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The Windigo and The Beheading

Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 11th, 2008

Windigo can be the hairy hominoid, the cannibal giant, and the psychosis. The three are merging and swirling around in the recent story of the decapitation and eating of flesh on the Canadian Greyhound bus.

The Windigo (also known as the Wendigo, Windago, Windiga, Witiko, Wihtikow, and numerous other variants) is an unknown hairy hominoid tied to the legends and folklore of First Nations people linked by the Algonquin languages.

The Windigo is a bipedal hairy creature, equal to the Eastern Bigfoot, Stone Giant, or Marked Hominid in some classification systems, which is often said to have aggressive behaviors and 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. Some ethnographers said this once occurred frequently among Algonquian cultures, though there is some sense that the psychological disorder may have been overstated and/or it has declined with Native American urbanization.

yellowtop.jpg

“Old Yellow Top,” a regional name for a Windigo, the original Forest Giant of cryptozoology, not psychology, drawn by Harry Trumbore in The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates.

In John Green’s Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us, the British Columbia researcher mentions the Cree in Manitoba call their Sasquatch the Weetekow and the Saulteaux term them the Wendego. These are variations on the spelling of Windigo seen throughout Canada, but not on the hairy hominoid being described, as I discuss extenstively in Chapter 3, “Native Traditions,” in Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, pages 26-34.

Writing in The Edmonton Sun, columnist Andrew Hanon points out that there is a strange overlap between a column he wrote on July 20, 2008, about the study of the psychological Windigo by Nathan Carlson, and the recent Greyhound bus decapitation and cannibalism incident of July 30.

Hanon writes on Monday, August 11, 2008, that there seems to be a “Horrifying coincidence in beheading.”

Hanon writes, in part:

Nathan Carlson has barely slept since July 30.

“Ever since it happened, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head,” Carlson says haltingly. “I just don’t know what to think of it, quite frankly.”

The Edmonton ethno-historian is one of the world’s leading experts on Windigo phenomenon, and the recent horrific beheading and alleged cannibalism on a Greyhound bus bound for Winnipeg from Edmonton rocked him to his very core.

As the grisly details of Tim McLean’s last moments on Earth came to light in the following days, Carlson sank deeper and deeper into a fog of horror and revulsion.

Vince Weiguang Li is accused of abruptly attacking McLean, who by all accounts he didn’t even know — while McLean slept on the bus.

Up until a few days before the killing, Li held a part- time job delivering newspapers in Edmonton. He was well thought-of by his boss and considered a nice guy, if a bit quiet and shy.

On July 20 — just 10 days before the killing — Li delivered copies of the Sun that contained an extensive interview with Carlson about his research into the Windigo, a terrifying creature in native mythology that has a ravenous appetite for human flesh. It could take possession of people and turn them into cannibalistic monsters.

Below, Vince Weiguang Li, the 40-year-old suspect being transported by Canadian law enforcement personnel, and the headshot of his victim, Tim McLean.

300beheading11.jpg

busvictim.jpg

l_c4193f8c38f9f2023fb8c68bbf5213c72.jpg

More MySpace photos of Tim McLean, who called himself “Jokawild.”

Carlson documented several cases in northern Alberta communities where people believing they were “turning Windigo” would go into convulsions, make terrifying animal sounds and beg their captors to kill them before they started eating people.

In last month’s bus case, Li allegedly butchered McLean’s body, brandishing the victim’s severed head at the men who trapped him on the bus until police could arrive.

He was later accused of eating McLean’s flesh.

When he appeared in a Portage La Prairie courthouse on charges of second-degree murder, the only words Li reportedly uttered were pleas for someone to kill him.

A lot of his reported behaviour eerily mirrors the Windigo cases recounted in the newspaper feature that Li helped deliver to Edmonton homes just days before McLean was killed, one of the most gruesome slayings in modern Canadian history.

Several media reports called McLean’s killing unprecedented – an unspeakable, random attack the likes of which has never been seen in Canada.

But Carlson knows better.

“There are just too many parallels,” he says.

“I can’t say there’s definite connection, but there are just too many coincidences.

“It’s beyond eerie.”

As the following article is rapidly disappearing into the archives, so here is the full story mentioned above, for research purposes.

Sun, July 20, 2008
Evil spirit made man eat family
A look back at Swift Runner

By Andrew Hanon

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.

Some call him a serial killer.

Others call him a desperate madman.

