Book Review: Milwaukee Mayhem, by Matthew J. Prigge
Milwaukee Mayhem, by Matthew J. Prigge
Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City’s First Century
By Matthew J. Prigge
Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

Beer, Lake Michigan, and the Brewers have made Milwaukee a great Midwestern town. Located on the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, the Cream City is home to innovation, industry, and sensible zoning controls. At least that’s what the boosters will tell visiting conventioneers and investors. But every city has its dark side. Milwaukee has had its share of crimes, accidents, and disasters. Milwaukee Mayhem: Murder and Mystery in the Cream City’s First Century by Matthew J. Prigge chronicles the lurid underbelly of this American city.

Matthew J. Prigge hosts “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” a radio show produced by WMSE, the radio station of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). He also hosted MONDO Milwaukee boat tours in 2014. His previous books include a history of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and a history of Milwaukee film censorship.

Milwaukee Mayhem divides its brief stories into four categories: Murder, Accidents, Vice, and Secrets. He begins with the famous “Bridge War” of 1845. The last stories come at the tail end of the Second World War. Prigge crafts each tale from newspaper reports from the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel, back when the city had two competing newspapers. Most stories are brief and thin on the details, but this is because of the original source material – newspaper clippings – didn’t reveal much in the first place. But the point of Milwaukee Mayhem isn’t depth, so much as variety. These are random snapshots of the past, stretching from the early nineteenth century to V-E Day. While a more progressive perspective might say this book shows how Milwaukee developed from hardscrabble frontier town to bustling civilized metropolis, more jaded minds might offer a different opinion. Crime, like war, corruption, and hysteria, are eternal. Are we better than our ancestors? Our technology has at least improved. These days America has become barbaric, short-sighted, and vulgar.

Reading Milwaukee Mayhem reminded me of watching City Confidential on A&E. Airing from 1998 to 2005 and narrated by Paul Winfield, it offered lurid stories of murder and corruption in otherwise ordinary cities and towns. Prigge’s book offers a good substitute for those seeking a pulpy tabloid read.

Out of 10/9.0

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Karl Wolff has been a local TV production assistant, museum curator, and undergraduate teaching assistant. He currently reviews books for CCLaP, the New York Journal of Books, runs his own blog (The Driftless Area Review), and has written features for Milwaukee's own Alcoholmanac Magazine and INFO* Magazine.