Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child


What are the most mysterious aspects of this tragic story of domestic violence? There are many, but as you explore the documents related to the death of young Aurore Gagnon, we invite you to pay particular attention to three main questions: WHO?, WHY? and HOW?

WHO? Like a detective in a mystery novel, your first objective is to identify the guilty party or parties. WHO was responsible for the death of Aurore Gagnon? Were the courts and the general public right to place the bulk of the blame on the stepmother, Marie-Anne Houde? What do you think of the role of her husband, Télesphore Gagnon, the child’s father? Do others also share responsibility, because of their silence or their failure to act? Where were the members of the extended family, the neighbours, the parish priest, and the justice of the peace of the village? Why didn’t they intervene before it was too late?

WHY? Your second objective is to try to explain the motivation behind the abuse suffered by Aurore Gagnon. Although the causes of domestic violence are never easy to understand, we invite you to consider the factors that may have sparked the brutal violence that caused the death of a little ten-year-old girl. Were the roots of her "martyrdom" medical, psychological, cultural, sociological, economic, or other? Although the use of corporal punishment was an accepted custom at the time, especially in rural areas, what incited this couple to cross the line between discipline and deadly violence? How much blame can be placed on the poverty of the surroundings? On the complexity of the family situation? On mental illness? Or, more simply, on the cruelty of a truly “wicked stepmother,” one worthy of the darkest fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault?

HOW? Among French-speaking Quebecers, the general storyline of the death of Aurore Gagnon is extremely well known, thanks in particular to the media coverage this case attracted in 1920 and the creation of several literary and dramatic works based on this story over the last eight decades. But HOW was it that Aurore Gagnon became Aurore, l’enfant martyre, an icon of popular culture in Quebec? How can we understand and explain the interest that Quebecers have had in this story? What differences are there between the “true” story of Aurore Gagnon and the version that has been etched into the collective memory of French-speaking Quebecers?

The answers are up to you!

Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History