The Hunt for James Frankel: The Man thought to be Wendigo
By Duane Hewitt
Copyright 2016 Duane Hewitt. All Rights Reserved.
There was a day, so very long ago now, when, as very young children, my sister and I climbed onto our grandfather’s lap one evening when we were still allowed to be up, and asked him to tell us a story from the times when he was stationed with a detachment of the RCMP in the far northern territories. Usually he did not want to talk of such things, but it was the middle of an especially long, difficult winter and perhaps that is the thing that inspired him to go back in time and recall a tale that will haunt me till I am an old man.
My grandfather was mixed; he had Algonquin and Scottish blood in him. He was stationed at an isolated post, and perhaps this has something to do with the heart of the story. It was before the war in the James Bay region of northern Quebec and, as I say, this was before the war, sometime around 1936 through ’37 that these events occurred. The region involved was far north of Ottawa where there is much bush and many lakes.
The RCMP detachments in those far northern regions deal with just about everything as far as crimes go, but the police then – and still now, I think – do much of what they can to help those in the district, who for the most part are indigenous people. This is something my grandfather and others in his detachment did quite frequently; helping deliver supplies as well as taking up drives to collect food and supplies for people when times were hard, and especially during those long difficult winters when the travel routes from Ottawa and Montreal were so snowed in that food, clothing, and medical supplies were held up. The detachment was always helping when they could.
It’s about a particularly brutal winter that this story is concerned. The winter months up north in those far regions can really be bad. Minus 40 and minus 50 are not uncommon; then throw in the damp air from James Bay and the lakes, along with the ruthless wind chill, and even the dog teams were sometimes unwilling to venture along the route that is now the James Bay Road, which is basically a remote wilderness highway that connects Matagami (which means “confluence of waters” in Cree) and ends at what is today Radisson, right at the bay. Back in the 30s, there was no Radisson, though there were a number of the mostly Cree and Inuit communities and villages scattered throughout the region.
One of the things an officer of the RCMP will tell you about far north detachments is the need for information and resources from the other larger police outposts. This really came into focus during the period between ’36 and ’37 and the crime I’m about to tell you about, which was never really solved.
It had to do with a trapper and vagrant that went by the name of James “Jimmy” Frankel. No one knew for sure where Frankel came from. Those who are said to have known him claimed he was about forty, though no one could say for sure. He was said to have come down from Alaska or the Yukon, spent some years in Northern Alberta, and then travelled up along the Canadian Shield, hunting and trapping along the way. He later took a Cree wife and fathered three children, who he provided for through his trapping, hunting, and bartering. As you may have guessed, this story is about to take a disturbingly dark turn, and it gets about as dark as dark can be.
It involves murder – and worse. Sometime around January of 1936 some panic-stricken residents from north of Matagami found what was left of the Frankel family at a small cabin, which was nestled deep in the woods. Fear swept through the entire community. My grandfather and his detachment immediately got involved. My grandfather saw the cabin. As he had told me, it was like nothing you would ever want to see. According to my grandfather, Frankel had butchered his family and then consumed them.
A desperate hunt was quickly underway. But the harshness of winter and the extremely difficult terrain made pursuing a man like Frankel, who was capable of living off the land, even in the extreme cold, next to impossible. The pursuit went on for some time but Frankel was never found. This makes sense to me given the man’s experience in those northern regions. But, apparently, there are those who don’t think the story is so easily tossed off to an escaped murderer. And, in truth, my grandfather never came out with a clear explanation for some of the mystery and questions that loomed.
So, in the end, what happened? Although it’s something my grandfather never would have agreed to or condoned, there were a number of non-deputized posses that set on in pursuit of Frankel. None ever returned. This too is no surprise to me. I don’t mean to sound offhand about it, but once you throw a bunch of inexperienced men together to track somebody with real skill for hunting and survival, they become nothing more than a bunch of louts. And when it comes to tracking down an expert hunter and woodsman in a brutal Canadian winter, you’re asking for trouble.
Some parts of the story simply aren’t worth sharing; they’re just too gruesome. But the remains of two of those posses were later found. Few conclusions were ever made concerning the deaths. Frankel was deemed to be the killer but a number of details were always sketchy and always strange. One of the gangs that set out was headed up by a seasoned trapper and hunter by the name of John Hurley. It came to be known as the Hurley Party and, along with Hurley, each of the other men in the group were experienced trackers who were quite familiar with those vast northern regions. But here it is: All men perished. Later, another group of 12 men set out. Again, these were all experienced woodsmen. And again, all but two of those men died or went missing. Later search parties found bits and pieces of clothing and equipment belonging to Hurley and his men. Further investigation yielded the remains of human bone fragments and a size-10 boot that still had a human foot in it.
