1879: Man hanged for eating family
Shockingly, "man hanged for eating family" would have been an accurate headline in 1879 Alberta. A man was executed that year in Fort Saskatchewan after being convicted of murdering and eating eight members of his own family.
The man was thought to be afflicted with "Windigo psychosis," the name given to a 'disorder' that grew out of Algonquin mythology.
The news part of this story, in case you're wondering, is that Nathan Carlson, a Windigo expert, is now writing a book about it. His work is truly fascinating, and looks at a controversial topic: whether mental illness and other disorders can be culturally-specific.
On a cold December day in 1879, a man was hanged in Fort Saskatchewan, putting an end to one of the most horrifying killing sprees in Alberta history.
Swift Runner was executed for murdering and then eating eight members of his own family over the previous winter. He believed he was possessed by Windigo, a terrifying mythological creature with a ravenous appetite for human flesh.
It wasn't an isolated case. During the late 1800s and into the 20th Century, fear of Windigo haunted northern Alberta communities, resulting in several grisly deaths.
Sun Media's Andrew Hanon speaks with Nathan Carlson, one of the world's leading authorities on Windigo, about Carlson's personal connection to the blood-curdling creature.
Carlson is now writing a book on the Windigo condition in northern Alberta and is negotiating with filmmakers about a documentary.
The Wendigo (also Windigo, Windago, Windiga, Witiko, Wihtikow, and numerous other variants) is a mythical creature appearing in the mythology of the Algonquin 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 taboo.
Windigo Psychosis is a culture-bound disorder which involves an intense craving for human flesh and the fear that one will turn into a cannibal. This once occurred frequently among Algonquian Indian cultures, though has declined with 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.
In a research project he refers to as "two parts Native Studies and one part X-Files," Carlson, who is of Métis heritage, has spent the last two years unearthing and reviewing literature about the Windigo legend. He is exploring the dynamics behind several violent incidents attributed to 'Windigo psychosis' and is contesting conclusions made by researchers who either dismissed it as a type of culture-bound mental disorder, or rejected the legend altogether.
"This designation of mental illness does not account for the historic cases where two or more people apparently became affected by Windigo disorder at the same time in the same place," Carlson said. "It also doesn't explain why in some cases these victims were cured by Catholic priests, usually by suggestion alone. It seems to have been more a product of a spiritual belief in possession by a cannibal spirit than actual mental disease. By no means does this explain away the mystery. Many people still believe in Windigo."