Folklore Profile: The Lanky Night Walker
Here at the Pine Barrens Institute, we are always on the lookout for the most bizarre and obscure folklore the state of Wisconsin has to offer. We want the stuff that nobody has ever heard of, the homespun stories and legends that you just can't stop thinking about after you are done reading them. We want the weird, the spooky, and the only told once and never again kind of stories that make you realize just how interesting the Midwest truly is. Well, readers, I think we have one for you that hits every single one of those targets.
Our profile this time around focuses on not a cryptozoological creature, but rather a “creature” straight out of Wisconsin folklore. But if I am able to speak honestly for a moment, and I think you appreciate when I do, I don’t know if this thing can even be considered a creature at all. Truth be told, I don’t much about this thing as I have only been able to find one mention of it from a book written back in 1962. And even then, there was not much info to go off of, but the story is way too good not to share. Plus, there is even that possibility that after we share this, someone out there in the world may feel compelled to contact us because they so happen to have even more information on this thing that nobody knew about before. Remember, all it takes to solve a mystery is just one little piece of information that can come from anywhere and anyone.
So before I actually share the story with you all, I need to first give you information on where this is coming from. You see, not long ago I came into possession of a book all about Wisconsin folklore, ghost stories, legends, and anecdotes. The book is called Wisconsin Lore and it was written in 1962 by Robert Gard and Leland George Sorden. What makes this book extremely special (at least in my opinion) is the fact that the entire thing was written almost verbatim, direct from the mouths of over 200 residents of the Badger State.
You see, Gard and Sorden took it upon themselves to travel the state with a tape recorder and collect folklore stories and homespun wisdom from almost anyone who would talk to them. They were compelled to collect and preserve these stories for future generations and to not lose those rare tales that only existed in out of the way communities to the ever-ticking clock of time. It may seem easy now to preserve stories like the ones in this book, what with the rise of social media and instantaneous digital storage and backup, but back in the day, the only way you could get information like this was to actually get out there and talk to people. You needed to ask the questions face to face and you needed to be willing to sit and listen to the answers you were given.
Some of these stories existed only in writings that were tucked away in dusty drawers or forgotten journals, others were more widely known and existed throughout the entire state, and a few only survived in the memories of the elderly who had once heard them as children and had nobody left to share them with. This book is not just 368 pages filled with random quotes and stories, it is a time capsule for all those who are interested in the history of Wisconsin. The stories in the book range from the comical to the serious, from hard hitting life lessons to simple words of wisdom, from uplifting to the downright spooky. And it is that last category, the spooky one, that we will be showcasing today.
Now, Gard and Sorden did their best to document the places these stories came from as well as the names of the storytellers whom they talked to, but sometimes, there isn’t a name or a place to document. Sometimes the story just exists within the border of the state itself, unable to be traced back to its origin point or first telling, it is as mysterious as its subject matter. The authors -when speaking of the stories contained in this book- even made sure to inform the readers that they, “…make no claim of accuracy or authority. All we can say is: here they are.” It is with this simple acknowledgement that the authors appear to have established the same guidelines that we at the PBI also follow, we just give the story to the readers and let them decide if there is any truth to them or not. Because honestly, sometimes the most fun is hidden within the unknown.
Now, without further ado, we present to you, ‘The Lanky Night Walker’. Shared here in the exact words that Gard and Sorden wrote over 57 years ago.
“When most of the men of the Northern settlements went to the lumber camps every fall and were away till late spring, the women and children were left alone during the winter. One winter a person of fabulous height, enveloped in a long black cape, walked through a street of West Algoma every night at midnight, continuing on past the end of the sidewalk, and on into the blackness. He walked with a slow measured tread, and apparently with the aid of a cane. He walked for exactly one and one-half hours, and never varied the time of his coming or departure.
One of the older boys of the village chanced upon “him” one night. The boy was terrified, of course; beyond the fact that the face was absolutely colorless, and had no expression whatsoever, the boy was unable to describe him.
His appearance must have been bizarre in the extreme because no one in the entire settlement slept at night until he had come and gone, and not a soul in all West Algoma offered to interfere with him or investigate him in any way. When the men returned in the spring, his perambulations ceased, and he never returned.”
Spooky, right? Now, as I said up top, there isn’t a lot of information to go off of based on this story alone. But there is enough to lay the groundwork for a good mystery, and that is what we love about this story.
So, what was this “thing” that went on to become known as The Lanky Night Walker? Was it some sort of terrible ghoul or wraith? Maybe it was a reaper looking for the souls of those who had passed in the freezing night? Could it have possibly been some sort of ghostly entity associated with the cold winter that had engulfed the town? Or perhaps, it was something as mundane as a normal man with facial deformities who just enjoyed walking at night because he knew he wouldn’t be bothered at that time. When it comes down to it, we may never know, and that’s as equally frustrating as it is fascinating.
Two major features that stand out to me when reading this tale though is how the figure is described as being of “fabulous height” and how it was said to have a colorless and expressionless face. While it's not out of the realm of possibility to use these terms when describing a person, it is interesting to note that these descriptions are often used by those lucky (or unlucky) enough to have had an encounter with various paranormal entities. Even the mention of the Night Walker wearing a cape has come up before in various sightings such as this. Plus, we find it is strange that even after a witness got an up-close view of the Lanky Night Walker, they were still unable to accurately describe him. What exactly did this boy see that terrified him so much?
More intriguing still is that fact that even though nobody in the town fully knew what this thing looked like, they all feared it equally, and it is that detail that brings up two unique possibilities. The first being that this thing just had an aura of negativity around it and that when placed in its path, people were instinctively compelled to avoid it all costs. Think of it as some sort of self-preservation response that kicks in when a person is face to face with a predatory animal of some sort. The second possibility is that unsubstantiated rumors and ill-placed fear surrounding a stranger who just wanted to take quiet walks at night, caused a sort of mass hysteria to take over the city and turned this ordinary man into something terrifying. But these two possibilities still don’t come close to answering the questions of what the Night Walker doing there, where did it come from, and why did it only show up when all the men were gone?
While the information provided in the story about the Lanky Night Walker is limited, we are at least able to get a rough time frame of when this incident happened through basic research. The area where this incident took place, Algoma (which sits alongside Lake Michigan in Wisconsin’s arm ), was originally a settlement known as Ahnapee that was founded in 1834. After going through some name changes and coming quite close to destruction due to the Peshtigo Fire of 1871, the settlement grew after the arrival of the railroad in 1892. This major addition brought with it more businesses, churches, and residents. Because of this, on February 23, 1879, the settlement of Ahnapee was incorporated as a city and in 1897 the name was changed to Algoma.
Since logging dominated Wisconsin in the late 19th century and started to decline in the early 20th century, and because it is recorded that this incident took place when the city was recognized as being named Algoma, it is safe to assume that the Lanky Night Walker marched through the city sometime between 1900 and 1915, possibly as late as 1920. We are leaning heavily towards this time frame because a few years prior to the Great Depression in 1929, the logging industry began to leave Wisconsin in favor of logging in the Pacific Northwest. But, in keeping with the tradition of being completely honest, this is all purely speculation on our part.
And there you have it, the story of The Lanky Night Walker, an old obscure folk legend from the Badger State. While we do wish we could’ve dived deeper into this legend and possibly even figured out what it was, sometimes walking away with no answer is just as satisfying. Because at the end of the day, we now know the story of the Lanky Night Walker, and we can keep it alive by spreading it around just as Gard and Sorden intended.
-The Pine Barrens Institute
Image Credit: Google