On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.
Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.
The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.
Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.
They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.
Ten thousand people attended his hanging.
Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”
But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.
David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)
The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.
Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*
The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.
I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:
Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!
And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.
This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.
The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.
“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.
The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.
I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**
Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.
It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.
The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.
* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.
** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)
The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.
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.
Or a stylish graphic novel-style cartoon.
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: