Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

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La presse April 14, 1920, p. 1



The emotional spectators who packed the courtroom could not see the reaction of the defendant when the instruments of torture were exhibited to the jury, instruments that she and her husband had used to torture their innocent victim.


The crowd was so large when the Assizes opened this morning that the presiding judge had to grant the request made by the counsel for the accused that the Court be cleared.


(From the correspondent of La PRESSE)
Quebec City, 14.- For many years no trial at the Quebec City Assizes has attracted as much public curiosity as has that of the couple accused of martyring little Aurore Gagnon, stepdaughter of the defendant Marie-Anne Houde, the wife of Télesphore Gagnon, who is the father of the deceased.

Although both the Gagnon husband and wife are accused of the same crime, Marie-Anne Houde, the wife of Télesphore Gagnon, is being tried at present. Her husband's trial will take place following her trial.

The public galleries are overflowing. The atmosphere was so intense yesterday afternoon that Justice Pelletier had to suspend the proceedings for ten minutes to ventilate the room. It is mostly women who are filling up the galleries. When one of these women dropped her hat onto the head of a jury member, Justice Pelletier pithily declared, "The women may retain their hats!"

There were several causes for emotion yesterday afternoon. The first occurred when a messenger brought in and placed on the court clerk's table the instruments of torture that are said to have served in the martyring of little Aurore Gagnon: a poker, a whip, an axe handle, a switch, a knotted rope, a curling iron, a pitchfork handle, etc. The crowd also showed strong emotion during Doctor Marois' description of the numerous wounds and lesions on the little girl's body.

The public was unable to judge what effect these objects produced on the accused, since she wore a very heavy black veil over her face, hiding all her features. At the morning session, she had been wearing a light black veil, but she had changed, and the thick veil that she was now wearing concealed her from the stares of the curious.

The accused is being defended by the Honourable J.N. Francoeur and his associate, Maître Marc-Aurèle Lemieux.


The first testimony to be heard was that of Doctor Marois. Maître Francoeur, the counsel for the Gagnon woman, objected to the presence, during this testimony, of the other doctors who were to be witnesses, and in particular to the presence of Doctor Lafond, who had assisted Doctor Marois at the autopsy.

The judge decided that Doctor Lafond should withdraw during the testimony on points of fact, but that he should be present at Doctor Marois' testimony on the conclusions of the autopsy. As for the other doctors who have been called as expert witnesses, the judge required that they hear Doctor Marois' testimony.

Doctor A. Marois is the medical examiner for the Crown.

Last February 13, Doctor Marois, assisted by Doctor Lafond of Parisville, performed the autopsy on the body of the little girl, Aurore Gagnon, of Ste. Philomène de Fortierville. He found the body to be very emaciated, very thin. The body was practically covered with lesions.

Above the right eyebrow, there was a large gash through which the bones of the cranium could be seen. There was blood and pus over almost all of the scalp, and the bones of the cranium were partly eaten away by this pus.

Doctor Marois described in minute detail all the wounds and lesions that he had observed, which numbered at least thirty. Some of them were four inches in diameter. They were on the feet, the legs, the thighs, the arms, the back -- all over the body. In most cases, the flesh had become detached. When the lesions were pressed, pus oozed out.

The symmetrical position of the wounds on the arms and legs led the doctor to believe that the little girl must have been tied up when she received the blows that caused the wounds. The left thigh was swollen and larger that the right. Scar tissue had formed, or was in the process of forming, on some of the lesions. On the wounds on the wrists and fingers, the skin had peeled off down to the bone.

All of the wounds were superficial, affecting only the skin. Doctor Marois did not find any wounds that had caused a deep effect. There were thus no fractures.

The judge asked Doctor Marois if he had counted the number of wounds on the child, and the witness replied that he had not. Maître A. Fitzpatrick, one of the Crown Prosecutors, asked him to count them, and he will do so.

The internal examination of the body revealed no lesions. The only abnormality that was observed was in the stomach, where the mucous membrane was reddish, which seemed to indicate that an irritating substance had been consumed. He suspected that the child had been poisoned, and for that reason he had removed the internal organs and had had them analyzed by Doctor Derome in Montreal. But this analysis revealed no trace of poison. The witness added that that did not mean that no abnormal substance had been administered to the little girl, but the analysis had not established such a fact.


Monsieur Arthur Fitzpatrick asked if it were not possible that lye could have produced the effect observed on the stomach. Monsieur Francoeur objected to this question. The objection was sustained.

The autopsy revealed no abnormalities of the other organs, which were all in normal condition.

According to the witness, the cause of death was exhaustion brought about by numerous wounds which had resulted in infection and general weakness. The appearance of the wounds indicated that the child had received no care. The wounds had been caused by blows. There was apparently no question of a skin disease or any other infectious illness.

