Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Legend of Le Nain Rouge

You are invisible when you like it; you cross in one moment the vast space of the universe; you rise without having wings; you go through the ground without dying; you penetrate the abysses of the sea without drowning; you enter everywhere, though the windows and the doors are closed; and, when you decide to, you can let yourself be seen in your natural form.” - Le Prince Lutin, 1697

Le Nain Rouge, literally “the Red Dwarf” (also called the Demon of the Strait,) is a vicious sprite that has haunted the old city of Detroit since it’s beginnings. Charles Skinner had made a curious reference stating that le Nain Rouge was one of the children of “the Stone God.” It is believed by some that the Red Dwarf originated in Normandy, France and is a type of lutin (a French variety of hobgoblin.) It’s appearance is one of horror, a small child size creature wearing a cap and red or black fur boots, covered in thick black hair, it’s teeth rotting away in it’s head and it’s eyes blazing with supernatural fire. Whatever it’s origins, since it’s arrival in Detroit, it has been the city’s herald of doom. It’s appearance has always foretold some form of ill luck.
There is no confirmation that I have found, but it is said that the Ottawa tribes knew of the creature’s existence and feared it. More importantly, however, is the first official account of the existence of le Nain Rouge. The first of the European settlers to come into contact with the imp was the very founder of Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. The story states that in March of 1701 a banquet was held in the halls of the castle of St. Louis, Quebec. Cadillac, along with several other French officers, was in attendance. During the evening a fortune teller entered the castle stating that she was called “Mere Minique, La Sorciere.” It is said that a black cat perched on the woman’s shoulder. One after another she read the palms of the men, occasionally hesitating. When she would falter in this way the cat on her shoulder would lick her ear. It was said by some that the cat was a familiar, or else the devil himself, giving the “witch” the information that she required. Her knowledge of most of the men was so spot on, that many believed this to truly be a supernatural power.
When she finally arrived at Cadillac she told him that in the coming years he would found a great city. Yet the fortune turned grim when she said that it would be filled with strife and bloodshed. She stated that there would be conflict with the native tribes as well as battles with his English enemies for control of the city. She also stated that under a new flag the city would reach a height of prosperity beyond Antoine’s dreams. Cadillac pressed her, asking if his children would inherit from him, to which he was told that destiny would be the result of his actions. She then made a mysterious comment, telling him to appease the Red Dwarf and avoid upsetting it. If he did not manage to do this, his heirs would not inherit from him, and his name would be mostly forgotten in the city he was to found. It bears mentioning that this red capped harbinger of doom was said to be malicious if offended, but could be appeased with much flattery.
All seemed impressed by the words of the prophetess, save for Cadillac. Later he told his wife of the reading and she too thought it to be an important omen, much to his surprise. Soon after this event Cadillac moved south through Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair until he reached an area on the banks of the Detroit River (then called the Strait) where he founded Fort Pontchartrain, later to be renamed Detroit. For six years Cadillac enjoyed much success, with a yearly increase of settlers migrating to his new city.
In March of 1707, exactly six years after Cadillac had received his prophecy, he made his first land grant to his interpreter. The document that Cadillac signed was a feudal tract stipulating the rights of the adjoining land’s owner. Among these were the acknowledgment of keeping the faith, homage to the city and it's founder and the erecting of a Maypole every year at May Day.
That May a great crowd had assembled outside of Cadillac’s manor for the May Day festivities. Shortly Fafard, the newly appointed land owner, came through the crowd and upon Cadillac’s doorstep pledged his fealty to Cadillac and the colony. Other land owners who had received fiefdoms followed. Father Deniau of St. Anne’s Church then offered a prayer that the May festivities would pass without incident and the Maypole, with an adjoining pole bearing the royal flag with the Fleur de Lis of France was planted in the “gallerie” in front of Cadillac’s home. Cadillac then asked all to help him in watering the pole to ensure that it might flourish, a symbolic act. All then drank a toast to King and the health of all. A young then climbed the pole and shouted “Viva le Roi, Viva le Seigneur Cadillac Du Detroit.” Then Cadillac, followed by all others at the event fired pistols loaded only with powder at the pole until the whole of the Maypole had been blackened. This was followed by the traditional dance round the Maypole. The peace and joy of this occasion, along with the growing of the city in the years prior, had Cadillac more than convinced that the fortune teller had been wrong about him.
