It was the morning of December 20th, 1879. The blanket of snow covering the frozen surface of the North Saskatchewan River was crisscrossed by snowshoe prints and dog tracks which converged like the spokes of a wheel on Fort Saskatchewan, a North-West Mounted Police post located about twenty miles downriver from the old Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Edmonton. In the grey gloom of the winter twilight, in the prison yard enclosed by the fort’s newly constructed palisade, amid swirling snow, loitered about sixty Cree and Metis trappers, many of whom were huddled around a fire they had kindled the previous night from the trapdoor of the gallows that loomed nearby. They had come to witness the execution of one of their kinsmen – the first formal hanging in the region known at that time as the North-West Territories.
Also in attendance was the fort’s twenty-man garrison, whose officers stood at attention in coats made from buffalo robes they had appropriated from whisky traders just a few years earlier; Sheriff Edouard Richard, who had just trudged in from easterly Fort Battleford, a gruelling snowshoe journey of about 500 kilometres (300 miles) up the North Saskatchewan River; and Reverend Fathers Rene Remas and Hippolyte Leduc, French Oblate priests from the nearby Catholic missions at Lac La Biche and Lac Ste. Anne, respectively.
Father Leduc stood on the scaffold platform, his long black robe affording him scant protection against the bone-chilling temperature, which hovered around -40o C that morning (-40o C, incidentally, also being -40 o F). Despite the cold, the priest later recalled that perspiration flowed freely down his temples and back, his whole body being inflamed by the sombre excitement of the occasion. Beside him stood a nervous old Metis soldier named William Rogers, who had volunteered as hangman; and the condemned man – a powerfully-built, roughly 40-year-old, 6’3” Cree hunter named Swift Runner, his hands pinioned in front of him and his neck girded by the noose.
At Leduc’s prompting, Swift Runner calmly addressed the crowd that had come to watch him die, thanking the Mountie guards, to whose care he had been committed since his arrest the previous spring, for the kind treatment they had shown him, and expressing regret for his misdeeds, to which he freely admitted. When it became clear that the big native had said all he wished to say, the priests began to pray aloud in Latin, and the Cree onlookers broke into wailing death songs in their own language. At the height of this eerie cacophony, the hangman drew the bolt, plunging Swift Runner into eternity, and delivering justice for one of the most stomach-churning crimes ever committed on Albertan soil.
The story of Swift Runner is a patchwork of various primary and secondary sources, many of which contain details which are completely inconsistent with each other. Over the years, a handful of researchers have stitched these incongruities together into flowing chronologies like those found in J.P. Turner’s 1950 book The North-West Mounted Police, T.W. Paterson’s 1982 book Outlaws of Western Canada, Colin Thomson’s 1984 book Swift Runner, and Chad Lewis and Kevin Lee Nelson’s 2020 book Wendigo Lore.
In addition to contemporary newspaper articles, most of them unsatisfactorily brief, some of the best early sources on the Swift Runner story include:
- The testimony of Father Leduc, who visited Swift Runner continually in the days leading up to his execution in a heroic effort so save his eternal soul from damnation. Three days prior to the hunter’s execution, Leduc heard Swift Runner’s full confession during the sacrament of Reconciliation, and received his permission to share his ghastly tale with the world. Leduc’s testimony was printed in various newspapers across Canada and the United States, first appearing in the February 9th, 1880 issue of Fort Battleford’s Saskatchewan Herald.
- The article “The Last of Canada’s Cannibals,” by Major Fred Bagley, published in the July 1942 issue of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Quarterly magazine just three years prior to the author’s death. Bagley was one of the original officers of the North-West Mounted Police and the youngest recruit to join the Force, beginning his career as a constable and bugler at the tender age of fifteen. He accompanied the Force on its epic 1874 march west across the prairies, and had helped build the stockade at Fort Saskatchewan in the spring of 1879. Bagley guarded Swift Runner during his incarceration, and often conversed with the prisoner in his native Cree – a language which he had picked up during his five years of service in the North-West Territories. The night before his hanging, Swift Runner (or Kah-Kee-See-Koo-Chin, as Bagley referred to him, using his Cree name) presented him with his smoking pipe and his tapiskagan, the latter being a beaded and furred neckpiece which doubled as a scarf and talisman.
- The 1882 book Six Years in the Canadian Northwest written by Jean d’Artigue, another original officer of the North-West Mounted Police who was present at Swift Runner’s execution.
