A sunny afternoon took a sinister turn on Saturday during the Dark La Crosse trolley tour. Tales of murder, ghosts and prostitution gave patrons a taste of La Crosse’s more sordid history.
Barry McKnight of the La Crosse Public Library’s Archives Department narrated the tour, intoning, “Our dark nature is everywhere. You can’t avoid it.”
McKnight first directed the audience’s attention to the red-light district, located on Pearl Street from 1850 to 1915. Men traveling the Mississippi River in the lumber industry kept 40 to 50 brothels in business.
A few blocks away on Fourth Street, where the Tree Hugger’s Co-op is now housed, Ted’s Barbershop was visited by “Public Enemy No. 1” John Dillinger, while his accomplice George “Baby Face” Nelson waited in the car out front. Dillinger, a gangster, bank robber and celebrity of sorts led string of bank robberies in the Midwest in the 1930s. He casually walked in for a shave, guns lining his leather jacket.
Another barbershop, which occupied the Casino Bar building in 1932, was the scene of the suicide of Paul Johnston. After his wife Francis left him, he saw her at the local races, canoodling with a few jockeys. Johnston followed them in his car and shot at the jockeys and his ex-wife, then returned to his shop, leaving suicide notes for both Francis and the police before turning the gun on himself. Paul’s ghost is said to haunt the Casino Bar, which opened a year later.
McKnight cites the shooting of La Crosse Republican Party leader Frank Burton, and the subsequent lynching of his killer, Nathaniel “Scotty” Mitchell, as the most shocking event covered during the tour.
Mitchell pumped 10 bullets into Burton’s body, perhaps because he was angry about being denied a work leave. Mitchell was dragged from the jail by a mob of angry townsfolk, who strung him to a tree. After the first rope broke, they tried again and left Mitchell’s dead body at the feet of the local sheriff.
“It’s amazing that there were so many witnesses to the lynching, yet no one would come forward with names,” McKnight marveled. “These were middle class, upstanding citizens who hung him, and no one was ever charged.”
The 1899 murder of William Curren “has it all,” according to McKnight. It’s his favorite. “Social commentary, politics, gender, public influence. It’s fascinating.”
John C. Miller, son of prominent local figure August Miller, stabbed Curren after a confrontation outside a saloon, now the location of the Pump House. Several prostitutes who witnessed the incident vouched for Miller’s guilt, and the prosecution opened with a seven hour statement at the trial. Miller claimed self defense, and was only charged with second-degree manslaughter.
At this point in the tour, surprise guest Kelly Krieg-Sigman, La Crosse Public Library director, boarded the trolley. Dressed in a feathered hat and waving a fan, she spoke as prostitute Hazel Winter. Winter was outraged that Miller got off easy because of his father’s influence in the community. Krieg-Sigman paraded down the aisle, addressing passengers as though they were townspeople in 1900.
“Current events are often the same as historical events,” McKnight said of societal bias and crime. “La Crosse was a rough town, especially from the 1870s through the 1970s.”
The library will introduce new content in the fall for its recounting of historical crime.
“There is actually an over-abundance of material,” McKnight said. “People have this rosy view of the past as being cleaner, nicer, but that’s not really the case.”
The Dark La Crosse tours are recommended for ages 15 and older. Reservations can be made by calling 608-782-2366. Tickets are $9 for adults, $8 for seniors and $6 for teens.
Tours will run June 11, 18, 25; July 9, 16, 23, 30; and Aug. 5, 6, 12, 13, 20, 27.