Dark La Crosse

By Andrea Culletto

The voice heard by ghost hunters one night in Campbell Cemetery was said to have relayed only one haunting message:

“They cut me up.”

According to Scott Brouwer, archivist at La Crosse Public Library, “Campbell Cemetery is basically an inactive cemetery full of overgrown and unmarked graves.” In short, it is the perfect place for a paranormal expedition.

As for the voice, a cemetery attendant in the early 1930s was shocked to stumble across an empty grave. Even more shocking was the later discovery of a burlap sack full of body parts. “The Tribune headlines were really fantastic,” says Brouwer. “Due to the expert nature of the incisions, it is thought that perhaps a medical student used the body for knowledge and training, but even to this day no one really knows what happened.” The pieces were reburied at the grave site, and the world moved on … until the night the ghost hunters came to call … and once again when the story was revived by Dark La Crosse.

Four years ago, Kelly Krieg-Sigman, director of the La Crosse Public Library, was in the throes of preparing to host the Wisconsin Library Association Conference. “I was trying to come up with interesting ideas that would attract more attendants,” recalls Krieg-Sigman. “I thought, what can we do that would explore the scandalous and nefarious incidents in La Crosse history?” Thus, Dark La Crosse was born.

Dark La Crosse began as a walking tour, which evolved into a trolley tour, which then branched out to the Dark La Crosse Radio Show, an interactive stage production featuring historical images, talented actors, elaborate costumes and live music. Each performance features an archivist Q & A and a one-time-only historical narrative focused on that night’s corporate sponsor. For example, the performance on Oct. 28 will include an intriguing foray into the past of the La Crosse Tribune.

“The show is set to live music performed by local pianist and composer Luke Thering,” explains Brouwer. “Luke found locally composed sheet music from the late 1800s or so, and rearranged it specifically for these productions.”

According to Krieg-Sigman, “This is not a traditional theatrical experience. It’s not a play, a musical or a speech, but it has elements of all those things. It’s a very rich experience.”

This rich experience is bursting with the horrific and the hilarious. For example, there is the very sensational William Kehr murder trial in 1899 and 1900, where the prosecution’s chief witnesses were all prostitutes. The Dark La Crosse walking tour features a step-out actor playing Hazel Winter, Madam of The Bullpen, who delivers a marvelous monologue on how disgracefully she was treated by the defense attorney: “How can a lawyer question my moral character?! We are practically in the same business. The only difference is when I get done screwing my customers, they feel good about it!”

“What people don’t realize,” adds Brouwer, “is that Pearl Street, the most family-friendly part of town today, was once the red-light district. In fact, prostitution once ran rampant in La Crosse. It’s estimated that there were 40 to 50 brothels in town, a byproduct of the town’s population of young and unruly lumbermen.”

“One story stands out to me, simply because of how easily he could have gotten away with it,” relates Michael Scott, who is a writer, storyteller, and the host of The Old School Variety Show, as well as a Dark La Crosse performer and script composer. “In 1852, two friends were building a cabin when a fight broke out, and one crushed the other’s skull. There was no jail, so they put the murderer in a deep pit surrounded by heavy rocks designed to crush him if he tried to escape, which he managed to do anyway, twice. They made him attend his friend’s funeral where several people offered to ‘take care of him,’ but were dissuaded by a local minister. All of these stories get into some very dark stuff, but it’s compelling to think that they all started with normal people. We talk about the dark and the light. It’s fascinating to think about how thin that line is sometimes. We mustn’t be quick to judge.”

New this season is the tale of the kidnapped police officer. In the 1930s, two policemen pulled a car over for a typical violation. The driver, Floyd Wagener, was from out of town. At this point they didn’t have mobile access to any kind of records, so they had to take him down to the police station. According to protocol, Officer Granville “Granny” Smith got into the man’s car, while his partner, Joe Donndelinger, followed in the squad car behind. Unbeknownst to Donndelinger, his partner had just stepped into a precarious situation—being held at gunpoint by a criminal who had just finished breaking into a safe at the downtown Sears and Roebuck.

Donndelinger soon realized something was wrong, however, when the car he was following took off and made a break for the Minnesota state line. A wild police chase followed. Donndelinger grabbed reinforcements who hung from the sidebar of the moving vehicle, shooting at the escapees like something out of a blockbuster film. Ultimately, they were able to force the car off the road before it reached the Minnesota state line. An old-timey shootout ensued. In the fray, Officer Donndelinger was killed. Wagener was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. The Dark La Crosse production features a touching photo of Donndelinger’s funeral at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph the Workman. According to Krieg-Sigman, it always elicits a strong reaction from the audience.

“Without giving it away,” adds Krieg-Sigman, “I will say that this story has an absolutely wild modern-day postscript to it. It brings the whole thing to closure and it happened just serendipitously, actually. You’ll have to come to the show to see what it is.”

For Krieg-Sigman, working on the Dark La Crosse franchise has been a profound experience. “As a library director with 30 years of experience, I have watched how libraries have changed over the last few decades. The Dark La Crosse Radio Show demonstrates the power of the 21st-century library. We have information that no one else has. We collect, preserve and present it. It’s a perfect example of productive partnership collaboration between us, our sponsors, the Pump House Regional Arts Center, the trolley company, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and more. It’s very gratifying to see all these things public libraries are evolving into, manifested in a clear, concise way.”

“Plus, it is a great evening out,” says Krieg-Sigman. “It’s local, it’s accurate, it’s well done, it’s sustainable, and it’s a tribute to the community because we value our history so highly here and understand the importance of maintaining that collective memory, of both the evil and the good. We open our walking tour with an old Buddhist adage that states, ‘There has to be evil, so good can prove its purity above it.’ And of course, there is that old saying, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’”

Show Details

The Dark La Crosse Radio Show will be held Oct. 27-29 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 4-5 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $15. For more information, call (608) 785-1434 or visit thepumphouse.org/event/dark-lax-2016/2016-10-27/. Individual performance sponsors as of the time of publication include the La Crosse Tribune, Fayze’s and Gerhard’s/First Supply.