Join me for the conclusion of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.
The summers went by without incident, until 1959. During the fifth week of summer camp, a couple of Scouts went up to Boot Hill even though they were not supposed to. They saw a strange black cat with a white paw. It look at them with intense eyes, and ran away into the forest. The two Scouts suddenly fell ill, and went to the health office. After they told the health officer what happened, he too became sick. Before the end of the day, everyone in camp was sick with diarrhea, cold sweats, and dizziness. The Health Department was asked to come in and determine what was causing the illness, but despite their experience, it was a mystery to them. After two weeks of quarantine, everyone at camp suddenly got better.
In the early 1960s, the Northwest Suburban Council decided to open Boot Hill, because too many people were asking questions about why it was closed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened until 1969, exactly ten years after the previous incident. Two Scouts were wandering around the hill with slingshots when a black cat with a single white paw crossed their path. One Scout kicked at it while the other prepare his sling and began firing.
The cat screamed and hissed and ran up a nearby tree, where it looked at the two boys with a piercing gaze. Suddenly, the boy with the slingshot grabbed his arm in pain, while the boy who was kicking the cat felt pain in his leg. The boy with the injured arm was able to run down the hill and grab the health officer. The health officer later determined that one boy suffered from a broken arm and the other had a broken leg.
The camp administration realized there was a problem. Something needed to be done about Boot Hill. At first, they wanted to relocated Staff City, where all the staff members lived, to the base of Boot Hill, but the staff members refused to live there. Eventually, it was located near Boot Hill, with a line of trees separating the buildings from the hill. The idea was for the staff to be nearby in case anything else happened.
The next summer, the camp staff became very interested in Boot Hill, and set out to determine what happened there. At first, they only knew about the bizarre incidents that occurred on the hill. Some investigation filled in the rest. They began knocking on neighbor’s doors, but the people refused to talk about the history of that land. Except, however, for one old man. He told the staff about everything that happened in the summer of 1934. When he was done, he said, “I want you to know how I know all this. I was one of the farmers that killed those gypsies. It’s all true, I saw it with my own eyes. I’ve never told anyone, but I’m glad I was able to get it off my chest before I died.” Thee days later, he died.
Shortly after, the story of Boot Hill began to take shape. Staff members told it to each other, but kept it from the Scouts. It was not the kind of story they wanted them to hear. By 1979, the area around Boot Hill was fully utilized. A large campsite was created on the top of the hill, and the open field below was used as well. Wolf Campsite today sits where the gypsy campsite had once been. In 1979, a scoutmaster named George Bell was camped at Wolf with his troop. All of the leaders went to a cracker-barrel one night, leaving the Scouts to sit by the fire.
When George and the other leaders returned, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The Scouts were sitting in a circle around a huge fire. They eyes were glazed over, and they were chanting in a strange language. It was Hungarian, the language of the gypsies. When the Scouts were snapped out of the spell, George demanded to know what was going on. All the Scouts talked about were the black cats with a single white paw. There were dozens of them appearing and disappearing at random. The Scouts remembered nothing of the chanting or anything else that happened. They were terrified, and left the next day. That was the last summer they ever camped on Boot Hill.
By this time, the staff had no choice but to begin telling the story of Boot Hill. It was something the Scouts needed to know about for their own safety. In 1986, Jim Scalina became a counselor in training at Napowan, to serve the first of many summers on staff. In the middle of that summer, Jim was riding with a group of staff members to get some dinner in town. He saw a black cat with a white paw before he got into the car, but thought nothing of it. He realized after they got into a car accident that there was a connection. The car swerved into a hill due to a break failure, and no one was injured except for Jim. He had a deep cut next to his eye. When the police examined the car, they said the breaks were fine and there was no reason for them to have given out.
In 1987, the archery director and the aquatics director wanted to prove the story of Boot Hill wrong. They didn’t believe it, so they got slingshots and went up to Boot Hill in search of the strange cat. When they found it (or it found them), they began to shoot at it with their slingshots. It ran off into the forest, and nothing happened to them. They did not get sick, nor did they have any broken bones. They believed they had proven the story wrong. Their minds were not changed until the end of the summer. Three days after the campers went home, a tornado swept through Camp Napowan. It touched down at the archery range, completely destroying it. Then it touched down near the dining hall and the lake, destroying the swim house.
In 1988, a staff member named Andrew Graham got into a car accident moments after seeing a black cat with a white paw. His car flipped into a ditch on the road between maintenance and the office. There were no major injuries. The next summer, two men who worked at the waterfront had a terrible accident in a canoe. They were both out at the lake when staff member Dave Nelson ran into their canoe with his ski boat, tearing it into two pieces. The two survived with a few minor cuts and bruises. Shortly before entering the canoe, one of the men had seen a black cat with a white front paw. There was a small fire in 1990 after a Scout saw a black cat with a single white paw.
In 1991, there was a code blue and a code red on the same day and at the same time. A code blue is an aquatic emergency, and a code red is a fire. While half of the staff was diving under water after two missing Scouts, the other half was putting out the fire. The Scouts had forgotten to remove their buddy tags, so everyone assumed they were still in the water. It should come as no surprise that someone reported seeing a cat that day.
In 1992, there was a Scout who left camp after seeing a black cat that terrified him so much, he wouldn’t remain in camp. He was eventually found seven miles from Napowan at 3am. He kept saying he “didn’t want to see the cat,” and went home early that week. When there were sightings in 1993, a volatile storm passed through camp that wrecked trails and campsites. The storm occurred during the week of the 4th of July, and it took most of the summer to clean up the camp.
Sightings in 1994 sent a sickness throughout camp. Many blamed the milk, but when it was tested, there was nothing wrong with it. No one knows for sure why the illness started. In 1996, many events happened involving sightings of black cats. There was a code blue, a car accident, and a strange storm. It was supposed to rain so hard that evening, that all programs were cancelled. The storm was headed straight toward Napowan, when it appeared to split down the middle and head in different directions away from the camp. Not a drop of rain fell on camp property.
The story of Boot Hill is not a legend. It is the truth. The days of keeping the truth from the visitors to Camp Napowan are over. Some people deny the validity of this story. They believe it was made up to scare Scouts, but there are many ways its validity can be tested. Go to Boot Hill and look for yourself. At the top of the hill is Split Rock, the rock that the Chieftain melted through during that fateful summer. This split is not natural. It has a 4 inch gap going through the middle that could not have been caused by erosion, frost action, lightning, or any other natural occurrence. For some reason, Scouts like to urinate on the rock, but when they do, many fall down the stairs, get stung by bees, or get sick. One Scout even had stomach pains, and when he went to the hospital, a surgeon removed a cat claw that was lodged inside his stomach.
Where the gypsy camp was, today you can see a circle of perfectly green grass on the floor of the pine forest. It is about 8 feet in diameter. It is where the Chieftain’s wagon once stood. In another circle at the top of the hill, nothing will grow. This was where Joe Miller, Jr. was found dead with the circle of cat paw prints around his body. Or you can go to the Boot Hill area and count the big rocks. There are about 120 in all, and if you look closely, you can still see the bloodstains on the rocks. These rocks were not always there, for when the gypsies farmed the land, they removed all the big rocks and piled them where the shooting range is today. The common burial site is located at the bottom of the hill. It is a large sandy area where nothing grows. If anything is planted there, it will die within 24 hours. After the massacre, nothing would grow on the entire hill. If you are still not satisfied, you can search through police records. All the major incidents are documented.
The only evidence you need, however, is in the words of this story. The message is clear and simple: Boy Scouts are not the only group camping at Napowan. When the gypsies were massacred, Napowan became their resting ground. Every so often, the gypsies can be seen. There are dozens of them. They are in the trees and on the trails, watching as campers pass by. If you see a black cat with a white front paw, just turn around and walk away. Hopefully, they will not harm you. If we take care of Camp Napowan and conserve the land, the gypsy spirits will guide and protect us. But if we disturb their rest, they will disturb us back. That is the story of Boot Hill.