The Vampires of Wilno, Ontario
· 17 min. read
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Wilno, Ontario's claim to fame is that they have the oldest Polish community in Canada. It was established in 1858, primarily by settlers from Kashubia, a territory in Poland. The people of Wilno are proud of their Polish community and still dress, speak, cook, and worship in their traditional Polish ways.
However, since 1972, Wilno has been known for something much more sinister. Historian and Slavic folklorist Jan L. Perkowski visited the community between 1968 and 1969 and interviewed around a dozen residents. The reason for his trip was to write a piece for The National Museum of Canada's (now The Canadian Museum of History) Mercury Series, a collection of works that share different aspects of Canadian life one hundred years into the country's history.
In 1972, he presented his report to The National Museum of Canada and it immediately raised some concerns. It was titled "Vampires, Dwarves, And Witches Among The Ontario Kashubs". The report, and the contents therein, were even brought before The House of Commons to debate if it was a valid usage of Canadian taxpayer dollars.
Once the politicians got talking about it, the media heard about it too and descended like bats into the small community.
For the past 50 years, Wilno has been trying to recover from that report, claiming it's sensational, blatantly incorrect and filled with stories taken out of context. The stories within the report are legends, rumours, and folk tales, not real truths or facts. Of course, Wilno doesn't have vampires, dwarves, and witches. That's crazy.
If you have read this story elsewhere, this is usually where it ends. Perkowski says the town is plagued with undead minions, while the town and The Wilno Heritage Society say it is not. But is that actually what Perkowski says in his report? That the town is frequented by bloodsucking monsters from the gates of hell? Not exactly.
Although most bloggers or reporters simply make reference to the 1972 report, I actually got my hands on a copy of it. The report got removed from the Mercury Series, but it's still available for purchase on Amazon (my local bookstore didn't have a copy of it -- sorry, I tried!). It's only 85 pages long but also includes a bibliography and the statements made by the interviewees in their traditional Polish language. Perkowski did this in case his translation of the stories was incorrect so that people could get the original, untranslated versions of them.
I read the report, minus the parts in Polish, and it contains some eerie first-person accounts. Alongside stories of vampires -- or vjeszci and wupji, which we'll get to in a moment -- it also talks extensively about stories of witchcraft, dwarves, and even the succubus, which was an unexpected surprise. Perkowski notes that while the stories exist today (or, fifty years ago), they might not carry into future generations. Regarding dwarves, he wrote:
"The dwarf figure is in a period of transition. Certain activities attributed to him are now looked upon as tales for entertaining children. Other activities, such as circle dancing and braiding horses' manes, continue to occur. Doubtless these phenomena will persist for a long time to come. The question is how long will they be attributed to dwarves. Probably one more generation. The dwarves are in a process of retreating from a world of mischievous activity to the world of folktale."
But what of his claims regarding vampires? Well, they aren't handsome, nor do they sparkle. According to Perkowski, the vampires that plague Wilno are descendants of the ones in Poland, yet the vampires we are most familiar with come from Transylvania. Because of this, these vampires are vastly different and are not to be confused with the ones we know so well.
Typically, we think of vampires and vampirism as somewhat of a virus. A vampire feeds off the living until they are so weak that they are transformed into a vampire too, and the cycle continues for eternity (or until Gabriel Van Helsing shows up and deals with them -- or Abraham Lincoln, but let's not get into that). But these vampires are different. Their affliction isn't caused by other vampires, but instead by sin. According to Perkowski, some children are born with this vampire curse by being offsprings to obscenity, such as mothers sleeping with a demon, or just pure bad luck.
There are two vampire types Perkowski mentions in his report. One is the vjeszci. You'll know if the child is cursed to become a vjeszci if they are born with a membrane sack on their crown. However, the solution to lift this curse is fairly simple. The mother must take the membrane off the child and keep it for seven years. On the child's seventh birthday, the mother must mix the membrane with food and feed it to the child. Once done, the curse is lifted. It's a little gross, but it's better than an eternity of damnation.
The other kind of vampire is the wupji. You'll know if a child is cursed to become a wupji if they are born with two sharp teeth. There is no cure in this instance. Once the child dies -- preferably as an adult -- they will become a vampire. All the living can do is either bury their loved one face down, so the creature will dig deep into the earth, or bury them with sand or netting. Both the vjeszci and the wupji will only be able to leave their caskets once they count all the grains of sand or undo all the knots in the net. Thankfully, they are slow counters, and can only count or untie a knot once per year.
One of Perkowski's sources said the following about their intelligence:
"[The wupji] was not able to speak the way we spoke. They did not have the kind of brains we have. They were just like a lower form of a person. And some were born like wild animals."
Another method is to put a small cross or coin under the vampire's tongue so that the vampire can suck on that instead of the blood of the living.
