The Expert Witness: Detroit's Le Nain Rouge Redux

By Dr. John F. Sase
with Gerard J. Senick

“Do not come as you are. Come as you once were or yet could be. Over 300 years ago, around the same time the city of Detroit was founded, an evil was discovered in and around the city – an evil that has plagued the people and the city, and even wreaked havoc upon the founder of Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. This ‘evil’ was said to have been a Nain Rouge, otherwise known as the “Red Dwarf of Detroit.” This malevolent spirit cursed generations and brought ill tidings for many Detroiters. It wasn’t until La Marche du Nain Rouge, held the Saturday closest to the vernal (spring) Equinox [2012], did the people of Detroit come together to abolish the Le Nain Rouge – until his fearful return [in 2013].”
“Best New Detroit Tradition,” Metro Times (

John Hammond: “Don’t worry. I’m not making the same mistakes again.”

Dr. Ian Malcolm: “No, you’re making all new ones.”

–Actors Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (Universal, 1997)

Historical Background

As a human culture, we have built and rebuilt the City of Detroit many times. The number of times remains a matter of how far into the past we wish to delve. How far in the future remains a matter of our imaginations. We cannot ignore our collective past because we continue to build upon all that we have buried from former ages, both individually and as a society.

Realistically, we only can explore the beginnings of human culture in Michigan as far back as our history and archeology allow. Built upon archeological evidence, history informs us that the first indigenous culture in Michigan mined and utilized copper during the Bronze Age. Known to archeologists as the “Old Copper Culture,” our Michigan ancestors flourished a few millennia ago. Though these miners left no pottery, clay tablets, or cave drawings, they did leave behind thousands of copper-producing pits and crude hammering stones with which they worked those pits. In 1954, Dr. Roy W. Drier of Michigan Technological University dated these pits between 1,800 and 1,000 BCE by employing the then-new Carbon-14 dating process.

Subsequently, the civilization known as the Hopewell flourished from 500 BCE to beyond 1,300 CE. Unlike earlier Michiganders, they left behind vast numbers of ceremonial and burial mounds throughout Southern Michigan and Ohio. In his book “Primitive Man in Michigan” (University of Michigan Press, 1925), Dr. Wilbert B. Hinsdale wrote, “There are fully 600 mounds still to be seen in the state and at least 500 more that must have been destroyed within the last 150 years.” Based upon evidence of uncovered artifacts, some archaeologists believe that the mound-builders of this region entered the Bronze Age, had a high level of intelligence, and traded with the Aztecs and Mayans.

Of the numerous mounds in the state, the Great Mound of the Rouge remained the largest until it was razed in the 1920s. From local lore and oral traditions, supported by written accounts in “A History of Detroit and Michigan” by Silas Farmer (Silas Farmer & Co., 1883) and “Memorials of a Half Century” by Bela Hubbard (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1887), we know that ancient habitants of the region established the Great Mound as a ceremonial and burial site at the mouth of the Rouge River at the point that it flows into the Detroit River. Before its demolishment to erect the Rouge facility of the Ford Motor Company, this mound stood two hundred feet wide, four hundred feet long, and forty feet high – longer than a football field and as tall as a four-story building.

Our current local European-American history begins in the 17th century with the coureurs des bois (runners of the woods), fur traders who came from France. They lived with and married into the Huron, Ottawa, and other indigenous tribes of the area. These trappers were the ancestors of many of the modern-day French families of Detroit. Early Jesuit missionaries journeyed here and recorded their discovery of – and subsequent destruction of – a totem dedicated to Manitou, the Native American deity. This totem, a black stone, stood near the shoreline of the Detroit River (actually, it’s a strait). An early French legend tells us that, after the totem was destroyed by missionaries, they loaded the stone into a canoe and dumped it into the water near Belle Isle. The exact location of the site at which the totem stood remains debatable. However, the Catholic Church traditionally has built their houses of worship upon pagan spiritual sites. The first cathedral in Detroit may have been built on such a site. It later became the present-day Jesuit Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, which is adjacent to the University of Detroit Mercy Law School.

