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I first became aware of Mary when reading Michael Lesy’s 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip. The text of the book consists largely of excerpts from sensational and morbid items that appeared from 1885-1900 in the Badger State Banner, the Black River Falls newspaper. Mary features in five of these excerpts. She was also featured prominently in the film, based on the book, made by James Marsh in 1999.1 I have mixed feelings about Wisconsin Death Trip (both book and film) and the bleak portrait of 1890s Wisconsin life depicted therein. However, I find something strangely compelling about the short snippets of life and death which make me want to know the rest of the story.
The portrait of Mary Sweeney that emerged from the items in Wisconsin Death Trip is one of “a model wife and mother” who ran away from home after “some injury to her brain entirely changed her character.” Since then she had “been in more than 100 different jails … for indulging in her wild sport” of breaking windows.2 She was said to have been a school teacher who “breaks windows … when the craze seizes her” and “uses cocaine liberally on such occasions,” as “it quiets her nerves.” Her window breaking depredations also brought her to the attention of Wisconsin governor Edward Scofield.3
As I began an investigation into the life of Mary Sweeney, I discovered an interesting character who became a bone of contention between the governments of Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota. Her unsettled life shines a light on many of the issues of the day, some of which continue to vex us. These include the humane treatment of the insane, issues of pauperism and homelessness, the financial responsibility to care for these populations, and judging the fitness of a parent to raise his or her children.