Swift Runner


Swift Runner

Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Cannibalism
Number of victims: 6
Date of murder: 1879
Date of arrest: May 27, 1879
Date of birth: ???
Victim profile: His wife and five children
Method of murder: Shooting - Hitting with an axe
Location: Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada
Status: Executed by hanging at Fort Saskatchewan on December 20, 1879

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.


January 27, 2010

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 years.

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 cold!

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

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 swirling snow.

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 region."

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 children.

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 look underfed.

"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 noted.

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 work.

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 alone.

"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 hangman.

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.

In Algonquian mythology

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 corruption."

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

Human Wendigos

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 or famine.

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 themselves.

Wendigo ceremony

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.

Wendigo psychosis

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 culture.

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 this pardon.

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 historical phenomenon.

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 culture

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.

Swift Runner
(Glenbown Museum archives)

Remains of Swift Runner's victims.
(Glenbown Museum archives)