There is little explanation for the events that took place in the small, isolated town of Black River Falls at the end of the 19th century. Between 1890 and 1900 the town, filled with primarily German and Norwegian immigrants, fell victim to a rash of occurrences that very nearly brought the town and all who lived there into complete downfall. Charles Von Schaik, a local photographer, cataloged the events in photo form capturing some 30,000 images. What he captured on film was evidence of vagrancy run rampant, murder-suicide pacts, madness, and the unexplained.
In the 1890’s, Black River Falls was enduring the worst financial crash and commercial depression the country had ever known. Many immigrants had come in hopes of growing or starting a family in the area and the land was very cheap, but upon arrival had realized that the land was worthless, not even worth what they paid. Railroads offered free fare to those eager to move elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, residents began acting strangely. Stories of ghosts and witchcraft swirled and reports of random violence, shootings, and suicides rose. Residents took their lives and were found hanging in barns and from trees on their property. Some accounts of strange behavior include:
- A farmer blew off his own head by placing it over a hole full of dynamite and lighting the fuse.
- A woman, concerned about the rash on her back, went outside and doused herself in gasoline then lit a match and self-immolated.
- A young mother takes her children for a day at the beach and drowns them one by one while the others watch.
- A fifteen-year-old girl burns her employers barn and house because she “wanted some excitement.” She had burned several buildings of previous employers.
- A recently divorced man shoots his wife and family dead in the town square.
- A young man attempts suicide by laying on the train tracks. He had only been living in Black River Falls for about a month. It takes four men to remove him from harm. After this incident, he is never seen or heard from again.
- A farmer decapitates all of his chickens, convinced that the devil has overtaken his farm.
- A family offers lodging and food to a drifter who, after the family goes to sleep, shoots them all before shooting himself.
- A former school teacher, now addicted to cocaine and travelling the country by train, is admitted to the insane asylum for her propensity to break windows. She had been arrested and institutionalized scores of times for the same activity.
- A ten-year-old boy and his brother run away from home and kill the owner of a remote farm by shooting him in the head. They live on the property for some time before being discovered by the farmer’s brother. The younger boy is caught while the older flees the scene. Authorities capture the older boy, but not before he shoots one of the men. The boy is sentenced to life in the penitentiary.
Today, Black River Falls is a tourist destination and is home to roughly 3,600 souls. People come to the community for camping and shopping and downtown is filled with small shops and restaurants that resemble little of the town depicted in Von Schaik’s photographs. There are no explanations for the behaviors of the residents in the 1880-90’s and answers will likely never be found. Despite that fact, there will always be speculation surrounding the small town and its former inhabitants.
Have you ever visited Black River Falls? Do you have any theories as to why these strange occurrences took place? Do you have a story you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.
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