1734: Marie-Joseph Angélique, for burning Montreal

1 comment June 21st, 2010 Headsman

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.)

Nobody died in the fire, but conflagrations were deadly serious back in the bucket brigade era.

The sentence

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 …

And so she was.

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.

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1935: Thomasina Sarao, miscalculated

3 comments March 29th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly after midnight this date* in 1935, the career of 71-year-old Canadian executioner Arthur Ellis came to an end with the botched hanging of Thomasina Sarao.

All a simple matter of physics.

When the old-school “drop ‘em from a cart” method of strangulation hanging gave way to the “new drop”, the hangman’s art eventually came to encompass the scientific application of the humane level of force to the doomed person’s vertebrae.

Something in the neighborhood of 1,000 ft/lbs was about right. Too little, and the poor wretch strangles to death. Too much, and you rip the head right off.

Thomasina Sarao got too much, and it ripped her head right off.

They’d worked everything out to a handy table, see, where if you weighed this much, they knew to drop you this far, derived from the formula

1020/weight in pounds (less 14 lbs for the head) = drop in feet

Except in the widow Mrs. Sarao’s case — the Italian immigrant had offed her husband to collect the insurance** — Arthur Ellis was given the wrong weight for his client. He coiled a noose for a woman 32 pounds lighter than the person who actually mounted the scaffold, and he therefore made it more than a foot too long.

That whole “ripping off a woman’s head” thing really harshed everyone’s vibe. So, although hangings had long been moved behind prison walls, the Canadian government stopped the ongoing practice of allowing members of the general public to obtain tickets to witness them.

“Arthur Ellis” — it was actually a trade name he’d made up, and so dignified that one of his successors used the same alias — died three years after his grisly retirement party. He’s saluted by the Arthur Ellis Awards, the Crime Writers of Canada’s annual awards: a little trophy of a guy getting hanged.

[Ellis Trophy][Ellis Trophy]
Winners of the Arthur Ellis Award, like Robert J. Sawyer, get this trinket to commemorate. At least the little wooden fetish has his head attached to his shoulders. (Images (c) Robert J. Sawyer, and used with permission.)

* March 28 is sometimes reported, but the period press reports (like this wire story) seem to agree on the 29th, as does this index of Canadian executions.

** Two male co-conspirators, Leone Gagliardi and Angelo Donofrio, were also hanged for the same crime, a few minutes before Sarao on a different scaffold.

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1953: Marguerite Pitre, the last woman hanged in Canada

3 comments January 9th, 2010 Headsman

Thirty-five minutes past midnight this date in 1953, the 13th and last woman executed in Canada, Marguerite Pitre, was hanged in Montreal’s Bourdeaux gaol.

Pitre was condemned an accomplice to Albert Guay in the latter’s 1949 airline bombing, which killed 23 people just to get rid of Mrs. Guay.

The “dark and buxom go-between in Guay’s affair”* with a teenage waitress had rented Guay a room to install the nymphet when the girl’s father got wise to the frolicking and kicked her out of the house.

Pitre actually testified against Albert Guay in his trial, describing how she bought dynamite at his instruction and delivered a “mystery parcel” to the air freight on the doomed plane.

In fact, she helped blow open the case at the outset by attempting suicide 10 days after the crime and blabbing in the hospital how Albert had made her do it. Pitre insisted, though, that her own involvement was unintentional, and that she thought the box held a statue even though it was her own brother who had fashioned the explosives into a time bomb.

But after Guay’s conviction, both Pitre and her brother were arrested and separately tried for the plot themselves — both of them to follow Guay to the gallows for the audacious crime.

* Chicago Tribune, Jan. 9, 1953.

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1956: Wilbert Coffin

4 comments February 10th, 2009 Headsman

Just after midnight this day in 1956, Wilbert Coffin hanged for murdering three American tourists — a case that has since entered Canadian annals as a paradigmatic wrongful execution.

The aptly-named Coffin affair saw the prospector sent up on an entirely circumstantial case.

Under the pressure of losing tourist dollars to breathless coverage in the U.S., and with the aid of a desultory defense attorney, the Coffin case was rushed along to completion. Though sympathy in Gaspe seems to have been considerable, its elevation to cause celebre was likewise bound up in Quebec politics, pushed by foes of powerful, unscrupulous premier Maurice Duplessis.

Gadfly journalist Jacques Hebert (not the guillotined French Revolution demagogue of the same name, of course) published three books on the case (the 1963 volume immoderately titled J’accuse les assassins de Coffin landed him in jail)

While the death penalty vanished from Canada, the Coffin case has never fully faded as a public controversy. And it’s had something of a revival around the hanging’s recent 50th anniversary, with the government flirting with a posthumous pardon.

There’s even a prime alternate suspect, now dead, whose family has allegedly implicated him.

The Gaspe guitarist who appears in the above piece, Dale Boyle, makes his Wilbert Coffin song (and details about the case) available on his web site.

Lew Stoddard’s blog covers the Coffin case in exacting detail from the standpoint of a strong advocate of the hanged man’s innocence. The Coffin family itself also maintains wilbertcoffin.com, naturally dedicated to clearing Wilbert’s name.

Still, even should officialdom ultimately side with the apparent judgment in the court of public opinion, a wrongful execution is a wound that can never be salved.

I’ve often wondered what went through my brother’s mind when they came and took him out of his cell to take that last walk to be hanged. You can’t imagine what it’s been like to live with this all these years. It’s like a black, black hole that never ends.

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1951: Albert Guay

2 comments January 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1951, Albert Guay was hanged in Canada for one of the earliest commercial airline attacks — bombing a Canadian Pacific Airline flight to murder his wife.

Stuck in a loveless marriage with little recourse to divorce, Guay‘s loins burned for a young mistress.

He engaged a watchmaker colleague, Généreux Ruest, to make a bomb, and the latter’s sister, Marguerite Ruest-Pitre, to air freight it on the doomed plane. Both would maintain their innocence of the plot, but after Guay’s own conviction, he implicated both — possibly in an attempt to delay his own hanging.

A time bomb in the luggage hold of this airplane took 23 lives on September 9, 1949, for which three people were executed — and inspired a copycat crime with 44 more deaths and one more execution.

Guay had intended the plane to explode over the St. Lawrence River, eliminating the forensic evidence, but a slight delay before takeoff laid the damning debris over the land. The flight’s entire complement of four crew and nineteen passengers — including three top executives of the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation — perished.

The crime had ample media attention both north and south of the Canada-U.S. border — flight still being something of a terrifying novelty for the general public. Guay’s purchase of life insurance for his wife on the day of the trip was not especially inculpatory, but a standard procedure for air travelers.

Guay’s last words caught the irony of his celebrity: “Au moins, je meurs célèbre” (“At least I die famous”).

A few years after this day’s events, an American attempted a similar crime, with similar results.

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