Exposing Milwaukee’s sensational past

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Just in time for Halloween come stories of ghosts, hermits, haunted houses and more. The Wisconsin Historical Society Press recently released Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City’s First Century.

Author Matthew J. Prigge, best known as the host of WMSE program “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” compiled dozens of sensational tales of sex, accidents and arson for this unique collection. We talk to him about writing the book and some of those tales from the past.

Matthew, how did you ever come across so many unusual events? I had been collecting these weird stories for a while. While doing research in newspaper archives, I’d come across these strange headlines and odd stories that I didn’t really know what to do with. I started using them on my boat tours.

Your style is entertaining but always respectful of the people who lived these events. Did you have in mind the classic bestseller, Wisconsin Death Trip? That’s kind of the tone I was going for. There are other books like this, too, but most of them are kind of done in a more cheeky style. I didn’t want to treat it that way. I wanted to look at it more with the tone that they did at the time these events happened, to maintain that weird fascination when these stories were part of everyday life. 

You cover Milwaukee from 1846 to 1946? That was just the heyday of this kind of journalism. Once you pass the 1950s and ’60s the stories are more — if you want to call it, “professionalized” journalism. And also I didn’t want to get into anything too recent because a lot of the stories are downers about premature deaths and murders and suicides and bastards and things like that. Putting some distance between the reader and things in the book makes it a little more palatable.

Its organization seems designed for easy reading of a story or two before bed. Yeah, I wanted it to function as something you can pick up and thumb through or, preferably, read cover to cover. I didn’t put the stories in chronological order. I tried to have them flow from one to the next. I encourage the reader to go through from beginning to end, because I think there’s a story within the story, just in the way they’re ordered. But all the stories stand on their own. 

In researching period newspapers, did you get a sense that Milwaukee was a different kind of city back then? I think the writing was — they were very aware of the various “tribes,” if you will, the ethnic neighborhoods. Especially going back in the 1860s and ’70s, they usually would have referred to, “this German resident of this area,” or “this person was a Polish person.” I think the ethnic divisions were prominent.

And it was a much smaller city then, too. Yeah, the small town thing kind of shone through, in that a big part of a newspaper was devoted to local gossip. The story in my book on the rash of suicides in the 1870s, for example: They would print the person’s name and the address, and they put in the alleged reasons behind these acts, and they’d talk to the neighbors. It was very, very gossipy. I think these stories were what most newspaper readers would turn to first.

Are there sites related to your stories that readers can go see? There’s not too much standing. But it’s interesting just to know where the vice stuff was in relation to the bars and restaurants downtown, and city hall and the river. Even the site of the new basketball center — that was right in the heart of what they called “The Badlands,” with all the brothels and dance halls and opium dens. That part of the city got a lot more boring over the last century.

Besides adventure and horror, you include stories that are funny. Yes, my favorite is about a character in the 1870s. She was called “Rosina Georg, The Queen of Nights.” She inherited a saloon — a dance hall — from her husband when he passed away. 

Sometime early on during her ownership they passed a licensing law to run taverns. They wanted to deny her a license. She served underage people, it was one of the few places in the city where black and white people danced together, and there was a lot of sordid stuff that was allegedly going on. She ran this tavern in defiance of the city for years. She’d be raided, arrested, they’d give her a fine, she’d pay it and after leaving the courtroom go right back to running her bar. They could not get her to close this place down! 

One of the lines from the newspaper was something like, “She’s the one who runs the city; the mayor and the city council work for her.” The last time she was convicted for running a house of ill repute, she married one of the jurors from her trial and then left town forever.

In some ways she’d be a hero today. Yes. The newspapers didn’t condemn her. They treated her as a folk heroine. Of course, anybody who’s good for a couple stories every month — they wouldn’t pass judgment on that!