According to this registry of events in French Quebec before the English conquest, one Charles Alexis dit Dessessards was ordered broken on the wheel by Quebec’s high executioner on this date in 1673.
He had been convicted of murdering a fur-trapping buddy named Herme, and plundering his pelts.
In the terrifying words of the sentence, he was at 3 p.m. to have “arms and legs broken with four blows, then be strangled and thrown on a wheel to remain there until seven o’clock in the evening. His body will then be brought to the gallows, there to remain until entirely consumed” by the elements. On top of everything, he had a 200-livre fine to pay.
There was just one bit of good news for the murderer Charles Alexis dit Dessessards:
“Until the said Charles Alexis is apprehended, the aforesaid sentence will be executed upon his effigy.”
Le 6. — “Charles Alexis dit Dessessards, convaincu d avoir tué de guet-à-pens le nommé Herme, son camarade de voyage, et d’avoir volé ses hardes et pelleteries, sera conduit sur la grande place de cette vile (Québec), par l;exécuteur de la haute justice, un lundi, à trois heures après-midi, et là, sur un échafaud qui y sera dressé à cet effet, y aura les bras et les jambes rompues de quatre coups qu’il recevra vif; sera ensuite étranglé et jeté sur une roue pour y demeurer jusqu’à sept heures du soir. Son corps sera porté sur les fourches patibulaires pour y demeurer jusqu’à parfaite consommation. Condamne en outre à deux cents livres d’amende envers le Roy, à la restitution des choses volées et le surplus de ses biens confisqué. Et en attendant que le dit Charles Alexis soit appréhendé, sera exécuté en effigie aux fourches patibulaires, un lundi, à l’heure que dessus.
On or about this date in 1608, explorer Samuel de Champlain judged guilty and had executed for plotting his own murder a Norman locksmith among his host of men establishing the Quebec settlement.
Though there were previous European forts on the site, Quebec City had been formally founded by Champlain just a month earlier, on July 3, and we here join the exposition of the public-domain Pioneers of France in the New World.
They were pioneers of an advancing host, — advancing, it is true, with feeble and uncertain progress, — priests, soldiers, peasants, feudal scutcheons, royal insignia: not the Middle Age, but engendered of it by the stronger life of modern centralization, sharply stamped with a parental likeness, heir to parental weakness and parental force.
In a few weeks a pile of wooden buildings rose on the brink of the St. Lawrence, on or near the site of the market-place of the Lower Town of Quebec. The pencil of Champlain, always regardless of proportion and perspective, has preserved its likeness. A strong wooden wall, surmounted by a gallery loopholed for musketry, enclosed three buildings, containing quarters for himself and his men, together with a courtyard, from one side of which rose a tall dove-cot, like a belfry. A moat surrounded the whole, and two or three small cannon were planted on salient platforms towards the river. There was a large storehouse near at hand, and a part of the adjacent ground was laid out as a garden.
In this garden Champlain was one morning directing his laborers, when Tetu, his pilot, approached him with an anxious countenance, and muttered a request to speak with him in private. Champlain assenting, they withdrew to the neighboring woods, when the pilot disburdened himself of his secret. One Antoine Natel, a locksmith, smitten by conscience or fear, had revealed to him a conspiracy to murder his commander and deliver Quebec into the hands of the Basques and Spaniards then at Tadoussac. Another locksmith, named Duval, was author of the plot, and, with the aid of three accomplices, had befooled or frightened nearly all the company into taking part in it. Each was assured that he should make his fortune, and all were mutually pledged to poniard the first betrayer of the secret. The critical point of their enterprise was the killing of Champlain. Some were for strangling him, some for raising a false alarm in the night and shooting him as he came out from his quarters.
Having heard the pilot’s story, Champlain, remaining in the woods, desired his informant to find Antoine Natel, and bring him to the spot. Natel soon appeared, trembling with excitement and fear, and a close examination left no doubt of the truth of his statement. A small vessel, built by [Francois] Pontgrave at Tadoussac, had lately arrived, and orders were now given that it should anchor close at hand. On board was a young man in whom confidence could be placed. Champlain sent him two bottles of wine, with a direction to tell the four ringleaders that they had been given him by his Basque friends at Tadoussac, and to invite them to share the good cheer. They came aboard in the evening, and were seized and secured. “Voyla donc mes galants bien estonnez,” writes Champlain.