- The courtroom transcript of Swift Runner’s trial, which can be found in Ottawa, Ontario’s Library and Archives Canada.
- And a lengthy and arguably questionable article headlined “An Indian Murderer and Cannibal: Horrible Crimes in the North-West of Canada,” which was first published in the January 15th, 1880 issue of the Ottawa Daily Citizen. This piece furnishes details which appear in no other contemporary testimony, some of which conflict directly with Father Leduc’s narrative. Minutia drawn from this article have been echoed throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries in succeeding accounts of this true Canadian horror story.
Despite a valiant attempt by writer Colin Thompson to formulate a plausible backstory for the villain of our tale, little is known about Swift Runner’s early life. According to a brief, colourful, and perhaps dubious biography contained within the article from the Ottawa Daily Citizen, Swift Runner was once the chief of a small band of Plains Cree that haunted the North Saskatchewan River, regularly trading their furs for guns, tea, and flour at Fort Edmonton. In 1875, the Hudson’s Bay Company traders with whom he had built rapport recommended him as a trustworthy and intelligent guide to the officers of the North-West Mounted Police, who were beginning to establish their own outposts throughout what is now central Alberta. His career as a police scout, however, was short-lived on account of his appetite for whisky, an illicit commodity which nonetheless found its way into the country, slipping past Mountie patrols.
“Swift Runner became inordinately fond of it,” the article proclaimed, referring to bootlegged liquor, “and when half drunk was the terror of the whole region. Six feet and three in height, and of extraordinary strength, he was an ugly customer to meet when on a spree, and the police gave him a wide berth on such occasions. At length his conduct grew so outrageously bad that they sent him back to his tribe, but his old habits clung to him, and he turned the Cree camps into little hells.”
The portrait of Swift Runner as an alcoholic menace conflicts with his portrayal by R.C.M.P. historian J.P. Turner in his official 1950 history of the North-West Mounted Police. “Of good character,” Turner wrote of the strapping Cree hunter, “he was mild and trustworthy, a considerate husband and exceedingly fond of his children. But Swift Runner suffered abnormally from troubled dreams, one of the most insidious curses of Indian life. He was continually seeing, or thinking he saw some of the spirits which were wont to haunt every Indian mind. Foremost among these was the Ween-de-go, the Cannibal Spirit, urging him to indulge in cannibalism.”
The Weendigo to which Turner referred is a preternatural monster of Cree and Algonquin legend; also referred to as the Windigo, Witiko, or Wendigo, depending on the tribal affiliation of the storyteller. In his 1982 article “Windigo Psychosis,” published in the August 1982 issue of Current Anthropology, anthropologist Lou Marano explained, “When speaking of the windigo, we may distinguish at least three categories. The first is a Windigo as superhuman monster(s), who may or may not have had human antecedents… The second is a category of human beings the members of which may or may not be considered to have been possessed by the spirit of the cannibal monster… The third category is a culture-specific psychotic syndrome the victims of which are obsessed by a compulsive desire to eat human flesh.”
Marano directed readers interested in acquainting themselves with the first category of Wendigo – the corporeal demon from which derive the second and third categories of this nebulous boreal terror – to read the article “Witiko Among the Tete-de-Boule,” written by Oblate missionary Reverend Joseph E. Guinard and published in the July-October 1930 issue of the journal Primitive Man.
“The Witiko,” Guinard wrote, “among the Tete-de-Boule, an Algonquian-speaking people of the upper St. Maurice River, Quebec, is a fabulous monster, a species of giant cannibalistic man… The older people speak to the children about this evil being in veiled language and in hushed voice as if to fool him and as if he must not know that they are speaking of him…
“The witiko wore no clothing. Summer and winter he went naked and never suffered cold. His skin was black like that of a negro…
“The witiko had no lips. His mouth was frightful and menacing. His breath passed through his enormous, crooked teeth with a sinister hissing. The witiko’s eyes were big and rolled in blood. They were something like owls’ eyes. His feet, which were nearly a yard long, had only one toe, the big toe. His heels were very long and pointed… The hands of the witiko were hideous, and the fingers and finger-nails were like the claws of the great mountain bears.
“The voice of the witikos was strident and frightful, and more reverberating than thunder. The sound of his voice was a long drawn-out one, accompanied with fearful howls. When the people heard it, every one fled to the woods and swamps looking for a safe place to hide.
