Q&A: Matthew Prigge

Matthew Prigge wrote Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City’s First Century. He’s also available for boat tours.

What about mayhem, murder and mystery interests you as a historian?
The trend in history recently has been to look at the working class, as opposed to centuries and decades earlier when they were focusing on leaders and presidents and the upper class. But I wanted to go even beneath that and look at the criminal class of people who didn’t play by the rules and existed on the fringes of society. These people were Milwaukeeans, too.

Where did you find your information?
The reason this book was possible was because of how news reporting was in this era, especially the Milwaukee Sentinel. They reported with glee on a lot of really weird stuff, and gave very detailed accounts of suicides and murders, and got into more personal aspects of the story that news reporting now doesn’t have.

What was the average Milwaukeean’s life like during the city’s first century?
One of the things that struck me was how violent day-to-day life was. Not necessarily physical violence, but violence of the times. The noise, the pollution and how dirty everything was. People seemed almost desensitized to death. You could kind of tell in the way people reported on it.

What is the oldest story in the book?
The one that goes back the furthest is when they were first building the Michigan Street bridge; the workers found a coffin buried into the riverbed. They pulled it up and took the lid off, and in it was a skeleton missing its head. This was the 1890s, and the city historian at the time figured it would have been a French fur trader who was murdered in the 1830s, and whoever killed him buried his body and threw his head in the river to keep from being figured out.

What’s Milwaukee’s biggest forgotten historical event?
I’d say the Newhall House fire. People are aware of that, but 70-something people died. It was the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history up until the 1940s. It’s still one of the top three. But not just the fire. The hotel itself was such a significant building, built in 1857. It was one of the most luxurious hotels west of New York.

You also do historical boat tours for the Milwaukee Boat Line. What point of interest gets the most feedback?
It used to be the Bronze Fonz, but it shows up on the tour at the same point you get the best view of Milwaukee’s City Hall. City Hall is probably my favorite building in the city. I got so sick of people straining to look at the back of the Fonzie statue when I was trying to show them City Hall that I just stopped mentioning it. Maybe that’s my historian’s beef with some of the tourist spots in the city. I’ll just act like it doesn’t exist. If people knew I was ignoring it, they’d be upset, but nobody ever realizes. Life goes on without the Fonz, I guess.

Have you met people connected with historical events during a tour?
I met the ex-wife of the lawyer who defended George Carlin in his obscenity trial when he was arrested at Summerfest for his seven dirty words routine. Also, there was a guy who worked on the Edmund Fitzgerald. Obviously, before it sank.

‘Point of View: Matthe Prigge’ appears in the February 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the February issue on newsstands beginning Feb. 1.

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