The Tragedy of Annie Scheffner

Feb 6, 2019

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about the tragedy of Annie Scheffner.

The early history of the Northwoods is filled with tales of bawdy houses and colorful stories of visits that are often told with a wink and a nod.  Because this sort of business was illegal and masked in shame and public condemnation few records were kept of who visited and who worked in these places, and most of the women in these houses lived in anonymity and are among history’s forgotten people.  Part of popular culture likes to romanticize the women who endured this sort of life and think that they eventually found a husband or earned enough cash to move on to a different place for a fresh start.  Rarely was this the case, and the story of Annie Scheffner illustrates what the fate of some of these women really was.

Bordellos have been a part of the Northwoods backdrop for a long time, and in 1913 Annie Scheffner was one of the women working in one such Woodruff area establishment.  Scheffner was born in Tomahawk sometime around 1890, and the surviving evidence indicates that she was an ordinary little girl who wanted nothing more than to grow up, fall in love, have a family, and be a part of the community.  Annie’s life changed dramatically at the age of 16 when she fell in love with a young man and became pregnant.  This was no more unusual one hundred years ago than it is today, however, at the turn of the twentieth century there were only two possible outcomes for an unmarried woman who found herself in this situation.  She could get married to the man responsible or she would be shunned.  The young man in this case abandoned Scheffner, and she became what was then termed a “scarlet woman.”  With the finger of scorn pointed in her direction, Scheffner quickly found that she was rejected by her community and ostracized by her family.

Scheffner apparently tried to find work as a domestic servant, but economic realities soon left her with little choice.  She became an inmate of a bawdy house.  The cheerless experience of living in a bordello took its toll on Scheffner, and she became emotionally depressed.  In early February 1913 she offered some strange medicine to other women working in the bordello.  They refused, so Annie went upstairs to her own room and swallowed the concoction herself.  It was strychnine.  As the report of her death read, a young woman “suffering all the torments of a living death and with the future holding not the faintest ray of hope for a better life,” took her own life at the age of 23.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.