Articles

The Black Magic Murder Case

When a blind Indian witch doctor saw a vision in the curling pipe smoke violent death came to the log house in the Ontario backwoods. For there was only one way to break the terrible curse of the Bearwalk

DON DELAPLANTE August 1 1950
Articles

The Black Magic Murder Case

When a blind Indian witch doctor saw a vision in the curling pipe smoke violent death came to the log house in the Ontario backwoods. For there was only one way to break the terrible curse of the Bearwalk

DON DELAPLANTE August 1 1950

The Black Magic Murder Case

When a blind Indian witch doctor saw a vision in the curling pipe smoke violent death came to the log house in the Ontario backwoods. For there was only one way to break the terrible curse of the Bearwalk

DON DELAPLANTE

THE ROUGH hand-hewn log house sits desolately in a small clearing in the hardwoods of the Sheguiandah Indian Reservation, about 40 yards back from a dirt road which wanders south to blue Lake Manitou, age-old haunt of Indian gods and demons. The yard is overgrown with weeds and the white mortar has fallen away here and there from the chinks between the logs of the house. But no human hand has touched the house for five years and no one has stepped within the yard. The window panes are still intact; children of the reservation have not come close enough to throw stones.

To the frightened Indians of Manitoulin Island the house is known as the house of the Bearwalker, the house of death. They dare not pass it on the dirt road. They take wide

detours through the bushland, crossing themselves as they go.

For bound up in this house’s bloody history are a patricide and a fratricide, separated by 30 years; the coming of witches by night in the form of bears, dogs, mice, fowl and fireballs which circled through the trees; a boy witch doctor who was blind and who saw visions in the smoke of a pipe; devil’s statues made from clay and pierced to destroy enemies; small hand-carved boats which were submerged in tubs of water so enemies would drown when they went fishing; the brewing of love potions which almost drove a man insane with desire.

In the front yard of this lonely dwelling James Nahwegizik shot his father Alec to death—and was

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The Black Magic Murder Case

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prepared to kill his mother, Harriet’ too—because he believed they had cast the dreaded legendary spell of the Bearwalk upon him. Earlier, Alec had slain his own brother Raymond in a potato patch at the side of the house when he came upon Raymond making love to Harriet.

The Bearwalk is the most fearsome of Indian hexes. According to superstition, the Bearwalk spirit is a malignant devil called out of the wilderness by an evil person, or witch. It enters the soul and body of the accursed, bringing every shape of misfortune, strange maladies and ultimate death. When a mother delivers her child stillborn some Indians believe the Bearwalk has been placed upon her by an enemy; it is blamed for tuberculosis by some natives.

The curse is cast when a witch chews g special mixture of herbs, then spits them in the path of the accursed. It may be months before the accursed person passes that way but, as soon as he does, the evil spirit, in any of several dozen manifestations, arrives to plague

The origin of the Bearwalk is buried in Indian mythology. The curse is known with variations among most North American tribes. Tradition says it originated when a witch called a great black bear from the forest many centuries ago and the evil spirit in the form of the bear carried off many children from a night encampment.

The fantastic story of the murder of Alec Nahwegizik unfolded before Mr. Justice Barlow, of the Supreme Court of Ontario, when Jim Nahwegizik stood trial at Gore Bay, judicial seat of Manitoulin, in 1945. The daily newspapers overlooked the case, brushing it off as another instance of a “crazy Indian” going berserk. So there wasn’t a newspaperman in the courtroom to see Jim mount the stand with stony calm and say: Certainly he had killed his father, he had been forced to kill him.

Jim testified that his father and mother had spit upon his path and used the Bearwalk incantation to place pig’s hair and twigs within his head. The frightful headaches which followed were designed to kill him, he said.

Star witness for the defense was Laurence Toulouse, the blind boy witch doctor of Sheguiandah, then 17, whom Jim had consulted. The blind youth flatly told a flabbergasted courtroom he had smoked a ritual pipe supplied by Jim and that there in the curling smoke his sightless eyes had seen Alec and Harriet putting the Bearwalk on Jim. And after the Bearwalk came death.

Court records, personal interviews with witnesses and the notes of J. M.

Cooper, K.C., and MPP for Sudbury who defended Jim, supply the following account of the case:

Jim Nahwegizik, 33, had heavy shoulders on a short slender body, a prominent jaw and a narrow forehead. In the spring of 1945 he returned to his parents’ home on the reservation after working during the winter at a lumber camp on the north shore of Lake Huron. An industrious sober man, he had accumulated a considerable stake.

He was greeted quietly but cordially by his father, a broad-jawed, powerful man who had weighed more than 200 pounds in his youth. Jim’s mother was also glad to see him. She was a short squat woman with rather shrewd eyes.

Jim went upstairs to his old room, unpacked, came down and handed his father $50. Alec thanked him quietly but his mother frowned. Later at Jim’s trial Harriet said, “He spent all his money on himself.”