Mythological Background
In her book “Legends of Le Detroit” (Thorndike Nourse, 1884), Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin recounts the story of the destruction of the totem referred to above. Watson Hamlin describes it in the legend entitled “The Cross and the Manitou.” She writes, “It was in the early spring of 1670 that their canoes landed at Detroit. [Francois Doilier de Casson and Abbe Brehant de Galinee] came upon an open clearing in the center of which arose a grassy mound crowned by a rude stone idol. It was a crude production of nature, created by her [Mother Nature] in a fit of abstraction and which the Indians had attempted to convert into the semblance of a deity by touches of vermillion. Offerings of tobacco, skins of animals, and articles of food were scattered in reckless profusion at its feet. This, then, was the great Manitou, of whom their guides had spoken, who held in his hand the winds.”

Indignant at the idolatry of the natives, the Jesuits broke the statue into a thousand pieces. In its place, they erected a cross affixed with the French coat of arms. Taking the biggest fragment of the idol, they lashed together two canoes and towed the black stone to the deepest part of the Detroit River. Later that day, a band of Native Americans, who were coming to offer homage to their deity, found only mutilated remains. In reaction, they took fragments of the stone, which they placed in their canoes as fetishes. These fetishes guided the natives to a spot near Belle Isle, where they were spoken to by the Spirit of the Manitou. The Manitou told its rescuers to bring the fragments of its broken image to the banks of the island and to strew them there. After doing so, the natives saw each shard converted into a rattlesnake by Manitou, who said that the snakes would serve as sentinels of its sacred place. In addition, the snakes would prevent any newcomers from profaning its island shrine.

On his voyages, Antoine de LaMothe-Cadillac had passed through the troit, translated as “the strait,” several times. In his explorations, Cadillac had noted the advantages of this site. Not only could it serve as a military post and a barrier to the Iroquois, but its narrows could stand as a gate to shut off the English from commerce with the Native Americans of the far West. In addition, “the strait” would serve New France as the center of the fur trade in this region of the country. Renowned as an able soldier, Cadillac convinced the Colonial Minister of the desirability of establishing a post de troit (“of the strait”).

Watson Hamlin recounts that, before leaving Quebec to establish his fort in 1701, Cadillac encountered the sorceress Mere Minique. The crone travelled with a scrawny black cat perched upon her left shoulder that, as the legend goes, occasionally whispered into her ear. Although naturally skeptical, Cadillac directed a request to Mere Minique: “Ma bonne Mere, see what you can tell for me of the future, I care not for the past.” Scanning his face, Mere Minique took a brass basin into which she poured a heavy, quicksilver-like liquid from a curiously carved vial. Holding Cadillac’s hand, she gazed into the basin and uttered his strange destiny: Beyond Cadillac’s founding of a successful colony at Detroit, she predicted darkness. Mere Minique warned Cadillac that his intent of selling liquor to the Native Americans, in contradiction to the advice of the Jesuits, would be the cause of his ruin. In years to come, Detroit would be the scene of strife and bloodshed and finally would fall to the English.

Mere Minique warned Cadillac that his future lay in his own hands. According to Watson Hamlin, the sorceress advised him to “beware of undue ambition; it will mar all your plans.” In conclusion, she warned Cadillac about le Nain Rouge (the Red Dwarf). A mythical creature that originated in Normandy, France, the dwarf appears only when trouble is imminent. Mere Minique said, “Appease le Nain Rouge. Beware of offending him.” In closing, she warned Cadillac that, if he did not heed this warning, he would die in poverty.

On 24 July 1701, Cadillac and his expedition rounded Belle Isle and soon landed in a little cove at the foot of what is now Griswold Street. The Ottawas and Hurons, whose villages were near, rushed down to welcome them, as did a few of the French coureurs des bois who lived here. Later that year, according to legend, La Mothe-Cadillac met le Nain Rouge, who lunged at him. Not heeding Mere Minique’s warning, the founder of Detroit drew his sword and attacked his nemesis, driving him off into the woods. After this encounter, Cadillac began to lose his fortunes and his standing in French society. Perhaps it was simply Cadillac’s brazen dealings and carelessness with many people (as opposed his meeting with said goblin) that led him to prison in Quebec and then to the Bastille in Paris. Really, though, who knows? Cadillac passed away in France in 1730 after suffering the effects of his reduced position for many years.

