Select Page

Author: Carl Swanson

Wilkie James and the 54th Massachusetts: From the carnage of Fort Wagner in 1863 to a life in Milwaukee

The five children of Henry James Sr. include some of America’s greatest thinkers. Henry’s oldest son, the philosopher and educator William James, is considered the father of American psychology. His second son and namesake Henry James Jr. wrote 22 novels, hundreds of short stories, and many volumes of biographies, travel writing, art criticism, and memoirs. A third son, Robert, showed promise as an artist and writer until alcoholism derailed his career. Their sister, Alice, taught history but suffered from psychological and physical illness much of her life. Her sharply observed and insightful diaries, published after her death, are still...

Read More

Milwaukee Notebook: The 1879 scandal over rotten food and abuse at Milwaukee’s House of Corrections

In 1879, Milwaukeeans were shocked to learn of abusive treatment at the county-operated House of Corrections. Inmates, they learned, were routinely fed rotting meat, physically and verbally abused by guards, and could be punished with solitary confinement in a small, darkened cell for as long as 20 days at a time for infractions as minor as talking. Initially reported by the Milwaukee Sentinel, the accusations were so serious that the then-governor of Wisconsin, William E. Smith, directed the State Board of Charities and Reform to conduct an investigation. After a month of hearings in Milwaukee and sworn testimony from...

Read More

Milwaukee Notebook: The Great Courthouse Trouser Disaster

The first Milwaukee courthouse was built in 1836 at the site of what today is Cathedral Square Park. This sample chapter from the book “Lost Milwaukee” by Milwaukee Notebook writer Carl Swanson. Early settler James S. Buck wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee, which one writer described as “a fascinating hodgepodge of largely undigested facts, gossip, puffs and salty observations.” Buck included events both great and small in the city’s formative years. For example, many historians relate the construction of Milwaukee’s first courthouse in what is today Cathedral Square, but only Buck gave us “The Courthouse Trouser Disaster.”...

Read More

Carl Swanson: Rediscovering a lost Milwaukee

My journey into the past started with a decaying concrete foundation in the woods along the Milwaukee River. A few minutes on the Internet pulled up the answer – the foundation was that of the Gordon Park bathhouse, which opened in 1914. It had an eating room, more than 300 lockers, and could accommodate as many as 600 swimmers at a time. In the winter it served as a warming house for ice skaters. There is much more to the story. The first all-city swim meet was held here in 1921. More than 100 competitors took part, 59 in...

Read More

Milwaukee Notebook: The 1845 Bridge War

In 1845, an argument over who should pay for civic improvements escalated to the point that a cannon was wheeled out to threaten the west side of town with artillery fire. The dispute ended in the wrecking of most of the bridges in town. They called it the Bridge War. The dispute is all the more remarkable for Milwaukee, standing at the confluence of three rivers, is a city of bridges. A 1935 article in the Milwaukee Journal noted, “Milwaukeeans cross their bridges when they come to them – and they come to them, on the average, more than...

Read More

Milwaukee Notebook: An 1861 lynching in the Third Ward

On September 7, 1861, a mob overwhelmed police, broke into the Milwaukee city jail, and dragged an African-American prisoner from his cell. The prisoner, Marshal Clark, was beaten and then lynched – his body left hanging from a pile-driving machine on Buffalo Street just east of Water Street. Lynchings were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the South and especially targeting African-Americans. (The Tuskegee Institute counted 4,743 lynchings in the United States between 1882 and 1968, of which 3,446 of the victims were African-American.) Sixteen lynchings have taken place in Wisconsin. The first occurred in...

Read More