I’m a writer, teacher, and historian based in Madison, Wisconsin.
My writings on history, nature, and folklore explore ways that ideas have moved through time and space in oral, printed, and digital forms.
I’ve always been fascinated by eccentric, unusual, and atypical people or events that mainstream culture has overlooked. For more than a decade I wrote the syndicated weekly newspaper column, “Odd Wisconsin” highlighting bizarre and little-known stories from the state’s past.
My most recent book, Taking Flight: A History of Birds and People in the Heart of America, was published in March 2018. I’ve written three other books and edited or contributed to several more, as well as many journal articles, newspaper columns, and book reviews.
Books (click cover image for more information)
My work has won national awards from the American Folklore Society, the American Association for State and Local History, and the American Library Association.
I joined the staff of the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1982 and retired at the end of 2018. I’ve also taught part-time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1986 to 2019. I hold degrees from Harvard University (BA 1976) and Simmons College (MS 1981). At the Wisconsin Historical Society I led the teams that digitized and put online hundreds of thousands of rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, and other historical documents. I also curated several traveling displays and exhibits shown in venues around the nation. Between 2015 and 2018 I oversaw the Society’s education, publishing, and outreach programs.
Speaking: I’m happy to talk to civic and academic groups about my research and writing. For more information or to request a presentation, visit the Wisconsin Historical Society Speakers Bureau. Venues normally cover a modest honorarium and travel costs.
Selected Articles and Essays (more information)
Online Collections (more information)
Women’s History Resources at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (co-author, Mary E. Fiorenza; Madison, Wisconsin Historical Society, 1997).
Leonard Woolf: A Bibliography (co-author, Leila Luedeking; Winchester, Eng., St. Paul’s, 1992).
Lytton Strachey: A Bibliography (N.Y., Garland, 1981).
Dear Mr. Edmonds, I would like to talk to you about a video documentary i am researching… about Mrs. Adda F. Howie… Wisconsin Dairy Woman from the late 1800’s – early 1900’s … I am currently enjoying your book Warriors, Saints & Scoundrels… Thank you, John Dwight Giles … Stevens Point, WI … 715.544.0763
Mr. Edmonds, I am interested in a timeline you provide in your book, “The Wisconsin Capitol”. On page 3 you indicate that the Spanish were in the area from 1512-1627. I am interested in the documentation for this information. I did find it in the Congressional Record of September 10, 1970 page 31238 (Madeline Island is truly billed the “Island of Antiquity: Under four flags: Spain, 1512-1627; France, 1627 to 1762: England, 1763 to 1783, and the United States of America from 1783 to the present), however no documentation is provided there either. I thank you in advance for providing me with this information. Sincerely, Barbara Schacht
I wanted to write to tell you that this morning I watched and greatly enjoyed your talk on C-SPAN about William Proxmire. I had heard of the Golden Fleece awards but knew next to nothing else of the man. I thought you “brought him to life” with all his strengths and flaws, and it was a true joy to learn from you.
Thanks again and best wishes!
I only just realized that I have to go to specific page to see comments, so only discovered your note from October today. Sorry about that. I’m glad you enjoyed that little episode. A few years ago I built a site at the Wisconsin Historical Society that includes all the Golden Fleece awards and much more. If you’ve retained any interest in Sen. Proxmire, you might enjoy it: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS15283
Again, my apologies for not relying sooner.
I tried to leave this comment last night but it didn’t seem to work, maybe because I wasn’t logged in. Apologies if this means you have to moderate first but I’m going to try again…
I recently read your excellent 2010 piece on the Sound Storm festival. I found that while doing research after I rediscovered super-8 film I shot there. I had edited it into a movie at the time and it has been in a box unwatched since the early ’70s, along with other film work from that time. This year I digitized a lot of this material and have posted some of the best stuff on YouTube so they are easy to show to interested people. They are unfinished so they are not publicly viewable but I can send you the URL for the Sound Storm stuff if you’re interested. I need to enter my email to post this so I presume you can see it and can contact me that way. If not, respond here.
Briefly about the contents: There are shots of several of the bands including the Dead, but no sound unfortunately. My focus was more on the scene and the crowd and what they were doing. I have shots of the birth of the Mud King for example and some of the Northern Comfort bride and a lot of faces.
Frank – Somehow I scrolled past this without noticing it for a year and a half. I would enjoy seeing your video of Sound Storm, if you’ll send me a link: mmiedmonds at geemail Also, if you’re ever looking for a permanent home for your video work, the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison has one of the nation’s best film archives and is always looking for local material. My friend Jonathan Nelson is in charge of collecting there: jonathanr.nelson at wisconsinhistory.org Again, my apologies for not replying long ago. — Michael
I wanted to drop a line to let you know how much I enjoyed Out of the Northwoods. I just finished it and thought it was fantastic.
Keep an eye out,
Thanks, Chad. Glad you enjoyed it. I still like it, myself, too . 😉
Hello Mr. Edmonds,
My son and I are planning to take your Wisconsin’s Beginnings class in September. I was wondering, given it is only two 1 hour classes, whether there will be time for questions from students. We are both looking forward to learning more about our beloved state.
