June 21, 1734: In the afternoon, Marie-Josèph Angélique, a slave, was taken one last time through the streets of Montreal and after the stop at the church for her amende honorable mounted a scaffold facing the ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire she was found guilty of setting and there was hanged, then strangled until dead, her body flung into the fire and the ashes scattered in the wind. #HERO
Marie-Josèphe dite Angélique the name given by her last owners to a Portuguese-born black slave in New France (later the province of Quebec in Canada). She was tried and convicted of setting fire to her owner’s home, burning much of what is now referred to as Old Montreal. Until recently, it was generally accepted that Angélique was guilty of the crime of which she was accused. However, it has recently been argued that she was, in fact, innocent of the crime and convicted more on the basis of her reputation as a rebellious runaway slave, than on the basis of factual evidence.
A competing theory is that she was guilty of the crime as an act of justified rebellion against slavery. No consensus has been reached by the modern historical community on Angélique’s guilt or innocence. Regardless of whether Angélique was innocent or guilty, her story provided more insight on the conditions of slavery in Canada. While her life may have indeed been difficult, the testimonies of her day-to-day activities during the trial reveal that she did have some autonomy. For instance, she was allowed to walk around the town on her own. She also interacted frequently with white servants, whose conditions seemed to be no better off than her own.
This “version” of slavery was very different from that of the Southern United States, as there was no simple dichotomy between black and white. Rather, there only seemed to be different states of “unfreedom” which included engagés, servants, apprentices, soldiers, and Panis (Native servants, usually Pawnees).
APRIL 10TH, 1734 FIRE:
At 7 pm on Saturday, April 10, 1734, inhabitants of Montreal were leaving evening prayer when the sentry sounded the alarm, “Fire!” A fire had started on the south side of rue Saint-Paul and was spreading east of rue Saint-Joseph. The fire was so intense that the law enforcement officers could not get close to it. Many people tried to take shelter at the Hôtel-Dieu, but due to a strong wind blowing from the west, the fire spread and destroyed the hospital in less than three hours.
45 houses were also destroyed, and due to people taking advantage of the general panic, many items were stolen from homes and from the convent. The following journal entry of Sister Véronique Cuillerier illustrates the suddenness of the fire, and the difficulty of trying to control it:
“The 10 April  while all was most quiet and our thoughts were far from some fatal mishap, at 7 in the evening during our time of leisure, we heard a cry of fire. In the moment, we all rose to catch sight of its whereabouts. It was sighted at a neighboring house. We rushed to contain the fire, but the Lord did not allow us to succeed. All took refuge line in our church, thinking that we would be spared, but the flames rose so ardently towards the church, which was just across the street from the burning houses, that we soon found ourselves engulfed.”
Rumors began to circulate accusing Angelique of having set the fire; later in the evening, the convent’s gardener, Louis Bellefeuille dit LaRuine even told her face-to-face about these rumors, although she denied them. The origin of the rumors seems to have been comments made by Marie-Manon, the young panis (subcontinent Indian) slave owned by De Couagne’s neighbors, the Bérey des Essars, who claimed she had heard Angélique saying that her mistress would not sleep in her house that night.
By the time the fire had gone out, popular opinion held that Angélique had set the fire. She was found in the garden of the paupers of the Hôtel-Dieu and taken to the king’s gaols to wait for a formal charge to be filed against her. A warrant was also issued later for Thibault, but although he was seen again on the Tuesday morning following the fire (two days later), by the time the bailiffs set out to arrest him he had disappeared and was never seen again in New France.
Angélique was charged and tried. French law at the time allowed a suspect to be arrested based on “public knowledge”, when the community agreed that a suspect was guilty. Over the next six weeks, the prosecution called a large number of witnesses, none of whom testified to have seen Angélique set the fire, but all of whom claimed they were certain that she had done it. They also testified at length as to Angélique’s character as a badly behaved slave who often spoke back to her owners. However, no solid evidence was presented as to her culpability.
Frustrated by the lack of sufficient evidence to condemn Angélique, the prosecution contemplated asking for permission to apply torture prior to a definitive judgment, a highly unusual procedure which was rarely allowed in New France. Fortunately for the prosecutor and unfortunately for Angélique, an eyewitness suddenly appeared: the five year old daughter of Alexis Monière, Amable, testified that she had seen Angélique carrying a shovelful of coals up to the attic of the house on the afternoon the fire started. This evidence finally allowed the prosecutor to close his case and the judge and the four commissioners he summoned to participate in the sentence all concurred that Angélique was guilty.
