Lust, greed, murder: This is not your typical tour of historic sites.
This fall, the La Crosse Public Library will lead people through some of the darker corners of downtown La Crosse, giving them a taste of the seedy underbelly of a Mississippi River town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
If you think crime is out of control these days, try stepping back in time when murder and mayhem were rampant. There were gangsters, brawling soldiers, jealous and distraught lovers.
And hookers. Lots of hookers.
Blood was shed at these half dozen sites within a two-block radius.
In 1932, a barber named Paul Josten — who lived and worked in the Pearl Street building now home to the Casino — spotted his estranged wife at the horse races, in the company of two out-of-town jockeys. Three of them — including Josten — would be dead within days.
“TRAGEDY COMES AS MATE TRAILS WIFE ON PARTY,” blared the headline.
Two blocks north, the Fifth Avenue Buffet, a favorite hangout for soldiers in the early days of World War II, was the site of a heated argument that ended in a stabbing. Over on Fourth Street, barber Ted Lapitz gave John Dillinger a shave just days before the notorious bank robber was gunned down.
A different slant
Archivist Scott Brouwer, who will lead the free walking tours next month, said they offer a way to engage the public with something entertaining while promoting the library’s resources — the archives house thousands of newspaper clippings as well as microfilm copies of the nearly four dozen newspapers that have covered the Coulee Region over the past 150-some years, as well as historic photos, manuscripts and city directories dating from 1886.
“It’s public programming, which is what the library does,” he said. “We want to be a public service department. We want some outreach.”
The staff began research for the tours last year, when the Wisconsin Library Association held its annual conference in La Crosse. Library director Kelly Krieg-Sigman said she wanted to show off the town to visiting librarians. It took a little longer to put together, but Krieg-Sigman decided it was worth pursuing.
“Because this community values its history,” she said, “this would be a great project.”
No one guessed how popular it would be.
The original four tours — on Oct. 15 and 16 — were half full before library staff even printed posters. The rest of the spots filled up within days of being posted on Facebook. The library has added four more tours and will keep a waiting list.
“I think this is something people are interested in,” said archivist Bill Petersen. “It gives a different slant on the history of the city.”
Krieg-Sigman said she hopes to offer the tours a couple of times a year.
Despite their initial popularity, the tours can’t solve the library’s current budget woes (the board last week voted to close the South Community Library as a cost-saving measure). By state law, library-sponsored programs must be free.
However, the library can charge if they provide the tours on demand for a private group or company, which Krieg-Sigman said could be a future source of revenue.
The half dozen stories are rooted in real events from La Crosse’s past, drawn from the pages of old newspapers. Petersen did most of the research, but the library worked with a writer to punch up the narrative and work in some dialogue, which will be performed by actors.
The idea was to take the library’s popular Footsteps walking tour and do something a little edgier.
If that doesn’t match your idea of archives, think again.
“There’s actually lots of edginess in the archives,” Petersen said. “The history of a city is invariably connected to the human element. Sometimes the human element includes vice, violence and greed.”
Petersen knew about Lapitz’ brush with Dillinger, but the other stories he discovered while perusing the murder files.
There were some stories that had to be left out. The city’s only lynching, which occurred in 1884 outside the old courthouse, was too far north to fit in the hour-long walk.
Petersen also tried to stick to buildings that remain, although he made an exception for the murder of William Kehr, who was stabbed outside the notorious Blue Front Saloon, which stood at the corner of King and Front streets, near the current Pump House.
At the turn of the 19th Century, the waterfront was home to flea-bag hotels, saloons and brothels frequented by itinerant lumberjacks, mill workers and other laborers who made their way up the river.
“At the time it was a very seedy — I guess you could call it a tenderloin district,” Petersen said. “Between the liquor and the prostitution … it was kind of surprising that more brutal murders didn’t happen more often.”
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