Actually, the catalog is misleading — it’ll be four Wednesday nights for an hour each. The description says two, but the schedule is correct in listing four. And yes, I’m building in time for questions. We’ll use Zoom’s Q&A tab for that, I think. You should probably download Zoom if you haven’t, and you might consider air casting or screen mirroring your computer to your TV, if you have a smart TV. The presentations contain mostly pictures and they’ll look better on a bigger screen.
If you or your son have any other questions between now and Sept. 9, don’t hesitate to drop them here and I’ll answer them as quickly as I can. I look forward to meeting you (virtually) next month.
Hello Michael – I was on your recent zoom presentation regarding discernment of fake vs real news. I noticed that you didn’t mention any “alternative” news. I suggest you take a look at plandemicseries.com. I found it very informative and I’m curious what your take on it would be. I look forward to your response. Jo Anne
Jo Anne –
Thanks for your question. Not being a medical expert myself, I can only trust what others say about Covid-19. So I applied the method and tools that I discussed in last week’s presentation, bearing in mind the overall principle of being skeptical and questioning authority.
1. I went to the link you provided. The home page had many examples of clickbait and indicators of propaganda like sensational language and photos, so I immediately suspected it. I’m reluctant to click through and let sites that look like this collect my personal browsing data, as we discussed in last week’s presentation, so I went no further. I especially ignored all the buttons asking me to download files, which can plant malware on my computer.
2. I went next to Wikipedia where I confirmed that this was indeed the same film that I had heard about on the news. I’d read nothing about it before but headlines.
3. I Googled ‘plandemic critical reception’ to get a quick overview of what sites and sources I trust had to say about the film, such as the New York Times and public broadcasting. I found that they universally considered it misinformation. I ignored sites likely to contain outright propaganda from the left or right.
4. Next I searched it at AllSides.com, Politifact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org and found that they all considered it unreliable misinformation. Politfact and FactCheck have long articles explaining why they consider the film untrustworthy. None of these sites, staffed by professional fact-checkers and dedicated to uncovering the truth about controversial topics, supported the claims made in the film.
5. I searched it in Google Scholar and found no articles by medical experts about it, but several by scholars in the field of communications who all used it as an example of misinformation in their academic papers.
6. I searched it in medical information sources that I’ve come to trust such as WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, but could find no information supporting or denouncing it.
7. I searched it in PubMed, the database compiled by the National Library of Medicine that indexes all the articles appearing in professional and academic medical journals. This led to only one article, probably because the film is recent and scholarly publishing is slower than journalism. The article criticized the reliability of a physician featured in Plandemic, Dr. Judy Mikovits.
8. I searched her name in Google and Wikipedia for background, and found that articles by medical experts and professional journalists overwhelmingly mistrusted her work.
9. Mixed in among all these dozens of search results were a great many articles about coverage of the film in the media, from which I gathered that YouTube had decided to pull the film down and the main social media sites to ban its promoters because they didn’t want their audiences to consume medical misinformation.
10. In sum, I could find no independent experts that supported the film and that all the trusted fact-checking sites denounced it, as did medical experts and professional news sources. I decided it was not worth any more of my time: if I took my car to a dozen professional mechanics and they all said it needed new brakes, I’d disregard the eccentric neighbor who said it doesn’t.
Many of my reliable sources used the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ in describing the film. Studies of this phenomenon date back to the 19th century; “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay, published in 1841, is the earliest of these. Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” (1901) and “Psychopathology and Politics” (1930) by American sociologist Harold Lasswell are two other classics. The consensus of modern researchers seems to be that when some people feel powerless and out of control, they embrace ideas that make the chaos go away and the world seem more orderly. They embrace conspiracy theories to quell their deep fears. This has been used to explain why the German people embraced Nazism and anti-Semitism after their country was ruined by WWI.
Certainly our world is in extraordinary chaos, what with the pandemic, civil unrest, climate change, and political polarization; many of us feel powerless and grasp for over-arching explanations. A few nights ago, armed right-wing Proud Boys and left-wing anti-racist protestors faced off in Portland; each side embraced an ideology that explains today’s chaos and was prepared to defend it with clubs and guns (the outnumbered Portland police stood off to the side). So if the psychologists are right, it’s understandable that many people will want to believe a secret cabal of cannibalistic child-abusers is actually running the world (QAnon) or something even more bizarre.
But a critical mass of people all believing the same thing, sharing the same assumptions, values, and desires, is more powerful than any other social force. It’s been enough to prevent women from having the vote, enough to make slavery seem acceptable, to enable Gulags and genocides and ethnic cleansing, to burn at the stake people who embraced a different religion from your own. That’s why it’s so important that we ‘use the brain that the Good Lord gave you’ (as my father used to chide me and my siblings) and think critically about the flood of messages that deluges us all day long. Modern media make ignorant mob mentality more dangerous than ever.
Michael. Just finished Taking Flight. Loved it, especially the material describing bird hunting for the “market” and its effect on bird populations. Just moved back to Wisconsin after a career at Northwestern so I’m scouring the local library in Kewaunee for all things Wisconsin and all things birds. Your book fit the bill nicely.
Thanks, Rick. Very glad you enjoyed it.