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The Trial of Marie-Josèphe-Angélique. Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, 2004.


On rue Saint-Paul, two little girls were at play, jumping in the mud under the watchful eye of the sentry posted at the entrance of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. In front of the hospital, as they watched the children, two slaves were talking, seated on the stoop of a house: one was fifteen years old, a panis slave; the other was twice as old, and Black. Slightly to the east, on the same side of the street, Marguerite César dit Lagardelette was leaning on her elbows at an open window. She was watching the goings on.

In a matter of moments, everything would change dramatically. It was seven in the evening when the sentry sounded the alarm, “Fire!” The piercing cry was heard behind him, in the garden, by the Hospitaller sisters who were “at rest.” Right away, their hospital bell


began to ring. Someone ran full speed towards the church, on rue Notre-Dame, to warn the church caretaker. The alarm bell rang fast and furiously, joined by the bells of the various chapels in the city. The alarm could be heard as far away as the neighbouring suburbs. The 3,000 or so Montrealers know that this was not to signal an attack by the English; they sensed otherwise, because, already, the smell of smoke had spread everywhere. It was an odour known and feared by all, as others feared the plague. Place d’Armes was soon deserted. [...]


In a matter of minutes, horror mixed with fear; the wind had driven the fire “with such rage” towards the church that it was soon ablaze, and the fire continued on its path in the direction of a wing of the hospital. Some forty sisters of Saint-Joseph, both ordained and lay, were stranded there. A few “good souls” attempted to evacuate the patients from the Hôtel-Dieu. Many helped transport the more gravely ill, who could not walk on their own, but the others had to fend for themselves. It was already too late to think about salvaging the sisters’ belongings, “the flames had engulfed the house in an instant, causing the roof to fall in as many made their way out.” 1 [...]

Rue Saint-Paul was under assault by some 250 soldiers from the city garrison 2. The first group came running with ladders in order to climb up to the ridges of the roofs; the fire had to be prevented from spreading. Axe in hand they brought down entire sections of shingled roofs. Others helped carry pails of water, while some were dispatched in various


directions to guard houses and their contents. Their presence did nothing to dissuade a few individuals who took advantage of the darkness and panic to hastily fill bags with objects stolen here and there “from the bourgeois,” while the latter chased after the owners of carts and wagons, promising them the moon if they would carry their belongings to a safe location.[...]

Knight Boisberthelot de Beaucours, along with Naval Commander Honoré Michel de Villebois de La Rouvillière 3, and a few officers of the court took the situation in hand. Orders were fired off. While 90 pounds of musket powder, stockpiled in the king’s stores, were quickly carried up to the commune and thrown at arm’s length into the river to avoid


an explosion, women were busy chasing pigs that had escaped from back pens, and men took hold with all their might of the halters of overexcited horses. Animal cries were mixed with the howls and screams of landlords and tenants who stood by stupefied and in horror as their belongings burned away. Elsewhere, the fire was so fierce that nothing could be done; the streets, already difficult to travel due to the thaw, quickly become impassable.

In less than three hours, the fire had razed the Hôtel-Dieu, destroyed 45 houses, and left hundreds of people in the street. A semblance of calm returned. The extent of the damage could not be seen in the dark night. The fire had spread quickly, carried by a westerly wind. [ ...]


How to explain such a disaster? Montrealers either had an opinion or knew the answer. Many of them claimed that the fire broke out on the rooftop of the house owned by the widow Francheville, others felt that it could not be a chimney fire as it was too warm for people to be heating their houses. While the search was on to find the cause of the fire, and rumours continued to circulate, the king’s prosecutor, François Foucher, was in his chambers, deep in thought. He had just returned to his private quarters at his hotel on rue Saint-Paul, after spending the night helping friends and family. There was no time to waste. He formulated a request to the civil and criminal judge of the Juridiction Royale in order to secure the arrest of the slave of the widow de Francheville and of the man named Thibault. They had to be brought in for interrogation, the rumours pointed directly at them.

1. Ghislaine Legendre, “Relation de sœur Cuillerier (1725-1747),” Écrits du Canada français, 42, Montréal, 1979, p.149-192.
2. Marc Charbonneau, Marc Lafrance, Monique Poirier, “Montréal, entrepôt militaire et centre logistique,” in Phyllis Lambert and Alan Stewart, dir., Montréal, ville fortifiée au XVIIIe siècle, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, 1992, p.31.
3. Honoré Michel de Villebois de La Rouvillière was appointed governor of Montréal in the fall of 1734. In 1737, he wed Catherine-Élisabeth Bégon, daughter of letter writer Élisabeth Rocbert de La Morandière. Numerous letters by Madame Bégon were addressed to him. Widowed in 1740, he lived out his days in Louisiana and madame Bégon in Rochefort.

Source: Beaugrand-Champagne, Denyse, "The Trial of Marie-Josèphe-Angélique" (Montréal: Libre Expression, 2004), 27-46.

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