Mysterious America

Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse: An Analysis

This week, I brought you the legend of “Boot Hill” in three parts. Read parts one, two, and three. The legend of “Boot Hill” comes from Napowan Scout Camp, located near Wild Rose in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan. In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions, where I heard the legend told around a campfire.

Your humble writer/transcriber as a Cub Scout at Camp Napowan

An audio version was available in the mid-1990s. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy and sent it to me as a .wav file. While every summer camp has its founding legend, the tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse is compellingly rich in detail and carefully interwoven with historical events.

Legends are known as folk history, or quasi-history. They are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and are passed on in order to warn or inform others about these unprovable events. While many legends conform to certain general themes and motifs, they acquire their credibility from localized details inserted by individual storytellers. The more details there are, the more truthful the legend appears to its audience.

The tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse and “Boot Hill” is a nearly perfect legend. Not only is it asserted to be true, but great care is taken to establish its veracity by tying the tale to specific  people and events, making it part of oral folk history. The listener is invited to check the record and examine the physical environment to prove the story is true.

“Go to Boot Hill and look for yourself,” the narrator urges. “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.”

Additionally, the legend accomplishes three things: 1) It provides an interesting story for how and why the camp came into existence. 2) It provides guidelines and warnings for campers to follow. 3) It provides a colorful explanation for place names and landmarks around the camp.

Guidelines, warnings, and lessons are important aspects of legends and folklore. The overall theme of the Boot Hill story is that Boy Scouts must respect the land and follow the rules of the camp. Every time the rules are disobeyed, black cats appear to punish the rule breakers. The black cat with a single white paw is the literal manifestation of the “spirit” of Camp Napowan. “If we take care of Camp Napowan and conserve the land, the gypsy spirits will guide and protect us,” the narrator says. “But if we disturb their rest, they will disturb us back.”

One of the interesting aspects of the tale is the use of gypsies, specifically a tribe of Hungarian gypsies, rather than American Indians. American Indians have long been a part of central Wisconsin history and lore, and there are many American Indian tribes in Wisconsin to this day. Yet the storytellers chose to use gypsies, also known as Roma or Romani, as the antagonists. According to the Gypsy Lore Society, Hungarian-Slovak gypsies are “Mainly sedentary Gypsies found primarily in the industrial cities of northern U.S. Number in few thousands. Noted for playing ‘Gypsy music’ in cafes, night clubs and restaurants.”

These Roma never told fortunes, traveled in caravans, or performed in a circus as the storytellers explicitly described. These historical inconsistencies reflect widespread misconceptions about gypsy life that crept into the Boot Hill legend.

With such a richly detailed story, told to generations of Boy Scouts from all over the Midwest, I am surprised no one has written about this legend before. Unfortunately, the recording I have access to is dated to the mid 1990s, and I have been out of the Boy Scouts for a long time. If any of our readers attended Camp Napowan and heard the legend since then, please leave a comment or email me. It would have interesting to know about any additions or changes to the story.

5 replies on “Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse: An Analysis”

Scott Placke was the main story teller, and it’s probably his voice on the recording that was produced. I was in Troop 228 out of Morton Grove from ‘96-‘03 and staffed ca. ‘00


I was a scout with troop 237 out of Lake Zuruch Illinois, and has since moved to a legion post with a different number. I spent several years worth of summers at Napowan and even work at the trading post and Sherwood Forest as a merit badge counselor. My dad and I did a lot of work for Ranger Marve including reloading all the shotgun shells for several years. There was a guy that worked at the nature center who told the story of Boit Hill, and I was there when he told his last Story. He also had it recorded and I would love to get a copy. Great times, great place. I would go back to that in an instant if given the chance.


I know this is an older post but I went there I think in 2008 and 2011. The story was told but had something to do with the stairs as well that lead down from boot hill. We were warned not to disrespect the rock, or the cat will appear and you may fall down the stairs or something. One night a two friends of mine were returning from a late night fishing trip via that path. One stopped to purposefully pee on the rock and the other spit on it. As we headed toward the stairs me and one other heard a noise and turned to see a black cat. We ran down thew stairs and back to camp. The other friend said he neither heard nor saw the cat. The one who saw and I debated however that we had not seen a white paw.

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You pretty much nailed it. I last heard the story when I was at camp around 2013ish. The only real change was anincident where a kid peed on the rock, and got ‘groin rot’.
As for a personal anecdote, I kicked the rock my first year at camp, not believing the stories. The next day I got a 2nd degree sun burn covering my entire back. It was really painful and hard to do anything. After about a week, the skin of my back came off in a large sheet and new skin started to heal. I have had two biopsies related to this incident, each revealing pre-cancerous tissue, though I was only 14 or so at the time. I am very much not a superstitious or even religious man, but that hill has always creeped me out, and has been the only place to ever do so.


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