win’-di-go n. a spirit believed by the Algonquians, Cree, and Ojibwas to take possession of vulnerable people, causing them to engage in cannibalism and other forms of antisocial behavior.

I’ve always had a soft spot for westerns, and during the late 1980s I went through a phase of writing western stories—primarily for the magazines of the now-defunct Western Publications in Stillwater, Oklahoma. While researching a major series for True West called “Grandmother’s Land: Sitting Bull in Canada,” I stumbled into this, ah, tasty little story somewhere in the Mounted Police reports.

When the story ran in the quarterly Old West, I accompanied it with an image from the collection of the Glenbow Museum. It showed Swift Runner with a scowling Mountie in pillbox hat. I’ve always found this photo of Swift Runner unsettling.

Approaching it in the nature of protagonist Alan Grant in The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey—disregarding the massive shackles, and the knowledge of his horrific crime, and assuming innocence—I think I might have drawn an alarming conclusion. He had a pleasant face, making me think that he was someone who loved to laugh. I would likely have passed a pleasant moment chatting, had I run into him on the street.


First published in OLD WEST, Summer 1990

During the winter, a Windigo ate Swift Runner’s family. Swift Runner was a Cree hunter and trapper from the country north of Fort Edmonton. He was a big man, over six feet tall, and well liked. He was mild and trustworthy, a considerate husband, and very fond of his children (a little too fond of his children, as events proved). All of these traits endeared him to his people and to the traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But this was not enough to allay suspicion when he returned from his winter camp in the spring of 1879 without his wife and family. When he could not give a satisfactory account of their whereabouts, his in-laws became worried. They decided to tell the North West Mounted Police, who had then been in the West for just five years.

Inspector Sévère Gagnon was given the task of investigating Swift Runner’s behavior. He and a small party of policemen accordingly trekked out to the trapper’s camp.

Swift Runner obligingly showed the Mounted Policemen a small grave near his camp. He explained that one of his boys had died and was buried there. Gagnon and his detachment opened the grave and found the bones undisturbed.

That, however, did not explain the human bones scattered around the encampment. Gagnon produced a skull, which Swift Runner willingly told him was that of his wife. Without much prodding, Swift Runner revealed what had happened to the rest of his family.

At first, Swift Runner became haunted by dreams. A Windigo spirit called on him to consume the people around him. The spirit crept through his mind, gradually taking control. Finally he was Windigo, and Swift Runner no longer. Then the Windigo killed and ate Swift Runner’s wife.

This accomplished, the Windigo forced one of Swift Runner’s boys to kill and butcher his younger brother. While enjoying this grisly repast, the spirit hung Swift Runner’s infant by the neck from a lodge pole and tugged at the baby’s dangling feet. It was later shown that he had also done away with Swift Runner’s brother—and his mother-in-law, though he acknowledged that she had been “a bit tough.”

The revolted Mounted Police party hauled Swift Runner and the mutilated evidence back to Fort Saskatchewan. The trial began on August 8, 1879. The judge and jury did not view the Windigo idea in the same light as the Cree. They saw Swift Runner as a murderer, and the trapper made no attempt to hide his guilt. Stipendiary Magistrate Richardson quickly sentenced him to be hanged.

The sentence presented a problem: the police had never before conducted an execution. Although the Hudson’s Bay Company had once hanged an employee for murder, this was, for all intents and purposes, the first formal execution in western Canada. Staff Sergeant Fred Bagley, a force bugler, was put in charge of the arrangements.

A gallows was erected within the fort enclosure at Fort Saskatchewan, and an old army pensioner named Rogers was made hangman. On the appointed morning, a bitterly cold December 20, Swift Runner was led to the scaffold.

Standing over the trap, the unrepentant cannibal was given the opportunity to address the large crowd that had gathered. He openly acknowledged his guilt, and thanked his jailers for their kindness—then berated his guard for making him wait in the cold!

Nevertheless, the Mounted Police must have accomplished their first execution well enough. A more experienced spectator, a California “forty-niner” named Jim Reade, commented, “That’s the purtiest hangin’ I ever seen, and it’s the twenty-ninth!”

Nowadays we view as psychosis what the Cree thought to be the work of a Windigo spirit. At one time, in the belt of parkland that borders the northern plains, it was far from being a rare phenomenon. Usually the symptoms were the same as those displayed by Swift Runner. And in one way or another, most of the afflicted Windigos met similar, violent deaths.

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