Some books are worth reading for the enlightenment they bring; some are fun. Warriors, Saints, and Scoundrels: Brief Portraits of Real People Who Shaped Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press) is both.
Written by Michael Edmonds, a Wisconsin archivist and historian, and Samantha Snyder, a recent graduate from the UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies, it presents 80 short sketches about largely unknown characters from Wisconsin’s surprisingly quirky past.
Take Madison resident Hugh Lewis, who lost his arm fighting in the Civil War. The lopped-off limb was sent to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., as an illustration of medical science; his daughter, during a visit, saw it was pointed upright and asked that it be laid horizontally, purportedly ending her father’s many years of phantom limb pain. Lewis was later outraged to learn his arm had been sent to a university in Canada. “What business have you to send my arm off to a foreign country,” he asked, “when it was lost for the United States?” The arm was eventually returned, and Lewis is buried with it at Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery.
Many of the book’s subjects are notable for their achievements. Vinnie Ream Hoxie, an 18-year-old year Madison woman, was tapped by the U.S. government to sculpt a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Lorine Niedecker, a Fort Atkinson woman, quietly produced a large body of poetry that has earned her comparison to Emily Dickinson. Madison fisherman extraordinaire William (“Pickerel Billy”) Dunn would “launch his boat into Lake Mendota near James Madison Park and routinely catch one hundred pounds of bass or pike in a day.”
Some of the subjects are admirable. Ezra Mendall, a farmer in what is now Waukesha, stood up to mercenaries and the law by shielding a runaway slave, declaring “a bad law is sometimes better broken than obeyed.” Ezekiel Gillespie, an African American man in Milwaukee, successfully agitated for the right of black Wisconsinites to vote. And Lavinia Goodell secured the right of women lawyers to appear before the state Supreme Court.
The book also has its share of kooks and charlatans, including the Rev. David Van Slyke, who argued that the actual biblical Garden of Eden was located in Trempealeau, and Joseph Crelie, who proclaimed to be 145 years old — just three years after telling a reporter that he was 117. (He died in 1866 at age 92.)
Although the sketches are brief, the authors include sources for those seeking to dig deeper, for whatever they might find.
A book launch for Warriors, Saints, and Scoundrels will be held April 5 at Sun Prairie library, 6:30 p.m.