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Odd Wisconsin Archive

For Sale: Electric Chair (Slightly Used)

Jack Ferdette managed the Milwaukee Road's "lock-up" in Prairie du Chien for more than 30 years. The lock-up was the place where all unclaimed baggage or damaged rail freight was stored, and when W.P.A. folklorists called on him, Jack had many stories to tell about things left behind.

Ferdette was supposed to sell unclaimed items for the benefit of the railroad. Everything from tombstones to a papier mache caveman came under his care, and Jack dutifully stored it all until a buyer could be found. The tombstones rarely sold, since they had usually been inscribed already.

The 13-foot pre-historic papier mache caveman lingered, too, and was his silent companion in the storeroom for many years. His only other companions were a colony of feral cats. They must have been breeding for generations at Prairie du Chien, because they would only respond if he called them in French.

Ferdette once took in a trunk chock full of morphine, worth many thousands of dollars. He guessed it belonged to a drug dealer who was too afraid to claim it. But he said that the strangest thing ever to arrive at the lock-up was an electric chair dumped off in the mid-1930s.

He speculated that it had been on its way to a western jail, or possibly that "the gangsters have started using electric chairs in their business." In any case, neither Ferdette nor the railroad had the slightest idea where it had come from. It had simply been unloaded onto his platform from a passing train, and went unclaimed.

"I suppose I'll keep it," Ferdette said, "though I haven't any use for it. But then there's a lot of stuff in that building I haven't any use for." He was not optimistic about selling it either, chuckling, "Who in thunder would want to buy an electric chair?"

Source: "The Strangest Thing". Federal Writers' Project Records 1936-1939: folklore Wisconsin. Reel 5

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 15, 2010

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