I don’t believe in monsters, but something must be said about the hysteria that gripped the region at the time. None of the indigenous people would go anywhere near the old Frankel cabin or the area where he was thought to have disappeared. Word had gone around that the region’s inhabitants were being preyed upon by the dreadful Wendigo. Perhaps you know something about this.
The Wendigo (also “Windigo”) is the legend of a demonic creature, which is mostly attributed to the Algonquin. It is said that those who have consumed human flesh are forever turned to cannibalism in the form of the Wendigo creature. It goes that the Wendigo have an unending hunger and a relentless craving for human flesh. One version of the legend has it that the Wendigo appear as combined elements of the wilds but of a terrifying nature. Another is that the creatures are extremely tall, thin, and gaunt, with yellowed, decaying skin and that insatiable hunger. The Wendigo roam through the forests and woodlands of the northern United States and Canada – most often in the coldest, harshest regions where food is scarce and survival most difficult.
An extension of the mythology comes from the Anishinaabe, and says that the Wendigo are man-eating giants possessing within them what was once human but is now a frozen captive within the monster where the heart should be. Only killing the human heart within can defeat the monster. Once possessed, only death will defeat the monster and release the spirit inside.
Something should also be said about “Wendigo psychosis,” which is attributed to the bizarre violent actions that can occur because of cabin fever. Cabin fever can happen when a person is confined for overly long periods to small spaces, without proper, healthy emotional interactions. When you pair this with extreme hunger, exposure to the elements such as in the case of an especially long and difficult winter, and then throw in an individual’s abnormal psychology, you have the ingredients for someone who can be capable of the most horrible and reprehensible acts – thus, Wendigo psychosis.
Various North American native tribes have their stories and legends of a giant ice cannibal, with names like Witiko (Cree) or Wechuge (Athabascan). Each is terrifying, and if you ever see renditions of the creatures – particularly the true native artist renditions – they’re sure to put a chill through you.
There were those back then, and even to this day, that believe Frankel became the Wendigo and would be forever driven by a relentless hunger to consume human flesh. Some of the accounts of the deaths and the found human remains were attributed to predators, including, if you can believe it, extinct animals like the Giant Short-Faced Bear. But wolves, cougars, and bears could easily have been responsible for the deaths of any of those search parties, at least as far as I’m concerned.
That group of 12 men also never returned but, again, there’s more to the story. Two barely escaped with their lives, and one later relived an account of a hideous giant that was the “summation of creation,” and, as he went on to say, devoured the other 10 men. My grandfather demanded to be taken to where those men were killed but that man refused to go. One day later, he blew his brains out. The other man quickly slid into a psychotic shell. He couldn’t even speak anymore and ended up in some hospital in Ottawa. He was dead two years later.
When I asked my grandfather what he thought, or if he believed there really was a cannibalistic giant that preyed on people, he was slow to answer – but in a way he did answer the question. He said that there are things in this world that we will never understand. And no one knows the depth of depravity or the horrors that mankind is capable. He then reminded me that the Second World War started just a few years after all this had happened, taking the whole world into new horrors. My grandfather would have been 25 in 1936 when this all started. At the time he relayed this story to me and my sister in the early 70s, I would have been five or six.
There is one detail I’d like to include about some deaths that occurred almost 40 years to the date after the James Frankel murders.
It involved three men who were fishing and deer hunting during the early spring in the same region where the Frankel cabin once stood. Those three men – Albert J. Feuerman, Bruce Maxwell, and Dennis O’Leary – were never seen again but, as with the Hurley Party four decades earlier, human remains were found.
Included in the findings was a small silver chain, purportedly given by James Frankel to his new wife when they wed. The chain was inscribed with the words, “To my Kimi, my Secret – Love Jimi.” To my understanding, there was no accounting for how the chain got there all those years after the first gruesome deaths.
I never asked my grandfather about the Wendigo ever again. In fact, I never even brought it up.
Copyright 2016 Duane Hewitt. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this work may be copied or transmitted by any means whatsoever without the prior written approval of the author. Duane Hewitt asserts his rights as the author to this work and its plot, themes and characters, under International Copyright and Intellectual Property Laws.