Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Doll in the window that haunts Janesville

I grew up in Janesville, Minnesota, a town of 2,100 people in southern Minnesota. The town's more than a dot on the map, but not by much. It still has the high school, a grocery store, some bars that are often home to amusing fist fights between really skinny guys who drink like 300-pounders, and a Dairy Queen.

It's also home to the Doll in the Window, which is probably a copyrighted phrase by this point so I'll capitalize it. I grew up on the same block as the Doll, across the street and two houses up. It sits in the attic of a home on Highway 14, a major road that used to go straight through town but now bypasses it. For years - decades - motorists would always slow down when passing by the house. They'd gaze up, tell their children to look at the window, and scare them with ghost stories. Or maybe they'd tell the kids they'd end up hanging in a window some day if they didn't shut the hell up and stop hitting their sister.

People speculated about what it all meant. Had a child died in the home? Was a girl not allowed to go to the prom and then killed herself (and that the anguished mother then...put a doll up in a window? A perfect response to such a tragedy, I suppose).

The website strangeusa.com had some thoughts:
4.) She was even rumored to be hated by the townsfolk and the other children. Due to the pressure of being alone, she hung herself in the attic. After realizing what they had done to their daughter, the parents put this doll in the upstairs attic window as a reminder to the people of Janesville to be friendly and neighborly.5.) It is also said in a very far fetched story, that a demon disguises itself as the doll in the window and curses anyone who comes to look at him. 6.) A girl was neglected by her family and nobody in the town liked her. She apparently hung herself in her attic and nobody said anything for several days. After the body was removed, it was replaced by the doll and has been there ever since.

Number four is my favorite. The townsfolk hated her. Such a Scarlett Letter type concept. What goes unsaid is what the child did to earn such hate. Was she an arsonist who burned down three farmhouses and the town bank? Did she annoy them by constantly pestering them to buy Girl Scout cookies? Was she simply an ugly child? But it fails to tell us if the townsfolk learned their lesson and became more neighborly. And I also like how number five earns the disclaimer "a very far fetched story" when telling about a disguised demon, in comparison to the perfectly plausible tale of a hated child whose parents guilt-trip the townsfolk into remembering what they did to their wretched little girl, which in turn leads to the entire town becoming a more friendly place to raise a family.

The Minnesota State Mankato student newspaper wrote about the Doll, turning it into a way to warn college kids about the evil in the world.

There's even a short film about the doll - sorry, Doll - that's well-done and explores many of the stories around it. Most of the townsfolk interviewed - perhaps some of the same townsfolk who were so mean to that little girl - spoke with tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but the film is a cool attempt to, as the creator says, spread the myth. Even more exciting, my parents's house is in the background for a few seconds.

The truth is no one knows for sure why the owner, Ward Wendt, put the doll up there. But Ward is an extremely nice man, an elderly man, who is friendly, kind, a huge collector of memorabilia of all kinds, and he surely has a sly sense of humor. My best friend as a kid took numerous trips up to the attic where the Doll resides, and the most amazing thing about the space was not the famous toy, but the grand pianos Ward had placed up there. We couldn't figure out he could have moved those monsters up into the attic.

There was no death, no killing, no demon, no vindictive, child-hating townsfolk with grudges against little girls who don't know their place. The truth will be revealed in 2176 when the city elders open a time capsule in the city park, which supposedly has Ward's explanation in it.

Is the doll a little creepy if you don't live in Janesville and didn't walk past it every day and didn't say hello to the home's owner? Sure. But no more than any other doll, their expressionless faces and vacant eyes staring through your eyes and into your soul, judging, judging, judging.

So if you're ever traveling through southern Minnesota and want to get off the main road for a bit, take the exit into Janesville and go on the old Highway 14. Take a look at the doll. Stop at the Dairy Queen. Say hello to my parents. But don't blame the townsfolk for driving a little girl to her death.

(Epilogue: Check out the post I wrote about Ward for TVFury. Ward died in September 2012 at the age of 84.).

OCT. 15, 2012 UPDATE: As Brittany noted in the comments, the doll is apparently now gone. It's fate...unknown.


brittany said...

I live a block and a half down and the doll was removed this weekend

Shawn Fury said...

Thanks, Brittany. My mom texted me that yesterday and I was shocked! Just like that...gone. Maybe it will reappear.

brittany said...

Rumor is it was donated to the good will, but who knows, i think it was a mistake to take it down its been there 40 some years n wasn't hurting anybody.

Dawn said...

All who wish to see the doll can now see it in the window of the public library-framed by the original window! I live a block away in the old insurance agents house. (reference for Shawn) I went to elementary school here in the 80s, moved back 9 years ago. All the same stories. Well my daughter had a birthday party last Friday-she's 9. The girls were so scared just talking about it!! One girls dad told her the whole story used to be on a plaque uptown on the side of the laundromat (which happened to collapse in a year or two ago). They couldn't be reasoned with. The legend lives on...As long as new families move to town anyway. I miss seeing Ward around, driving his station wagon. Shawn did he ever drive a hearse?

Shawn Fury said...

Dawn, thanks for the comment. If you didn't see it, here's the other post I wrote when Ward died. Lots of people's memories.


Yeah, he drove a hearse and I think he hauled the flowers around in that.

The laundromat bit with the girls is genius. Yeah, make them think the story was there but has now been lost again because of the collapsing building.

Anonymous said...

umm creepily enough on google street it looks like its in the downstairs window