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‘World has always been crazy’: Bizarre history enthralls audience

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Staff photo by Clay Schuldt

Janesville Doll:

NEW ULM — Over 45 people learned about the bizarre history of Minnesota on a Zoom call hosted by the New Ulm Public Library, Thursday.

Author and guest speaker Chad Lewis gave a presentation over Zoom covering everything from peculiar people, mysterious creatures roaming the area, bizarre deaths, medical anomalies, psychic phenomena, and UFOs.

Lewis said he has been searching the world for weird stuff for 25 years and discovered that sometimes the weirdest things happen in your backyard. He wanted to tell the audience about the often hidden stories buried in Minnesota’s past.

Most of the stories he told were from the late 1800s or the early 1900s and were taken from old newspapers of the time. Lewis said often old newspapers would sensationalize the headlines; especially around strange deaths. Unlike today, where most obituaries look the same, the newspapers of 100 years ago were being splashy with gruesome details.

In the 1800s, many people feared being buried alive. There were hundreds of newspaper articles claiming it had happened and led to a trend of inventions to prevent it. Lewis said his favorite was the cemetery bell. It was a bell hooked up to a pulley system. Anyone accidentally buried alive could pull a cord to ring a bell up top to alert the caretaker. The problem was on windy nights all the bells rang.

On the subject of hauntings, Lewis said “you can’t throw a rock in Minnesota without hitting a good ghost story.”

HIs top recommendation for a haunted site was a Loon Lake Cemetery in Jackson. Some people call it Witch Cemetery because it is supposedly the resting place of a witch. Anyone who walks over her grave is cursed, but unfortunately, the location of the grave is unknown. Her headstone was moved by the local historical society to prevent theft.

Lewis said cemeteries with these types of legends run the risk of being vandalized, but said a sign asking people to be respectful can go a long way.

Lewis also told the story of medical oddities like that of Alice Elizabeth Doherty who was the Wooly Girl of Minnesota. The woman lived in the late 1800s and had hypertrichosis that caused her to grow hair all over her face. Many people thought it was wool. Doherty was was one of many people born with a rare medical condition who made a living on the sideshow circuit.

Lewis also told stories about mysterious creatures cited in Minnesota. The most terrifying was the Wendigo or Winter Cannibal. Wendigo sightings began with First Nation people in Canada but came down to the Great Lakes area. In northern Minnesota, the Wendigo was spotted near the Canadian border. Wendigo was similar to a banshee in that a citing was a harbinger of death.

There are also tales of a Devil Moose near Lake of the Woods. The Devil Moose is giant Frankenstein moose with features of other animals. In the 1900s organized parties tried to hunt the creature with no success.

Janesville has the legendary cursed doll. For years, a house in Janesville caused a stir with the community because a doll could be seen looking out a second-story window. The owner of the home refused to say why the doll was there and some people claimed to see the doll was watching them. Eventually, the homeowner died and the doll was moved to the local library. The doll proved to be an attraction at the library, but local children refused to go near the library and the doll was given back to the former estate holder.

UFO sightings were common in Minnesota. Several mysterious airships were spotted near Brainerd in 1897. In the same year, several other major cities reported airships. Sightings of UFOs would occur throughout the 1940s.

Lewis said one of his favorite alien stories was more modern, coming from 1965 in Long Prairie. A radio DJ claimed to have seen a rocket ship parked on the road. It caused his vehicle to stop and when he got out of his car he saw the occupants of the rocket come out to inspect the ship. He described the aliens as crawling “oil cans”. The description would be changed by the newspaper who described the aliens as “beer can” aliens. Other people reported seeing UFOs the same night. Police did investigate and found an oil ring where the craft had supposedly landed.

Asked about any local bizarre stories, Lewis said he has heard many stories about haunted breweries. Breweries like Schell’s have stories of former employees who do not want to leave after death.

Walnut Grove also has some haunting stories related to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder even claimed to have grown up a few miles from the lake monster in Lake Pepin.

Lewis encouraged his audience to look through old newspapers to find strange stories from the past. He also encouraged everyone to support libraries for continuing to hold communities together during pandemics.

At the end of the presentation Lewis said that he hoped people would understand that in these times when it seems like the world is going crazy, it is important to understand it has always been crazy.

“The world was crazy 100 years ago and it will be crazy 100 years from now.”

For more information on Minnesota’s curious past, visit www.chadlewisresearch.com.

The Zoom program was recorded by the library and will be available on YouTube within the next few weeks.

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