Feature: The Wiederganger

by Jim Dittmann
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Lloyd ClarkBy: Lloyd Clark

The fall of 1861 was a decided change from the beautifully warm and sunny summer that had seen the thriving town of Beaver Dam expand at a prodigious rate.  Autumn came in dank, dark and cold, driving the inhabitants indoors to escape the unseasonably frigid air and stinging rains.  However, the chill in the physical atmosphere was not the only sinister arrival in the town on the lake – fear had arrived as well.

Since the week following the equinox, citizens traveling the trail to Fox Lake had seen ghostly apparitions in the dense forest north of town.  The menacing figures, vaguely human-shaped, but seemingly made of mist, dogged the steps of the travelers from the moment they entered the wood.  Even men known for their fearlessness and hardy natures were overwhelmed with a sense of dread and terror as sunset neared.  Within days no one in Beaver Dam would challenge the “Watchers in the Wood” to travel to Fox Lake.

Fear turned into panic when a cow vanished without a trace, nor track, from its dog-guarded pen.  The leading men of the town formed hunting parties, patrolling the town in shifts from dusk to dawn to protect the citizens and their precious livestock.  Two more cows, a dog and a horse disappeared without so much as a sound.  Each night, fewer and fewer men showed for the patrols, until by the second week of October there were only a few brave souls continuing to venture out.

Even the few remaining Natives that lived near the lake reported sightings of phantasms and other “demonic” entities that walked across the water and disappeared in bursts of flame in the morning mists.  Jumping Fish, who had lived in this area for many years, claimed that the land spirits, distressed by all the construction, would no longer protect the land from dark spirits.  One day, less than two weeks before All Hallows Eve, the citizens awoke to find that Jumping Fish and the remaining Natives had packed their belongings and left in the night.

For Hans, just eleven years old and newly settled in Wisconsin from his home in Bavaria, all the talk of ghosts and demons provided all the fear and excitement a young boy could crave.  Finished with school, Hans served an apprenticeship with Samuel Hodgman, a cooper whose thriving shop sat on the northern end of Madison Street. 

Mr. Hodgman and his father Asa were good masters to young Hans and he worked hard to learn the art of shaping wood and building barrels.  To pass the time, Hodgman allowed Widow Schmidt a place in the workshop where she would tell stories from the old country.  Widow Schmidt, the owner of an overnight boarding house for pioneers heading west, reveled in the stories of Prussia and spent many hours happily telling stories to the men as they worked. 

Hodgman asked the Widow’s opinion of the supernatural happenings around the town.  He was one of the few men that still took his turn patrolling the town at night and had seen a few things that unnerved him.  Widow Schmidt looked out the window toward the lake.  For the longest time she did not say anything, but when she looked back at the men, her eyes were wide with fear.  “Wiedergänger,” she said in a whisper.

At the sound of the word, Hans dropped the heavy planer he had been using.  Being English, neither Hodgman understood what the Widow meant.  For Hans, however, the Wiedergänger was a terrifying creature of legend, one he knew of from stories told to him as a small child by his mother and grandmother on dark, stormy nights.  Hans explained that Wiedergängers are spirits of the murdered.  Their corpses rise from the grave to gain revenge on those who killed them.  They can only rise at night and must return to their grave before sunrise, and in order to keep rising, they must feed upon the blood of a living creature once a fortnight.

Widow Schmidt nodded her head in agreement and then said something that froze the blood in the men’s veins – there were already reported sightings of Wiedergängers in Wisconsin. 

About ten years ago, a man had come to town on his way out west.  He stayed just for the night, and before continuing on, he told a tale that he had heard in Waukesha about a butcher that killed a young man in a drunken rage.  This scared the man’s younger brother so badly that he fled into a blizzard where he froze to death.  Years later, a ghostly dog and a fiery figure appeared almost daily in the woods near the town.  Most of the residents quickly figured out that the two murdered young men had returned, but the butcher simply laughed at them.  One day, a local boy discovered the butcher’s body on the trail leading from the woods.  Some animal had torn the butcher’s throat out and there were burn marks shaped like hands on his arms and shoulders.

The elder Hodgman sat quietly for a moment before telling them he knew the butcher when he lived just outside of Waukesha.  The butcher died exactly as the Widow described it.  It was soon after the butcher’s death that the elder Hodgman packed his belongings and came to Beaver Dam.

“The boys became Wiedergängers to avenge their deaths,” the Widow said as she bundled up her things to go.  Hodgman quickly disagreed stating that no one had died since before summer and definitely not since the harvest started.  The Widow stopped at the door and turned to look at him over her shoulder, “No one that you know of…”

Hans did not get any sleep that night, and around midnight, he joined Hodgman in patrolling the town.