But right up until the trap door swung open and the rope snapped taut around his neck, one of Alberta’s most prolific murderers insisted it was an evil spirit that compelled him to butcher and eat his entire family.

Over the course of a single winter, he devoured his wife, six children, mother and brother.

MOST HORRIFYING

The man, a Cree trapper named Swift Runner, was hanged in 1879 in Fort Saskatchewan, the first legal execution in Alberta. The macabre case is considered by many to be the most horrifying crime in the province’s history.

But what most people don’t realize is that it was part of a much larger phenomenon that Edmonton ethno-historian Nathan Carlson calls Windigo condition, which haunted communities right across northern Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and cost dozens of lives.

The Windigo (an Anglicized form of the word Witiko) is a mythological creature among native cultures from the Rockies to northern Quebec. It has an insatiable appetite for human flesh and wreaks destruction wherever it goes.

Carlson describes it as “the consummate predator of humanity.” It’s sometimes described as “an owl-eyed monster with large claws, matted hair, a naked emaciated body and a heart made of solid ice.”

“It’s extremely destructive,” he says. “The more it eats, the hungrier it gets, so it just keeps killing.”

Windigos can possess people, transforming them into wild-eyed, violent, flesh-eating maniacs with superhuman strength. Many native people in northern Alberta lived in terror of being possessed.

“It’s important to understand that cannibalism was repellent to the people,” Carlson explains. “The Windigo personified evil.”

The Swift Runner case caused an international sensation, making headlines in newspapers across Canada and the U.S.

According to accounts, he wandered alone into the Catholic Mission in St. Albert in the spring of 1879, claiming to be the only member of his family who didn’t starve to death over a particularly cold, bitter winter.

The priests became suspicious when they realized that Swift Runner, who weighed around 200 pounds, didn’t seem malnourished at all and was plagued with screaming fits and nightmares as he slept. He told them he was being tormented by an evil spirit, called Windigo, but said little else about it.

They reported their misgivings to police, who took Swift Runner to his family campground in the woods northeast of Edmonton, where they made a horrific discovery – the site was littered with bones, bits of flesh and hair. Some accounts claim that the larger bones had even been snapped and the marrow sucked out.

He eventually confessed that he shot some of his family, bludgeoned others with an axe and even strangled one girl with a cord. In some accounts, Swift Runner said he fed one boy human flesh before he too was killed.

‘THE LEAST OF MEN’

Before he was hanged, Swift Runner expressed extreme remorse. He told Father Hippolyte Leduc, “I am the least of men and do not merit even being called a man.”

Interestingly, Swift Runner is the only documented case Carlson can find of someone killing others because he thought he was possessed by a Windigo.

All other deaths he can document were cases of “Windigo executions,” where others have killed the person believed to be possessed. They were acts of self-preservation, attempts to protect their community.

In most of the cases, the victims themselves begged to be killed before they harmed their families.

In many cases, witnesses reported physical changes -bodies swelling and growing, lips and mouths enlarging. Some of the victims spoke of icy cold in their chests and an inability to warm up.

Carlson, who’s Metis, first heard about the Windigo from his grandmother, who told him about an incident at Trout Lake, where members of the community killed a man possessed by a demon that had been cursed and turned into a Windigo.

The story haunted him throughout his childhood, and after his grandmother died in 2002, he discovered an eerily similar story in an archived newspaper.

“I was somewhat confounded by the discovery of the newspaper account that seemed to confirm a story that had been in my family for almost 100 years,” he says.

Further research revealed that the man who was killed was also a distant relative of Carlson’s.

Carlson is now writing a book on the Windigo condition in northern Alberta and is negotiating with filmmakers about a documentary.

Russian Wildman

The Marked Hominid, another view of the Windigo of cryptozoology, not psychology, as drawn by artist Harry Trumbore in The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


23 Responses to “The Windigo and The Beheading”

  1. PhotoExpert responds:

    It is sad that some human beings have to suffer the consequences of the mentally and psychologically disturbed people, living within their communities.

    Unfortunately, people who are afflicted with certain mental illnesses, can have their fantasies triggered by reading or hearing some story. Some will think they are a Messiah. Some will think that they are cannabilistic killers. Sometimes these mental illnesses intesify as they creep up on and overtake their victim as their disease progresses. In their minds, they think they are fighting a spirit. When in fact, they are fighting themselves and their own compulsions. They will perseverate on their idea.

