Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Roving gangs of hooligans are not stalking Janesville. But the Doll still hangs

"An e-mail circulating through the area recently claims that there are gang initiations going on, specifically south of Janesville, that involve a car seat containing a doll. The e-mail goes on to say the gang then waits for a woman to stop and check on the baby, and they then attack her. It makes for a frightening story, if it actually happened." -Waseca County News

I spent a week in Janesville and didn't realize I was in the middle of a war zone, the type of thing Sean Penn and Robert Duvall confronted in Colors. God, I even drove alone a few times. Apparently, an email went around a few months ago claiming gangs - yes, gangs in Janesville - were initiating their new members by preying on female drivers who happened to have the misfortune of driving through town all alone. People - females, in particular, especially those who possess a ticking biological clock - are prone to pull over if they see an abandoned child, leaving them vulnerable to these type of stunts, which seem to spring more from the minds of screenwriters than hoods.

Apparently, though, Janesville, Minnesota, was not the only town with that fortunate name to suffer this unfortunate fate. WREX out of Rockford, Illinois, reported the same story. According to the station, gangs were hitting unsuspecting people in Janesville, Wisconsin. Only, unlike the good folks at the Waseca County News, WREX took the story as gospel, frightening viewers in that special way only TV news stations can - "TONIGHT ON 11. HAVE YOU USED TOILET PAPER RECENTLY? YOU MAY BE EXPOSING YOURSELF TO TUBERCULOSIS OR IDENTITY THEFT." Apparently you can't completely blame the station; the Janesville (Wisconsin) police department, the station reported, "says the emails are true."

"I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou."

It's not true. It's an urban legend. Or, in the case of Janesville, Minnesota, a rural legend. Snopes has thoroughly discredited the myth, and anyone who ever forwards a frightening chain email that warns of killer gangs, dangerous hyenas, or United Nations plots should be required by law to visit Snopes to check on the story before ever hitting the send button. If you send these emails - or know a family member who does - bookmark the site immediately. Take a crash course in how to navigate it. Learn to look for key clues in those scary, forwarded missives. Teenagers aren't lobbing Molotov cocktails at cars as they sit at red lights. Hotel room keycards aren't encoded with your social security number. There's no drug made from raw sewage.

The best part of the WREX story is the picture they ran online. It's a muscular man with a gigantic tattoo staining his back. He sports a shaved head. He's apparently behind bars, but ready to be released. This man could be the one who puts the babyseat on the road. Or maybe he's the one who attacks the unsuspecting, helpful driver. They probably took a screen grab from one of those Locked Up shows that MSNBC airs for 44 hours over the weekend. Either way, he's bad news. "BUT YOU'LL ONLY FIND OUT HOW BAD ON CHANNEL 13 AT 10 P.M.! But first, the weather."

Back to the hometown. I'm glad the paper and the police department both picked apart the story. You'd think common sense would win out, but what chance does common sense have against the Internet? Janesville does have crime. In the 1980s there were even a pair of grisly murders. Drunk cowards beat up their wives and kids steal things. People bounce bad checks and brawls can still break out at the bars. But gangs? There are groups of kids who ride their bikes or drive their parents' cars around town and might intimidate freshmen or bully some kids in the halls. These kids have been around for decades. Some of them mature and become successful businessmen. Some of them stay in town and grow up to be adult barflies. Those aren't gangs.

I can't see how wannabe toughs in the town would start up a gang in Janesville. The news would be all over Fury's Barbershop the second two people got together in a basement to form a group. By the time the crew got around to writing a mission statement and purchasing brass knuckles or drawing temporary tattoos on each other's necks, the Sheriff's Department would be breaking down the walls. I suppose the story could have been that gangs from a big city targeted Janesville. Still, seems unlikely. What are the odds that a gang travels down to little ol' Janesville for the diabolical plot? Where are they staying each night as they retire after a long day of work?

Maybe people believed it because there are still people in the area who are convinced evil does exist in the town, in the form of a doll in an old house along old Highway 14.

I wrote about the Doll in the Window before. I finally took a few pictures of the doll and the home - which is a lob wedge away from my parents' house - during my week-long stay. Lived there 22 years and have visited countless times since but I don't think I had ever before actually taken my own photos of the mysterious figure that looms over the highway and the town. I'll get emails from people asking about it, and the doll remains the main thing Minnesotans remember when they hear you're from Janesville (to be fair, that isn't a long list, so we're grateful for at least having one major landmark). Again, no one was murdered in the attic. A little girl didn't hang herself there. It's a little weird and creepy simply because all dolls are a little weird and creepy and if you perch it above a highway people will speculate. But I've walked past it two thousand times in my life and never got the chills. The owner of the house is old now, but remains one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. And, if you live long enough - to 2176, to be exact - you'll find out what it all means, when Janesville opens a time capsule.

That's only 166 years away. Maybe things will still be the same in Janesville. The Dairy Queen will still draw in drivers and the doll will watch over travelers and residents alike. And, no matter what you read in your email, the town will still be relatively safe, at least from evil gangs who use infants to prey on Good Samaritans. But just to be safe, stay away from Janesville, Wisconsin.

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