The Vampire in Ontario - Wilno's Vampiric Legends
Settled in 1859, Wilno, Ontario is the oldest Polish (Kaszubian) settlement in Canada. Today the area is a tourist destination (southeast of Algonquin Park) that still holds an old world charm and a rich heritage. Residents are fiercely proud of their home and it's history. Indeed this pretty village in the heart of the Ottawa Valley offers much to take pride in.
However, does Wilno truly have a darker side - one that embraces the vampire mythos?
Author Jan Perkowski was employed by the National Museum of Man from 1968 through 1969. He was specifically funded to conduct research for the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies. Originally a dialect scholar from Austin Texas, Perkowski was sent to the Wilno area to study Kaszubian folklore and traditions. His studies led to a 1972 publication entitled "Vampires, Dwarves, And Witches Among The Ontario Kashubs" This 85 page report later inspired articles by such diverse publications as Psychology Today, The Canadian Magazine, and The National Enquirer. In fact, the attention this report stirred up was so widespread and hurtful in the eyes of some area residents that it was denounced on the floor of the House of Commons. Not surprisingly, as it was Canadian tax dollars that funded Mr. Perkowski's work in the first place.
Perkowski's report begins with (page 2) "a picture of a small grave enclosed by a white picket fence. The quote under the photograph says that if a vampire is not destroyed before he is buried, he rises again and carries off his relatives and others in the neighbourhood."
"It happened at Wilno....They had to dig it up and cut off the head while he sat in the coffin."
If Perkowski hadn't anticipated a sensationalistic reaction in the beginning (examining just the one quote above should give the reader an idea of how sensationalistic it was) to his report, he certainly received one! However, he definitely was not the first researcher to explore the vampiric connection to Kaszubian or for that matter Eastern European folklore. Many years prior to Perkowski's report Friedrich Lorentz wrote about it in the "Cassubian Civilization." He quotes Lorentz within the body of his own report:
"The vampire is called vjeszczi or wupji by the Cassubians....The man who becomes a vampire after his death was destined to it from his birth; if destined to become a vjeszczi, he wears a little cap (caul) on his head at his birth; the future wupji is born with two teeth. The latter is the more dangerous of the two, since his becoming a wupji cannot be prevented before the death of the man; but if one takes the little cap from off the head of a future vjeszczi, dries it, grinds it to dust when the child is seven years old, and gives it to the child with his drink, all danger is averted."
"...But after death the vampire can always be recognized whether vjeszczi or wupji: he becomes cold slowly, retains the red color of face and lips, his limbs do not stiffen, spots of blood often appear on his face and under his fingernails."
"...If, however, all precautions have been neglected, there remains only one remedy; one must open the tomb of the vampire at midnight, and drive a long nail into his forehead, or, better still, cut off his head with a sharp spade and put it between his feet...."
Perkowski conducted his study by interviewing area residents whom were simply referred to as "informants". He utilized questionnaires and transcribed notes from taped conversations. The following are examples taken from the report:
Informant (8) told him:"...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...."
And Informant (12): "Mother said that I had a cap on the head and that it was burned. Such a person is supposed to be lucky, but I don't know."
"Informant (12)," wrote Perkowski under her quote, "does not recall having ingested the ashes when she was seven, but this is something her mother would hardly announce to her. The ashes were probably hidden in a favorite food."
These quotes certainly appear to strengthen a strong superstitious belief system in Wilno, however as the participants remained confidential they are impossible to verify. It is also impossible to verify if any mutilations of a corpse/s ever occurred particularly with the belief that these (the deceased) were vampires. Indeed this is highly doubtful, as surely there would be official records of such crimes and not one has ever turned up. Documentation of such acts would have existed in this country by the mid-19th century, if indeed it went beyond rumours and story-telling. Yet, the media (as they often will do.) ran with the story despite very flimsy evidence to support it.
It is my own belief that a lack of understanding of Eastern European culture and the history of the area also adds to the legends surrounding the village. One example (and I have personally been written to twice on this) involves the historic and modern crosses that dot the location. This some say is evidence of the fear of vampires! Of course this is not the case. From the Wilno Heritage Society we learn that there was no Catholic church close by and the Kaszubians were a highly religious people. "To satisfy their strong need to pray the settlers erected large wooden crosses at the intersections of main roads. This was a tradition they borrowed from the motherland. On Sundays and Holy Days the pioneers close to each intersection would gather at the crossroads and celebrate their Faith. These crosses were not used, however, for regular service. The prayer at the crosses was private prayer. Rosaries were recited and the appropriate Sunday litany was recited." This tradition has been kept alive by area residents wishing to preserve their local history and religious customs. Only six of the original crosses remain.
In 1973, Sandra Peredo a reporter with The Canadian travelled to Wilno and interviewed a local Catholic priest. His thoughts on Perkowski's report were: "We get a big laugh out of it, we know the people who have manufactured the story just by reading it." The priest went on to say that, "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 made up these tales." With very little to support otherwise I tend to agree with him.
Perkowski's possible embellishment of these stories can also be easily speculated on. When asked why the museum wanted to use his report as a leader in their series he stated, "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."
Did the Kaszubian pioneers bring their own brand of old world folklore to the Ottawa Valley? In my opinion yes they did. Does this mean the darker legends of actual vampires and vampire-slaying in Wilno hold any truth? Highly unlikely even if there are some whom still reside in this Ontario hamlet that do believe.
COUNT DRACULA IN CANADA? They worry about vampires in Wilno, Ontario
by Sandra Peredo (c) 1973 The Canadian Magazine
Vampires, Dwarves, And Witches Among The Ontario Kashubs"
by Jan Perkowski (c) 1972 Museum Of Man publication
Mysteries Of Ontario
By John Robert Columbo (c) 1999 Hounslow Press
Wilno Heritage Society