Monday, February 22, 2010

Eugene Kane and the Mississippi Mad Man

Eugene Kane has an odd column on the yet another unfortunate drowning of a drunk La Crosse college student in the Mississippi River. I call it odd because he makes a rather dramatic speculation based on nothing more than the circumstances:

For me, I have difficulty conceiving that someone - drunk or not - would willingly be drawn at night to the banks of a river with a deadly reputation.


It's disconcerting to hear of yet another drowning in La Crosse after all the publicity about the dangers of the fast-flowing Mississippi River. It's also tough not to at least wonder whether an evil person on the prowl is responsible for the deaths or if it is just irresponsible drinking.

(emphasis added)

Kane is right: with so many deaths occurring so similarly to people that seem to fit a certain profile, the people of La Crosse really do have a responsibility to ask some hard and potentially disconcerting questions.

What Kane omits to tell his readers is that the city of La Crosse has done just that over the years.

There have been education projects, student and community patrols, numerous investigations, motion sensors, and all have never once turned up a shred of evidence of a killer lurking along the riverside. Kane seems perfectly willing to ignore this. To a certain extent, I don't blame him:
I've covered the Jeffrey Dahmer murders and the recent serial killings of prostitutes in Milwaukee, so it's a safe bet any story about black students drowning in the same river after a night of drinking would have my alarm bells ringing.
Had I devoted a great deal of time trying to learn as much as I could about Jeffery Dahmer as a young reporter, I probably would be pretty quick to pull the serial killer trigger too, but that's a personal bias Kane has to get over. The fact of the matter is that that there are far more reasonable explanations that, for lack of any physical evidence that suggests a serial killer, should be taken more seriously that some urban myth.

1.) Booze. Nearly everyone pulled from the river isn't just drunk, they tend to be shit-faced. In every case this is the mitigating factor. Young people who don't have much experience being that drunk -- regardless of what they may think or say -- will do things that don't make sense. Often times they will take risks for no other reason than they have been warned not to do something and their inhibitions have been impaired by the alcohol ... like walking down by the riverside, something they likely have been repeated warned not to do and is thus an easily retrieved idea even in a drunken stupor. The end.

2.) Young men -- especially college kids -- are more likely to leave bars drunk and alone, than any other type of pub patron. We've all been there: the gang wants to go some where else, but one straggler has been chatting up a young lady and has invested too much time to give up now ... there's going to be little to convince him to leave. Chances are he'll strike out because he's too drunk (or get drunker because he just blew it) and he's on his own.

3.) There is a complete lack of forensic evidence among any of the victims that suggests a struggle or even contact with another human being. Something would have turned up: a fiber, a footprint in the snow, something under the fingernails of the victims, an eye witness across the street -- but to date nothing has turned up. This is the inescapeable flaw in any belief in the Mississippi Mad Man.

4.) Urban Planning. The bars in downtown La Crosse are right by the river. A lot of people like to use UW-Oshkosh as a kind of control study as further circumstantial evidence for a serial killer -- both UW-O and UW-L are roughly the same size and have notorious drinking cultures -- but most college bars in Oshkosh aren't by the Fox River and when students leave them they will go to dorms or student housing in a direction away from the river. We've heard of kids using the riverside in La Crosse as a shortcut home in some instances.

5.) The River. The Fox River in Oshkosh freezes rather quickly once the temperature gets below freezing. If someone fell into the Fox River, they will simply fall on ice. Obviously, people in La Crosse are falling through the ice. That's not going to happen in Oshkosh for several months during the year.

6.) Interim. Adding to (3.), UW-O has an outrageously long winter break that lasts from the middle of December to the beginning of February -- perfect falling-through-the-ice time of year. Most kids just aren't around campus during those six/seven weeks.

There are others, but Kane never once thinks of bringing any of these up or supplying his readers with empirical evidence.

There is no reason to believe in the Mississippi Mad Man. He's an urban legend. Psychologists would call the MMM's existence a form of collective denial by a community that doesn't want to admit it has a youth drinking problem. Kane would be doing his readers a much better service by getting to the root of the problem rather than dabbling in figments of a city's imagination.

1 comment:

Ron said...

The "serial killer" in La Crosse is alcohol.