In the evening Cadillac walked with his wife in a park called the King’s Garden. While speaking of the great fortune that had come to them in this new settlement, they overheard two of the townspeople speaking on their way home from the revelry. Both seemed to be very discontent with the way of things in the city, expressing that they were displeased with how much the land owners possessed while the residents had little in life. Then one of the travelers spoke ominous words. He said that things could not continue going this way for long, as his wife had recently spied le Nain Rouge. The rest of the conversation was lost to Cadillac. Cadillac’s wife, remembering the prophecy, grew very concerned. Cadillac himself, again, brushed off the incident as nothing more than superstition.
As they continued to walk they were taken by surprise as a red faced dwarf appeared before them, moseying along the beach before the gardens. As the creature approached they could see that it had a mouth full of decaying teeth and eyes which dazzled all who beheld their cold reflective gaze. Cadillac’s wife began to say that what they beheld was indeed the red dwarf, but was to late in her warning, as Cadillac, angered at either the reality of the creature’s existence, or else his own senses, wanting to remain skeptical, struck the creature with his cane. The dwarf vanished, but a menacing laugh was heard by all. Cadillac’s wife scolded him for his rash action for she believed the words of the fortune teller. Soon after Cadillac returned to Montreal, where he was arrested due to accusations made by his enemies. He had to sell his estates and seignory in Detroit to pay for the trial. He was later relocated to Louisiana as governor, for a time, but died late in his life in France. His estates were never inherited by his heirs, his fame faded and to this day his name is better known to Detroiters as a car company, rather than the founder of their city. The city, also has been cursed due to Cadillac’s ill tempered judgment, and has been a city of strife and hardship since that fateful May Day.
Since that day le Nain Rouge has been a harbinger of doom for the city of Detroit, not unlike hearing the wail of the banshee or spotting the Black Dog in other countries. In 1763 the imp was seen dancing along the shoreline before the Battle of Bloody Run, in which Chief Pontiac’s forces killed 58 British troops. That day a tributary of the Detroit River ran red with the blood of the fallen soldiers. The creature was also seen, by a number of witnesses, roaming the streets of Detroit in the spring of 1805. On June 11th of that year nearly the entire city was destroyed by a great fire. American General William Hull also claimed to have seen the dwarf just before his surrender of the city to the British in 1813. He has gone down in history as the only American officer to have been sentenced to death due to utter military incompetence and cowardice. This was due, in part, to the fact that Hull’s forces in the fort greatly outnumbered the British offensive.
It was also le Nain Rouge that claimed the mill on Presque Isle. The mill had been inherited by a woman named Josette, and on her deathbed her brother Jean (who was said to not be a very responsible man) pestered her to leave the mill to him. She refused saying that she would leave the mill to the Devil before she would leave it to him. On the very night of Josette’s death Jean was said to have seen the Red Dwarf peering through the window of her bedroom at him. That very night the mill was destroyed by lightning and le Nain Rouge was said to have been seen dancing in it’s ruins.
In the modern era the dwarf was said to have been seen dancing down 12th Street in 1967, just hours before the Detroit riots broke out. The wake of the riots on July 30th left 43 people dead 7000 individuals arrested and an approximate 22 million dollars in property damages. Later in 1976 two electrical workers saw what they believed to have been a child playing on a utility pole. Closer inspection revealed that the creature on the pole was actually a malicious looking red imp. The creature glared menacingly at the workers before running off. Less than a full day later one of the worst ice storms in the history of Detroit hit and left nearly 400,000 people without power in the dead of winter. Since the storm of ‘76 sightings of the creature have been sparse. Some internet propaganda has even made audacious claims that the creature has passed away, and it’s body shipped back to France. It has been noted the dwarf was supposedly nowhere to be seen during the ice storm of 1997, which did far more damage than the storm of ‘76. However, this author has uncovered a story, in which a couple of individuals claim to have seen the dwarf vandalizing an automobile in late 1996, which could (if it was indeed le Nain Rouge) be the sign linking it to the storm of ‘97.
Whether the dwarf is still present in the city of Detroit or not may never be known for certain, but one can be sure that it has left it’s mark. In addition to having a great many articles and books written detailing appearances and tales of the imp, it has also sparked creativity in the folk mind of Metro Detroit’s residents, having everything from locally brewed beer and ale to rock bands named after it. It would seem that the memory of this mythical figure has outlived the memory of his first adversary, the very founder of Detroit!

Copyright 2010 R.J. Thompson