The year is 1878. Winona is a major docking point for pioneers moving westward and is a stomping ground for scoundrels and fiends. Swindlers are around every corner, waiting for the next gullible person to scam. Winona was not immune to the desperate acts of thieves around the turn of the 19th century. Property scams were rampant, homes were burned or vandalized, and each thief had a heartbreaking tale to spin.
To bring the infamous "dirty laundry" to light, Theatre du Mississippi playwright Margaret Shaw Johnson has meticulously researched the city’s newspaper archives to tell the true stories of the scandals, swindles, and crimes that took place in Winona. Her research and short stories by seven guest writers has been compiled into a play that will be staged in conjunction with the Winona County Historical Soceity's annual Woodlawn Cemetery Discovery Walk, Scoundrels, Scandals and Skullduggery. The cemetery walk will be held on Oct. 13 and 14. The play, "Fiends, Schemes, and Broken Dreams" will also highlight the sometimes rocky lives of 19th century Winonans.
“Winona was on the edge of the frontier and law enforcement wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now,” Johnson said. “You basically had a sheriff who was running around town trying to catch these guys. A lot of the time they were long gone before people caught on to their schemes.”
The play revolves around Little Johnny’s Saloon, which in the late 1800s was a real watering hole on the corner of Second and Walnut streets, owned by Winona resident Johnny Statts. Winona’s true crime stories are told through actors who portray saloon regulars and read from the daily news reports to Johnny's father, who is blind.
Without giving too much of the play away, Johnson describes one true story about a German couple who was taken by a slick American scammer upon their arrival in New York. The couple had saved $1,000 with the hopes of starting a new life in Minnesota.
“The thief said their German currency wouldn’t work in the United States, and offered to exchange their money,” Johnson said. “What he gave the couple was worthless, and they were left with only $15. They were able to make it to Winona but had virtually nothing to their names.”
Johnson said stories like this were all too common in her research. Unscrupulous "fiends" employed scams, fixed card games, basically anything they could think of.
“There were all kinds of people moving through Winona at this time. Many were immigrants,” Johnson said. “They were coming here for a new future. What little money they had with them was taken by thieves and swindlers who came in on the steamboats and trains.”
While many stories are heartbreaking, Johnson said she did come across some amusing antics.
“A man was convinced that a barmaid was to be his new bride and was fooled into spending all kinds of money celebrating the upcoming nuptials,” Johnson said. “The story goes on and on, but you can probably figure out what happens.”
Performed to the accompaniment of popular music of the era and an original score written by Brian Schellinger, "Fiends, Schemes, and Broken Dreams" is a creative look at firsthand accounts of real Winona natives struggling to brave the surroundings of their new world.
“I think people are going to learn a lot about the Winonans of the early days and be entertained by compelling characters,” Johnson said. “The cemetery walk is a similar theme, but the stories will all be different.”
"Fiends, Schemes, and Broken Dreams" opens Friday, October 12, and runs through Sunday, October 14. Tickets are available at the Winona County History Center and are $15 in advance for adults, $18 at the door, and $7 for students.
Guest writers are Fran Edstrom, Lynn Nankivil, Ken McCullough, Emilio DeGrazia, Dan Munson, Kathy Peterson, and Mark Metzler.
The production is made possible through grants from the Winona Foundation, the Slaggie Family Foundation, SEMCAC, the Winona Fine Arts Commission, the Elizabeth Callender King Foundation, and the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation.
For more information, visit the Theatre du Mississippi website.