Vampires in Ontario?
There’s something special about childhood memories. Whether you like it or not, some of them are seared into your grey matter as indelibly as a rancher’s brand into a spring calf’s hide. You may struggle to recall them at will, but every once in a while, certain experiences will drag you up to your mental attic, crack open some dusty old album, brush the cobwebs away, and present you with some stunningly vivid childhood memory which your conscious mind had long forgotten. The smell of a particular tobacco smoke, for example, may transport you back to your grandfather’s porch. A particular phrase might evoke that scary old Ukrainian widow who lived down the street from your parents’ house, whom you and all the neighbourhood kids were convinced was a witch. And the sensation of frostnip on your ears might elicit those 10-mile winter hikes you made every morning to school… uphill through the snow both ways. More often than not, these childhood memories seem to be of very specific scenes, events, pieces of trivia, or fragments of conversation which would probably fail to penetrate even the surface of your awareness as an adult, yet somehow managed to sink themselves deep into your childhood brain.
One such memory came back to me several months ago, when my friend Sandy Marentette introduced me to the legend of the vampire of Wilno, Ontario. “Vampires in Ontario?” I mused. “That rings a bell.” Immediately, my mind conjured up images of my elementary school library. I could see the green steel bookshelves, the sunken reading space, and the laminate folding tables at the back of the room, laden with clunky computer monitors. Beside the librarian’s desk was a revolving wire book rack, and on that rack, on prominent display, sat a children’s novel entitled Vampires of Ottawa. Its cover art had evidently made a lasting impression on me, for even in my mind’s eye, I could clearly see a black-cloaked, grey-faced, Dracula-like figure chasing a kid through a dusky cemetery- an image which, I recalled, had chilled my 6-year-old soul to the core.
After that unexpected trip down memory lane, nostalgia got the better of me; I actually ended up tracking down the book and reading it cover to cover. Vampires of Ottawa, as it turns out, is a children’s novel by Canadian author Eric Wilson, constituting one of a series of books chronicling the very Canadian adventures of a juvenile sleuth named Liz Austen of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a la the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. In this particular story, Liz travels to our nation’s capital to deliver a speech on vampires for a public speaking contest. A string of mysterious events steer her towards the country manor of a wealthy Romanian-Canadian industrialist who happens to be crippled by the fear that a vampire is lurking somewhere on his estate.
The book Vampires of Ottawa begins in the Ottawa Jail Hostel, a spooky hotel with a dark history, which I covered in my article on haunted hotels in Ontario. Although the novel fails to mention it, the Hostel has a bizarre vampire legend of its own. This observation got me wondering, “How many vampire stories does Ontario have?” As it turns out, more than you might expect.
The Vampires of Wilno, Ontario
Right now, it’s Halloween season. There’s a bite in the air, the sidewalks are covered with leaves, and in three weeks, neighbourhoods all over the country will be crawling with little ghouls and goblins on the prowl for candy.
One spectre who often makes an appearance around this time of year is the Headless Horseman, a traditional European/American spook immortalized in Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The eponymous setting of Irving’s story is a secluded vale tucked away in the hill country upriver from New York City. Of this
locale, Irving wrote:
“From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow…
“A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere… Certain it is that the place still continues under the sway of some witching power that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighbourhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions…”
If Sleepy Hollow has any equivalent in Canada, it is arguably the quiet backcountry east of Algonquin Provincial Park. Instead of comprising the hill country of the Hudson River, this enchanted region constitutes the watershed of the Madawaska River, and rather than accommodating the descendants of Dutch settlers, this area is populated by the progeny of Irish, Scottish, German, and especially Polish immigrants. This region is steeped in folklore and superstition, and, like Sleepy Hollow, some of its inhabitants are prone to exotic beliefs. Last June, for instance, I wrote an article on the strange death of an eighteen-year-old girl from Palmer Rapids, Ontario, who drowned herself in the Madawaska in the summer of 1948, prompted by the teachings of a strange sectarian cult that her father had invented.
In the heart of the Madawaska Valley, just half-an-hour’s drive north of Palmer Rapids, lies the tiny community of Wilno, Ontario- the oldest Polish settlement in Canada. Most of Wilno’s residents are of Kashubian extraction, Kashubs being members of a northern Polish ethnocultural group descended from Pomeranian Slavs. Although many of Ontario’s Kashubs historically identify as Polish, the dialect they speak and the culture they embrace bear traces of their unique Pomeranian heritage.
