Swift Runner was a Cree Indian who lived
during the last century in what is now central Alberta. His background
seemed not unusual. As a young man he received a solid useful Cree
education; he married and had a family of six children; he traded with
the Hudson's Bay Company; and, in 1875, he served as a guide for the
North West Mounted Police.
But Swift Runner's life ended in tragedy and
notoriety. During the winter of 1878-79, a time of starvation and
misery for the Cree people, he became possessed by the Windigo
psychosis (an aberration characterized by grand delusions and
cannibalistic impulses that anthropologists have identified in several
Canadian Indian cultures). He murdered his wife and family and cooked
and ate their flesh. Eventually he was arrested, brought to trial, and
in December, 1879, hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.
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
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
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 death.
Swift Runner's last walk
Man convicted of killing and eating his family
stayed calm despite delays and hitches in 1879 hanging
Jana G. Pruden, Edmonton Journal
Sunday, September 18 2011
It was pitch black and brutally cold when Swift
Runner was led from his cell at Fort Saskatchewan jail to start his
long, last walk toward the gallows that awaited outside in the
Swift Runner, or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin, had been told to
prepare for death, and seemed to have heeded the advice. He walked
confidently into the yard, seeming much calmer than many of those who
were there to watch him die.
Most of the 60 people gathered near the gallows had
never seen a hanging, and they were nervous and anxious about what was
going to happen. Sheriff Edouard Richard had been delayed by the snow
and weather, and was flustered by his late arrival at the fort. The
hangman, too, appeared nervous.
The execution had been ordered to take place at 7:
30 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1879. With less than half an hour left to go, it
was discovered that the crowd had taken the trap from the gallows and
burned it as kindling, that the hangman had forgotten to bring straps
to bind the prisoner's arms.
As the sheriff and hangman rushed to get the
scaffold ready again, Swift Runner sat near one of the fires that had
been lighted nearby, joking and chatting, snacking on pemmican, the
thick noose hanging loose around his neck.
"I could kill myself with a tomahawk," he offered,
"and save the hangman further trouble."
Swift Runner was well-known around the Fort
Saskatchewan settlement, a striking 6-foot-3, with a strapping build
and what one policeman called "as ugly and evil-looking a face as I
have ever seen."
He had once been known as smart and trustworthy, a
reputation that won him a job as a guide for the North West Mounted
Police. But, as one newspaper story would later point out: "His
contact with white men, however, ruined him."
That ruination came, in part, from an inordinate
fondness for the whisky that was smuggled into the area disguised as
medicine. Swift Runner was known to be "an ugly customer to meet when
on a spree," so ugly that some called him "the terror of the whole
The police sent Swift Runner back to his tribe,
where he caused so much trouble he "turned the Cree camps into little
hells," and was eventually turned out from his community altogether,
retreating to the wilderness with his wife, mother, brother and six
The police started to hear stories in the spring. A
Cree chief said Swift Runner had "turned cannibal," and a hunter
reported that Swift Runner's entire family had been killed in the
woods, but a squad of officers who went out to investigate couldn't
find Swift Runner or his family.
Instead, Swift Runner went to the police himself in
the spring, telling them his wife had committed suicide and the rest
of the family had died of starvation.
But the officers noticed that Swift Runner didn't
"The prisoner arrived at our camp in the spring and
did not look very poor or thin or as if he had been starving," one
Suspicious of the story, police travelled with
Swift Runner to his family's camp in the wilderness north of Fort
Saskatchewan. After days of searching, they found the remnants of a
campfire, with piles of bones and human skulls scattered nearby.
Some of the bones were dry and hollow, empty even
of marrow. A small moccasin had been stuffed inside the skull of Swift
Runner's mother, a beading needle still sticking out of the unfinished
Swift Runner was tried for murder and cannibalism
by a jury that included three "English speaking Cree half-breeds,"
four men "well up in the Cree language," and a Cree man who translated
the proceedings. A leading CreeEnglish scholar was also brought in to
observe the trial and ensure Swift Runner knew what was being said.
Swift Runner sat calmly throughout the testimony of
witnesses, who described the family being in perfect health when they
headed out to the woods, then Swift Runner coming out of the forest
"He said I could not expect to see any of his
family because he was the only one left," said Kis-Sie-Ko-May.
There was no evidence presented in Swift Runner's
defence. Asked if he wanted to say anything, he responded: "I did it."
