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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazette: The Wild Midwest

November 17, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the first instalment of a new series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin.

For many years, James Ellroy spoke vividly of wanting to write a novel about the Wisconsin State Police, partially as a tribute to his murdered mother, Jean Hilliker, a Wisconsin native.

I asked Ellroy about the status of the novel on the very first night I met him in 2009, and the Demon Dog didn’t hesitate for a second: “There is no Wisconsin State Police”.  In the decade since, I’ve asked Ellroy about the project several times, and his answer is always the same.

Ellroy is partially correct. While there indeed is no Wisconsin State Police, there is an actual Wisconsin State Patrol, and Ellroy would pay tribute to this police force with the fictional Wisconsin State Police Officer (and serial killer) Ross Anderson from Killer on the Road. Beyond that, it’s tragic that we’re unlikely to see the Dog’s long-promised Wisconsin novel. Ellroy’s idea has always fascinated me, so I finally resolved to dig into Wisconsin’s dark past myself.  Stay with me…

Ellroy wisconsin badge 1 red

Milwaukee belonged to crime from the very beginning.  Almost immediately after incorporating in 1845, The Cream City endured a crippling disagreement that nearly eviscerated the young American settlement.

At that time, the Milwaukee River was crossed by three bridges, and the residents on the west side favored only the one which led down Spring Street, allowing easy access to City Hall and the courthouse.  Those on the east side preferred the connections convenient to their lakeside docks. When a lost schooner captain plowed his vessel into the bridge at Spring Street, the west side accused the east side of staging the incident to cripple their preferred passage as revenge for the east’s refusal to help finance the bridges they saw as detrimental to their community.

A mob of west side loyalists would in turn destroy the rival Chestnut Street bridge, hacking the crossing to a soggy tangle of mutilated timbers.  Those on the east side would go on to demolish the Spring Street Bridge, and another bridge spanning the southern Menomee River, leaving just one passable bridge and the vengeful west siders unable to reach it.

This conflict, known in Milwaukee history as “The Bridge War” was settled by the village trustees, culminating in the historic 1846 signing of Milwaukee’s first charter.  The Bridge War is just one example of the chaos that fuelled Milwaukee’s ascent from sparse settlement to booming metropolis. Those who facilitated this ascent were a shitbird mass rabble of peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps with nothing to lose whose wanton antics would paradoxically spur the creation of an iconic police force.

Just nine years after becoming a city in 1846, Milwaukee was so inundated with murders, thefts, arson, and prostitution, the city marshal and county sheriff soon found themselves overwhelmed.

Often times, a hapless accident would erupt into all out pandemonium.  As Milwaukee historian Matthew J. Prigge recounts in his 2015 book Milwaukee Mayhem, in August 1854, downtown Milwaukee’s dilapidated Davis Livery Stable caught fire, triggering fire alarms in all corners of the city.  Volunteer fire companies were still en route to the scene as the flames spread to adjacent structures, including a series of dry and brittle wood-framed store fronts.

Within an hour, an entire city block was engulfed.  On several occasions, the heat was so intense, the city’s volunteer squad was forced to turn their hoses on themselves to avoid heat exhaustion.  By the time two hundred reinforcements arrived from nearby Racine, the block where the fire originated was a pile of ash.

As an intoxicated crowd of thousands gathered to watch the action unfold, chaos gradually ensued…  a fisherman was stabbed during a melee on Huron Street, an exhausted fire fighter drove his ladder car over a man on Wisconsin Street, and all over the city, men seized the anarchy of the day to pilfer the merchandise of downtown businesses.  As Milwaukee did not yet have a police force, the fire company arrested more than 40 men and sent them to the jail house on charges of theft and looting.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…    

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    November 17, 2019 6:07 pm

    The Wisconsin novel is one of a number of interesting Ellroy “could have beens” like the Bugsy Siegel book, the Warren Harding book, as well as books set in 1920’s Berlin and post-WWII Sioux Falls. Ellrot doesn’t like to talk much about the projects that never materialized, but from the bits I can recall it was going to follow a father and son cops from 1933 to around 1958. Topics covered would have included the German-American Bund and possibly Ed Gein.

    Any updates on an Ellroy interview for your podcast?

    • Jason Carter permalink
      November 17, 2019 6:52 pm

      Great to hear from you Dan. Ellroy’s been in Europe most of the past few months (he’s currently in France until the end of Nov.), so he hasn’t gotten back to me yet about the interview, but I still want it to happen. For now, it depends on where This Storm’s book tour takes him. Once he gets back to Denver, I’ll call him again and remind him. I really hope he reads my series about the Wisconsin Police.

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