By: Brett Swancer …..
Nestled within the rolling, picturesque terrain of the Madawaska valley of Ontario, Canada, is the quaint, serene settlement of Wilno. It was the scenic landscape here that drew in settlers from the Polish cultural region of Kashubia in the 1850s, who thought this place reminded them of their own homeland and fled there to escape from oppressive Prussian rule. Indeed, Wilno is the oldest Polish-Kashubian permanent settlement in Canada, and here they built a church, general store and post office, and the village gradually drew in steady droves of Polish-Kashubian settlers, which only grew more when the Canadian Atlantic Railway came through to link Wilno with Ottawa in 1894. To this day Wilno holds to it the proud traditions and culture of these people, and is steeped in history and imbued with a certain quaint, old world charm that has made it a tourist destination, but thrumming under the surface are strange tales of old religions, black magic, and supernatural undead monsters.
Although the settlers of Wilno were by and large staunchly Roman Catholic, they had nevertheless brought back folklore, legends, superstitions and beliefs from the old country, all of which coursed beneath the outward veneer. Among these was the persistent belief in witchcraft, black magic, and various supernatural creatures, including evil spirits, magical dwarves, and vampires, and despite their Catholicism many of the settlers believed that these dark forces were also very real, and that they had brought them along to these new shores. It was these folk beliefs that in the 1960s drew the attention of a Harvard-educated professor of Slavic languages by the name of Jan Louis Perkowski, who was fascinated to find that these old traditions and beliefs from Poland were alive and strong right there in North America, and with funding from the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History), he made his journey to Wilno in 1968 in order to study these traditions, from here penetrating deep into a sinister world of vampires and the supernatural like something straight out of a horror story.
Through interviewing various locals, Perkowski soon established that indeed belief in supernatural creatures existed among the people of Wilno, especially concerning vampires, which they believed roamed about there and were depicted very similarly to how they were seen in the Old World. There were supposedly two main types of vampires, according to the locals, the vjeszci and the wupji, both of which were supposedly cursed from their very birth and doomed to inevitably become the undead. In the case of the vjeszci, the child was born with a membrane sack on their crown, and the wupji were children born with two teeth. A vjeszci could be cured if the mother kept the membrane for seven years, then ground it up into the child’s food and had them eat it. With a wupji, there was no cure, the when they eventually died they were doomed to return from the dead to stalk the night looking for blood. According to the local traditions, a newly minted vampire would kill off its family members one by one every night until no one was left, after which it would make its way to the nearest church or chapel and ring the bell, and anyone who heard this would die within the year. Sinister stuff, for sure.
In the local lore there were several ways to deal with these vampires. One was to bury them face down before they turned, so that they would merely dig deeper rather than dig out, or to alternately bury them with sand or in netting, because these creatures were said to be unable to leave their grave until they counted all of the grains of sand or untied every knot in the net, with one knot supposedly taking a vampire an entire year to undo. Another, more gruesome way to deal with a vampire was to behead the foul beast and put the head between its feet, or to drive a long nail into its forehead as it slept. It’s all very ominous stuff that seems as if it must surely be pure folklore, but Perkowski claimed that there were reports that this was all very real, with him gathering several eyewitness accounts of these malevolent entities. One local would tell him:
“When we were there on that farm something came to my daughter. Something came in the night and drew blood from her arm. It was a vampire. It came to my daughter at night and took marrow. There was a sign. A ring was visible. She was weak and had all her blood drawn out. It healed later. What they did is forgotten. Mind you, he came at night, when she was sleeping. It was a vampire that came. Have you ever heard of such a thing? We didn’t tell anyone anything. We didn’t do anything. She wasn’t sick at all. She was kind of weak for a while, you know. She was about sixteen, fifteen years old. We kept it a secret. We never told anybody.”
Another account reads:
“There a vampire was born to some people. The child was fine, baptized. Everything was good and he died. I was there. It was forty years ago. And my neighbor was there. They said that I was to sew a garment for the child and I took it and was sewing the garment, but I said to Mrs. Martin Etmanski, ‘Come here. The child is alive. The child is coming to life, but the mother dying.’ And then Mrs. Etmanski said, ‘Yes, but I will put it straight.’ She took a needle. From the ring finger, but I can’t say whether it was two drops or three, she drew blood. The blood was alive and she administered it. When she gave it from the girl to the mother, the mother got better and began to sit up. The child grew cold and they buried it. If it had been layed out for burial, she would have been taken dying to the grave.”
