Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

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La Presse, April 17, p. 13



To be entirely fair to the citizens of Ste. Philomène, we must report that they did not remain indifferent to the horrors going on at the Gagnons’ house. – One citizen from the community took the matter to the Crown, which imposed conditions on him!


The defence, which had until now done its utmost to contest the evidence of the revolting facts that we all know, has claimed the privilege of pleading insanity on behalf of the defendant


(From the correspondent of La Presse).
Quebec City, 17.- Yesterday afternoon, the Court of Assizes, presided over by the Honourable Justice L. P. Pelletier, continued to hear the trial of that woman, Marie-Anne Gagnon, accused of having martyred her stepdaughter, Aurore Gagnon. Aurore was, as we all know, the child of the defendant’s husband, Télesphore Gagnon, who will also be brought to trial on the charge of murder.


An important event occurred yesterday afternoon in the trial of the Gagnon woman, surprising some, disappointing others. The accused is now basing her defence entirely on a plea of insanity! The counsel for the defence, who have until now done their utmost to contest the evidence of the revolting facts that our readers know only too well, have suddenly changed their tack, seeking the privilege of pleading insanity, a privilege which has been granted by Justice Pelletier.

Before reporting on yesterday afternoon’s session, we think it important to report a fact that has come to our knowledge, and whose publication cannot but help exonerate the citizens of Ste. Philomène.


Public opinion has condemned the citizens of Ste. Philomène for remaining indifferent to the atrocities that were being perpetrated in the home of Télesphore Gagnon. It is true that some of the events taking place at the Gagnons’ home came be known by people in the vicinity. But the citizens of Ste. Philomène did not remain indifferent to these horrors.


On the contrary, we know for a fact that in the first part of February, a few days before Aurore Gagnon died, one of Ste. Philomène’s leading citizens went to Quebec City specifically to denounce the conduct of the Gagnon couple to the authorities and to express his concerns for Aurore Gagnon’s life. This citizen went to see a representative of the Crown and laid before him all the facts that he knew. In response, the Crown’s representative merely advised the citizen to go back and gather detailed information himself and assume the personal responsibility of lodging a complaint. Only on these conditions would the Crown consent to intervene.


The citizen in question wanted the authorities to try to prevent a crime that he could see unfolding, but he was not prepared to carry out the investigation himself. He asked the Crown to send a police officer at the government’s expense. He was stopped in his tracks by the authorities’ apathy. Nothing was done. A few days later, despite the compassionate citizen’s attempt to save her, the poor little martyr died, the victim of mistreatment. And it was only then, after Aurore Gagnon had died, that the authorities sent investigators: Coroner Jolicoeur, to carry out an inquest into the cause of death; Doctor A. Marois, to conduct the autopsy; and Detective Lauréat Couture, to seek out the guilty parties and to arrest them. Had the authorities not been so apathetic, little Aurore Gagnon could well have been saved, and we would not be witnessing a murder trial today.


The citizens of Ste. Philomène, who are attending the proceedings in large numbers, also want it to be known that the accused Marie-Anne Houde’s family is not from Lotbinière County, but from Nicolet County. She was born in Ste. Sophie de Lévrard, in the County of Nicolet, where she spent almost all her life until her marriage.


Monsieur Mailhot, a justice of the peace, who was called upon to drive the parish priest to the Gagnons’ house last February 12, continued his testimony when court resumed at 2:35 yesterday afternoon.

He was examined by Maître Fitzpatrick, one of the Crown Attorneys.

"When you went to Aurore’s bedroom, on March 9, did you see a bed?"
"I saw a little bed."
"What else?"
"A strap, which I recognize here."

Examined by Maître Francoeur:

"Who were you with?"
"With Detective Couture. We measured the room; it measured 12 by 15 feet."
"Does the pipe from the stove pass through this room?"
"Does it heat the room?"
"I don’t think so; not much."
"Does the staircase lead into the kitchen?"
"Is there another room upstairs, other than Aurore’s?"
"Yes, since this room is only 12 by 15 feet."
"Is there a partition?"
"Did you observe blood on the partition?"
"Do you have in your possession a letter written by Aurore to her mother when she was in the Hôtel Dieu hospital?"
This letter was given as evidence to the Court. The judge will decide later as to the legality of the production of this letter. The contents have not been revealed to the jury for the moment. Monsieur Mailhot told the judge that he had been given this letter by Marie-Jeanne, as a remembrance.


Recalled to the stand, the doctor was examined by Maître Francoeur to state how many lesions and wounds there were on Aurore’s body. He had first said that he had observed 54 wounds and lesions. Today, after examining his notes, he was able to say that of the 54 wounds and lesions, there were 50 primitive wounds. The other four lesions were caused by the discharge of pus. A large number of the lesions had become lesions because of such discharge. The judge then had Monsieur Mailhot recalled to find out where the Gagnon children have been living since the death of Aurore. Monsieur Mailhot replied that the children had stayed with their grandparents until the trial except for one, who stayed at St. Jean des Chaillons.


This witness, who lives in Ste. Philomène de Fortierville, is a neighbour of the Gagnons’. He told Maître Fitzpatrick that he went to the home of Télesphore Gagnon on the day that Aurore died, with Monsieur Mailhot and Monsieur Alphonse Chandonnet.

"How did you find Aurore?"
"Covered with sores."
"Were you there when she died?"
"Yes, at about 7 o’clock."
"Who wrapped and laid out her body?"
"I did."
"What did you see at that time?"
"Other wounds which I hadn’t seem before, on her back. She was covered with them."
"On her head?"
"Her scalp was swollen about one inch. I observed this at the request of Doctor Lafond."