“The strength of the witikos is prodigious. With one stroke or twist of the hand they could disembowel dogs or men. Neither arrows, nor axes, nor anything on earth could kill them…
“It was almost impossible to escape from witikos. They seemed to be able to foresee and to know beforehand where their victims had gone.”
It was of this monster that Swift Runner was said to have dreamed – a sure sign, according to Cree tradition, that he would soon fall under its diabolical spell. According to Fred Bagley, the native attributed the onset of these nocturnal reveries to an event that took place during a hunting trip in the far north, deep in the boreal forest, which he made years earlier in the company of a young boy. Instead of filling their packs with moose and bear meat as they had anticipated, Swift Runner and his young companion were unable to find any game, and became desperately hungry. Eventually, the boy succumbed to starvation, and the big hunter, in order to avoid a similar fate, devoured his mortal remains. This act of cannibalism, so abhorrent to Cree sensibilities, made him vulnerable to possession by the Wendigo, which imbued in its victims an irresistible craving for human flesh.
Swift Runner’s Appearance at St. Albert
In the autumn of 1878, Swift Runner left his band at either Long Lake or Athabasca Landing, the latter lying on the Athabasca River about 80 miles (130 km) north of Fort Edmonton, and headed into the forest to hunt and trap with his family, as was Cree custom. Accompanying him was his wife Charlotte, their six children, his brother (or perhaps his brother-in-law), and his mother (or perhaps his mother-in-law).
Contemporary sources do not agree on the particular stretch of wilderness through which Swift Runner laid his trap line. Father Leduc, who heard Swift Runner’s confession, wrote that the native had encamped about eighty miles north of St. Albert, in the boreal forest of what is now Cross Lake Provincial Park, just south of the Athabasca River. Hugh Richardson, the judge who presided over Swift Runner’s trial, wrote in his report on the case that the camp was located just off the Athabasca Landing Trail, an overland route connecting Fort Edmonton with what is now the town of Athabasca Landing, near a place called Open Hills Creek (possibly Tawatinaw Creek). Fred Bagley, who received his information from fellow NWMP officers who were involved in Swift Runner’s case, placed the native’s camp in the wilderness just 30 miles from Fort Saskatchewan. Both Jean d’Artigue and J.P. Turner claimed that Swift Runner made his winter camp on the left bank of Sturgeon Creek (now the Sturgeon River), a tributary of the North Saskatchewan which lies no more than twelve miles northwest of Fort Saskatchewan at its furthest point in that direction. And contemporary newspaper articles placed the native’s trap line 50 miles north of the Edmonton area, or alternatively in the Moose Hills nearly 100 miles to the east. Taken together, these various sources seem to point to the 60-mile stretch of wilderness between Athabasca Landing and present-day Gibbons, Alberta, as the likely setting of Swift Runner’s winter camp, and the site of his skin-crawling crimes.
All sources agree that, in the spring of 1879, Swift Runner appeared alone at a Cree encampment on Manawan Lake, known at the time as Egg Lake, located about fifteen miles northwest of St. Albert. When asked why his family had not come with him, the hunter explained that his mother and brother had set out on their own the previous February when game became scarce, that his children had all subsequently perished in the woods from starvation, and that his wife had shot herself in despair. He told the same tragic tale to the missionaries at southerly St. Albert, on the shores of what the Cree called Big Lake, shortly thereafter.
Tragedies like that which Swift Runner claimed to have experienced were not unheard of in the boreal wilderness, where big game often proved a fickle source of sustenance. The story might have been believable were it not for the teller’s robust constitution. Swift Runner had clearly not suffered the ravages of starvation that he claimed had gnawed away at his family that winter. On the contrary, he actually appeared well-fed. As his father-in-law put it at his trial, “[He] did not look very poor or thin, or as if he had been starving.” Even more troubling was Swift Runner’s behavior. According to Fred Bagley, the big hunter took a special interest in the orphaned native children whom the St. Albert missionaries had taken under their wing, whose parents had perished in a smallpox epidemic that had swept through the country some years before. Swift Runner regaled the orphans with stories of his fine camp in the woods, and offered to take them to it – a proposal which the missionaries wisely declined. Alarmed by the hunter’s strange story, appearance, and conduct, rendered doubly disturbing by the ominous nightmares that he claimed haunted his sleep at night, the missionaries of St. Albert alerted the Mounties at Fort Saskatchewan, telling them that they suspected something sinister had befallen Swift Runner’s family.
