On this date in 1899, Cordelia Poirier was hanged in Ste. Scholastique, Quebec with her lover Samuel Parslow.*
Cordelia Viau by her maiden name, the femme fatale in this transaction found that in her marriage to one Isidore Poirier she was much the sturdier spirit.
“She was a masterful woman,” this old public-domain text on insurance crimes muses, “and Poirier seems to have been a man of very common mould. He was not great or strong enough to make his wife admire or respect him, yet was too obstinate to yield to her domination.”
Cordelia soon turned this gap in magnetism to good effect on Mr. Parslow, a local carpenter, to the considerable scandal of their village, Saint-Canut.
An intolerable domestic situation drove Isidore Poirier to the bottle, and Cordelia Poirier to the insurance underwriters — from whom she obtained two separate $1,000 policies on the life of her spouse. Much to the discredit of her agents (and, one must suspect, to the commission wage model), the wife’s blunt inquiries as to whether a death by assassination woud void the policies were met with simple affirmations rather than a summons to the constable.
Sure enough, Isidore Poirier suffered just such a death on November 21, 1897: after vespers (Cordelia was an organist at the church), she and Parslow barged in on the intoxicated Isidore at his home and Parslow slashed him to death with a butcher knife. The body was discovered the next day, and it wasn’t hard to put means to motive and clap the adulterers in gaol.
Having perhaps not thought this venture through, Samuel Parslow and Cordelia Poirier promptly began informing on one another in hopes of avoiding the rope. Their confessions would only cinch one another’s fates. By the time of trial, Parslow had to feebly accuse Mrs. Poirier of hypnotizing him.**
Her cynical domestic crime and vampish reputation earned her an extreme level of disapprobation: her behavior obviously inverted and betrayed the model of domestic virtue whose penumbra of sentimentality has often been counted on to save female murderers from the gallows. Cordelia Poirier was actively hated.
“The crowd inside the jail jeered [Cordelia Poirier],” it was reported — “but even then her nerve did not desert her, and at the suggestion of the executioner she turned and faced the Jeerers, and stood erect and prayed to the last.”
* Thanks to the wonders of database searches, research for this post also revealed a completely different legal drama off the same era related to a competely different Parslow. This story is from the Feb. 4, 1898 Minneapolis Journal.
** All reports do paint Cordelia Poirier as the stronger will in her adulterous relationship, as well as her marital one, and the instigator of the murder.
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.
Hanging judge: Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa. Creative Commons image from dugspr.
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.
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: