The Terrifying Tale Of Swift Runner And The Wendigo

By Nolan Moore on Saturday, December 19, 2015
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“There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear.” —Man, “The Road” (2009)

In A Nutshell

On December 20, 1879, the citizens of Alberta, Canada, witnessed their first official hanging. The man dangling at the end of the rope was a Cree Native American by the name of Swift Runner. What was his crime? Well, Swift Runner cannibalized his entire family. But he laid the blame on an evil spirit called a wendigo.

The Whole Bushel

If you know anything about Native American mythology, then you’ve probably heard of the wendigo. An evil spirit with too-tight skin and terrifying antlers, the wendigo enjoyed dining on human flesh. Of course, this sinister creature is just a myth, but if you traveled back to 19th-century Canada, you’d probably find a lot of people who’d disagree with that statement.

To many of the Algonquin tribe, the wendigo was very real—and also had a bad habit of possessing unsuspecting people and turning them into cannibals. Unfortunately, during the 1800s, several Algonquin natives actually did feast on their fellow humans, a result of a mental disorder modern-day psychologists call wendigo psychosis. And perhaps the most infamous “victim” of this horrifying condition was a Cree by the name of Swift Runner.

Born in Alberta as Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin, Swift Runner was a popular man in the Cree community and the father of six children. At over 180 centimeters (6′) tall, he was a giant of a man, and made his living as a trapper and a guide for the North West Mounted Police.

But over time, Swift Runner developed a taste for whiskey (possibly because he’d lost his ability to hunt and take care of his family) and fell into the throes of alcoholism. Making things worse, Swift Runner was an angry drunk, and his drinking habits got him into trouble. First, he was fired by the police force, and then he was kicked out of his tribe thanks to his violent tendencies.

Then in the winter of 1878, Swift Runner took his family—his wife, six children, his mother-in-law, and brother—out into the forest. Several months later as spring rolled around, Swift Runner staggered out of the woods and into a nearby Catholic mission. When the priests asked what was wrong, Swift Runner said his entire family was dead.

During the winter, he hadn’t been able to find any food. Slowly but surely, all his relatives had starved to death.

The priests were somewhat suspicious, however. Swift Runner looked pretty healthy. Why hadn’t he succumbed to starvation? Plus, they knew quite a few other Cree who’d had a pretty successful winter, hunting-wise. The priests were also disturbed by Swift Runner’s constant nightmares. The man would wake up in the night screaming at the top of his lungs. The last straw was when Swift Runner tried to lead a group of children out into the woods.

Convinced he’d killed his family, the priests went to the authorities. The police put Swift Runner under arrest and ordered the big man to lead them to his winter campsite. Now, sources disagree on what exactly happened next. Some say Swift Runner immediately took them to the spot. Others say he intentionally tried to mislead them, only cooperating after he was made drunk. Either way, when the group eventually stumbled upon the campsite, they found a truly horrifying scene.

There were bones everywhere, some broken in half and hollowed out. That could only mean one thing. Someone had snapped them open and sucked out the marrow. Their suspicions were confirmed when they found a pot full of human fat.

That’s when Swift Runner pulled the wendigo defense. According to Swift Runner, he’d been possessed by an evil spirit. That’s when he’d murdered and eaten his entire family. But as you might expect, that didn’t really fly with authorities. When Swift Runner went to trial in 1879, the jury didn’t buy his supernatural tale, and after 20 minutes of deliberation, they sentenced the Cree to death.

Swift Runner was eventually executed on December 20, 1879. In fact, he was the first man legally hanged in Alberta, Canada. Before his death, the big man converted to Catholicism, and moments before the trap door dropped, he gave a speech admitting his guilt.

Quite a few people came to watch Swift Runner meet his maker, including one spectator, who claimed it was the 29th hanging he’d witnessed, was thoroughly impressed with the show. As this execution connoisseur later put it, “It was the prettiest hanging I’ve ever seen.”

Show Me The Proof

Listverse: 10 Real-Life Inspirations For Mythical Things
Lore: Hunger Pains
Executed Today: 1879: Swift Runner, wendigo
Rampage: Canadian Mass Murder and Spree Killing, by Lee Mellor
The Law and the Lawless: Frontier Justice on the Canadian Prairies, 1873-1895, edited by Art Downs