Beaugrand-Champagne points out that no one questioned why it took so long for Amable to come forward in a city where the fire and the trial would have been widely discussed; she attributes this willingness to credit the little girl’s testimony to the fact that too many people had lost too much and a scapegoat was necessary. Recently, some historians have argued that the sentence of the Montreal court was harsh, even given the nature of the offence and the standards of punishment applied in the 18th century.
The sentence included the following instructions:
“And everything Considered, We have Declared the Said accused, Marie Joseph Angelique Sufficiently guilty And Convicted of Having set fire to the house of dame francheville Causing the Burning of a portion of the city. In Reparation for which we have Condemned her to make honourable amends Disrobed, a Noose around her Neck, and carrying In her hands a flaming torch weighing two pounds before the main door and Entrance of the parish Church of This city where She will be taken And Led, by the executioner of the high Court, in a Tumbrel used for garbage, with an Inscription Front And Back, with the word, Incendiary, And there, bare-headed, And On her Knees, will declare that She maliciously set the fire And Caused the Said Burning, for which She repents And Asks Forgiveness from the Crown And Court, and this done, will have her fist Severed On a stake Erected in front of the Said Church. Following which, she will be led by the said Executioner in the same tumbrel to the Public Place to there Be bound to the Stake with iron shackles And Burned alive, her Body then Reduced To Ashes And Cast to the Wind, her Belongings taken And Remanded to the King, the said accused having previously been subjected to torture in the ordinary And Extraordinary ways in order to have her Reveal her Accomplices…”
The sentence was automatically appealed to the Superior Council by the prosecutor, as was required by the Ordinance on criminal procedure of 1670. Angélique was thus sent off to Quebec City where, a week later, the appeals court confirmed their belief in Angélique’s guilt while reducing somewhat the savagery of the trial court’s sentence, so that Angélique was no longer to have her hand cut off or be burnt alive, but rather to be hanged and once dead, her body burned and the ashes scattered. The Council also dispensed with the requirement to have her carried through the town on a rubbish cart wearing a sign declaring her an arsonist. However, the sentence still required her to be tortured to identify her accomplices, the Councillors apparently believing, as did the Montreal court, that Angélique had not acted alone, especially as Thibault had disappeared a couple of days after the fire and never been found. This type of torture was called the question préalable (torture prior to execution) and aimed at making the convicted criminal confess or denounce any possible accomplices or both.
A few days later, the prisoner was back in Montréal, and on June 21, the court proceeded to read the revised sentence to her and prepare her for the question. Angélique steadfastly refused to confess or name any accomplices, even faced with the boot, an instrument of torture consisting of an assemblage of wooden planks bound to the prisoner’s legs. The judge then instructed the Colony’s executioner and “master of torture”, a black slave named Mathieu Leveillé, to apply the question ordinaire (four strokes of a hammer driving a wedge between the planks, thus applying increasing pressure which gradually crushes the prisoner’s legs). Angélique broke almost immediately and confessed her guilt but still maintained that she had acted alone. The judge ordered the question extraordinaire (four strokes on an additional wedge, inserted at the ankles) and Angélique, while repeating that she and she alone had set the fire, begged the court to end her misery and hang her.
✊Angélique’s dramatic story has inspired several novels, plays and poems or songs about her. One, the play Angélique by Lorena Gale, loosely based on an unpublished translation of the trial transcripts by Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, won the 1995 du Maurier National Playwriting Competition in Canada.
✊Angélique appears almost as a legendary figure, and parts of her story have taken on a life of their own in countries such as Haiti, where, irrespective of documentary evidence, the tale that she was burnt alive with her hand cut off is still told, as if the original sentence had not been reduced.
✊Cooper’s book rallies the opinions of other contemporary Black authors, such as the poet George Elliott Clarke, who wrote her preface. Such authors see her as an “immortal avatar of liberation” and prefer, naturally, to see her as an active rebel rather than a victim of a miscarriage of justice.
✊Others, like Beaugrand-Champagne, find her just as inspiring as an exceptional, outspoken, independent-minded woman, who fought for her freedom and her life with courage and wit, against formidable odds, and in spite of a society that expected submission from women, especially if they were also black and slaves.
✊In 2012, a public square in Montreal, facing City Hall, was named Place Marie-Josèphe-Angélique.
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