The death sentence was to be the first legal
hanging in the Canadian Northwest Territories, an area that includes
what is now the province of Alberta. A scaffold was built especially
for the execution, and an army pensioner was paid $50 to serve as
Swift Runner declined to spend the night before his
execution with a priest.
"The white man has ruined me," he said. "I don't
think their God could amount to much."
Some said Swift Runner had developed a taste for
cannibalism years earlier, when he was forced to eat the remains of a
starved hunting partner to save himself. Others said he had been
possessed by the Windigo, a flesheating spirit that tormented him and
gave him nightmares.
Two hours after Swift Runner was led to the
gallows, the execution was finally ready to proceed. He was allowed to
eat one final pound of pemmican before he was pinioned tightly with
rope and taken to the scaffold, where a thick, black hood was placed
over his head.
"The trap fell, and Swift Runner went down with
fearful force, there being a drop of five feet," the Daily Evening
Mercury reported. "He died without a struggle. The body was cut down
in an hour and buried in the snow outside the fort."
Sheriff Edouard Richard said those who attended the
hanging were satisfied with what they saw.
"Seeing that the Indians are averse to hanging and
that all sorts of rumours were afloat amongst them and half-breeds
about deeds of cruelty that were to accompany the execution,
invitations had been tendered to Indian Chiefs to assist at the
execution," he wrote in a report to the government. "Some of them
responded to the invitation and declared that it was done in such a
way that they could no more object to that mode of execution."
One witness, who had watched several other
executions in the United States, also seemed pleased with the
spectacle, slapping his thigh and saying, "Boys, it was the prettiest
hanging I ever seen."
The Wendigo (also known as Windigo,
Weendigo, Windago, Waindigo, Windiga,
Witiko, Wihtikow, and numerous other variants) is a
mythical creature appearing in the mythology of the Algonquian people.
It is a malevolent cannibalistic spirit into which humans could
transform, or which could possess humans. Those who indulged in
cannibalism were at particular risk, and the legend appears to have
reinforced this practice as a taboo.
Wendigo psychosis is the name conventionally
given to a culture-bound disorder which involved an intense craving
for human flesh and the fear that the sufferer would turn into a
cannibal. This once occurred frequently among Algonquian Native
cultures, but has declined due to the Native American urbanization.
Recently the Wendigo has also become a horror
entity of contemporary literature and film, much like the vampire,
werewolf, or zombie, although these fictional depictions often bear
little resemblance to the original entity.
The Wendigo is part of the traditional belief
systems of various Algonquian-speaking tribes in the northern United
States and Canada, most notably the Ojibwe and Saulteaux, the Cree,
the Naskapi and the Innu people. Though descriptions varied somewhat,
common to all these cultures was the conception of Wendigos as
malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural beings (manitous) of great
spiritual power. They were strongly associated with the Winter, the
North, and coldness, as well as with famine and starvation. Basil
Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, gives one
description of how Wendigos were viewed:
"The Weendigo was gaunt to the point of
emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With
its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray
of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the
Weendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the
grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [....] Unclean and
suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Weendigo gave off a
strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and
At the same time, Wendigos were embodiments of
gluttony, greed, and excess: never satisfied after killing and
consuming one person, they were constantly searching for new victims.
In some traditions, humans who became overpowered by greed could turn
into Wendigos; the Wendigo myth thus served as a method of encouraging
cooperation and moderation.
Among the Ojibwe, Eastern Cree, Westmain Swampy
Cree, Naskapi, and Innu, Wendigos were said to be giants, many times
larger than human beings (a characteristic absent from the Wendigo
myth in the other Algonquian cultures). Whenever a Wendigo ate another
person, it would grow in proportion to the meal it had just eaten, so
that it could never be full. Wendigos were therefore simultaneously
constantly gorging themselves and emaciated from starvation
All cultures in which the Wendigo myth appeared
shared the belief that human beings could turn into Wendigos if they
ever resorted to cannibalism or, alternatively, become possessed by
the demonic spirit of a Wendigo, often in a dream. Once transformed, a
person would become violent and obsessed with eating human flesh. The
most frequent cause of transformation into a Wendigo was if a person
had resorted to cannibalism, consuming the body of another human in
order to keep from starving to death during a time of extreme hardship
Among northern Algonquian cultures, cannibalism,
even to save one's own life, was viewed as a serious taboo; the proper
response to famine was suicide or resignation to death. On one level,
the Wendigo myth thus worked as a deterrent and a warning against
resorting to cannibalism; those who did would become Wendigo monsters
Among the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwe, a
satirical ceremonial dance was originally performed during times of
famine to reinforce the seriousness of the Wendigo taboo. The
ceremonial dance, known as a wiindigookaanzhimowin in Ojibwe
and today performed as part of the last day activities of the Sun
Dance, involves wearing a mask and dancing about the drum backwards.
