As author Stephen Dobyns observed in Eating Naked: Stories, “If it weren’t for the Chicagos and Detroits and Toledos, the terrible things would spread out across the whole country and make trouble for everybody else. Such places were collectors of badness in the way hospitals were collectors of the sick and damaged.” Detroit residents might object to this characterization in principle, but it is clear that Detroit has seen more than its share of hard times, yet Detroit has at times seemed to be uniquely American in its success. “If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty” (Time Magazine, 1961, “Decline in Detroit”).
If Detroit will rise again or become a ghost town remains to be seen, regardless of whether its demise is due to poor neighborhood identification, bad housing stock, insufficient public infrastructure, a weak downtown, freeway expansion, lack of public transit, the state of local government, the huge amount of industrial land within the city, or badly executed annexation policies that absorbed areas to fulfill temporary housing needs, but it is clear that problems haunt Detroit. The impending doom of Detroit has an anthropomorphic form called Le Nain Rouge (French, “Red Dwarf”, sometimes also known as “The Demon of the Strait”), a harbinger of doom straight out of the mythology of Normandy, France. When horrible things happen in Detroit, they are often presaged by sightings of this diminutive, shambling, red-faced creature with fur boots, blazing red eyes, bony knuckles, and rotten, protuberant teeth that caws like a crow.
Ontologically, the attribution of Detroit’s many historical disasters and failures to an anthropomorphic entity is not a phenomenological judgment per se, as this is not an analytic requirement of the concept. “Anthropomorphism cannot be reduced to observer independent properties of objects, systems, or creatures. Anthropomorphism is an experience, an understanding of complex – not necessarily human – patterns of behavior in the world. Anthropomorphism is a way of simplifying and hereby making sense of the environment by projecting a host of expectations about human life onto aspects of that environment. ‘Anthropomorphizing’ reality is a stance, describing and explaining intricate domains of reality in terms of abstract frameworks of folk-psychology and human life” (Persson, Laaksolahti, & Lonnqvist, 2000, p.1). The Nain Rouge is the embodiment of the sad history of Detroit, and whether he is the doom of Detroit incarnate, the ascription of intelligent agency to the vagaries of war, culture clash, and economics, the manifestation of primitive fear of the unknown and uncontrollable, or a species of supernatural creature is largely unimportant. The fact that the Nain Rouge is so commonly sighted before, or whose appearance is subsequently associated with, disaster befalling Detroit suggests he has, if nothing else, a sort of conceptual, if not natural presence worth looking at.
In the mythology of Medieval Normandy, the Nain Rouge (or Lutin, or an earlier version called “Netun”) is a sort of house spirit that has many names, assumes many forms, and plays nefarious pranks. The Lutin of Normandy is very similar to domestic spirits of England, Scandinavia and Germany. They are fond of children, horses (often taking their form), and young maidens also, but are cruel to those who do not treat them with respect. In Archibald Maclaren’s The Fairy Family: A Series of Ballads and Metrical Tales Illustrating the Fairy Mythology of Europe, the Lutin is compared and contrasted with England’s trickster Robin Goodfellow, and found to be quite a bit more mean-spirited, remarking “Many a man laid his ruin at the Lutin’s door; although it must be confessed that in these cases neighbors were uncharitable enough to fay, that the Lutin had less to do with it than habits of Want-of-thrift and Self-indulgence” (Maclaren, 1857, p.67). The subclass of Lutin called the Nain Rouge is described in the folktales of Normandy as playing dastardly tricks on, but on occasion being particularly kind to fisherman. From a Normandy folk tale:
A Lutin, named the Nain Rouge, haunts the coast of Normandy. He is kind in his way to the fishermen, and often gives them valuable aid; but be punishes those who do not treat him with proper respect. Two fishermen who lived near Dieppe, were going one day to Pollet. On their way they found a little boy sitting on the road-side; they asked him what he was doing there. “I am resting myself” said he, “for I am going to Berneville” (a village within a league of Pollet.) They invited him to join company; he agreed, and amused them greatly with his tricks as they went alone. At last, when they came to a pond near Berneville, the malicious urchin caught up one of them, and flung him, like a shuttlecock, up into the air over it; but, to his great disappointment, he saw him land safe and sound at the other side. “Thank your patron-Saint,” cried he, with his cracked voice, “for putting it into your mind to take some holy water when you were getting up this morning. But for that you’d have got a nice dip.”
