The day was April 10th 1734 and Montreal was on fire. Undoubtedly back then, Montreal was a very different place than it is today; it was a trade and military town of about 2000 people. Canada would still have 100 years before she became a nation and it was a time when Montreal’s social class mirrored that of its indigenous home France. Slavery was very much a part of everyday society and many citizens had slaves of African and Amerindian descent. No one on that day could have possibly foreseen what was to come and the replications it would have for centuries to come.
It was an unusually mild Saturday evening and the people who had attended evening prayer were beginning to make their way home. Among them was Thérèse de Couagne, widow of François Poulin de Francheville and the owner of Angélique a slave of African American decent who was born in Portugal and later sold into New France. “At seven the sentry sounded the alarm ‘fire!’”, that evening a devastating fire occurred in Montréal that destroyed a hospital and 45 houses on rue Saint-Paul. Someone was to blame for this catastrophe and it was Angelique.
After being tried and convicted of setting fire to her owner’s home, burning much of what is now referred to as Old Montreal, she was hanged. In order to get a stronger understanding of crime and punishment in New-France, one must examine the trial in a much more in depth context.
The justice system in 1700 Montreal followed the same rules as its mother country France. In terms of today’s society, the government was far less democratic. The accused had few rights and the evidence was often faulty or based on word of mouth; torture and severe punishments were often used. In 1734, the various stages of trial, duties of the courts, witnesses, and rights of the accused were regulated by the “Ordonnance du Roi (1670).”
Often the accused had no access to lawyers as they were forbidden in New-France: ARTICLE VIII. The accused, whatever their status may be, will be required to respond in their own words, without the advice of counsel, which will not be given to them, not even following the confrontation, notwithstanding all contrary methods that we abrogate. (1)
Also, trials were often held without a jury (2) thus the accused stood alone in front of a judge in order to prove his or her innocence. Undoubtedly, the French law formed a very tight and respected system. The prosecution witnesses were often intimidated by court staff; witnesses for the accused were rarely presented, and “the future of the accused depended on his or her testimony (3). In many instances, little or no facts were required to be prosecuted.
In the case of Angélique, the day after the fire a rumour circulated which accused her and her lover Claude Thibault of setting the fire that destroyed a majority of Montreal (4). The king’s prosecutor relied on this rumour to have the two suspects arrested. At the time, French law allowed a suspect to be arrested based on “public knowledge (5),” when the community agreed that a suspect was guilty (6): “The King’s Prosecutor Advises You that according to Public Report, the Fire that occurred in this city on the day of yesterday at around seven in the evening was caused by the Negress, Slave of the widow of Sieur francheville…
This considered, Monsieur, may it please you to allow the said King’s Prosecutor to have this investigated, and meanwhile to have arrested and taken to the Royal gaol of this city the said Negress.” (7)
In the event of a death sentence, the prosecutor was “required under the ‘Ordonnance criminelle’ of 1670,” to appeal the sentence in the name of the accused (8). New-France considered the following as crimes: crimes against religion, crimes against morality, crimes against peace, and crimes against public safety (2). Each type of crime had its own form of punishment. The title of Religious crime was only considered if some form of sacrilege took place as well as if there was a direct attack against the church.
A crime against morality would also reflect the nature of the crime; although, the idea of a morally just 1734 citizen varies greatly from a morally just person today. Many were deprived of social pleasures that society “attached to moral purity, [if one did not exercise a life of “moral purity”] he or she could be: fined, shamed, sentenced to a life in hiding, or banished from the city and from society” (2). A crime against peace would also often reflect the requirement of retribution. This was done through prison sentences, exile, correctional measures etc.
The correctional measures were used to rehabilitate or return the criminal to a “normal state”. Lastly, crimes against public safety were most well known as “eye-for-an-eye” retribution. The punishments handed down for such crimes would reflect the nature of the crime and was based on reason as well as on the notion of right and wrong. Crimes against theft were met by a loss of property; however, because those who stole had few riches, capital punishment (death) was used as a means to replace financial retribution. If one murdered another, the penalty was almost always death (usually by hanging).
Criminal trials were often a means for retribution for a crime against society (9). When evidence was lacking, the prosecution would ask permission to apply torture prior to a proper judgment. Many examples of harsh punishments (ie: torture) exist:
Jean Baptiste Thomas negro and Francois Darles were condemned to be hanged, Charlotte Martin Ondoyé and Marie Vennes were beaten and castigated with the rod, and Charlotte D’arragon was admonished, Thomas negro having been found guilty of Domestic thievery, Francois Darles of having concealed the items, Charlotte Martin Ondoyé, and Marie Vennes guilty of possessing some stolen items of little consequence. This sentence was executed on the 23 of August in Montréal where the crime was committed. (10)
Moreover, the most common form of punishment was “The Boot.”(2) It consisted of four planks of wound tied to the legs of the accused. Two of those planks were placed between the criminal’s legs, and the other two on the outside of the legs. All were bound with rope. A wedge was then pounded between the planks on the inside, causing the plank to spread and the rope to tighten. The pressure of the wedge would often break the accused legs (sometimes just merely dislocating them).
This practice was used as a method of extracting the truth and was excruciatingly painful (10). Torture in New-France was widely used, especially when the accused would not reveal their accomplices (if any) or admit to their guilt (2). In Angélique’s case, upon appeal, “[she was] sentenced to death, but the manner in which it was to be carried out was softened: she would not have her hand severed and she would be hanged before being burned.”
(7) More importantly, she was subjected to torture by the ‘boot'(4) but she never revealed any accomplice, stating that only she had started the fire.(10) Subsequent to her admission, she was executed.
In the end, crime in 1734 was not seen lightly and often carried severe punishments. Perhaps fear of such severe punishment, of being arrested based on rumours and faulty evidence was supposed to act as a deterrent. Although evidence of Angelique’s trial such as court documents does exist, the lack of concrete proof of guilt obscures the events and subsequent truth of that night.
She was sentenced to prosecution based solely off of rumours and word of mouth, and whether she had a past of destructive and rebellious nature or not, that in no way under a court of law in today’s standards leads one to believe she is or ever was guilty. This, however, has not prohibited her story from becoming almost legend. Many authors and figures in our society today, 200 years later utilize her story as leverage.
Angelique is seen as an African American slave activist who stood up against her superiors and common law for the better of humanity. She is also viewed as the perfect example of why the old dark ways of our justice system is faulty and raises questions about the power of government and the danger of whether or not that power can condemn an innocent woman for 200 years without question.
Conclusively, because the prosecution at her trial did not meet the burden proof (by today’s standards), it is impossible to know if she truly was guilty. One way or another her trial and story will continue to echo in Canadian history.
1. Louis XIV, “Procedure relative to the interrogation of the accused, in l’Ordonnance … pour les matières criminelles” (Chez les Associés, 1670). 2. http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/contexte/lajustice/indexen.html 3. Criminal procedures:
Secondat Baron de La Brède et de Montesqieu, Charles-Louis de, “Reflections on criminal procedures in England and in France, in De l’esprit des loix ” (Amsterdam et Leipsick: Nouvelle édition, revue, corrigée et considérablement augmentée par l’auteur […], Chez Arkstée et Merkus, n.d.), T. 3, L. 29 p. 308-9. 4. http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/proces/indexen.html 5. Criminal procedure against the accused:
Archives nationales du Québec, Centre de Montréal, Procedure Criminel contre Marie Joseph Angélique negresse — Incendiere, 1734, TL4 S1, 4136, Juridiction royale de Montréal, Deposition of Étienne Volant Radisson, April 14, 1734, 1-4.) 6. Archives nationales du Québec, Centre de Montréal, Procedure Criminel contre Marie Joseph Angélique negresse — Incendiere, 1734, TL4 S1, 4136, Juridiction royale de Montréal, Request by the King’s prosecutor for the arrest of Angélique and of Claude Thibault, April 11, 1734, 1. 7. http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/proces/jugementetappel/indexen.html
8. Criminal trial: Diderot, Denis et Jean le Rond d’Alembert, “The criminal trial, in l’Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers ” (Paris: Briasson et autres, n.d.), tome XIII, page 405.
9. Examples of punishment:
France. Archives nationales, Fonds des Colonies. Série C11A. Correspondance générale, Canada, vol 64, fol. 12-15v, Hocquart, Gilles, Letter to the Ministre de la Marine, October 1, 1735,
10. Admission of guilt
Germain, Jean-Claude, “The Life and Times of Montréal” (Montréal: Stanké, 1994), tome I, pages 284-28. 4 . Relying on the “Ordonnance criminelle” of 1670, the king’s prosecutor had an arrest warrant issued against Angélique based solely on this public rumour.” (http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/proces/indexen.html)