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Spirituality

Legendary Detroit

From snake gods to 9/11, modern skepticism has shifted

MT Illustration by: Justin Rose
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Published 11/14/2007

Have you ever driven down Knock-Knock Street? Been menaced by the White Lady of Tanglewood Drive? Run screaming from the Werewolf of Grosse Pointe?   The 18th-century legend of Le Loup Garou, the east side wolfman, doesn't get much press these days. And it's hard to find Knock-Knock Street, where a child ghost, victim of a hit-and-run, knocks on motorists' cars in a post-mortem plea for help. As for the White Lady, a Belle Isle apparition said to menace necking teenagers, well, she's been quiet since the 1950s. (And there's no longer a street on the island called "Tanglewood Drive.") These days, Detroit folklore is more likely to concern alleged parties at the city's mayoral residence than Native American burial grounds.

Modern folklore has changed, from ghost stories and creature features to conspiracy theories and urban legends, a less wide-eyed form of mythmaking for the modern age.

Urban legends are probably the best-known variety of folklore, and it's sometimes difficult to see a correlation between the Snake God of Belle Isle (more on him later) and the endless e-mail forwards that promise 50 cents from Bill Gates each time the recipient clicks "send." But it's part and parcel of the same urge, says Janet Langlois, who specializes in folklore studies at Wayne State University. Folklore, she says, can be part of what's called a functional model, used as a way of making sense of a seemingly irrational universe and gaining some sense of control.

The term "urban legend" was coined in the 1970s by scholars intent on showing that folk beliefs weren't just a rural phenomena. Urban legends are used as touchstones, common points of reference, to detail the urban landscape and reflect a community's mores.

Today's Detroit folklore includes, of course, the party at the Manoogian Mansion, which in various retellings placed strippers, carousers and violence at the city's mayoral residence and dogged Kwame Kilpatrick throughout his first term. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox declared the party an "urban legend," although the thoroughness of the investigations has been debated. But too many Detroiters have a "friend of a friend" who claims to have taken part in the fabled party or its aftermath for the story to truly die.

And there's the post-9/11 "celebrating Arabs" rumor, which tells of Arabic employees at West Bloomfield eatery The Sheik cheering while watching footage of the attacks. Similar stories were told around the country, but this specific restaurant was the target of an e-mail-driven boycott with a long-term effect on the restaurant's business, Langlois says.

The act of discussing the veracity of an event or story often indicates that it's an urban legend, Langlois says — a rumor can be an incipient legend, a legend an elaborate rumor. Hallmarks are the "friend of a friend" tag and the impossible-to-verify nature of the events recounted.

"Urban legends push the real," she says. The teller doesn't even have to believe in the rumor's truth for it to gain momentum — take the "Belle Isle Bridge Incident."

On the eve of the 1943 race riots, rumors that a woman and baby had been thrown off the bridge to Belle Isle spread rapidly through both the black and white communities, Langlois says. In the predominately white Cass Corridor, the story went that the mob was black, the woman and baby white. In Black Bottom, a white mob had menaced a black woman and child, and a version of the story was announced on a loudspeaker at a black nightclub by a man claiming to be a police officer. Incensed, the crowd spread into the streets, ready to fight. The rumor was pegged as a contributing factor in post-riot reports. The story was never verified, and two black men were prosecuted for inciting a riot by spreading the rumor.

That's not the only story set on Belle Isle. In the 1950s, there was one about the White Lady, a bride slain by her husband. She allegedly appeared to teenagers parked in a secluded spot on the island.

According to Charles Skinner, a 19th century folklorist who published anthologies, Native Americans said that a god kept his most beautiful daughter in a boat in the Detroit River, but after the winds fought for possession of the girl, he moved her to Belle Isle — known as "Rattlesnake Island" and then "Hog Island" before attracting the more lyrical soubriquet "Belle" — and placed a ring of rattlesnakes around the boat to discourage further wind action.

The aforementioned Snake God, a natural stone idol worshipped by the Michigan Indians, was reportedly destroyed by French priests in 1760, smashed and thrown into the river where, like a Transformer, it recombined into a giant snake to protect the Native American against the white man.

One particular 18th century ghost story, according to Skinner, arose from an incident that supposedly happened, and has a more direct message about the conflict of native and colonial cultures. It tells of an Ottawa Indian woman carrying on a clandestine affair with both a British soldier and a Saginaw warrior. The woman would stand in the window with a lit candle to let the Brit know it was OK to meet. After the warrior figured out the couple's signal, he stabbed her to death. For years, the woman's ghost was said to appear in the window of the mill where she'd lived, roughly where 24th Street is today. Sadly, even ghosts can fall victim to urban blight: The mill was torn down, Skinner reported, in 1775.

While that tale of unrequited love has been out of circulation for at least a century, the Red Dwarf, or Le Nain Rouge, is an old Detroit folk tale that's made the leap to modernity. First encountered, so the story goes, by Antoine Cadillac, the dwarf has presaged disasters from the great fire of 1805 to the '67 riots.

Atrocities to children, Langlois says, are the most prolific kind of urban legend, prompted perhaps by a kind of pan-cultural agreement that hurting kids is as bad as it gets. Take the "castrated child" story, popular in the 1970s: A mother lets her small son use the bathroom at a shopping mall (Northland, Fairlane and Eastland malls have been the named in retellings of the legend). She waits and waits, but the child never emerges. Entering the restroom, she finds the boy in a pool of blood, castrated, a warning to parents about the perils of modern life and commercialization, Langlois says.

Urban legends and conspiracy theories are on the rise, Langlois says, fueled by tension in the world at large. (The last time they peaked was in the 1980s.) Instant communication over the Internet is another factor. But Langlois favors another explanation. She argues that the proliferation of urban legends is symptomatic of a breakdown in "official" information networks. People don't trust traditional media sources, the government or big businesses because they fail to communicate a believable message. Urban legends or conspiracy theories afford the teller an opportunity to create his or her own narrative, one that compensates for half-truths and misinformation.

Langlois' in-depth study of the Sheik boycott, chronicled in an article for the Journal of American Folklore, revealed that at least one woman who forwarded the e-mail, falsely portraying the scene of celebrating Arabs, knew there was a good chance the rumor wasn't true. But she chose to pass the message along anyway. Langlois suggests this is proof of unresolved social tension.

More often, however, modern legend has shifted away from the supernatural, perhaps based on modern skepticism about the mystical, favoring instead stories about castrated children, kidney thieves and fingers in food.

"We're replacing the supernatural with the horrible," she says.

Nancy Kaffer is a freelancer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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