Back in 1858, when much of Poland was under Prussian rule, the poor, hardworking ancestors of Wilno’s present inhabitants abandoned their Prussian homes and headed for Canada, comprising one of the first waves of what is known today as the Kashubian Diaspora. Somehow, these emigrants had learned that the British were offering free land to settlers along the Opeongo Line– a colonization road which stretched from the Ottawa River to the Madawaska Highlands. The Kashubs travelled by horse and buggy to the city of Gdansk, made the long train ride to Hamburg (at that time, one of the thirty nine states of the German Confederation), and took steamships across the Atlantic to the Port of Quebec. From there, they travelled up the St. Lawrence and further up the Ottawa River to the trailhead of the Opeongo Line. That accomplished, they trekked up the rough colonization road into Madawaska Country, where they carved out settlements from the wilderness. The first permanent community that these Polish-Canadians established was the village of Wilno, Ontario.
The Kashub immigrants who settled in Ontario, like Poles the world over, were staunch Roman Catholics. In addition to their Catholic faith, however, the first Ontario Kashubs imported an older folk religion into the Madawaska Valley. A complement to their Catholicism, this shadowy tapestry of folklore and superstition was a product of Eastern Europe- a relic of their Slavic ancestors. This old religion constituted a belief in hexes, black magic, and various supernatural entities, and prescribed methods by which people could protect themselves from these malevolent forces and remedy their noxious effects. Ethnologists and anthropologists refer to this particular type of belief system as “daemonology”.
In the 1960s, a young, Harvard-educated linguist named Jan Louis Perkowski heard rumours that this belief system was still alive and well in the Canadian Kashub community, and that one element of this Canadian-Kashubian daemonology was a belief in vampires. In 1968, he received funding from the National Museum of Man in Gatineau, Quebec (now the Canadian Museum of History) to investigate this rumour. Perkowski subsequently travelled to Wilno, Ontario, where he interviewed fifteen Polish-Canadians and documented their folklore and traditions. He completed his study in 1969, and three years later, he published his findings in a controversial paper entitled “Vampires, Dwarves, and Witches among the Ontario Kashubs”.
In his paper, Perkowski claimed to have uncovered a strong vampire tradition among the Kashub-Canadians which deviates only slightly from that espoused by their European cousins. According to Perkowski’s informants, the Kashubian vampire is a malicious, undead being into which certain people transform after death. If left to its own devices, the vampire will emerge from its coffin at midnight, visit the homes of its relatives, and either kill them by sucking out their blood or carry them away, never to be seen again. Once the blood-sucking revenant has dealt with its family members, it will make its way to a local chapel and ring the church bell. Anyone who hears the bell ring will die within the year.
According to Perkowski’s interviewees, there are two signs which indicate a person’s predisposition towards vampirism, both of which occur at birth. Babies who are born with a caul- a “cap” of placental membrane on their heads- are believed to transform into vampires called “vjesci” after death. Babies who are born with two teeth, on the other hand, are said to turn into “wupji”. There is no difference between a vjesci and a wupji aside from the natal omens which betray their sinister natures.
There is only one method by which people destined to become vjesci can be prevented from completing their macabre metamorphoses. The placental cap that they wore as babies must be dried and ground into powder. On the future vjesci’s seventh birthday, the powder must be slipped into his/her food or drink and consumed.
Although vjesci can be cured of their affliction in this manner, people born with two teeth will invariably become vampires once they die. Fortunately, there are several techniques which effectively prevent wupji and uncured vjesci from rising from their graves and carrying out their grisly work. Pouring sand into the corpse’s coffin will prevent the vampire from resurrecting for as many years as there are grains of sand; the vampire cannot rise until it has counted every grain, and the speed at which it counts rarely exceeds one grain per year. Similarly, placing a fishing net inside the coffin will prevent the vampire from rising for as many years as there are knots, as it must untie every knot before leaving its tomb, and cannot untie more than one knot annually. Another tactic involves placing the corpse face-down in its casket so that it claws its way deeper into the earth rather than up and out of the grave. A more permanent solution is to place a small cross made from poplar wood inside the coffin, sometimes under the corpse’s tongue. Poplar crosses appear to be Canadian substitutes for rosary crucifixes, which European Kashubs place under the tongues of their own suspected vampires.
If none of these precautions are taken before the vampire is buried, there is but one recourse: someone must exhume the vampire at midnight and either drive a long nail into its forehead or decapitate the corpse with a shovel and place its head between its feet. People who attempt this gruesome procedure will often open the coffin to find the vampire sitting upright with its eyes open, looking around wildly and stammering unintelligible words.
According to one of Perkowski’s informants, the Kashubs of Wilno, Ontario, had to resort to this hideous measure on more than one occasion. In Polish, the informant said:
“There was a lot of that at Wilno in the graves. They opened graves. They cut the heads off. When they die and were born vampires, and are not seen to, then they have to dig up the graves. First he carries off his relatives and then as far as the bell rings. It happened at Wilno. They have dug up many, but it was not told, revealed. They had to dig it up and cut off the head while he sat in the coffin.”
When Perkowski’s paper was published in 1972, there was considerable outrage in Wilno; many of the Kashubian Canadians maintained that their beliefs had been unfairly represented. According to a local priest:
“I was amazed that such a thing would be printed… They are like stories my grandmother would tell to scare us… It is possible that one or two nuts have those beliefs but the implication is that all of us do… We get a big laugh out of it, we know the people who have manufactured the story just by reading it… That nonsense of driving nails. My impression is that he probably stuck a microphone under their noses and to get rid of him they’d make up these tales.”
One of Perkowski’s informants told a reporter:
“This anthropologist, he was not a sincere man… He was not what he claimed. He sat here. Here, with me in my kitchen. I told him the old wives’ tales, things my grandmother told me, but we don’t believe these things anymore…”
A third Wilno resident, while speaking with a journalist, put his assessment of Perkowski’s work more bluntly:
It’s all crap… Just pure crap. And underline that I said ‘pure crap’.”
To this day, the extent to which the Kashubs of Ontario embrace the vampiric folklore of their ancestors is a subject of debate, although most Kashub-Canadians vehemently deny that they still adhere to this medieval remnant of the Fatherland. What’s less ambiguous is that fact that there are some Ontarians do believe in vampires… some say, with good reason.
The Vampire Bride of the Niagara Parkway
Skirting the western shores of the Niagara River is a road called the Niagara Parkway. The scenery along this riverside thoroughfare is so picturesque that former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill is said to have described it as “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world”.
The Niagara Parkway is one of the oldest roads in Ontario. Centuries ago, it was a game trail used by members of the Neutral Confederacy, an agglomerate of First Nations which was wiped out by the warlike Iroquois in the 17th Century. In the late 1700s, the British Army turned this game trail into a public road connecting Fort Erie (a British military outpost on the shores of Lake Erie) with Fort George, the future headquarters of the British Army in Upper Canada, situated near the shores of Lake Ontario. Due to its strategic importance, the highway became one of the primary frontiers during the War of 1812, a conflict fought between British Canada and the United States.
If you drive up the Niagara Parkway twenty minutes north from Fort Erie Beach, on the northeastern shores of Lake Erie, you’ll come to a little café called the Lighthouse Restaurant on-the-Parkway. Immediately preceding this establishment is a bridge that crosses Black Creek, a tributary of the Niagara. According to local legend, this bridge is haunted by a ghostly woman in white who appears to travellers at night, usually between midnight and 3:00 A.M. This apparition is said to be clothed in a ragged white gown; to have long, flowing black hair; to have a deathly pale complexion; and to act as though she is looking for something along the creek bank. Such a sight would be alarming enough for the unsuspecting nighttime traveler. What makes this spectre truly terrifying, however, is the bright red blood that drips from her mouth to spatter the front of her gown. Doubtless inspired by the seductive female minions of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, locals have nicknamed this figure the “Vampire Bride”.
In his 2012 book Niagara’s Most Haunted: Legends and Myths, writer, radioman, and actor Dr. Peter Sacco includes an interesting theory regarding the nature of the Vampire Bride. This theory, which derives from a local ghost story, proposes that the “vampiress” is actually the ghost of a young mother whose husband served in the Canadian militia during the War of 1812.
According to this story, while the woman’s husband was away at war, an epidemic of tuberculosis swept through the Niagara Region. Tragically, the disease took the life of the woman’s newborn baby. In order to prevent further contagion, a well-meaning doctor plucked the baby’s tiny body from the arms of the grieving mother and promptly had it cremated.
When she learned what had become of her child’s corpse, the mother fell into a deep depression. Utterly distraught, and with no one to comfort her, her health began to deteriorate, and soon she contracted the same illness that had taken her baby’s life. For several long months, tuberculosis wracked her body. She developed a chronic fever, turned ghostly pale, and began to cough up blood. “Consumption”, as contemporary doctors termed the disease, ate away at her body, transforming her into a gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow of her former self. By the time her husband finally returned home on leave, the young woman was on her deathbed.
When the poor woman finally passed away, her husband wrapped her body in a white sheet and brought her on horseback to the bridge over Black Creek, one of the most beautiful spots on the riverside highway. There, not far from the Niagara River, he buried his wife.
According to this version of the legend, the ghost of the young mother appears from time to time in the vicinity of her final resting place, searching for the child that she lost. Her pale skin and the blood that stains her mouth and chest are not indications of vampirism, but rather the symptoms of the infectious disease that took her life and that of her child.
The Vampire Ghost of the Ottawa Jail Hostel
The last Ontario vampire we will cover in this article has its roots in the Ottawa Jail Hostel, a prison-turned-hotel where guests can stay overnight in cells once occupied by some of Ottawa’s most dangerous criminals.
One of the most storied sections of this historic building is the “Secret Staircase”, which connected the prison with the residence of the jail’s governor. It is said that a number of prisoners leapt to their deaths in this stairwell. According to one legend, a group of disgruntled prisoners threw their guard over the railings of this spiral staircase in 1910, sending him plummeting to the floor far below.
In 1972, the year that the facility ceased to function as a prison, the Secret Staircase was renovated. During this process, contractors discovered a cryptic inscription that had been written on the walls of the stairwell. This message read:
“I am a non-veridical Vampire who will vanquish you all. One by one I will ornate your odorous flesh with famished fangs. But Who? Are there 94 or 95 steps to the ninth floor? A book on the top shelf will lead you on the right path.”
(Incidentally, the ninth floor of the Ottawa Jail was used to house the wives and children of debtors who had failed to pay their dues)
This mysterious inscription is associated with a strange prison tale. In his 1998 book Haunted Ontario, author Terry Boyle quotes a tour guide named Carol Devine, who introduced him to this bizarre fragment of prison lore: the legend of the Ottawa Jail Vampire.
According to Devine, prisoners described this entity as a spirit which “tries to push your soul out of your body.”
“My grandfather had heard about this vampire,” Devine maintained. “They say it feeds on the sick. No one knows for sure whether this creature’s territory extends throughout the jail or not.”
According to Devine, there are two stories associated with the vampire ghost of the Secret Staircase. The first of these revolves around the eight-year-old son of a prison warden who moved into the governor’s mansion with his family. When the family first arrived at the jail, the warden’s son was an “active, loving, happy child… until one day, things switched.” The boy developed a mysterious illness which grew worse over time. His personality also began to change, and by the time the family left the mansion, the now-eleven-year-old boy had developed a crippling fear of the dark. Some prisoners believed that the boy had been preyed upon by the “non-veridical Vampire”, which fed not on blood, but rather on the health and energy of its hosts.
The second story regarding the Vampire of the Ottawa Jail Hostel took place in 1994, when two young men were staying overnight in the governor’s quarters. “One night,” Devine said, “one of the men retired early for the night. He awoke suddenly to see a shadow standing in the doorway. He turned the light on, but the bulb shattered. The shadow quickly skirted across the room and disappeared in the corner where a set of lockers stood. Workers later discovered a secret passage right where the shadow had vanished.”
Thanks for reading! If you know of any vampire stories from your neck of the woods, please feel free to share them in the Comments below.
The Vampires of Wilno, Ontario
- Vampires, Dwarves, and Witches among the Ontario Kashubs (1972), by Jan L. Perkowski
- Creating Kashubia: History, Memory, and Identity in Canada’s First Polish Community (2016), by Joshua C. Blank
The Vampire Bride of the Niagara Parkway
- Niagara’s Most Haunted: Legends and Myths (2012), by Peter Sacco
- Haunted Vampire Legend, published on TheParanormalProfilers.com
The Vampire Ghost of the Ottawa Jail Hostel
- Haunted Ontario: Ghostly Inns, Hotels, and Other Eerie Places (1998), by Terry Boyle
- Creepy Capital (2016), by Mark Leslie
- Season 1, Episode 1 of the TV series Creepy Canada
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