Discovery of Swift Runner’s Camp
On the orders of Superintendent William Jarvis, Sergeant Dick Steele, the younger brother of the more famous Mountie Sam Steele, arrested Swift Runner and brought him to Fort Saskatchewan for interrogation. There, the hunter repeated the story he had told the missionaries and his fellow Cree, maintaining that he only managed to avoid the fate of his family members by boiling and eating his moose-skin teepee.
Unconvinced, Jarvis tasked a three-man crew with accompanying Swift Runner to his old winter camp so that they could inspect the bones of his wife and children. The party of three included Sub-Inspector Severe Gagnon, Staff Sergeant Dr. George Herchmer, and a Metis scout and interpreter named George Washington Brazeau. The party shackled Swift Runner, sat him in Brazeau’s Red River cart, and headed north into the wilderness, up the trail to Athabasca Landing.
After riding for about thirty or forty miles through prairie, boreal forest, and half-frozen muskeg, the Mounties realized that Swift Runner was leading them astray, evidently reluctant to take them to his old camp. Brazeau, the Metis scout, suggested that the policemen might solve their conundrum by feeding the prisoner a sort of truth serum famous on the Canadian frontier. That evening, while sitting around the campfire, the Mounties boiled a pot of tea mixed liberally with plug tobacco, concocting a potent beverage which the Cree called maskikiwashpoy, or “medicine tea”. They fed this elixir to Swift Runner, who suddenly became very talkative. Coaxed by Gagnon, who feigned belief in his story, the intoxicated prisoner told the Mounties that he had been unable to bury his family members on account of the frozen winter earth, and had instead covered their bodies with spruce boughs, unfortunately leaving them vulnerable to the predations of bears and wolves. Before slipping into a drunken stupor, he promised to take them to their grave the following day.
“The next morning,” wrote Fred Bagley in his article, “while still under ‘influence,’ true to his promise, the prisoner led the police party towards the thickest part of the bush. As he drew near the edge of it, he stopped short, threw back his head and gave vent to a long wolf-like howl.
“Sub-Inspector Gagnon looked at him sharply and murmured, ‘Ha, we’re getting warm.’”
Gagnon gave orders to search the immediate vicinity, and before long, Swift Runner’s abandoned camp was discovered. Bagley described the camp as being “located in a small clearing on an island in the middle of a large [patch of] muskeg easily accessible as it was still partly frozen.” Some contemporary newspaper articles, on the other hand, claimed that the Cree had made his winter home in a cave at the base of a hill.
The first piece of evidence which gave the lie to Swift Runner’s story was his moose-hide teepee, which had not been boiled and eaten as the native had claimed, but was rather folded and draped neatly over a tree branch, along with some of the native’s traps.
The Mounties then stumbled upon the remains of Swift Runner’s old campfire, where the hideous extent of his crimes were made appallingly clear. Scattered haphazardly about the epicentre of the camp were boiled human bones. The fragments of desiccated meat which still clung to these sad remains bore unmistakable traces of human teeth marks. The femurs and other long bones had all been smashed open, and the marrow sucked out.
Amid these dismembered skeletons were hair, clothing, and eight human skulls, also boiled, some of which had been smashed open with a tomahawk. The crania had been cleaved in such a manner as to lend the impression that the perpetrator had endeavoured to extract the brains. One of the skulls – the tiny remains of an infant girl – was filled with a half-finished piece of needlework, which had evidently been stuffed inside through one of the eye sockets.
In the ashes of the old campfire sat a pile of rotting, half-charred entrails. To complete the hellish scene, the trunks of nearby trees were streaked with greasy fingermarks, evoking the scene of a gluttonous cannibalistic feast held in the dead of winter, when the ragged ribcages and skeletal limbs discarded throughout the camp were still fresh enough to resemble the living human beings to whom they once belonged.
“They found other things,” Bagley wrote in his article, “things so gruesome and nauseating that they are unfit to be recorded here.”
Their senses reeling, the Mounties confronted Swift Runner with this lurid evidence of cannibalism and demanded an explanation. The hunter continued to maintain that his family had died of starvation, but admitted that he had dined on their corpses only to sustain his own life. He then told the policemen that about a mile and a half from that spot, they would find the grave of his young teenage son, the eldest of his children, who had been the first to die. Since he himself had not been in the last stages of starvation at the time his son died, he had not been obliged to eat him as he did the others.