    The trick is finding, then treating these individuals before their illness and fantasies overtake them. It sounds like this is what happened in many of these cases. Stories being told or articles being read, triggered the mental illness lying near the surface and these atrocities took place when the mental illness manifested itself in the given individual.

    All these sad things took place and all have the same commonalities. Hopefully the professional communities will be able to gain some insight through these cases and identify behavioral changes before another murder takes place. I think part of the problem is that psychiatrists are MDs and as physicians, they know the pharmaceutical end, in treating their patients but not the psychological diagnosis. Psychologists know the physchological diagnosis but are unable to prescribe medicine. I believe that if psychologists would push for the right to prescribe, this would end a lot of these stories with gruesome endings. But I guess the AMA will fight that tooth and nail.

    I say, empower and credential psychologists and give them the power to prescribe meds! Just like cancer or any other physical illness, mental illness is an illness and needs to be treated. If not, we will be reading many more stories, such as the ones Loren listed above.

    Thanks for posting those stories as they give us some insight, psychologically speaking, into the minds of these people and the reasoning behind the killings.

  2. dogu4 responds:

    I’ve recently read an article about the effects on one’s congitition while a host organism is under the influence of certain toxoplasmodia microbes. We know of other parasitic organisms which are capable of taking charge of their hosts and cause them to behave in a way that the host not normally would but that benefits the parasite’s reproductive strategy. The case I’d read about actually caused nymphomania in its human hosts.
    Here’s a quote from the wiki on toxoplasmosis:
    Other studies suggest that the parasite may influence personality. There are claims of toxoplasma causing antisocial attitudes in men and promiscuity[23] (or even “signs of higher intelligence”[24] ) in women, and greater susceptibility to schizophrenia and manic depression in all infected persons.[23] A 2004 study found that toxoplasma “probably induce[s] a decrease of novelty seeking.” [25]
    Who’d a thunk it?

  3. YarriWarrior responds:

    I first learned of the wendigo in the 70’s via the Incredible Hulk comic. It slept on top of humans it trapped humans to prevent escape! I notice a connection between convulsions and people who are “wendigos”. It is known that eating human brains causes a condition that brings on a convulsive break down of motor functions. I wonder if this condition exposed people who resorted to eating humans under harsh environmental stress/lack of food. And then the legend followed perhaps? Who can say for sure. Yarri

  4. eireman responds:

    Yes, the disorder you are referring to is brought on by the presence of prions, which I believe are protein fragments, that behave like viruses in the body once ingested, if I’m not mistaken. This is sometimes the case with cannibalism.

  5. Ceroill responds:

    eireman, yes the prions can be taken into the system via consumption of human flesh, in particular the brain. This was first discovered among tribes in New Guinea, and it seems to be related to what’s called Mad Cow Disease. The condition is very rare, of course.

    Also, as I understand things, the reason psychologists are not licensed to prescribe drugs is that, unlike psychiatrists, they are not medical doctors. They are Ph.D.s (if they are titled Doctor), often involved in clinical research, but have not been through medical school.

  6. mrdark responds:

    Wow, that’s…that’s pretty bizarre. This case puzzled me from the outset, didn’t make a lot of sense for someone to have a psychotic break this severe. Really, we haven’t seen a crime like this in, hell, ever? This makes a school shooting look like jaywalking, pathologically. You’d expect to find a history of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. You’d expect raving, delusions, claims of voices…nada. Just begging from the killer to be put down…completely contradictory with schizophrenia (where most violent behavior results from paranoia, i.e. a delusional reaction to imagined threats against the subject…almost a hyperactive self-preservation instinct).

    I’m curious to hear more about what went down here, but damn…that wendigo connection, now that I read it, it should have hit me right away. Cannibalism, a seemingly unwilling perpetrator, sudden outburst of violence, Canada…bizarre.

  7. shumway10973 responds:

    Why do we take the native american’s word for one creature we haven’t proven (big foot) but won’t for the other (spirit of windigo)?
    There is something up there that does seem to at least push them over the line. Something between the movie Fear and the tv show that was on CBS with Dan Akroyd where it was somewhere between XFiles and Twilight Zone. It had the man who was Max Headroom as the lead scientist. These are bona fide cases that unfortunately is hard to prove, but there seems to be quite a bit of it up there. I think there’s more than just crazy people involved here. I think we are getting into demonology or something along those lines. Something is pushing these people to do the worst thing in human society.