Hodgman and Hans walked north until they reached the edge of the forest.  A biting wind blew from across the lake, pulling at their wool coats and forcing each to hold onto their hats to keep them on their heads.  The woods were inky black and neither could see in more than a few feet.  However, after a few moments, they noticed a shambling figure moving through the trees in their direction. 

Hans, frozen by fear, jumped when Hodgman whispered to the boy not to move and slowly brought up his rifle, taking aim at the now rapidly approaching figure.  After taking a steadying breath, Hodgman began to pull back on the trigger.

From out of the darkness, Jumping Fish appeared, “Do not shoot me.  I am not the Wendigo,” he said as he walked up to the two men.

Hodgman quickly pulled his rifle barrel up and took his finger off the trigger.  Hans gave every impression that he was going to faint.

“Jumping Fish, what the hell are you doing out here?  I could have shot you,” Hodgman whispered, obviously still shaken by the encounter.

Jumping Fish looked at him sideways, “Same as you, hunting the Wendigo.”

Jumping Fish explained that after moving his family members to safety, he came back to track down the Wendigo.  A Wendigo is the restless spirit of a murdered soul unable to move on to the next world. The spirits in the forest, the Mimakwisiwuk, were guarding the woods from the Wendigo.

Heading back toward town, Hodgman explained the Widow’s suspicion.  Jumping Fish agreed that her Wiedergänger and the Wendigo were the same, and from what he had heard, they would become more and more violent until they were able to have revenge on the person who had killed them.

Walking on Madison Street, Hans noticed movement on one of the many small islands that littered the surface of Beaver Dam Lake.  No more than 50 feet from the bank, there was a pale and sickly green glowing light that was moving back and forth along the bank, much like someone was pacing.  The men watched silently from the bank as the light then slowly began to move across the water.

While the light was obviously moving across the water, the water was as still as glass.  Not a wave or ripple stirred its surface, even under the light!  Hodgman and Jumping Fish pulled Hans down into the bushes, squatting in the darkness, but still able to see the light.

As the light reached the shore, it transformed into a figure of a small girl of about six or seven.  The girl was deathly pale.  Her hair, choked with weeds and water soaked, was the color of straw.  A large bruise covered her entire forehead.  She paused on the bank to look around with cold dead eyes, before beginning to float up the hill that led to Madison Street.

The three were instantly on their feet and silently trailing the girl.  They followed her north past Chatham and Greenwich always keeping at least 30 yards behind and almost lost her when she turned east down Wall Street.  Hurrying, they once again caught sight of her just as she started to float across an open field heading toward Elm Street.  As they closed the distance to the girl, they realized she was not walking; she was floating above the ground.  The girl floated directly at a large house that stood nearly alone on Elm Street – Widow Schmidt’s boarding house!

The men dropped to the ground and watched as the figure of the girl became that of a huge wolf.  The wolf then paced around the Widow’s house apparently looking for a way in.  A few times, the wolf/girl paused to reach out with a paw to push at a door or window, only to quickly snatch it back.

For nearly an hour, the wolf paced around the Widow’s home.  With a frustrated howl, she suddenly disappeared in a ball of sickly green light.  No one moved.  After what seemed like an eternity to the boy, Hans finally asked if she was gone.

Jumping Fish replied, “The Wendigo was very angry when she left.  I am sure she will return.”

Hodgman, concern plain on his face, wanted to warn Widow Schmidt.  Before he could get up, Jumping Fish grabbed his shoulder and explained that whatever killed the little girl was in the house, but magic prevented the girl from getting inside and told them a Wendigo cannot be killed.  The longer it is kept from its revenge, the more violent it will become.  Soon, it will be killing more than horses and goats.

Jumping Fish told Hodgman to stay there and quickly crossed the field to the house.  After a few moments of poking around the back door, he returned. “Dirt,” he said, and after noticing that neither Hodgman nor Hans understood, he went on to explain that dirt from a burial mound prevents spirits from passing.  Whoever had killed the girl expected her to return.

The three stayed there throughout the rest of the night, but neither the girl nor the wolf returned.  However, a grisly sight greeted the three as they made their way across Front Street – a huge black bear with its throat torn out lay in the middle of the street.

Hodgman did not open his shop that day.  The windows were tightly shuttered and the door locked from within.  Jumping Fish had explained that only water from the sacred spring and an eagle feather could remove the dirt from the doorway.  Jumping Fish had such a feather; however, someone else would have to draw the water and bring it to the house.