It was ten o’clock, and most of the men on shore were asleep. They were wakened suddenly, and told of the discovery of the plot and the arrest of the ringleaders. Pardon was then promised them, and they were dismissed again to their beds, greatly relieved; for they had lived in trepidation, each fearing the other. Duval’s body, swinging from a gibbet, gave wholesome warning to those he had seduced; and his head was displayed on a pike, from the highest roof of the buildings, food for birds and a lesson in sedition. His three accomplices were carried by Pontgrave to France, where they made their atonement in the galleys.
[Editor's note: there's a good chance that everything that follows below is historical fiction; there's certainly no obvious corroboration or source for the diary entries "quoted", and even allowing for the inexactitude of translation there's a good deal of anachronistic-feeling text in it. We were sufficiently gulled to post it "straight" initially, however.]
That “young man in whom confidence could be placed” to lure in the conspirators with libations was one Jehan Leblanc, a 22-year-old sailor. Leblanc’s own journal records the episode matter-of-factly — but although he “managed this task with great pleasure,” he nursed some pretty serious misgivings about the way the punishment went down.
Hanging judge: Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa. Creative Commons image from dugspr.
August 2nd 1608 –
This trial got underway quickly with deputations all read and affirmed. The authors of these confessions were all properly cross examined and the conspirators provided no defense. They just admitted their parts and begged the mercy of the court. They clearly implicated Jean Duval as the leader and said that he had started this plotting as soon as the ships left France. Duval admitted to founding this conspiracy and drew in the Basques as the beneficiaries and him as the benefactor, but it was clear that the chief motivation was greed* and only sparked by his contempt for the King. He also begged the mercy of the court and insisted that he held no malice for Champlain himself.
The court consisted of Champlain, Pont Grave, one of the ships surgeons, ships master, the first mate and other seaman.
It was decided that the death of Duval would be sufficient at this time to appease the crime and show to the men that mutiny would not be tolerated. The remaining three convicted conspirators to be sent du Monts in France for his discretion as to their fate. Hanging was the recommendation of this court.
This trial took place in the morning and the execution in the afternoon in clear view of all the men. No time was allowed for second thought by the court or contemptuous feels that might breed rebellion amongst the men.
The witnessing of this despicable event is a sight like one other that I shall never forget. I had braced myself for the hanging for I was supportive of the need for this mans death. What followed however caught me and some others off our guard for none of us had ever witnessed a public execution and I for one not thought of the details.
I do not know who pulled the lever on this quickly assembled gallows as he was hooded and not named. Pont Grave gave the order after Champlain said a prayer and some other words I do not remember. Duval fell threw the well of this structure and twitched for only a moment. The assigned sailors cut down the body and the surgeon pronounced him dead.
I wish I could say that this where it ended but this was far from the case. The surgeon had the still warm body laid out face down on some planks. The man with the hood or perhaps another one took a broad axe we used for making the good wood and without further word swung this instrument that I will never look the same again with one blow put it through Duval’s neck with a snap that echoes in mind to this day.
I stood stunned not knowing which way to look. I hung my head and closed my eyes in disgust. I heard a commotion about me and heard a sailor yell “watch out” and if by fate or some other act of ill will that head had rolled to my feet. This was not “deja vu” for I had been here before but met this scene with stoic composure. I was once again starring into the eyes of the dead. This was not the head of some friend’s enemy nor that of an unknown soldier. This was the face of someone I knew, someone I had eaten and shared drink with. This was not a native or a savage. This was a Frenchman killed and mutilated by Frenchmen of which I was one.
Champlain himself came over and picked up this head and I am told he personally put it on a pike. I did not witness this act as I had removed myself to the forest where I spent the night.
August 3rd 1608 –
Again it is Sunday and upon return to camp from my retreat in the woods I could hear an awful silence. I could see from the corner of my eye the hideous head upon the pike raised high above the now almost completed wall. It faced the river as if wording off evil spirits with its long hair blowing in the breeze and a crow perched on the brow plucking away at his eyes.
I moved quickly past this place to my abode. Therein I found [Etienne] Brule sitting silent and looking depressed. He too had seen our new flag that sat next to the Fleur de Lis. Proud Frenchmen we were not on this day. I reminded him that it was Sunday and that I would go with him somewhere to pray but I had forgotten to whom I was talking and he just walked away.
I next heard the little brass kettle that Champlain used to call the men to Mass. It rang quite hollow this morning and actually made my blood boil. How could one purporting to be Christian have participated in such an act?
