French for “Red Gnome,” the Nain Rouge is described as a small, furry imp with rotten teeth, glowing red eyes and an uncanny knack for showing up right before tragedy, misfortune and death beset Detroit, Michigan. A ghoulish, shadowy square in the endurant patchwork of the city’s checkered history, the creature has appeared repeatedly, always materializing, red-eyed and cawing, out of the hot breath and noise of the city, only to disappear immediately, fading away into black smoke or the high, hollow echo of screams. Though not nearly as notorious as Point Pleasant, West Virginia’s Mothman, whose spate of appearances in 1966 are often linked to the 1967 rush hour collapse of the Silver Bridge, the Nain Rouge is said to have presaged every major disaster to have struck Detroit since its founding in 1701.
Although the original legend of the Nain Rouge comes from French folklore, where the creature is regarded as a sort of fairytale hobgoblin, the emigration of the story to the United States found the dwarf written into the DNA of Detroit and repurposed to serve the infant metropolis’ need for a malevolent face to assign to the first stumbling steps, and subsequent spills, of a city learning to walk on its own. As such, early stories of the Nain Rouge portray the puckish dwarf as a malevolent creature who not only revels in tragedy, but also has the ability to cause it.
It’s said that in 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, French adventurer and first settler of Detroit, encountered the creature on the land that would become Detroit, and, being an accomplished swordsman, assaulted the Nain Rouge in an attempt to drive it away. Supposedly, from that day on, Cadillac was cursed, as allegedly evidenced by the string of imprisonments and bureaucratic entanglements that haunted him during the final 29 years of his life.
As the city grew from a fort to a settlement, and then into a town, the Nain Rouge extricated himself from the role of active hexing, of causing misfortune, and into the strange, and perhaps creepier, role of predicating it, steering the legend away from the superstitious scapegoating of monsters, and into the desperate guilt exemption of determinism – if the Nain Rouge appears as a portent of disasters, the disasters are fated, and neither planners nor politicians can steer a city’s fate.
Wednsday: Destiny and the Nain Rouge