If no preventive measures are made, the vampire will return and kill a family member each year until the family is killed off. Then, once an entire bloodline has been slain, they will climb the nearest church tower and ring the bells. The sound of these bells will kill anybody who hears them. After that, the vampire can finally rest.
Several sources in the report referenced instances in which the vampires came back from the grave:
"Mrs. Kilby said that the grandfather was a vampire. He wasn't properly seen to. Fourteen people, counting my son, died. One a year. They just died suddenly."
Another source says something similar:
"When we were there on that farm something came to my daughter. 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. It healed later. What they did is forgotten. Mind you, he came at night, when she was sleeping. It was a vampire that came. Have you ever heard of such a thing? We didn't tell anyone anything. We didn't do anything. She wasn't sick at all. She was kind of weak for a while, you know. She was about sixteen, fifteen years old. We kept it a secret. We never told anybody."
Thankfully, the vampire can also be killed. One of Perkowski's sources was a witness to a vampire killing. Once somebody has been identified as having come back as a vampire, their grave will be dug up and the casket will be opened. This must happen at midnight. By a reflex, the vampire will then sit up in their casket. The vampire will then be laid back down, a shovel blade will be placed on their neck, a foot will be placed on the shovel, and the head will be removed. Then the head is placed at the feet of the vampire, and they are reburied. Another option is to hammer a nail into their brain, but the shovel option is preferred.
Blood can also be taken from the vampire, placed in a cup or bowl or container of some sort, and returned to their most recent victim. Once they drink the blood, their ailments and sickness disappear.
"There was a lot of that at Wilno in the graves. They opened graves. They cut the heads off. When they die and were born vampires and are not seen to, then they have to dig up the graves. First he carries off his relatives and then as far as the bell rings. It happened at Wilno. They had to dig up many, but it was not told, revealed. They had to dig it up and cut off the head while it sat in the coffin."
Sometimes, the vampire would turn before the burial even took place. One story goes into more detail:
"There a vampire was born to some people. The child was fine, baptized. Everything was good and he died. I was there. It was forty years ago. And my neighbor was there. They said that I was to sew a garment for the child and I took it and was sewing the garment, but I said to Mrs. Martin Etmanski, 'Come here. The child is alive. The child is coming to life, but the mother dying.' And then Mrs. Etmanski said, 'Yes, but I will put it straight.' She took a needle. From the ring finger, but I can't say whether it was two drops or three, she drew blood. The blood was alive and she administered it. When she gave it from the girl to the mother, the mother got better and began to sit up. The child grew cold and they buried it. If it had been layed out for burial, she would have been taken dying to the grave."
What's interesting about this story is that it mentioned Mrs. Martin Etmanski, of which there are two buried in Saint Mary's Cemetery in Wilno, Ontario. One Martin S. Etmanski lived from 1865-1958, and Martin J. Etmanski lived from 1904-1985. If this story had taken place forty years before it was recorded in 1968-1969, it would have happened around 1928-1929. There is a good chance it was Martin S. Etmanski who saw the baby and saved the mother. This is important because this story can help us verify people, dates, and places; things that might not be possible if the stories were fake.
So, are these stories true?
Perkowski answers that in the final pages of his report, in a quote few people ever mention:
"Taking man as the measure of all things, how does he marshall his pantheon of daemons (vampire, witch, dwarf, succubus, etc) to cope with adversity? What are the assumed or overt functions of the Kashbuian daemons? How do they differ from actual or underlying functions? These are questions which remain.
"The Canadian Kashubs believe that the vampire functions as an agent of death. Marked at birth either by teeth or by a membrane cap, the vampire does not suffer a normal death, but rises after burial and proceeds to cause the death of others. The underlying function of this daemon is an anthropomorphism of the subconscious fear of death. The vampire provides a means of controlling death, but only in a limited way. If the vampire is properly seen to at burial, it dies, but its relatives do not. On the other hand, if it is not properly seen to, it does not die, but its relatives do. Thus the victory over death is Pyrrhic.
"Thus have the Canadian Kashubs erected this gothic cathedral of their minds as a bastion against the fear of the unknown. Each deamon, drawn in the bold lines of man's own image, embodies one of his eternal concerns. The total structure is a viable teleology which aids him in understanding and contending with the whims of his environment."
This then leads us to an interesting question: Are the vampires of Wilno fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere in between? Are they a threat to the people of Wilno, or a coping mechanism to process our own finite mortality? Are they anthropomorphism of our sins, or the sins of our forefathers? My friend Dylan Fariman and I discuss this on our podcast, Unsolved Canadian Mysteries - The Vampres of Wilno, Ontario, and came to our own unique conclusions. Please check it out if you'd like to hear more.
But, what are your thoughts? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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Categories: Canada, Dark Tourism, Ontario, Paranormal