A parcel of children were playing on the strand at Pollet, when Le Petit Homme Rouge came by. They began to make game of him, and he instantly commenced pelting them with stones at such a rate that they found it necessary to seek refuge in a fishing-boat, where, for the space of an hour, as they crouched under the hatches, they heard the shower of stones falling so that they were sure the boat must be buried under them. At length the noise ceased, and when they ventured to peep out, not a stone was to be seen. (Keightly, 1905, p.478)
Clearly, the Nain Rouge fall into the problematic category of creatures that anthropologists call the Trickster, “the most paradoxical of all characters in Western narratives – at least as far as the western mind is concerned – for he combines the attributes of many other types that we tend to distinguish clearly. At various times he is clown, fool, jokester, initiate, culture hero, even ogre…He is the central character for what we usually consider many different types of folk narratives” (Doty and Hynes, 1993, p.17). Interestingly, the early mythological origins of the Nain Rouge do not equate it with premonitions of doom, rather a more typical Celtic fairy capable of remarkable generosity or rabid unpleasantness, depending on how it feels it’s been treated.
The concept of the Nain Rouge, if not the fellow himself, was no doubt imported to North America through the French colonization of Canada, particularly Quebec, and interestingly, filters into the Detroit area immediately upon its founding as Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (born Antoine Laumet) in 1701 as a military outpost, mission, and trading port on the Detroit River. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, was said to have been attacked by the Nain Rouge in 1701, and subsequently lost his fortune.
Although the legend of the demon of the strait existed long before the arrival of Europeans, the first recorded written encounter with the Nain Rouge begins in 1701. The story goes that French explorer and solider, Antoine de Cadillac, was at a dinner party the day before his expedition to America and a wandering fortune teller warned him to “Appease the Nain Rouge. Beware of offending him. Should [you] be thus unfortunate, not a vestige of your inheritance will be given to your heirs. Your name will be scarcely known in the city you founded.” Six years after Cadillac had founded Detroit, he and his wife were strolling along the bank of the Detroit River and came upon the Nain Rouge. Ill-tempered Cadillac struck the first blow with his cane, but the red imp had the last laugh for shortly after, the fortune teller’s predictions came to pass and Cadillac found himself disgraced and with no property to pass on to his sons. Sightings of the Nain Rouge have foreshadowed major disasters in Detroit ever since. (Hamlin, 1883, p.27)
The Nain Rouge is said to have appeared at the Battle of Bloody Run in 1763, where Ottawa and allied Indians (led by Chief Pontiac) killed 58 British soldiers. A loose confederation of Native American tribes who resented British policies in the Great Lakes region following the French and Indian War (1754-1763) attacked British forts and settlements in the area, culminating in the siege of Fort Detroit. On July 31, 1763, 250 British soldiers attempted to break the siege by attacking Pontiac’s nearby encampment at Parent’s Creek. The British were defeated in an ambush by four hundred Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Huron warriors who had been alerted to the attack by French settlers. The siege continued until October 1763 when Pontiac abandoned the siege and moved on. The day before the Battle of Bloody Run, Capt. James Dalyell, the commander of the force that attempted the raid on Pontiac’s camp, was reportedly stalked by the Nain Rouge along the banks of the Detroit River. Dalyell himself was killed in the battle, and his head paraded in front of the fort on a pike.
This Morning at three Quarters after two a Detachment of 247 Men under the Command of Capt. Dalyel march’d out with an Intention to surprize the Indian Camp about three Miles & a half from the fort. But whether the Enemy were inform’d of it or discover’d them in marching out is not known, but when they were within a Half of Mile of their Camp they were fir’d upon by a great Number of Indians from behind Orchards, Fences & Entrenchments that they had posted themselves in for that Purpose, which put them a little in Confusion at first, but they soon recovered their Disorder and forc’d the Enemy from their lodgements. They then finding that their Scheme cou’d not be put in Execution, they thought of making the best retreat they cou’d, the Enemy being twice as numerous as they were, and knowing they cou’d not expect any more Succours from the Garrison, for which purpose they took Post in several Houses that was most advantagious for to prevent the Enemy as much as possible from getting between them and the Fort. Capt. Dalyel, who behav’d with all the Bravery in the World, was unluckily kill’d; after receiving the fire from the Enemy, though Capt. Grant begged of him either to make a retreat without loss of Time, he remained almost in the same Place for at least three Quarters of an Hour, soon after which he was kill’d, and Capt. Grant then with the Assistance of the two row Galleys made as good a retreat as was possible for any body to do, after sending off all the Wounded & all the Dead except seven (Rogers, Hough, & Bradstreet, 1860, p.54-55)
Multiple sightings of the Nain Rouge were reported before the 1805 fire that burned down most of Detroit. Detroit of the time had a population of about 600 and lacked a professional fire department. Surprisingly, nobody died in the fire. All 200 structures in the city, except a stone warehouse burned to the ground. The residents remained, and a new street plan was laid out modeled after Washington D.C. The Latin motto on the flag of Detroit dates from this era and reads, “It will rise from the ashes”.
It was in 1805, the year of the famous fire, that a number of French and Indians were seated around Godefroy’s festal board. Numerous potations had exhausted the jug of cider, and Okemos, who was present, became clamorous for something stronger. “You will have to find Jean, then,” said Godefroy, “he has the key to the cellar.” The Indian immediately disappeared but soon after returned in evident terror. He announced that seeing a light in Beaugrand’s window over the barn, he had looked through the chinks and saw Jean seated with the old mare. Sans Souci, before a table and that both were laughing and chatting together. It was not strange that an Indian should believe this, for they all looked on bears, wolves and beavers as reasoning beings, and only prevented from speaking by an evil spirit. Godefroy, to the great horror of Okemos, exclaimed, “We’ll see about this,” and followed by several of his French guests ascended the ladder leading to Jean’s room, determined to put an end to this spiritual seance. A Frenchman who cautiously peeked through a crack avowed that he could see Jean playing ” seven-up ” with the old mare, and that they were pouring into a pewter cup and drinking what looked by lamplight like melted brass. Godefroy, indignant at such nonsense, dashed his foot against the door which yielded. Both the Frenchmen with him declared they saw the old mare leap out of the window when the door flew open, but Jean on being accused of diabolical work insisted that he was only concocting a little “cidre an charbon” by the light of his lantern, and that the mare would be found in the stable below. Okemos, however, who had followed, would not believe this story but considered Godefroy a “big medicine” to dare to disturb the evil spirit at his meals. Ever after this Godefroy’s influence with the Indians was powerful. As to the old mare, her days were numbered. A few weeks later the cry of fire resounded though the post, and in a few hours not a single habitation was left to indicate where oldDetroit had stood. The old barn, of course, was burned, and the superstitious ones who thought that Sans Souci was carried off by the devil in a cloud of smoke, were shown’ her charred remains the next day. There were many, however, who asserted that they saw the dreaded Nain Rouge (or little red man), the traditional fiend of the fort, on the roof of the barn just before it fell in, and that he grinned and chuckled as he did on the day the old French flag was hauled down (Hamlin, 1883, p.184-186)
Just before General and first governor of the Michigan Territory William Hull’s surrender of Detroit in the War of 1812, he reported seeing the Nain Rouge lurking in the fog. It is rumored that Hull surrendered Detroit to the British without firing a shot after seeing its menacing red eyes. Hull, although a distinguished officer in the American Revolution, is also the only American officer to ever be sentenced to death for military incompetence as a result (the sentence was commuted at the request of President James Madison). Despite painstaking research, the original source for this claim could not be found, and examinations of the records of Hull’s court martial do not contain any reference to the Nain Rouge.
The day preceding the 12th Street Riot in 1967, the Nain Rouge was seen. The 12th Street Riot was a five day race-related civil disturbance resulting in 43 deaths and the burning of two thousand buildings. “The Red Dwarf dashed down 12th street, doing back flips and cartwheels on the night of the police raid that sparked the race riots of 1967” (Schlosser, 2010, p1.). Before an enormously destructive March 1976 snowstorm, utility workers reported chasing the Nain Rouge and in 1996, the Nain Rouge was spotted breaking into a car. The Nain Rouge clearly maintains a presence in Motor City, although it would seem that his pranks and devilish behavior have begun to border on the mundane.
In 2010, Detroit residents wisely resurrected an old annual tradition, dating back to the founding of the city called “La Marche du Nain Rouge”, where during the Vernal Equinox, revelers headed by twelve long time Detroit residents called La Bande du Nains, symbolically drive Le Nain Rouge from Detroit. This is obviously a modern urban version of Pascal’s Wager in that there is more to be gained from betting on the existence of Le Nain Rouge than in disbelief. And should you chance upon a red gnome that caws like a crow on the dark streets of Detroit, treat him with respect. Maybe we can avert another disaster.
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HAMLIN, M. (1883). Legends of Le Detroit. Detroit, MI: Thorndike Nourse, 1883.
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ROGERS, R., HOUGH, F.B., BRADSTREET, J. (1860). Diary of the siege of Detroit in the war with Pontiac: also a narrative of the principal events of the siege. Albany, NY: J. Munsell.
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