The last known Wendigo Ceremony conducted in the United States was at
Lake Windigo of Star Island of Cass Lake, located within the Leech
Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.
The term "Wendigo psychosis" (also spelled many
other ways, including "Windigo psychosis" and "Witiko psychosis")
refers to a condition in which sufferers developed an insatiable
desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources were readily
available, often as a result of prior famine cannibalism. Wendigo
psychosis has traditionally been identified by Western psychologists
as a culture-bound syndrome, though there is a debate over the
existence of phenomenon as a genuine disorder. The theory was popular
primarily among psychologists in the early 1900s, and may have
resulted from a misinterpretation of northern Algonquian myths and
In accounts of Wendigo psychosis, members of the
aboriginal communities in which it existed believed that cases
literally involved individuals turning into Wendigos. Such individuals
generally recognized these symptoms as meaning that they were turning
into Wendigos, and often requested to be executed before they could
harm others. The most common response when someone began suffering
from Wendigo psychosis was curing attempts by traditional native
healers or Western doctors. In the unusual cases where these attempts
failed, and the Wendigo began either to threaten those around them or
to act violently or anti-socially, they were then generally executed.
Cases of Wendigo psychosis, though evidently real, were relatively
rare, and it was even rarer for them to actually culminate in the
execution of the sufferer.
One of the more famous cases of Wendigo psychosis
involved a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner.
During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving,
and his eldest son died. Twenty-five miles away from emergency food
supplies at a Hudson's Bay Company post, Swift Runner butchered and
ate his wife and five remaining children. Given that he resorted to
cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed and consumed
the remains of all those present, it was revealed that Swift Runner's
was not a case of pure cannibalism as a last resort to avoid
starvation, but rather of a man suffering from Wendigo psychosis.
He eventually confessed and was executed by
authorities at Fort Saskatchewan. Another well-known case involving
Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief and
shaman known for his powers at defeating Wendigos. In some cases this
entailed euthanizing people suffering from Wendigo psychosis; as a
result, in 1907, Fiddler and his brother Joseph were arrested by the
Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide, but Joseph
was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He was ultimately granted a
pardon, but died three days later in jail before receiving the news of
Fascination with Wendigo psychosis among Western
ethnographers, psychologists, and anthropologists led to a hotly
debated controversy in the 1980s over the historicity of this
phenomenon. Some researchers argued that Wendigo psychosis was
essentially a fabrication, the result of naïve anthropologists taking
stories related to them at face value. Others have pointed to a number
of credible eyewitness accounts, both by Algonquians and by
Westerners, as evidence that Wendigo psychosis was a factual
The frequency of Wendigo psychosis cases decreased
sharply in the 20th century as Boreal Algonquian people came in to
greater and greater contact with Western ideologies and more
sedentary, less rural lifestyles. While there is some substantive
evidence to suggest that Wendigo psychosis did exist, a number of
questions concerning the condition remain unanswered, and there is
continuing debate over its nature, significance, and prevalence.
References in popular
While Wendigos have been referred to in literature
for many decades (most notably in Algernon Blackwood's 1910 story "The
Wendigo," which introduced the legend to horror fiction, and in
Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary), recently they have become
something of a stock character in horror and fantasy films and
television, along the lines of werewolves and vampires, usually
bearing very little resemblance to the Algonquian spirit. Appearances
include the movies Wendigo and Ravenous, and in episodes
of the television series Blood Ties Charmed, Supernatural,
Haven and others.
They also appear as characters in a number of
computer and video games, including Final Fantasy, The
Legend of Dragoon, and the Warcraft Universe, as well as
role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Additionally,
there is a Marvel Comics character known as "Wendigo".
They are referenced in music as well: the Cree
singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie's song "The Priests Of The Golden
Bull" asserts that the "money junkies" of the world are Wendigos.
(Glenbown Museum archives)
Remains of Swift Runner's victims.
(Glenbown Museum archives)