I decided to confront this hypocrisy and see Champlain face to face but first I went to the pike on the wall and made an offering to the head.
I found Champlain at the chaplet with Pont Grave, the surgeon and others and mellowed my tone for a moment trying to get a read on the mood. It was somber all right but not sorrowful as I thought it should be. I sat and bowed my head as if in prayer so that I could hear what they were saying. They were not in prayer however they were attempting to justify their act. They said how this would be a deterrent to the Basque and savages alike. That the head showed that they meant business and would not tolerate any interference from any malcontent or pirate intent on stopping the civilizing and settlement of this barbaric land by the good French.
I could not hold back any longer and blurted out without second thought “how can you pious barbaric bastards pretend to show leadership here”. I caught myself from going further as these men were not in the mood to listen and I did not wish my head greeting all visitors that came to this place. I stomped out in anger and returned to my place in the woods.
August 4th 1608 –
I didn’t come to the camp this day. I just remained in the woods.
On August 5th, Champlain talks to him personally and they come round to sufficient accord to carry the narrative away from Jean Duval and his grisly severed head.
* “Hard work and poor fare,” as quoted in this public-domain book about Quebec’s history, which otherwise has little information about this affair.
On this date in 1734, a Portuguese-born slave known as Marie-Joseph Angélique was publicly hanged before the burned ruins of old Montreal on an accusation of having set the blaze.
Having recently been caught attempting to abscond with her lover, a white servant named Claude Thibault, Angelique was the instant consensus community suspect when Montreal caught fire on April 10. Forty-six buildings in the still-small frontier town burned; Angelique was arrested the very next morning.
(Thibault fled town, his fate unknown but presumptively no worse than what befell his paramour.)
calls for the said Marie Joseph Angelique in reparation for the Fire caused by Her and other issues brought forward at the trial, to be condemned to make honourable amends Disrobed, a Rope around her Neck, holding in her hands a flaming torch weighing two Pounds before the door and main entrance of the parish Church of the said City of Montreal, where She will be led by the Executor of the high Court And there on her knees state and declare in a loud and intelligible voice that she maliciously and defiantly and wrongly set the Said fire for which She is repentant, [and] ask Forgiveness from God, the King and the Court; this done she is to be taken to the public square of the said City of Montreal to be Hanged until dead at the gallows erected for this Purpose at the said square, and then her dead Body is to be placed on a flaming pyre and burned and her Ashes Cast to the wind, her belongings taken and confiscated by the King; prior to this the said Marie Joseph Angelique is to be subjected to torture in the ordinary and extraordinary ways in order to have her reveal her accomplices …
Although the torture broke Angelique’s now-useless denial of her own guilt, she maintained her defense of Claude Thibault, insisting that she acted alone. It’s up for debate whether she did, in fact, act alone, or act at all — and if Angelique was guilty, what meaning or intent one can ascribe to her action.
There’s a fascinating exploration of this case, including the available primary documents, available in English or French.
On this date in 1763, a young woman shuffled off this mortal coil and into Quebecois folklore.
She’d made the mistake of outliving two husbands, and was convicted (with her father) of having been the instrument of their demise. Gibbeted after her death — a punishment not used in France, but Quebec had been captured by the English in the French and Indian War — her corpse became a figure of ghost stories and popular superstition, haunting passersby and playing poltergeist.
But why take it from me? Here’s the unhappy fate of Madame Corriveau, in puppet theater. (There’s also a compressed 12-minute version available.)
Devotees of the written word can get their fill in two 19th century texts available free from Google Books: a passage in Maple Leaves, and a historical novel in which she figures as a character, The Golden Dog. Her French Wikipedia page is here.
This day’s hangings were the result. And while Britain would keep Canada unified, it would never seamlessly absorb her French subjects. So the men who mounted the gallows this day, and others who fought the British, are commemorated on Quebec’s National Patriotes Day, intentionally scheduled to oppose the national — and distinctly English-flavored — Victoria Day in May.
Accounts — which also recorded that one of the hanged men was able to free a hand and resist the rope with it, and to get his feet to a supporting beam from which he had to be pushed — recalled Charles Hindelang‘s final words thus:
I declare that I die with the conviction of having fulfilled my obligations with dignity. The sentence that struck me is unjust; I forgive those who bore it.
The cause for which I sacrifice myself is noble and great. I am proud of it. I don’t fear death. The blood that is spilled will be washed away with blood. Let the responsibility fall on those who deserve it.
Canadians, my final farewell is the old French cry: