Marie-Josephte Corriveau, A Canadian Lafarge
That we have had in Canada very great rascals, some of imported stock, others of home growth, few who will take the trouble to scan this department of our history will be disposed to deny. Colonial crime has not yet, however, stalked forth in those fantastical forms, nor has it attained that luxurance of development, which it occasionally assumes in the old world. Several types are still unrepresented. The religious scoundrel, notwithstanding several fair attempts, has never yet been becomingly typified in Canada, nor has the philosophical executioner : whereas, old England, in one of her knights, in the sanctimonious, sleek, white gloved Sir Dean Paul, presents to our gaze the life portrait of a full fledged villain, one whose pious donations were exceeded by his frauds only, and civilized France, in her world renowned Robespierre, discoursing with the eloquence of Plato on the immortality of the soul, during those short intervals not taken up in signing death warrants, furnishes a finished picture of a monster of whose very existence we would fain doubt. The colonial historian, whose duty hereafter it may be to inscribe conspicuously on the role of infamy the names of such characters, must be content to do like those sensible Grand Trunk shareholders, who still expect eleven per cent. dividends: he must wait until they come. I hope he may have to wait as long.
Murders, more or less cold-blooded ; robberies of every hue, our assize testify to. Bubbles, like the "South Sea Bubble" of yore, entailing ruin on myriads of victims, we also have had. An occasional case of poisoning amongst the peasantry, has now and again startled provincial ears, but a Brinvilliers we never yet had, such at least as history depicts the guilty friend of Sainte Croix. This fiend incarnate was beheaded after poisoning her two brothers, her father and her sister; her husband escaped by good luck more than good management. Madame De Sévigné quaintly tells us how: "Comme elle voulait épouser Sainte Croix, elle empoisonnait fort souvent son mari ; mais Sainte Croix qui ne voulait, point d'une femme aussi méchante qu'elle, donnait du contre-poison à ce pauvre mari, de sorte qu'ayant été ballotté cinq ou six fois de cette sorte, tantôt empoisonné, tantôt désempoisonné, il est demeuré en vie." Sainte Croix managed to save the life of the marquis each time in order himself to escape marriage with such a monster as the marchionness was.
I intend now to rescue from the oblivion of the past, a hideous figure, a being whose supposed fate stamped on the early times of British rule in Canada, a brand of ferocity which they scarcely deserve. An authentic document, discovered within a few years, throws a very desirable light on a question much debated at one time, — I allude to the mode of execution adopted by one of General Murray's court-martials in 1763, with respect to Marie Josephte Corriveau. These court-martials were quite odious enough to the people without it being necessary to impute to them acts of which they were not guilty.
There are few in Quebec who do not recollect having heard of, or seen, in 1850, when it was exhibited in this city, a rusty iron cage, very antique in appearance. It somewhat resembled in shape a human form, having hollow iron arms, extended at right angles with the body, with legs attached to it, and a sperical iron structure, to receive the head. This cage came in the possession of the man who exhibited it after having been clandestinely abstracted from the Pointe Levy grave yard. The exhibitor realised a handsome amount, previous to disposing of his relic to the prince of modern humbugs, in whose museum the "Point Levy relic", as it was styled, remained on view for a long time, where, next to the woolly horse, the Aztecs, and other modern wonders, it attracted considerable attention. Nothing was visible in the rusty old coop but a piece of blanched bone. A mysterious tale of crime, however, invested this frail remnant of mortality, with vivid interest. Tradition has supplied several accessories to a fact, which recent historical researches have placed beyond the region of doubt. Until lately this cage was supposed to have been the instrument of torture and last abode before death, of a Canadian Lafarge, who had murdered her two husbands in an extraordinary way; in one instance adopting a process calculated to leave behind, no traces of violence.
Shortly after the cession of Canada to England, namely, in 1763 — an awful murder occurred in the parish of St. Vallier, district of Montmagny ; although a hundred years have rolled by, the memory of the deed, disfigured by local and fantastical legends, is still vividly impressed on the minds of the peasantry.
In November, 1749, Marie Josephte Corriveau, (an ominous name by the by) was wedded to a farmer of St. Vallier. Eleven years after, on the 27th April, 1760, the man died. A vague rumor gradually became current that this woman had murdered her husband by pouring molten lead in his ear, when he was asleep. No action, however, seems to have been taken by the authorities, and three months after the death of her first husband, on the 20th July, 1760, she married Louis Dodier, another farmer of St. Vallier. It is said that after living with her second husband three years, Marie Josephte Corriveau seized on the opportunity, when he was sound asleep, to slip a noose round his neck ; she then quietly passed the end of the rope through a pine knot-hole in the framework of her rude dwelling, and leisurely retiring outside, tried her best to produce strangulation on her liege lord. The agonizing man struggled hard, calling loudly for help, when the inhuman monster, having made fast the end of the rope outside the house, rushed in to feast her eyes on the inanimate form of the man whom, shortly before, she had sworn "to love, respect and obey", but instead of confronting a hideous corpse, with protruding eyes and stiffened limbs, her astonished gaze rested on the figure of a man quietly seated on a chair, close to her bed. It was her husband, who, having caught a glimpse of the rope under his bed, had suspected treachery : he had therefore feigned sleep, and even allowed the heartless wife to place the halter round his neck; when waiting, until she had passed one end of it through a flaw in the house gable, and retired outside, he inserted his pillow where his neck had been, gently shaking it occasionally, and uttering now and then a stifled groan. Madame Corriveau must have been wonderfully clever to have succeeded in obtaining forgiveness from her husband, after such henious conduct, or else the intended victim must have been next thing to an idiot to spare her; she, however, soon decided in ridding herself of a man whose revelations might bring her to the gallows, and shortly after, took occasion of his being in a sound sleep to batter in his brains with a pitch-fork; after which feat, she dragged the body to the stable, placed it behind a horse, to induce the belief that her husband had died from the effects of a kick from the animal. The treacherous wife was charged with the murder, jointly with her father and with a woman named Sylvain. The law was in those days administered by military tribunals — court-martials. It was established at the trial that the horse was a quiet animal, and proved that the wounds could never have been inflicted by a horse's kick : she was convicted. One fact yet remains unexplained, and that is, the extraordinary influence which the murdress exercised on her father, Joseph Corriveau, and which was such as to induce him to allow himself to be tried for a crime of which it does not appear he was guilty. The facts of the case are summarily related in a document recently discovered at Murray Bay, amongst the papers of the Nairn family. This document, no doubt, found its way at Murray Bay through some of the officers who sat on the court-martial, and who belonged to Fraser's Highlanders, who settled in numbers at Murray Bay, in 1782, and were the immediate progenitors of genuine Jean Baptistes — such as the Warrens, the McLeans, the Harveys, the Blackburns, and several other families, who of their Scotch ancestry have retained nothing save the name. They are all Roman Catholics, and speak nothing but French.
The document in question runs thus:
- QUEBEC, 10th April, 1763
The court-martial, whereof Lieutenant-Colonel Morris was president, having tried Joseph Corriveau and Marie Josephete Corriveau, Canadians, for the murder of Louis Dodier, as also Isabelle Sylvain, a Canadian, for perjury on the same trial, the governor doth ratify and confirm the following sentence : — That Joseph Corriveau having been found guilty of the charge brought against him, he is therefore adjudged to be hung for the same.
The court is likewise of opinion that Marie Josephte Corriveau, his daughter, and widow of the late Dodier, is guilty of knowing the said murder, and doth therefore adjudge her to receive sixty lashes, with a cat-o'-nine tails on her bare back, at three different places, viz.: under the gallows, upon the market-place at Quebec, and in the parish of St. Vallier, twenty lashes at each place, and to be branded in the left hand with the letter M.
The court doth also adjudge Isabelle Sylvain to receive sixty lashes with a cat-o'-nine tails on her bare back, in the same manner and at the same time and place as Marie Josephte Corriveau, and to be branded in the left hand with the letter P.
The Court-martial, whereof Lieutenant-Colonel was president, is dissolved.
The general court-martial having tried Marie Josephte Corriveau, for the murder of her husband, Dodier, the court finding her guilty, the Governor (Murray) doth ratify and confirm the following sentence : — That Marie Josephte Corriveau do suffer death for the same, and her body be hung in chains wherever the governor shall think fit.
- (Signed) THOMAS MILLS,
- Town Major
- (Signed) THOMAS MILLS,
Until the discovery of the proceedings of the court-martial which tried the Corriveaus, popular superstition, ever prone to distort and magnify distant and mysterious events, had awarded to Marie Josephte Corriveau's crimes a punishment of which a parallel exists in that inflicted by Louis XI on a cardinal and bishop named Balue, who having been detected in a treasonable intrigue, was confined for many years in an iron cage, which, till lately, was shown in the castle of Loches, France. — (See Hallam's Middle Ages, page 516 — the note.) — and fully as horrible as the Massachusetts law courts had inflicted on Margaret Jones, and on Mrs. Ann Hibbens, the lady of a respectable Boston citizen who were both put to death as witches, the first in 1645, the second in 1656.
It is bad enough to have to admit that the red hand of slavery has branded the early times of Canada with its plague spot, without having to acknowledge that the tribunals of the country inflicted on a miserable woman, however guilty, a punishment which would place her judges mostly on a level with Iroquois savages. And it was generally thought until recently that Marie Josephte Corriveau, instead of being hanged, as it appears she was, on the "buttes à Nepveu" near Abraham's hill, had been starved to death in an iron cage, fastened to a gibbet erected close by the Temperance Monument at St. Joseph, Point Levy, where four roads intersect one another ; that in this iron cage the victim was thrust, and that from the narrowness of this receptacle, she had to stand erect in it; that this instrument of torture hung by chains to the gallows ; that the groans of the famishing prisoner were heart-rending, but that each successive day, they became less audible, until nothing was heard but the creaking of the chains to the night wind. There is enough of the horrible about her fate, without admitting, contrary to the text of the sentence rendered by the court-martial, that this fiendish woman was placed in an iron cage to starve to death ; and still, if her execution and the hanging up after death of the body were merely intended to strike terror, why place it inside an iron cage, well rivitted together ?  Certain it appears that the iron cage hung for several months high in the air close to the spot where the Temperance Monument now stands. Whether it once contained a living being, or merely a lifeless corpse, none perhaps will ever ascertain. The awful noises caused by the creaking of the cage gave rise amongst the uneducated peasantry to innumerable tales and ghost stories; at last, the terror became so universal that some intrepid young men, after consulting, doubtless, with the curé of the parish, as to where the loathsome object should be stowed away, determined to rid the place of the nuisance. One dark winter night, the posts were cut down, and next morning no vestige of La Corriveau could be seen ; nor any vestige of her was seen until eighty-seven years after, when the grave-digger of the parish, in making a grave, struck on the rusty cage containing a thigh bone only, and which, after puzzling the brains of all the antiquarians of Quebec, was at last identified. The presence of the corpse of a "gallows bird" in consecrated ground was explained by the fact that in 1830, after the burning of the church, the cemetery had been enlarged by taking in an extensive piece of adjoining land. It is this popular tradition which our old friend, M. De Gaspé, has introduced with happy effect in his late work Les Anciens Canadiens.
- Any one turning up Alison's History of Europe, will read with astonishment some of Robespierre's discourses ; you notice the most lofty, the most enabling sentiments uttered by a man whose instincts were those of the hyena.
- Major John Nairn and Capt. Fraser of this corps were the ancestors of the late John Nairn, Esq., seigneur of Murray Bay, and of the late Hon. Malcolm Fraser, also seigneur of another portion of Murray Bay. They stood in high favor with General James Murray who presented each with a seigneury.
- Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts Bay.
- The Quebec Gazette of 1764 contains an advertisement offering, on behalf of Mrs. Perault, an old resident, a slave for sale. There are also extant several royal declarations regulating the condition of slaves in the colony, bearing date respectively the years 1721, 1742 and 1745. — (See Sir H. Lafontaine's notes).
- It was the custom for a long time in England to allow great criminals to hang in chains, after death, in public roads and public places.