First Person Hung By NWMP

Photograph of Swift Runner and a NWMP member

Photograph of Swift Runner and a NWMP member




The first person to be hanged by the NWMP, Swift Runner, was a Cree Indian who lived during the last century in what is now central Alberta.

His background seemed not unusual. As a young man he received a solid useful Cree education; he married and had a family of five children; he traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company; and, in 1975, he served as a guide for the North West Mounted Police.

But Swift Runner’s life ended in tragedy and notoriety. During the winter of 1878-79, a time of starvation and misery for the Cree people, he became possessed by the Windigo psychosis (an aberration characterized by grand delusions and cannibalistic impulses that anthropologists have identified in several Canadian Indian cultures).

He murdered his wife and family and cooked and ate their flesh. Eventually he was arrested, brought to trial, and in December, 1879, hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

It was pitch black and brutally cold when Swift Runner was led from his cell at Fort Saskatchewan jail to start his long, last walk toward the gallows that awaited outside in the swirling snow. Swift Runner, or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin, had been told to prepare for death, and seemed to have heeded the advice. He walked confidently into the yard, seeming much calmer than many of those who were there to watch him die.

Most of the 60 people gathered near the gallows had never seen a hanging, and they were nervous and anxious about what was going to happen. Sheriff Edouard Richard had been delayed by the snow and weather, and was flustered by his late arrival at the fort. The hangman, too, appeared nervous.

The execution had been ordered to take place at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1879. With less than half an hour left to go, it was discovered that the crowd had taken the trap from the gallows and burned it as kindling.

As the sheriff and hangman rushed to get the scaffold ready again, Swift Runner sat near one of the fires that had been lighted nearby, joking and chatting, snacking on pemmican, the thick noose hanging loose around his neck he said , “I could kill myself with a tomahawk,” he offered, “and save the hangman further trouble.”

Swift Runner was well-known around the Fort Saskatchewan settlement, a striking 6-foot-3, with a strapping build and what one policeman called “as ugly and evil-looking a face as I have ever seen.”
He had once been known as smart and trustworthy, a reputation that won him a job as a guide for the North West Mounted Police. But, as one newspaper story would later point out: “His contact with white men, however, ruined him.”

That ruination came, in part, from an inordinate fondness for the whisky that was smuggled into the area disguised as medicine. Swift Runner was known to be “an ugly customer to meet when on a spree,” so ugly that some called him “the terror of the whole region.”

The police sent Swift Runner back to his tribe, where he caused so much trouble he “turned the Cree camps into little hells,” and was eventually turned out from his community altogether, retreating to the wilderness with his wife, mother, brother and six children.

The police started to hear stories in the spring. A Cree chief said Swift Runner had “turned cannibal,” and a hunter reported that Swift Runner’s entire family had been killed in the woods, but a squad of officers who went out to investigate couldn’t find Swift Runner or his family. Instead, Swift Runner went to the police himself in the spring, telling them his wife had committed suicide and the rest of the family had died of starvation.

But the officers noticed that Swift Runner didn’t look underfed. “The prisoner arrived at our camp in the spring and did not look very poor or thin or as if he had been starving,” one noted. Suspicious of the story, police travelled with Swift Runner to his family’s camp in the wilderness north of Fort Saskatchewan. After days of searching, they found the remnants of a campfire, with piles of bones and human skulls scattered nearby. Some of the bones were dry and hollow, empty even of marrow. A small moccasin had been stuffed inside the skull of Swift Runner’s mother, a beading needle still sticking out of the unfinished work. Swift Runner was tried for murder and cannibalism by a jury that included three “English speaking Cree halfbreeds,” four men “well up in the Cree language,” and a Cree man who translated the proceedings. A leading Cree-English scholar was also brought in to observe the trial and ensure Swift Runner knew what was being said.

The death sentence was to be the first legal hanging in the Canadian Northwest Territories, an area that includes what is now the province of Alberta. A scaffold was built especially for the execution, and an army pensioner was paid $50 to serve as hangman. Swift Runner declined to spend the night before his execution with a priest. “The white man has ruined me,” he said. “I don’t think their God could amount to much.”

Some said Swift Runner had developed a taste for cannibalism years earlier, when he was forced to eat the remains of a starved hunting partner to save himself. Others said he had been possessed by the Windigo, a flesh-eating spirit that tormented him and gave him nightmares. Two hours after Swift Runner was led to the gallows, the execution was finally ready to proceed. He was allowed to eat one final pound of pemmican before he was pinioned tightly with rope and taken to the scaffold, where a thick, black hood was placed over his head.

“The trap fell, and Swift Runner went down with fearful force, there being a drop of five feet,” the Daily Evening Mercury reported. “He died without a struggle. The body was cut down in an hour and buried in the snow outside the fort.”

Sheriff Edouard Richard said those who attended the hanging were satisfied with what they saw. “Seeing that the Indians are averse to hanging and that all sorts of rumours were afloat amongst them and half breeds about deeds of cruelty that were to accompany the execution, invitations had been tendered to Indian Chiefs to assist at the execution,” he wrote, in a report to the government. “Some of them responded to the invitation and declared that it was done in such a way that they could no more object to that mode of execution.”

One witness, who had watched several other executions in the United States, also seemed pleased with the spectacle, slapping his thigh and saying, “Boys, it was the prettiest hanging I ever seen.”

Story was submitted by Veteran Ric Hall