Hans volunteered to retrieve the water, and Jumping Fish explained the workings of this magic.  First, the water must be obtained only after sunset and would only work if the Wendigo were present when the dirt was being removed.  Hans would still retrieve the water, but he would have to do so after sunset and before the girl arrived again at the house.  They settled down on the floor for a very unrestfull sleep.

The three awoke about an hour before sunset.  Hodgman would go down to the lakeshore    and watch for the Wiedergänger.  Hans would take an empty pail down to the Sacred Spring on College Street and bring it back after sunset, while Jumping Fish went to the house and prepared the ritual by building a small fire and smudging himself and the eagle feather.

Hodgman insisted they warn the Widow to stay out of her home that evening, and the three went directly to the boarding house.  There was no answer to their knock at the door, nor from calling her name, but they did notice that the front door was open slightly.  Worrying that something might have happened to Widow Schmidt, the three entered the house to see if everything was all right.

It was unusually dark within the house and it only took a moment to notice a foul odor coming from the back of the house.  Fearing the worst, Hodgman ran into the back and nearly tripped over a heavy linen sheet that was tied into a bundle.  The smell came from the bundle, and when they opened it they discovered bones, human bones that had been gnawed on.

Jumping Fish immediately understood what the bones meant and said, “Anamaqkiu.”  The Anamaqkiu are the underworld spirits who are responsible for most of the evil in the world and sometimes they convince humans to help them.  Jumping Fish was certain there was someone in this house helping the Anamaqkiu. 

Hodgman was confused and asked Jumping Fish what all of this meant.  Jumping Fish turned and hit him hard in the jaw, dropping Hodgman unconscious to the floor.  Hans was stunned and all manner of thoughts raced through his head.  For a moment, he feared Jumping Fish was responsible for the Wiedergänger and he might end up as just a rancid pile of bones in a bag.

Jumping Fish told him Widow Schmidt must be the Anamaqkiu, and they had to hurry and get Hodgman out of the house before she returned.  The two had just managed to pull Hodgman out of the house and down into the field where they hid him in the bushes before the Widow arrived back home.  Looking at the quickly setting sun, the Widow could be clearly seen checking every door and window frame before going into the house and pulling the door shut behind her.

Hans ran to the Sacred Spring, over a small wooden bridge that spanned the Beaver Dam River on High Street before crossing the small farm that sat between Mill Street and South Street.  He arrived at the spring just as the sun disappeared in the west.

Hans waited until complete darkness before he filled the bucket with water and carefully made his way back to where Jumping Fish was busily smudging the eagle feather over a small fire.  The smell of sage was thick in the air.  Hodgman was nowhere to be seen and Jumping Fish explained that he had gone to the lakeshore to watch for the Wendigo.  Jumping Fish also told Hans that Hodgman seemed to be very upset when he woke up.

Minutes dragged into hours, as the two watched the moon rise in the east, climbing toward the heavens.  Somewhere around midnight, Hodgman arrived and pointed toward the Widow’s house.  Just as the previous evening, the girl was floating outside of the house, moving back and forth in a parody of human pacing.

Jumping Fish took Hans by the arm and the two quietly made their way up to the house.  The girl, hearing their approach, shifted into the wolf-form and bared her teeth at them.  Jumping Fish pretended not to notice and walked past her with the eagle feather outstretched, chanting lowly in the Menomonee language, Hans glued to his side.

Approaching the back door, Jumping Fish circled the doorway with the eagle feather three times before dipping it into the pail of water.  With a flourish, he cast the water down on the lintel of dirt that lay across the bottom of the doorframe and dragged his foot across, clearing the wood of the dirt.  He then did the entire ritual two more times before turning and walking away, Hans still in tow.

Widow Schmidt did not go to the cooper shop the next day, or ever again.  Much like the boarders that stayed at her home, she was gone without a trace the following morning.  When the sheriff and a few of the leading men of the city, including Hodgman, went through her house, they found the personal possessions of nearly one hundred people, who had obviously checked in to the boarding house, but never checked out.  The house was burned to the ground and the land on which it stood was covered with salt.

Within a few days, Jumping Fish and the rest of the Natives had returned to their homes.  At his direction, a few of the younger Natives paddled over to the island that the Wendigo had been seen coming from and the bones of many young children were found there.  They were given proper last rites and burials in the town’s cemeteries.

As for the little girl/ Wendigo/Wiedergänger, she is still seen to this day wandering the shoreline near Madison Street.  On moonless nights, those brave enough can go to the lakeshore late at night, and if you are “lucky” you will see her light moving back and forth slowly on one of the small islands offshore.  But be very careful, you do not want to attract her attention.  It is said she looks to this day for a person to show her the way to the afterlife – pray that it is not you.   

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