By Maître Francoeur:

"Did you go willingly?"
"No, I didn’t want to go."
"Who asked you?"
"Monsieur Mailhot."
"In what capacity?"
"In his capacity as justice of the peace."


This witness was then examined by Maître Fitzpatrick.

"Do you know the accused?"
"Not as I can see her there."

The judge ordered the accused to lift her veil. The accused obeyed and the witness recognized her.

"Did you see her last winter?"
"Yes, between January 18 and 20."
"Whom did you see there?"
"Her, her husband, and the children."
"With Aurore?"
"Yes. Her eyes were very black. The mother told me that she had got that for having gone outside barefoot."
"Did you go back there?"
"Yes, the day that she died, at the request of Monsieur Mailhot."
"How did you find Aurore?"
"It upset me to see her; her face was all distorted."
"Was she still alive?"
"Did the accused say anything?"
"She said that Aurore must be suffering from meningitis."
"She spoke to you about Aurore?"
"She spewed on that child. She said, 'I would have much sooner seen Aurore die than my brother-in-law. We would have been well rid of her.'"

When examined by Maître Francoeur, Monsieur Gagnon said that this statement was made in front of Télesphore Gagnon.

Maître Fitzpatrick then declared the testimony to be concluded.

To be continued on page 37


Continued from page 13


Maître Francoeur then caused a stir of emotion, as we can fully understand, when he announced his intention to plea insanity.

Maître Francoeur is basing this plea on Section 967 of the Criminal Code, which states that when, during the course of a trial, the judge observes that the accused, by reason of insanity, is incapable of continuing the defence, the trial can be adjourned and a special jury can be sworn in to examine the mental state of the accused.


Monsieur Aurèle Lemieux supported this same request, which was strongly contested by Maître Fitzpatrick, the Crown Attorney. The Judge agreed with Maître Fitzpatrick that it is not under Section 967 that the Court should proceed, but under Section 19, which is the section under which one can plead insanity. He said that evidence of insanity must be presented before the present jury and not before another jury. Maître Lemieux said that the facts that have been revealed during the trial are so horrific that it is not reasonable to believe that a woman of sound mind could have committed such acts. He requested that the accused be examined as to her mental state. Maître Francoeur pointed out that he himself had helped, through his cross-examination, to bring to light all the facts in all their horror, convinced as he was that only a mad woman could have committed such acts

Monsieur Lemieux asked the Court to hear the doctors who have attended the trial and who would be able to tell us if the woman is insane. He asked that Doctor Derome be heard first. The judge objected. He is convinced that no doctor, nor other person, nor the jury, can determine whether this woman is insane or not until this woman has been observed and examined by medical alienists.


"Is it not true, Doctor Marois," asked the judge, "that you cannot evaluate the mental state of this woman without her having undergone an examination?”

-“Certainly not!" replied Doctor Marois. “If the facts revealed are true, their perpetrator must be either insane or malicious.”

Maître Francoeur could not believe that a woman could have "so dark a side" that she could commit such acts. And Justice Pelletier added, “There are people with ‘dark sides’ who are also intelligent. If we were to accept your theory, the insane asylums would never be big enough to hold them all.” The judge stated that, in his opinion, the best thing to do would be to appoint a commission to examine the mental state of this woman. But this commission must not be appointed partly by the Crown and partly by the defence. It would not be acceptable if each of the members of this commission were to side with the cause on behalf of which he had been appointed. What is needed is an independent commission, composed of medical alienists who will carry out the required examination intelligently and without prejudice. The judge continued, “I will not choose any of the doctors here present to be members of this commission, despite my confidence in them. I will appoint members from the outside. I know some excellent ones. We will suspend proceedings for about ten minutes to give me time to think about it.” And the proceedings were suspended.


The session resumed at 4:15. Maître Francoeur immediately rose to ask the Court to change his client’s plea of "not guilty" to a plea of insanity. However, since things were happening very quickly, he hadn’t had the time to determine the best procedure to follow in these circumstances. He therefore asked that the court be adjourned until the next morning. He added that he hoped that he would be able to conclude today (Saturday) the evidence of insanity that he intended to present, either through witnesses, or by having the accused examined by a commission of alienists. Justice Pelletier stated, "I cannot really refuse to grant this request. The counsel for the defence have the right to make this request, as they are obviously convinced that they do not have much of a chance of success with a plea of not guilty. I regret enormously the inconvenience that this causes the members of the jury, for they will not be able to be released as soon as I had hoped. But I hope that, being the good citizens that they are, they will accept this new sacrifice in order to see that justice is fully rendered.”

The judge has thus not yet appointed the commission. We will see today what to expect. The court adjourned this morning at 10 o’clock, in order to give the defence attorneys enough time to determine the best procedure to follow in this matter. Before leaving the courtroom, the Gagnon woman leaned against the edge of the dock, using her two hands to shield her face, which was already concealed behind her long black veil.


It was hoped that the trial of the Gagnon woman would conclude this evening. The defence attorneys can propose two ways of proceeding: one way would consist of having the accused examined by a commission of alienists whose report, were it to find insanity, would end the trial, following which the accused would be sent to an insane asylum; the other procedure would consist of presenting the evidence of the accused’s insanity to the current jury, letting the said jury decide.

Source: Correspondant La Presse, "Le martyre d'Aurore Gagnon. Pourquoi les autorités n'ont-elles apporté leur intervention qu'après la mort de la fillette?," La Presse (Montréal), April 17, 1920.

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