Invasive Spirits or Convenient Scapegoats?
Along with their Christian religion, early French settlers brought vestiges of pagan beliefs from Normandy. Chief among them was the Stone God, the central deity of nascent French paganism. The Stone God and its offspring were feared by the French settlers. The Stone God is considered to be the father of le Nain Rouge, who also is called the Red Gnome or the Demon of the Strait. This entity looks like a small child, a creature with red or black fur boots. The dwarf has blazing red eyes and, possibly, red skin. It caws like a crow from a mouth filled with rotten teeth. This shambling, red-faced creature clearly scares or enrages everyone who sees it. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, Charles M. Skinner wrote that, in the United States, this “harbinger of doom” haunts Detroit (Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, 1896). Skinner recounts that this hobgoblin is like a banshee in the sense that its appearance is said to presage terrible events for the city. Of all the supernatural beings for which the Stone God is responsible, the Red Dwarf frightened la merde out of more people than any other.

Let us fast forward one century. In 1805, a mysterious fire consumed the wooden buildings of Detroit. Cadillac’s city had vanished physically, though the emotional, spiritual, meta-physical city remained as it was since before the coureurs des bois. Each time that the City of Detroit has been “recreated,” we have retraced it upon what always has existed in multiple dimensions. Sometimes the physical plane makes this existence more difficult to see. However, we use the physical plane to trace over those elements that remain invisible. Some refer to this approach as minimalism. As a polymath musician, I (Dr. Sase) learned of mapping this phenomenon through Schenkerian analysis – a subjective rather than objective theory created by Heinrich Schenker, a music theorist who studied with Frederic Chopin and Anton Bruckner. Schenkerian analysis is more art than science for finding the primary tone that contains an inner truth.

For example, the three ancient primary routes that have emanated from the center of “the city of the strait” reflect more than a way to travel from point A to point B. They form the haiku that contains and reflects the essence of our urbanity. Historical information, preserved in the early records maintained by French missionaries and military, refutes the notion that Detroit’s radial plan is based upon the designs of Washington, D.C.; Paris; and similar cities. These paths had been well beaten over the course of millennia.

However, Detroit appeared marked for change. Multiple sightings of le Nain Rouge occurred in the days preceding “the Great Fire,” a blaze that destroyed most of the city in 1805. On the morning after the Great Fire, Territorial Governor William Hull and Judge Augustus Woodward (the legal presence in Old Detroit) appeared on the scene with a detailed design for the new city. They produced a radial street plan for downtown Detroit that resembled Washington, D.C. This plan was overlaid neatly upon the trade paths that had existed since antiquity. Curiously, Judge Woodward declared that the new main street should be renamed Woodward Avenue because it proceeded “northward toward the woods” (LOL).

Le Nain Rouge made numerous appearances after the Great Fire of 1805. Here is a well-known example: During the War of 1812, William Hull, then Commanding General of the U.S. troops at Detroit, claimed to have seen a red dwarf in the fog just before his surrender of Detroit to British Commandant Sir Isaac Brock. Colonel Lewis Cass, General Hull’s subordinate, succeeded Hull as Territorial Governor. Cass placed all blame for the surrender on Hull. General Hull’s trial was presided over by another general, Henry Dearborn. Hull was found guilty and was court-martialed. Apparently, the attribution of one’s own failing to a mythological character just didn’t cut it in the Age of Reason.

“Myth Comes from the Same Zone as Dream... from the Great Biological Ground, Whatever It May Be. They Are Energies and They Are Matters of Consciousness.” – Joseph Campbell, Mythos II (Acacia DVD, 1996)

In the succeeding centuries, other urban legends surfaced in Detroit. Some events have focused on specific, short-term incidences while others have marked a change in an era. Here is a series of questions to reflect upon: 1) Can these legends of Old Detroit be proven with historical evidence? Perhaps. However, we do refer to these stories as legends. 2) Where is the dividing line between history and legend? 3) Let us assume that a crime (like the burning of the City of Detroit in 1805) was committed. If those who perpetrated and covered up this crime had left critical pieces of the evidence exposed, would we not assert that they had been careless? 4) Is the tenor of past crimes any more outrageous than the ones committed every week, sometimes every day, in Detroit? 5) Will the fundamental nature of the City ever change, or must we simply accept this underlying nature and hope to build a brighter future upon its troubled, buried past?

At least in part, most of us realize that we are to blame for our own misfortune. However, an element of these problems goes beyond the weakness of our humanity. Perhaps there really is le Nain Rouge. If not, then maybe we always have needed to create one to embody the most malignant human traits that we find offensive within ourselves. As the late mythologist, writer, and lecturer Joseph Campbell told us throughout his many books and films, we need myths to help us to organize and guide our lives.