  8. mystery_man responds:

    In response to the talk about prions. They are actually not all that well understood, but the general consensus is that they are unlike a virus. Viruses are bits of DNA or RNA with a protein coat called a “capsid”. They replicate within the body by using the pre existing cells of the host organism to make copies of itself. There are different ways of causing disease within animals depending on the species, but it always involves interaction with the cells and the immune response this can cause.

    Prions are typically thought of as being solely made of proteins. In very basic terms, they work by refolding into an abnormal structure that converts other molecules into similar structures. This forms plaques that disrupt the tissue and can cause “holes” sort of like a sponge. This interaction of the abnormal proteins always causes cell death and tissue damage. There are no known cures for prion caused illnesses.

    Is this helpful?

    The whole idea that these seemingly psychotic episodes related in stories of the wendigo are caused by parasites or diseases is a very interesting one. As dogu4 said, there are many examples of parasites that can cause behavioral changes, sometimes strikingly dramatic ones. And there are diseases that can cause what might be seen as maniacal behavior, such as the mentioned prion based diseases as well as viruses like rabies. The theory that this sort of thing could have altered a persons perceptions and actions to cause the episodes does have merit. Good speculation.

  9. mccinny responds:

    Interesting connections. Perhaps its something in the climate or temperate zone that affects certain already disturbed people. Who knows. It could just be a cultural label for something that happens, albeit rarely, worldwide.

  10. YarriWarrior responds:

    I should proof-read my posts! I meant to say it slept on top of humans it trapped to prevent escape. This is what happens when you start a sentence, and get up to get another cup of coffee, then return. Thanks guys, for the prion info. Yarri

  11. SamuraiWannaBe responds:

    “It’s beyond eerie.” – agreed…

    PhotoExpert made me think of my friends brother who is a diagnosed schizophrenic (sp?), his actions did change slowley and without going into to much detail, he eventually belived he was leader of some sort of rebellion. Lukily all his family and friends where ‘on his side’ in his mind and no harm came to anyone.

    Basically there are some interesting possible connections, and some very interesting historical information.

  12. korollocke responds:

    kuru, the laughing disease caused by eating human brains. I personally knew a canniable, nathaniel barjonah, he ate children and made burger, pasta and chilli out of them and shared it with other people saying it was elk meat. in my opinion you would have to be a monster to stalk and eat children.

  13. Lightning Orb responds:

    I’m open-minded as to the sorts of unknown entities which could theoretically stay unkown to science and from time to time conduct this sort of mischief. I also think maybe windigos are sort of an excuse; it’s easy to blame invisible monsters and demons for terrifying psychological events. But the human mind can, and sometimes does just snap. We humans sometimes horrify ourselves more than just about anything else. Eerieness is affirmative

  14. red_pill_junkie responds:

    There has been some studies linking schizofrenia via contact with cat hair (sorry, cat lovers).

    Maybe some spore that is released in the Summer season in that area of Canada might create a violent schizoid event on some people after being inhaled?

  15. springheeledjack responds:

    The windigo has always been one of my favorite topics (beside’s USO’s that is), and I am always interested to hear more about it–there’s a famous short story about the windigo…of course, can’t remember who wrote it, but it is good and creepy:)

    Back to cryptozoology…since the phenomenon does seem to be centered up in Canada, perhaps there is some unknown microbe that causes some sort of psychotic episodes, or perhaps something about the climate that shifts chemicals in the brain of that .0001% of people…or maybe there is some sort of spirit at work…I am not going to dismiss anything native americans have to say about the world…they were here long before us, and seem to understand it a whole lot better than modern humans.

  16. mystery_man responds:

    red_pill_junky- Your idea is not too far fetched at all. Cases of mold infected crops causing epidemics of mass hysteria have been documented since around the 14th century.

    One such example is a hypothesis related to the Salem witch hunts. Some think that many of the symptoms attributed to witches, as well as the mass hysteria that followed, might have been caused by a mold induced poisoning called “ergotism”. Ergot is a chemical produced by a type of fungus and has effects similar to the drug LSD. It could have been responsible for hallucinations, seizures, mental disturbances, and bizarre behavior, as well as death and miscarriages in women. All of these things could have been attributed to supernatural or satanic causes. There are quite a few historical examples of this.

    In the case of Salem, people blamed witches. Perhaps the same sort of thing could be behind some of the stories of The Windigo as well.

  17. lablanco responds:

    SHJack, the story you mention is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”, available online.

  18. Ceroill responds:

    mystery man, quite true. Ergot poisoning has also been posited as a cause for the werewolf and witchcraft scares of Europe of days gone by.