The Mounties followed Swift Runner’s directions and found the boy’s emaciated body buried where he said it would be. They then collected the eight skulls scattered about main camp, along with some of the bones, and buried the rest of the remains on the spot.
Upon the party’s return to Fort Saskatchewan, Swift Runner was brought into a room in which his family’s bones were laid out on a table, and was interrogated at length. Rather than displaying fear or remorse, the hunter seemed to regard the whole situation as a big joke. When asked to identify the skulls, he casually stuck his fingers into the eye sockets of one of the larger ones. “This is my wife,” he said with a merry chuckle.
Eventually, Swift Runner confessed that his family had not, in fact, died of starvation, but that he had killed and eaten them. Although the policemen had recovered eight skulls from his old campsite, not including that of his eldest son, he steadfastly maintained that he had only killed and eaten his wife and five of his children. His sixth child, his eldest son and the first of the family to die, had succumbed to starvation – a fact which Gagnon and Herchmer had verified. He refused to disclose the identities of the seventh and eighth skulls, saying only that his mother and brother had split off from their group before the killing began, and that he did not know what became of them.
Swift Runner would later repeat his chilling confession to Father Hippolyte Leduc three days before his execution, presumably in the Cree language. With the hunter’s permission, Leduc later submitted the confession for publication in the press. His transcript of the Cree’s statement reads:
“We were camped in the woods about eighty miles from here. In the beginning of the winter we had not much to suffer. Game was plenty. I killed many moose and five or six bears; but about the middle of February, I fell sick, and to complete our misfortune those with me could find nothing to shoot. We had soon to kill our dogs, and lived on their flesh while it lasted. Having recovered a little from my sickness, I travelled to a post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on the Athabasca River, and was assisted by the officer in charge, and returned to my camp with a small amount of provisions. That did not last us long. We all – that is, my mother, wife, and six children (three boys and three girls), besides my brother and I – began to feel the pangs of hunger. My brother made up his mind to start with my mother in search of some game. I remained alone with my family. Starvation became worse and worse. For many days we had nothing to eat. I advised my wife to start with the children and follow on the snow the tracks of my mother and brother, who perhaps had been lucky enough to kill a moose or bear since they left us. For my part, though weak, I hoped that remaining alone I could support my life with my gun. All my family left me with the exception of a little boy, ten years of age, who obstinately refused to leave me.
“I remained many days with my boy without finding any game, and consequently without having a mouthful to eat. One morning I got up early. Suddenly an abominable thought crossed my mind. My son was lying down close to the fire, fast asleep. Pushed by the evil spirit I took my gun and pointed it at the poor innocent, while turning my head away, I shot him. The ball entered the top of his skill. Still he breathed. I began to cry; but what was the use? Impossible now to recall him to life. I then took my knife and sunk it twice into his side. Alas! He still breathed, and I picked up a stick and killed him with it. I then satisfied my hunger by eating some of his flesh, and lived on it for some days, extracting even the marrow from the bones.
“Some days afterwards, in wandering through the woods, unfortunately I met my wife and children. I said to them that my son had died of starvation but I remarked immediately that they suspected the frightful reality. They then told me they had not seen either my mother or brother. No doubt both have died of starvation, otherwise they would have been heard of, as it is now seven months since then. Three days after joining my family the oldest of my boys died. We dug a grave with an axe and buried him. We were then reduced to boil some pieces of our leather tent, our shoes, and buffalo robes, in order to keep ourselves alive.
“I discovered soon that my family wanted to leave me from fear of meeting the same fate as my boy. One morning I got up early, and I don’t know why – I was mad. It seems to me that all the devils had entered my heart. My wife and children were asleep around me. Pushed by the evil spirit, I took my gun, and placing the muzzle against her chest, shot her. I then without any delay took my hatchet and massacred my three little girls. There was now but one little boy, seven years old, surviving. I awoke him and told him to melt some snow for water at once. The poor child was too much weakened by long fasting to make any reflection on the frightful spectacle under his eyes. I took the bodies of my little girls and cut them up. I did the same with the corpse of my wife. I broke the skulls and took out the brains, and broke up the bones in order to get the marrow. My little son and I lived for seven or eight days on the flesh – I eating the flesh of my wife and children, and he the flesh of his mother and sisters.
