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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Dark Side of Covered Bridges

Covered bridges evoke nostalgia for an idealized past, not just in Wisconsin but throughout the nation. They epitomize our longing for a romantic, Norman Rockwell vision of happier, healthier times. But as with all illusions, the truth is more complex.

A covered bridge spanning a rural stream, for example, was the perfect place for criminals to ply their trade. One that crossed the Sugar River outside Brodhead in Green County became notorious in the 1860s for harboring thieves and murders.

Robbers intending to hold up a stagecoach or horse thieves looking for an easy score would hide in its overhanging rafters. Once their victim had entered the bridge, they were assured of no witnesses when they dropped down onto an unsuspecting traveler.

This particular bridge became so well-known for criminal assaults that local residents were warned never to pass over it alone. Those who had to make the attempt did so at a fast gallop, hoping to avoid any thieves lurking above.

One criminal, Fred Hartin, used the opposite part of the bridge for his purposes. In 1916 Hartin killed an acquaintance near Beloit and managed to escape the police. He fled upriver and arrived at the Brodhead bridge just a few moments before his pursuers. Instead of scaling up into its rafters, he snuck underneath it and lay down across one of its large supporting beams.

The police searched overhead carefully and guarded the bridge throughout the night, never knowing that Hartin was just below their feet. When they departed in the morning, he made his escape. It took a year and a half for them to track him down, when he finally explained how the bridge had helped him get away.

So the next time you see an image of a covered bridge, don't just yield to your initial nostalgia. Take a moment to remember that the quaint old span probably also possessed a darker, more dangerous side. Who knows what similarly sinister tales might be told about the old oaken bucket or Mom's apple pie?

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 29, 2011
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