The Spirited Afterlife of Detroit’s Little Red Demon

October 30, 2019

The Nain Rouge has been stirring up trouble—and maybe generating some goodwill—for more than 300 years.

For the last decade, on the first Sunday in spring, a demon has stalked the streets of Detroit. Sometimes he arrives on a forklift. Once he rode in on a mechanical dragon; another time he was astride a float modeled on a cockroach, like a mischievous Poseidon on a scuttling chariot.

However he makes his entrance, this creature, known as the Nain Rouge, loves to rile up the locals. At the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, a parade that’s also part concert and part interactive theater, complete with elaborate homemade costumes and floats, someone dresses up as the Nain and taunts thousands of Detroiters at a time—whoever shows up to stroll, cheer, or jeer. (Organizers wouldn’t say who gets the dreaded or coveted demon gig.) All in all, it’s a festivity that Francis Grunow, the co-founder and parade director, calls “kind of a mashup of Halloween, Burning Man, and Mardi Gras.”

Each year, between 5,000 and 7,000 people turn out to celebrate Detroit’s favorite demon, or to cast him away. Depending on whom you ask, the ill-tempered imp is either defender of the city, who appears to warn people that danger is coming, or the very engine of said danger, delighting in any disasters that befall the place.

Legend has it that the Nain has been visiting Detroit since at least the 1700s. His tale features in the 1884 volume Legends of le Détroit, collected by the local author and historian Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, who was descended from some of the city’s first French arrivals.

To hear Hamlin tell it, the trouble began at a party in Québec one March evening in 1701. At the castle of St. Louis, she writes, the French explorer Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac—who would soon depart to claim Detroit for the French and their fur traders—and other officials gathered around a table, “resplendent with costly silver and sparkling glass,” their heads swimming with wine from the building’s “noted cellars.”

Into that shimmering scene burst a “swarthy,” fortune-telling crone with a scrawny black cat on her shoulder. She called herself Mère Minique, La Sorcière, and she came bearing a warning. Things would work out well for Cadillac, she promised, but if—and only if—he appeased the Nain Rouge, or “Red Dwarf.”

The demon “emitted a cold gleam like the reflection from a polished surface, bewildering and dazzling all who came within its focus.”

Hamlin describes the creature as the ornery “demon of the Strait” (détroit is the French word for “strait,” a narrow waterway linking two other bodies of water). The Nain was a creature “most malignant,” the prophetess said, but “capable of being appeased by flattery.” If Cadillac played his cards right, the woman foretold, he would “found a great city which one day will have more inhabitants than New France now possesses.” Cross the demon or let your ambition run amok, she cautioned Cadillac, and “your name will be scarcely known in the city you founded.”

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