“At length I left there all the bones and started with the last of my family. Snow began to melt. Spring had commenced. Ducks arrived and flew every day around us, and I could find enough to live upon; but I felt reluctant to see people. I then told my son that after some days we would meet people; they will know very soon that I am a murderer, and they will certainly make me die. As to you, there is no fear; say all you know; no harm will be done to you. One day I had killed many ducks. I was a few miles from Egg Lake, where some relations of mine lived. I was sitting at the camp fire, when I told my son to go and fetch something five or six paces off. At that moment the devil suddenly took possession of my soul; and in order to live longer far from people, and to put out of the way the only witness to my crimes, I seized my gun and killed the last of my children, and ate him as I did the others.”
Swift Runner was tried for the murder of his family in the summer of 1879, barely evading Indian justice at the hands of his Cree relatives, who resolved to dismember and cremate him if he managed to escape the Mountie jail, that method of interment being the only sure way to prevent a Wendigo from returning from the dead. The jury included three English-speaking Cree Metis and three white men from Battleford who were fluent in the Cree language. Presiding over the trial was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Richardson, a British-born militia commander and stipendiary magistrate who would later try Metis revolutionary Louis Riel and rebel Cree chief Big Bear in the aftermath of the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
During the trial, certain lurid details of Swift Runner’s crimes emerged, some of which conflict with the confession the cannibal would later give to Father Leduc. As J.P. Turner put it in his 1950 history of the North-West Mounted Police:
“He had forced one of his boys to kill a younger brother and cut him up, and this one he had eaten; he had then killed his baby by hanging it to a lodge pole, and while at his supper had pulled the baby’s legs to hasten its strangulation… He also confessed that he had done away with his mother-in-law, who, he acknowledged, was a bit tough. It was said by neighboring Indians that [his] brother had met the same fate. What made his act even more barbarous was the fact that while he was indulging in his ghastly orgy he had plenty of dried meat hanging around the camp.”
On August 8th, 1879, Judge Richardson sentenced Swift Runner to be hanged at Fort Saskatchewan on December 20th of that year. In true native fashion, the hunter was said to have received news of his fate with stoic indifference.
Swift Runner spent the remainder of his days locked away in Fort Saskatchewan. In his article, Fred Bagley implied that, until the bitter end, the big Cree hunter never shook the craving for human flesh that he had developed in the Far North on that fateful hunting trip years before.
“Frenchy,” he wrote, “a huge and particularly well-nourished member of our troop, was a constant source of merriment to the prisoner. Each time the constable entered the guard-room the Indian’s saucer-like eyes gloated over the corpulent form, his lips parted in a broad grin.
“‘Wah! Wah! You would make fine eating; there must be that much (holding up three fingers) fat on your ribs.’…
“Kah-Kee-See-Koo-Chin took a great fancy to me, either because I could talk to him in Cree or, horrid thought, because I was then young and tender.”
In consideration of the many striking similarities between the Wendigo legend and Roman Catholic demonology, which this author explored in a previous piece, it is perhaps worth noting that, according to Father Leduc, Swift Runner wholeheartedly accepted the Roman Catholic faith in the months preceding his execution, moved in particular by Leduc’s recitation of the story of the Penitent Thief from the Gospel of Luke. He received the Catholic sacraments of Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and the Anointing of the Sick without exhibiting any of the classic signs of demonic possession, and in Leduc’s estimation, died a virtuous Christian death.
In their book, folklorists Chad Lewis and Kevil Lee Nelson point out that historians today do not agree on the location of Swift Runner’s final resting place. Some believe that his corpse was unceremoniously interred in what would one day become the Fort Saskatchewan Gaol Cemetery. Others, citing contemporary newspaper articles, believe it was hastily buried in the snow outside the fort. This author, admittedly without any real evidence to support his theory aside from a cursory knowledge of traditional Cree belief, proposes a third possibility, namely that Swift Runner’s body was retrieved by his relations and treated in the manner befitting a Wendigo demoniac – that is, dismembered and incinerated, so that his revenant could never return to torment the living.
Wendigo or Wendigo Psychosis?
In the century and a half following Swift Runner’s execution, various scholars have puzzled over the psychological forces that compelled the Cree hunter to butcher and eat his family, thereby profaning one of the most sacrosanct taboos in Cree society. One of the earliest attempts to psychoanalyze this enigmatic Canadian serial killer appeared in a nameless article in the January 15th, 1880 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. While overlooking historic acts of First Nations cannibalism committed in martial rituals, the piece nevertheless accurately illustrates how gravely Swift Runner’s actions violated his people’s moral code.