Perkowski even talked to people who claimed to have witnessed vampires being killed in their graves, and that this happened rather often in Wilno, but that it was kept a secret so that the outside world wouldn’t know. One of Perkowski’s sources would tell him of this:
“There was a lot of that at Wilno in the graves. They opened graves. They cut the heads off. When they die and were born vampires and are not seen to, then they have to dig up the graves. First he carries off his relatives and then as far as the bell rings. It happened at Wilno. They had to dig up many, but it was not told, revealed. They had to dig it up and cut off the head while it sat in the coffin.”
Ultimately Perkowski would interview over a dozen such witnesses to this vampire phenomena in Wilno, as well as gather stories of witchcraft and other supernatural entities such as dwarves and succubi going on there, all of which he would make into an 85-page report titled Vampires, Dwarves, And Witches Among The Ontario Kashubs. This oddball report would be submitted to the museum and be met with more than its fair share of raised eyebrows. To them it was a bunch of nonsense and a waste of their funding, a load of sensationalist garbage that was a stain on their reputation, but they were unable to brush it under the carpet before the media caught a whiff of it all. Before long, reporters were flocking to Wilno looking to investigate all of the supposedly real vampires there, much to the chagrin of the local residents, who denounced the stories as nothing more than lore and legend. Indeed, they were quick to dismiss Perkowski’s report as nothing more than flights of fancy at best, with one bishop telling a reporter in exasperation:
“I was amazed that such a thing would be printed… They are like stories my grandmother would tell to scare us… It is possible that one or two nuts have those beliefs but the implication is that all of us do… We get a big laugh out of it, we know the people who have manufactured the story just by reading it… That nonsense of driving nails. My impression is that he probably stuck a microphone under their noses and to get rid of him they’d make up these tales.”
Even some of Perkowski’s informants and sources turned on him, accusing him of misrepresenting and twisting what they had said, instigating dishonest or manipulative lines of questioning, and even straight up making stuff up. One resident would tell reporters:
“This anthropologist, he was not a sincere man… He was not what he claimed. He sat here. Here, with me in my kitchen. I told him the old wives’ tales, things my grandmother told me, but we don’t believe these things anymore. It’s all crap… Just pure crap. And underline that I said ‘pure crap’.”
Regardless of all of this negative publicity and the people of Wilno trying to wave it away, the vampire story stuck, and to this day the town is almost known as much for tales of dark bloodsucking monsters as it is for its rich history and Polish-Kashubian cultural traditions. It is a reputation that has lasted right up to the present, with residents still shaking their head about it and blowing off Perkowski’s staining of their legacy. One former resident has lamented of it:
“It’s all bullcrap. Perkowski’s work is not well-researched. It’s not contextualized. And he totally misread the community and his informants. He took a lot of the words from residents and twisted them. There was a lot of hurt in the ’60s and ’70s when this work came out, and still to this day. Unfortunately, the vampire story has survived and the true stories haven’t come out. There’s much more history, much more rich traditions in the area. That’s what we want this community to be known for and not something that’s made up and supernatural. If you’re looking at a vampire story, basically our identity was sucked right out of us. Sometimes the journalists and media are the vampires because they like to spread that falsehood, because it makes great television. But it’s not fair to the people of Wilno, because that is not our history. On paper … there’s this vampire story. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll get at the heart of people, you’ll get at the heart of this town.”
So what are we to make of all of this? There seems to certainly be a lot about what Perkowski wrote that should be taken with a grain of salt. He provides no evidence that any of this ever happened, there are no official accounts of corpse mutilations, no real solid names, dates, or locations in his eyewitness reports to independently verify any of it, and doesn’t even name his supposed sources, simply calling them “informants.” It is very easy to believe that the possibility is strong that his report is embellished at the very least and even completely fabricated. There is also the fact that when asked why the museum had asked him to carry out his research Perkowski once replied:
“They publish these dry things on Eskimo stone carvings and how the Iroquois do this and that, and they thought they’d have a slightly jazzier thing. So I went along with them. I don’t mean that they wanted cheap publicity, but they thought that (the report) would have more general appeal than many of the things that they’ve produced. I think they’re right. Ukrainian Easter eggs are interesting, granted, but of limited interest – whereas everybody likes to be frightened a little bit by the Dracula legend.”
Real vampires in Ontario? Probably not. Was it all embellished a bit? Most definately. However, it all gives a curious look into a place most of us will never see or go to, and it certainly shines a light on the legends and lore of people who have chosen to take these stories to their new homes. What was Perkowski up to? What did he really find out there? We may never know for sure, and it remains a damn strange story all the same.