upper plains were settled by the same tidal wave of immigration that flooded the slums and tenements of metropolises on the east and west coasts from the 1890s until World War I, but with the hardier, more adventurous men and women willing to take on the task of creating a farm where there was none before. Most of these 'sodbusters' failed quickly once the truth of harsh winters crushed and devoured what little they had the time to produce in the unpredictable and unforgiving summers. Norwegians, Germans, Russians, Swedes, Irish and Scottish all tried to make the promise of vast expanses of free land into their own personal fortune. The few who succeeded set their foundations deep, begetting generations of children to follow in their footsteps, but the failure of many others filled the tiny rural graveyards and sent families with little more than their clothes on their backs headed to the railway stations, bound for more hospitable surroundings.
The hinterlands of North Dakota and Minnesota remained dangerously remote well into the 20th century. Telephones and electricity were unreliable but necessary lifesavers, too often inaccessible for farms and small towns compared the extent that technology had spread in more modern areas. Towns were too far apart, the roads too poorly maintained, to reliably connect people with civilization. Self-reliance was a virtue, but when something bad happened, the lack of the safety net resulted in tragic ends.
When Michael Lesy published his incredible Wisconsin Death Trip, he described the book as "an exercise in historical actuality. It uses photographs as if they were events, and the words of newspapers, novels, madhouse records, and recollections as id, taken all together, they were the carbon hydrogen, and oxygen molecules of a single solitary minute of time and air." Note the use of the words "as if", "an exercise", and the florid language describing the assembly of the book. Historians do not necessarily endorse compiling historical documents in a misleading way, giving the impression that insanity ran rampant through Wisconsin in the 1890s despite the frequency of tragic stories not being any greater than at any other time. Wisconsin Death Trip may not have necessarily furthered the historical study of rural Wisconsin, but it did provide a compelling source for the macabre, unusual, and amazing stories that filled the newspapers. Reduced to a few sentences, people's lives change irreparably in an instant, and then the story is done. News moves on, typesetting begins for the next edition while the ink of yesterday's tale of woe is still coming off on subscriber's fingers at the breakfast table.
The reason newspapers filled their pages with such tales, and the enduring appeal of Lesy's book, is the public's attraction to tales of woe and tragedy.
I regularly read old newspapers in researching stories for a Public Radio program I'm writing for at the moment. I often come across the same kind of stories that Lesy gravitated to in compiling Death Trip, and I started saving the more interesting ones in case I found enough additional information to produce a full-length story. I found that additional information was a rare commodity. These tragedies lived in isolation, a sudden catastrophic event, and then nothing more. Regardless of death or success, these stories flash brightly and disappear, their relevance minor, but saturated with an emotional pull on a reader. It may be easy to overlook tales of visiting family from out of town and Christmas pageants, but stories of suicide and train accidents draw a reader in.
Unlike Lesy, my stories have a much greater region and greater timeline. I don't have the luxury of a 19th century editor who was a fan of the lurid, or the time to focus on a single decade for source material. That's not to say that the stories are so uncommon that I need to expand my reach. Like Lesy, I can find numerous stories from each year, often several in a single issue of the newspaper.
The causes of these stories were too common to the farmer and homesteader for the accidents to be rare. Farm equipment, guns, railroads, and automobiles all proved extremely dangerous to generations of settlers. Each edition of a newspaper inevitably recounted some accidental tragedy as a result of poor safety measures combined with inaccessible and ineffectual medical care. The quiet, idyllic farm life slivered like shattered glass in an instant whenever misfortune arrived.
This website uses Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip as an inspiration in terms of content and structure, but I don't intend to give any impression of scholarly historical research. Like Lesy's book, the appeal of the content found herein is the innate desire for news consumers to hear stories of pain and destruction, alongside a story of amazement and strangeness from time to time. Whether to shock a person into some perspective beyond their own life, or cultivate the perverse interest in hearing about just how much mutilation the human body can sustain, this website will have something to take in. These stories will be balanced by photos from my collection, which are unlikely to have any connection whatsoever to the stories. This isn't intended to misleadingly tell how every resident walked the line between life and tragic death on a daily basis, but to describe the risks and fates that moving to the Northern Great Plains carried with it. Like Lesy's Death Trip, this is a story assembled from unrelated parts for the purpose of manufacturing atmosphere, even if it is just thin air.
This website uses Google Font Libraries. Some browsers do not render the fonts well, resulting in jagged edges and difficult-to-read text. Current versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox do a good job. Ironically, Google Chrome has great difficulty rendering these fonts. No matter which browser you use, the fonts render very differently in each, to the extent that they appear to be an entirely different font on different computers. I have no explanation, nor any reason to go to any great length to fix it. In short: yeah, fancy fonts suck, except when they don't.
Some content is likely to be copyright by people other than myself, and I endeavor to credit sources and use content in compliance with Fair Use rules when necessary. Please do not re-reuse this content without doing your own research, and crediting the original source and the Dakota Death Trip website whenever possible.