“Ordinarily,” the journalist wrote, “an Indian’s affection for his children transcends anything known to civilized life. He is also a kind and devoted husband… It is difficult to understand how Swift Runner, though on the verge of starvation, could have brought himself to the gastronomical contemplation of his family. The North American Indian abhors the idea of eating human flesh, and regards his dead with a superstitious reverence that cannot be shaken… In his operation Swift Runner developed a perversion of every instinct of an Indian. He overcame his natural affection for those dependent upon him, and then overcame every superstition of his soul. The only reasonable deduction is that the man was insane… So if Swift Runner were non compos, his conduct is explicable on that basis, while if he were sane, there is no satisfactory solution of his wide departure from the dominant and rigid instincts of Indian nature.”
Justice Hugh Richardson addressed the question of Swift Runner’s sanity in his report on the trail, writing, “Of the prisoner’s guilt there was and is no doubt whatever. And that he is possessed of intelligence rather above the ordinary Indian seemed clear. Neither was there any apparent symptom of insanity – the wonder of all who knew the man, and there are many such in and around Edmonton, being, what could have led him to the commission of the outrage bearing in mind the readiness of access (even if reduced to starvation…) to where food supplies are always to be had in such cases.”
Some anthropologists, like the aforementioned Lou Marano, argue that Swift Runner’s horrific crimes were simply the actions of a desperate man driven to commit the unthinkable by the overwhelming pangs of starvation. Others, like American anthropologists Charles Bishop and Robert A. Brightman, have ascribed Swift Runner’s cannibalistic killing spree to a hypothetical mental disorder unique to the Cree and Algonquin which they call ‘Wendigo psychosis’. As Brightman put it in his article “The Windigo in the Material World,” published in the August 1988 issue of Ethnohistory, “The phrase ‘windigo psychosis’ refers in academic literature to an Algonquian-specific psychiatric disorder whose sufferers experienced and acted upon obsessional cannibalistic urges… Culturally presupposed beliefs in windigo transformation have been understood as components of the disorder, causing both sufferers and their companions to identify psychiatric symptoms as signs of an inevitable monstrous condition.”
One last perspective we would be unwise to discount is that of Swift Runner’s kinsmen, the 19th Century Plains Cree of the North Saskatchewan and Assiniboine Rivers. Although few contemporary pieces make any mention of this fact, it is absolutely certain that Swift Runner’s friends and family members would have regarded his cannibalistic rampage as undeniable proof that he had indeed been possessed by the Wendigo, the evil man-eating spirit of the North.
Whatever motivation lay behind them, the horror of Swift Runner’s crimes continue to echo throughout history, perpetuating in Canada’s cultural memory the image of that ravenous demon the Cree call the Wendigo.
Outlaws of Western Canada (1982), by Thomas William Paterson
Swift Runner (1984), by Colin A. Thompson
Wendigo Lore: Monsters, Myths, and Madness (2020), by Chad Lewis and Kevin Lee Nelson
Windigo: An Anthology of Fact and Fantastic Fiction (1982), by John Robert Colombo
The North-West Mounted Police (1950), by J.P. Turner
“The Swiftrunner: His Conversion and Happy Death, by Rev. Father Leduc, St. Albert,” in the February 9th, 1880 issue of the Saskatchewan Herald (Battleford, Saskatchewan (then North-West Territory))
“An Indian Murderer and Cannibal: Horrible Crimes in the North-West of Canada: Execution of Swift Runner at Fort Saskatchewan,” in the January 15th, 1880 issue of the Ottawa Daily Citizen
Six Years in the Canadian Northwest (1882), by Jean d’Artigue
“Windigo Psychosis: The Anatomy of an Emic-Etic Confusions,” by Lou Marano in the August 1982 issue of Current Anthropology
“Witiko Among the Tete-de-Boule,” by Joseph E. Guinard in the July-October 1930 issue of Primitive Man
Diary (copy) of Frederick Augustus Bagley, 1874-1881, 1884, Glenbow Archives, Fred Bagley fonds (M44)
Library and Archives Canada, RG13-B-1, Volume 1417, Number 138A
“Heart of Ice: Indigenous Defendants and Colonial Law in the Canadian North-West,” by Catherine L. Evans in the May 2018 issue of Law and History Review
“The Windigo in the Material World,” by Robert A. Brightman, in the August 1988 issue of Ethnohistory
Nameless article in the January 15th, 1880 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle