Story by Shannon Leahy
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — Norm Beaver can’t feel his face.
That whiny update comes directly from him, my travel companion, as we shiver outside the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg. Our tour guide, Don Finkbeiner of Heartland Travel, is pointing with excitement to a sphinx perched on the peaked roof of the front entrance.
“Everything was right here in front of us, in plain sight. For almost 100 years no one noticed that this building is actually a temple,” Finkbeiner says with incredulity.
You’ve probably heard about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that opened last month in Winnipeg. But did you know the city’s Legislative Building is Canada’s very own version of the “Da Vinci Code” — a real-life pagan temple with deities disguised as gargoyles, guardian beasts warding off evil and an altar for sacrificial rites? And you thought politics was boring!
Sure, “Winterpeg” can be as cold as Mars (minus-50 Celsius degrees at some points last winter) but this boom-bust-boom city is also a hotbed of paranormal secrets and spooky spirits.
Norm’s head isn’t the only frozen, back-from-the-dead face in the Legislative Building. In front of the Grand Staircase (13 steps, like all staircases in the building that was designed by a mason), Finkbeiner points up. Way up.
There’s a screeching gargoyle leering down at us. Nice.
“Look closer. Does she look familiar?”
Frozen scream, snakes for hair, ice-cold rage and a hard stony stare.
Bad-girl Medusa is in the house. But why?
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There’s a reason the Hermetic Code Tour is 90 minutes long, a designated Canadian Signature Experience and includes a 131-page coffee table book. Every stone, sculpture, painting, adornment and dimension in the Manitoba Legislative Building is encoded with occult symbolism and numerological codes.
You could quite happily spend all day with Finkbeiner or Frank Albo, the young Winnipeg-born architectural historian responsible for decoding the building’s secrets, and you’d still want more.
Just remember: The tour starts outside so dress appropriately if you come in winter like we did or you’ll stagger into “the temple” like the frozen walking dead.
A Muddy, Bloody Good Time in Manitoba
For Kristen Verin-Treusch, owner of Muddy Water Tours (Winnipeg means “muddy water” in Cree), the walking dead are always welcome on her tours. In fact, spirits are guests of honour and encouraged to make themselves seen, heard and understood.
Verin-Treusch is as kind as she is brave. “No, I’m not a ghost whisperer, no way!” she says with a laugh. “I’m more interested in shifting people’s paradigms around what happens after we die.”
Our paradigm shift starts at the Fort Garry Hotel in downtown Winnipeg. Built in 1913, the Fort Garry has hosted superstars like Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and Brad Pitt. But it’s the invisible spirit stars — some friendly, some fierce — who’ve transformed this ornate chateau-style hotel into one of Canada’s most spectacular haunting grounds.
Verin-Treusch can’t take us into Room 202 because the notorious suite is already occupied.
We walk down the narrow carpeted hallway and stand quietly outside the dark wooden door.
Verin-Treusch hisses ghost stories about what’s behind Door 202.
There’s the female ghost who likes to climb into bed with guests. Sometimes she stands at the foot of the bed and just stares.
Until you wake up screaming.
There’s another ghost, maybe the same woman, who appears in the closet. When you open the door, she stares back at you, unblinking, from the end of a rope.
Cleaning staff, when they’re not mysteriously locked out of the room, have seen fresh bloody footprints on the bed and blood oozing from the room’s walls.
Norm’s face is frozen again.
Verin-Treusch is used to freaking people out; three people have fainted on her two- to three-hour ghost tours, which she runs year-round and at different ghostly locations throughout Winnipeg.
“Some people pass out, get headaches, feel sick, and others, especially children, see ‘people.’”
A few years ago a young boy stood transfixed in the dining room while Verin-Treusch led a family-friendly hotel tour. (Most Muddy Water Tours are for 12 years and up or 18 years and up, particularly those using dowsing rods or “willow witching” to summon the dead.)
The boy had seen a man coming from around a corner, again and again, and asked Verin-Treusch if she’d seen him too.
“I could tell the boy was scared, and his mom was nervous, so I said, ‘Sure, I saw him.’ But there was no way a man could have rounded that corner in the dining room. It’s a dead end. When I developed photos of that tour months later, there was the little boy looking into the dining room corner. And there was our famous Phantom Diner; we think his name is Theo. Theo’s face was emerging from out of the wall.”
For once I’m not hungry and we bolt from the Fort Garry.
Verin-Treusch is not only a masterful storyteller but a gracious hostess and guide. She offers a visit to the deserted Vaughn Street Jail, and former lunatic asylum, where she once spotted a floating woman behind the grimy, barred windows.
How about strolling through the Winnipeg Archives? There’s a jokester spirit there who tapes staff members’ pens, papers and paperclips onto desks. Every day, 9 to 5. Hilarious!
But no, I’m done.
Verin-Treusch has shifted my paradigm (I think that means point of view): Winnipeg is packed with spirited energy.
I’m not alone in my ghostly views of this “big little city” staked smack-dab in the heart of North America.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were big Winnipeg fans, especially when they could attend a séance and communicate with the dearly departed.
Death and Debauchery in Winnipeg
After attending a séance in 1923, where the table whirled in the air and leapt “like an angry dog” at him, Conan Doyle concluded that “Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for psychic possibilities.” (Spooky side note: Doyle liked Winnipeg so much that he kept on visiting — from beyond the grave! Two years after his death in 1930, Doyle’s face appeared in a séance photograph taken at his favourite medium’s home.)
Stephanie Scherbain in the Exchange District offers us a respite from the spirit world by inviting us into the dark, dirty world of Winnipeg’s pioneer past.
The 45-minute Death and Debauchery Tour showcases the “wickedest city in the Dominion” between 1880 and the mid-1920s when Winnipeg was one of the fastest growing cities in North America.
Men didn’t come here for the weather.
“Our first chief of police loved whores and a good bar-room brawl,” Scherbain says.
She leads us through cobblestone roads and under century-old drayways (laneways for horses and carts).
“In 1874 a couple of junior constables found the police chief in one of the brothels but they turned a blind eye. They only charged the chief with public drunkenness.”
The stories get even wilder. There’s the saloon that once had a beer-loving bear. One night the bear was so drunk that it escaped, climbed a pole and stayed there.
“What happened?” I ask.
Scherbain is young, sweet and discreet, as her answer demonstrates: “Things didn’t go well for the bear.”
Things didn’t go well for criminals, either, in Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century. If someone was thought to have been inadequately punished by the justice system, a vigilante mob would appear from out of the shadows.
“If the mob wanted to lynch someone,” Scherbain says, “they’d break into a hardware store, pick out rope and whatever else they needed, and leave money behind on the counter. Then they’d go hunting.”
After a full, ridiculously fun day of chasing down Winnipeg’s dark, spooky side, my travelling companion’s frozen face thaws into a devilish grin.
Scherbain wants us to see the final resting place of Winnipeg’s most notorious brothel.
“I think it might be haunted.”
Of course it is; this is Winnipeg.
Trick or treat.
MORE ABOUT SPOOKY FUN IN WINNIPEG
Muddy Water Tours: Ghost Carriage Rides, Talking to the Dead Ghost Walks and Supernatural Sites are just a few of the spooky offerings at Muddy Water Tours. If you want to learn, laugh, shiver and shake, spirited guide Kristen Verin-Treusch is the city’s expert in “dark tourism.” Year-round historical walking tours (non-scary) also available. Visit www.muddywatertours.ca or email email@example.com. Most walking tours cost $12 per adult.
Death and Debauchery Tour: Located at 133 Albert Street, this company introduces you to Winnipeg’s first thug mayor, vigilante mobs, bank robbers and drunk bears. Guided walking tours are 45 minutes and by appointment only. Call the Exchange District BIZ at 1-204-942-6716 or visit the tour company’s website. The ticket costs are $7 (adults) and $6 (seniors, youths and children).
The Hermetic Code Tour: This tour has transformed the Manitoba Legislative Building into a real-life “Da Vinci Code.” Spend 90 minutes with Frank Albo, the Winnipeg-born architecturnal historian who unlocked one of Manitoba’s greatest secrets about freemasonry, the occult and architectural mischief. Tours (10 to 60 people) run year-round and must be booked in advance. Visit Heartland Travel’s website or call 1-204-989-9630. The cost is $39.30 per person for the tour, or $59.25 per person for the tour and copy of the Hermetic Code book (includes all taxes and fees).