What about more recent appearances of le Nain Rouge? These include the day before the 12th Street Riot in 1967 – where he was seen doing flips down the street – and before the crippling winter storm of March 1976. Here, two utility workers said that they saw what they thought was a child climbing a utility pole. As they shouted at him, this “child” jumped from the top of the pole, glared at them, and ran away.

Shortly after the founding of Detroit in 1701, le Marche du Nain Rouge (“the March of the Red Dwarf”) started to take place on the Sunday closest to the Vernal (spring) Equinox.

Starting in 2009, we revived this celebration with a modern version of le Marche du Nain Rouge. Similar to Mardi Gras, this parade and street theatre attempts to banish the Red Dwarf from Detroit and back into the Spirit World. Supposedly, the anxiety caused by the Demon will be transformed into new hope for Detroiters. As this article is being completed, we anticipate le Marche du Nain Rouge on Sunday 24 March 2013. On that day, more than five thousand Metro Detroiters are expected to gather in the Cass Corridor. These masked, costumed revelers will walk from the north to the south end of the Corridor. They will end their march in the park across from the Masonic Temple. Support for this event comes from a wide variety of sources that range from the City of Detroit to the notorious Theatre Bizarre.

Though the writers of this column appreciate le Marche, we would like to suggest another option: Old traditions describe the Demon of the Strait as most malignant. Terrible events seem to occur after each time that this “harbinger of doom” shows himself. However, this curious fellow is capable of appeasement by flattery (an important safety tip). When treated well, le Nain Rouge grows delighted and stands down. Therefore, it seems that we obviously have missed the point for more than three centuries. Le Nain Rouge appears. After we chase him off, misfortune continues to be heaped upon our city. Get the point?

It has come to our attention that another nefarious Detroit-area character, Loup Garou (a werewolf), is acting as plaintiff attorney for the Red Dwarf. Recently, Loup Garou filed a case on behalf of le Nain Rouge in U.S. Federal Court. As we were finishing this column, the pair supplied a copy of the Complaint to us so that we would share it with our readership. The document appears below in abbreviated form as approved by the attorney for the plaintiff.

Counsel for the Plaintiff
Le Grand Marais
Grosse Pointe, MI

NOW COMES Plaintiff, le Nain Rouge (aka the Red Dwarf, Red Gnome, Demon of the Strait), by and through his attorney, LE LOUP GAROU (aka the Werewolf of Grosse Pointe) and for his Complaint against Defendants states as follows:

1. Le Nain Rouge is a resident of the City of Detroit, County of Wayne, State of Michigan.
2. Defendant, the City and people of Detroit, are living (at least until I get hungry) in the City of Detroit, County of Wayne, State of Michigan.
3. This action arises out of injuries that have occurred from 24 July 1701 through the present in the City of Detroit, State of Michigan.
4. The amount in this controversy is in excess of everything that you have, including your first-born, exclusive of interest, costs, and attorney fees (which include a demand for one dozen maidens on their wedding day, whom I will drag into my swamp. They will never be seen or heard from again-Arrrrrrouuu!)

5. Numerous counts of disparate treatment, harassment, and denial of sustainable employment by the defendants in violation of Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and general guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
6. Numerous counts of extreme prejudicial treatment, harassment, and discrimination by the defendants due to the plaintiff’s race, color, sex, religion, political affiliation, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, transgender (gender identity status), and status as a parent as determined by laws and executive orders by the EEOC.
Let us end with a couple of questions to consider. Is the Red Dwarf the model for the logo of Vernor’s Ginger Ale? Is there a correlation between the closing of the Vernor’s plant on Woodward Avenue and the decline of the City of Detroit? Only the gnome gnows for sure....
For those readers with a further interest in this topic, copies of the books cited are available through Project Gutenberg ( ). In addition, charming short videos of The Legend of Detroit’s Nain Rouge and other local myths are posted at Enjoy.


A PDF copy of this article is posted at We continue to post videos related to our monthly column on in the Legal News Features playlist.


Dr. John F. Sase of SASE Associates, Economic Consulting and Research, earned his MBA at the University of Detroit and his Ph.D. in Economics at Wayne State University. He is a graduated of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Dr. Sase can be reached at (248) 569-5228 and by e-mail at
Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a Supervisory Editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for more than 20 years. Currently, he edits books for publication and gives seminars on writing. Mr. Senick can be reached at (313) 342-4048 and by e-mail at