Love Potions for a Bachelor

It was still early spring and there was no work to be had on Manitoulin, so Jim stayed around the house, breaking the monotony by going into Little Current, the island’s chief port. There he stood at the dockside with other Indians, watching the boats being made ready for the summer sailing. He had worked in other years for Karl Atkinson, a white farmer near the reservation, so he went to Atkinson about a job as a farmhand when the frost came out of the ground. Jim was known as a not-too-bright but honest, hard worker. Atkinson told him to come back for spring plowing.

It was during this period that his mother began giving him love potions, Jim claimed, probably because he was 33 and unmarried. He couldn’t sleep at night and every morning there was blood in his nose when he woke up. “All I could think of was beautiful girls,” he

In late May Jim went to work for Atkinson. It was in early June that he began to get the terrible headaches. He would drop the reins of his team in Atkinson’s fields and frantically grasp his head. He walked the floor at night, wild-eyed with pain. Aspirin had no effect.

The terrible suspicion that he was being Bearwalked cut into his mind like a knife. He knew some Indians whispered that his mother was different from the others of the tribe. Since childhood he had seen her smoking out the house to chase away devils, making charms to be worn around the neck. Once, when she was angry with her husband, she had carved a little boat and submerged it in a tub. Alec’s canoe had foundered and he had almost drowned. That’s what Jim told lawyer Cooper.

The headaches became worse and Jim’s suspicion cemented to a conviction. One evening early in July, his

head bursting with pain, he rushed downstairs and confronted his mother in the kitchen. His father was in Little

Current.

“Mother, you are Bearwalking me, you are Bearwalking your own son!” he

Harriet told him he was a dolt, to go back upstairs and lie down. But Jim would not be mollified. After a furious scene he packed his clothes and went to live with an aunt, Susan Corbiere, and a cousin, Stanley Nahwegizik. They had a shack deep in the bush on the opposite side of the dirt road.

In Susan and Stanley Jim found listeners who subscribed to his fear of supernatural evils. They agreed that all three parts of his Indian soul were in danger—his wiyo, or physical being; his udjitchop, or soul, which travels after death to the Land of Souls ruled by the great Nanibush in the western sky; his udjibbem, or shadow, which the pagan Indian believes is earthbound after death, hovering near the grave.

In fact, Susan said, she had known for a long time that Jim’s father and mother practiced witchcraft. She told him that Alec and Harriet had used the Bearwalk to kill her own father, old Joe Nahwegizik. Old Joe had himself told her so on his deathbed.

The Bearwalker Was a Dog

Jim’s headaches grew even worse. The Bearwalker, legendary Indian minado, or demon, which came when one was asleep, became the topic of incessant conversation in the crude little shack in the bush. The evil spirit could take any form it chose to make its visitation—bear, bird, dog or any animal wild or domestic.

“Not everyone can make the demons come,” Jim said at his trial. “Only those who have given themselves altogether to the devil can do it.”

One night Susan saw a witch’s lantern circling about the house, a fluorescent ball which moved between the trees. She called Jim and the two stared at it in terror. It returned on three successive nights.

Jim knew that Bearwalkers could be held off if you shot at them with a gun, but he didn’t have one. So he approached Atkinson for the loan of a rifle. He told the farmer they were out of meat at the shack and he wanted to shoot a deer. Atkinson let him have a rifle.

Susan and Jim began to sleep in shifts, so one could be awake when the Bearwalker came. Susan traveled 20 miles to South Bay to get some herbs with which to smoke out the house every night. They were made by an old Indian woman who guaranteed them to keep witches away.

Then, early in August, the Bearwalker came again. This time Stanley saw it first. He rushed indoors and told Jim, who got the rifle. Jim saw the Bearwalker squatting right beside the shack in the form of a dog. He shot at it and it vanished into thin air.

It was at this point that the blind boy witch doctor entered the savage little drama. Susan had kept urging Jim to go to see Laurence Toulouse, who only lived a third of a mile down the dirt road. So Jim went to see the witch doctor, carrying the usual fee—a pipe, a package of tobacco, matches, $4 and a bottle of liquor. The pipe, tobacco and matches had to belong to the person who was bewitched so that visions concerning the accused would appear when Laurence smoked the pipe.

Laurence received the trembling man calmly, told him he would rid him of the curse. He stuffed the pipe with tobacco and took a light from a match in Jim’s trembling hand. The boy’s

sightless eyes peered into the circling smoke. He took a drink. After a while, he spoke.

“It is your mother and father, all right, Jim,” he said. “I see them now, scheming to kill you. They have put hairs and sticks in your head which will kill you in a week unless we get them

Laurence began to tremble. He cried out in agitation. He told Jim he saw a Bearwalker approaching the house then and there. He ordered Jim to go upstairs and sit at a front window, prepared to shoot. Jim obeyed.

A weird mixture of incantations and pleadings for Jim to be alert came up the stairs to the terrified Indian. The Bearwalker was getting closer and closer, Laurence cried. Finally, after fully half an hour of terrifying suspense, he ordered Jim to shoot. Jim fired into the blackness of the night. He fell back, too exhausted to walk home. He stayed at the witch doctor’s place all that

At his trial Jim said he had not seen anything from the window and had not known what he was shooting at. Laurence said the demon was in the form of a hoot-owl.

Laurence prescribed a brew of herbs for Jim to use to draw out the hairs and twigs. The hairs were bristles from the body of a pig and were themselves alive, the witch doctor warned. Every night thereafter Susan used a piece of broken glass to cut a bloody cross on Jim’s forehead. She applied the herbs to the open wound in a cheesecloth bandage.

Both Jim and Susan testified that pig’s hairs and little bits of wood were drawn from his head by the medicine. Susan said she picked them from the bandage and placed them in a small jar, which became filled.

“If you dropped the pig hairs on the ground they would disappear to nothing,” Susan said. “They were alive. We put them in the jar and sealed them there. If we hadn’t done that they would have gone back into Jim’s head.”

But the witch doctor’s medicine was not powerful enough. Laurence treated Jim again several times but the headaches persisted. Both men knew that legend prescribed only one sure way of banishing the Bearwalk. That was to kill Alec or Harriet . . .

Soon after midnight on August 26, Jim, Stanley and Susan came home from Little Current, where they had gone to get supplies for the week. Susan was tired, went to bed. Jim and Stanley sat up, talked in the yellow light of the lamp. Continually, Jim grabbed his head in pain. He said the agony was killing him. Finally he jumped to his feet, shouted, “I am going to fix those old people!”

He took down the rifle, stalked through the moonlit bushland to the road. He crossed to his father’s house, entered the yard and began to shout. It was 3 a.m. Alec got out of bed, came downstairs carrying a lamp.

“Why have you been Bearwalking me?” Jim screamed.

Then, Jim said in court, Alec moved toward him, bent half forward in a charge. Jim raised the rifle and fired. The bullet passed through his father’s neck. Alec staggered indoors, died on the floor beside the kitchen table.

Then Jim shouted for his mother to come down and that he would kill her, too. Harriet ran out the back door into the bush.

“I was going to kill her, but then I thought I would not,” Jim said.

He went back to thé shack and laid down in the first sound sleep he had had since spring. He was sleeping peacefully, gun beside him, when the RCMP arrived in the morning.

“My father was Bearwalking me, so I killed him,” he explained to Corporal

Fred Truscott. He was perfectly calm. The racking pain was gone from his head and he eyed the astonished Mountie levelly.

At the trial in October, lawyer Cooper entered a plea of insanity. The courthouse was packed with Indians from all sections of the north. Some had traveled hundreds of miles.

Jim sat there stolidly as witness after witness added to the fantastic evidence. He slept soundly each night in his cell in Gore Bay’s old stone jail and was in complete control of himself. He appeared anything but insane.

An Appeal to the King

He claimed he was a thorough Christian. The only difference between him and the white man was that, for him, the devil was the incarnation of the old pagan beliefs. Each night in his cell he thumbed a Bible, citing text after text which, he said, justified his action.

Psychiatrists battled about whether Jim was insane. The defense claimed a man had to be insane to hold such beliefs as Jim did. But Dr. H. Tennant, chief psychiatrist of the AttorneyGeneral’s Department of Ontario, had sat and observed Jim through the fourday trial, had seen him several times in the cells. He declared emphatically that Jim was quite sane, that he had acted upon a fixed belief since child-

A jury of grim-visaged Manitoulin farmers agreed with Tennant. After three hours’ deliberation they found Jim Nahwegizik sane and guilty of murder.

Justice Barlow sentenced Jim to hang on Jan. 9, 1946.

Cooper immediately appealed to the King on Jim’s behalf and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, just 12 days before Jim was to be hanged.

Some court observers felt that the slaying of Alec was primitive retribution for his murder of his brother, Raymond, 30 years earlier. In that first tragedy in the Manitoulin log house Alec had come home unexpectedly to find Raymond in a potato patch beside the house with Harriet. He crept indoors, got his rifle, and shot Raymond dead in Harriet’s arms. Alec was regarded as the outraged husband, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Harriet never went back to the log house after Alec’s death. She went to the Whitefish Reservation on the mainland, but was asked to leave by an alarmed delegation of natives there. At present she is living among the white population in a Manitoulin village.

What is the state of superstition on Manitoulin Island today? If anything it was given impetus by the Bearwalk murder. While there is probably some psychiatric explanation for the disappearance of Jim Nawegizik’s headaches, the Indians believe they were banished by Jim’s murderous directness in breaking the curse.

Just last December, after a drinking party, an Indian was bludgeoned to death behind a house at West Bay, 20 miles west of Little Current. The following day another Indian was killed by a truck within a hundred yards of the scene of the bludgeoning. That night several hundred Indians took part in a torchlight parade that lasted till daylight. They were smoking away the evil spirit which was haunting the

But Laurence Toulouse is not patronized very much any more. The outcome of his magic was too drastic. A new witch doctor at Saagmuck, on the mainland beside the Spanish River, is, however getting a steady stream of business. ★