We may tend to think of the obsession with crimes and disasters as a modern preoccupation, but sensational stories have had an avid audience ever since there have been venues in which they could be reported. Our forbearers preoccupation with macabre and shocking stories was brought to life in Michael Lessy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip, based on a collection of late 19th century photographs by Jackson County, Wisconsin photographer Charles Van Schaick. The book focuses on the more bleak aspects of rural life in the Midwest, and how these stories of mental illness, criminal activities and disease were recounted in local news reports from the same period. Louisville’s residents were no less interested in the crimes and disasters of their community.
Parsons created his scrapbooks by reusing old accounting ledgers from the fire department. The ledgers themselves are historical records obscured by photographs and clippings. These volumes contain not only tales of local blazes, catastrophic car crashes, murders and note-worthy obituaries, but also shocking stories from the national news. Included are headlines reporting the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping, cult killings, natural disasters, criminals such as John Dillinger, horrors such as a girl locked in a closet for 4 years, and even the occasional “human curiosity” or animal wonder, like Susie the famous “Graf Zeppelin” Gorilla. The original photographs in the scrapbooks are mostly concerned with Louisville fires and rescues.
Parsons formed a sort of personalized “National Inquirer” for himself, compiling the curiosities and wonders that most captured his attention- the precursor for the sensational video clip shows and YouTube sensations that enthrall people today.