  19. Maven responds:

    A neighbor had episodes of people dropping out of trees to attack him while he was delusional with Hepatitis C. The idea of a fungus or biological/seasonal cause isn’t too far-fetched to me.
    …..However, being of a spiritual mindset, a hungry demonic entity isn’t outside my belief system either.

  20. dogu4 responds:

    A natural history/cultural history note regarding ergotism and spiritual/social movements since the Witch Trials of the 1690s was brought up: the Salem witch trials occured while the northern hemisphere was still within the grasp of the thermal minimum called the “little ice age” and was experiencing one of its climate minimums. The summers were cold and damp and the land was being cleared in the old fashioned way, with lots of dead branches and stumps on the land being burned for years…ideal conditions for fungus such as the claviceps purpurea which produces ergot as well as a lot of other mushrooms some of which are psychogenic and who knows what other kinds of potentially psychogenic producing organisms. We sometime think that the witches were the ones who were effected by the ergot but it was totally believable to the populace that witches were in their midst because so many had witnessed experienced psychedelic visions that natually would have been interpreted as demonic possession.
    Flash ahead to the first half of the 19th century in central New York State. A similar thermal minimum was still ongoing and it too is in contemporaneous with large scale land clearing and lots of fires burning enormous hedgerows of slash, stump choked fields and decaying woody debris.
    Here’s where it get’s interesting: in the cultural history of spiritual movements in America this area is sometimes referred to the “burnt-over district” eluding to the spiritual vigor which had gripped the region according to some historians. Religious, spiritual and social movements which emphasised visions of apocalyptic or futuristic happenings and firey apparitions were attributed to a number of foundational spiritual and social movements during this time, a couple of which still persist to this day in mainstream American spiritual culture: Millerites, Shakers, LDS, Fourierist Utopians, Odeida Society and other socially radical movements.
    I wonder if the area from which our cannibalistic head collector was subject to fires in its recent past or if he’d been eating the local fungus lately.

  21. rl_esteves responds:

    Is the human mind capable of shape shifting one’s physical appearance?

  22. mystery_man responds:

    rl_estevez- I’d say under the right influences, the human mind is certainly capable of making one really believe it is. That and believing it has witnessed shapeshifting. I’d say hallucinations supplemented with the power of belief can make the human mind believe it is capable of a lot of things.

  23. Researcher responds:

    Windigo Psychosis is actually a disorder studied as a Culture Bound Syndrome. It happened to Native American and Canadian tribe members when they over-wintered in too-small and single-room living arrangements.

    VisionAndPsychosis.Net points out that a problem of physiology discovered to cause mental breaks for office workers by designers attempting to modernize business offices is the explanation for these beliefs of the Windigo. The cubicle was designed to deal with it by 1968. (Read the first 400 words on VisionAndPsychosis.Net.)

    It takes some imagination to see and understand how these primitives had created the “special circumstances” for Subliminal Distraction exposure in the 1800’s.

    It still happens today. The violence takes different forms depending on the cultural beliefs of the victim. In Malaysia it is called Amok. Going Postal is the event in the United States. Great Plains tribes experienced Ghost Sickness, and among the Navajo it is iich’aa. Grisi Siknis, crazy sickness, happens to Moskito Indians of Nicaragua. They believe they are being attacked and take up weapons against invisible foes. There was an outbreak after hurricane Fredric. Victims would have been confined together indoors during the storms of the hurricane.

    College students are other likely victims since they have behaviors that allow the exposure to cause the mental break. The Virginia Tech shooter is one example. Cho used his laptop in the suite common room while roommates walked by ignoring him. That’s a description of SD exposure. We all saw the paranoid psychotic rant SD produced.

    When the sudden mental break strikes it is perceived in terms of the victims beliefs. The Windigo was the bogey man of these people.

    Fear (to the point of trembling), paranoia, depression, panic attacks, and thoughts of suicide are the symptoms of the sudden mental break.

    I don’t know what the latest bizarre killer did but just sharing a room and performing something requiring deep mental investment with movement in peripheral vision would create the circumstances for exposure. Daydreaming is enough mental investment. (Think of a two person dorm room with an unprotected study desk or computer.)

    There is a long list of missing students who suddenly walk away taking almost nothing with them. Some are found suicides, some are accident or crime victims, but a very few recover and return in altered mental states. This argues they had the sudden mental break to cause the disappearance.

    The Windigo still walks among us.



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