Doctor Marois was shown the instruments that are believed to have been used to beat the child. Doctor Marois acknowledged that the axe handle he was shown or some other similar object could have caused several of the wounds that he had observed. The whip handle and the switch could have been used to produce the long, narrow wounds that he had observed. As for the pitchfork handle, he did not observe wounds that could have been caused by such a large object.

The witness was asked if there was blood on the pitchfork handle. After a brief examination, the witness acknowledged that there was blood on it, but he could not say if it was human blood or animal blood. That could only be determined by analysis.

As for the knotted rope, he also believed that some of the wounds observed could have been caused by an object of that type.

Doctor Marois was asked if he had observed burns on the child's body. The witness replied no. At least, in his opinion, there was no trace of recent burns. It is possible, however, that some of the scars that he observed had been caused by burns.


The poker displayed also could have caused the wounds he had seen that were encrusted.

The curling iron or a similar object could have caused the wound above the right eyebrow.

Monsieur Francoeur, the counsel for the Gagnon couple, cross-

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examined Doctor Marois closely for more than two hours. He was very knowledgeable about the medical aspects of the case, surrounded as he was by the medical experts that the defence will call to be heard: the two Doctors Paquets, Doctor Emile Fortier, and Doctor Calixte Dagneau.

Doctor Marois said that the autopsy had taken place from three until six o'clock in the afternoon of February 13, in the basement of the sacristy.

He reaffirmed that there was no possible cause of death other than the one he had stated: wounds caused by blows.

Monsieur Francoeur asked the witness a series of questions replete with medical terms which ordinary mortals would have difficulty understanding, and one by one he named all the various organs of the human system, in order to learn if any of these organs had been affected.

Doctor Marois affirmed that all the organs, from the brain to the genitalia, had been in normal condition, except for what he had stated about the stomach.

A long discussion arose concerning the spinal cord. The witness had just said that he had observed no lesions on the spinal cord; he then admitted that he had not opened the cerebrospinal canal. However, it is a known fact that the existence or absence of lesions on the spinal cord cannot be observed unless the cerebrospinal canal is opened.

"That is of no consequence," said Doctor Marois. "I am convinced that cause of death was what I have said it was."

The witness admitted that a certain disease of the spinal cord causes skin lesions of the type that he had observed on the body of Aurore Gagnon, but he maintained that the lesions he had observed were the result of blows and not of a disease of the spinal cord.

Monsieur Francoeur pointed out that the autopsy had not been complete, but the witness maintained that the autopsy had been sufficiently complete to allow him to reach the conclusions that he had reached. The autopsy could have been more complete, but this is the way that it is done here.

The witness added that there was fecal material in the intestines, which indicated that the child had eaten recently, but that the intestine was emaciated, probably because of malnutrition. The witness had not been able to do a urine analysis because he had accidentally punctured the bladder and the urine had escaped without his being able to collect any of it.

When Monsieur Francoeur tried to point out certain things that are done in a complete autopsy and that had not been done in this case, Doctor Marois replied heatedly that this was childishness, that such things could not be done properly other than in exceptional circumstances, in large hospitals, but not in the conditions under which this child's autopsy had been performed. And he added: "The doctors who are suggesting these things to you know this full well." The witness added that he had not done an analysis of the pus.

At this point, the courtroom was so hot that the judge ordered the proceedings to be suspended for ten minutes.

When the sitting resumed, Monsieur Francoeur asked the witness if, in the case of a ten-year-old child who was mentally incompetent, that mental incompetence could not result in the spreading by infection of the tumours that such a child might have. The witness replied in the negative. He also maintained that the child had not been scratching herself, since he had seen no fingernail marks, to which Monsieur Francoeur replied that one can scratch oneself without using one's fingernails. He admitted that he had heard of cases of death caused by infection resulting from such insignificant causes as pricks and scratches, etc.

The witness maintained that all the wounds he observed had occurred since last October 17, and this is why: the child had been admitted to the Hôtel Dieu hospital in Quebec City last September 16, suffering from an ulcerated lesion on her left foot, and she left the hospital the following October 17, cured, according to the official hospital records. Doctor Marois did not remember having seen her during his work at the hospital. He might have treated her, but he did not recall doing so.

Doctor Marois also admitted that gastritis could have given the stomach the strange appearance that he had observed.


This provincial police officer said that on last February 13, he had gone to Ste. Philomène de Fortierville along with Coroner Jolicoeur and Doctor Marois. He found the body of Aurore Gagnon laid out in a small room, on a table, with her head covered by a while veil and her feet wrapped. He transported the body to the basement of the sacristy. The coroner's inquest took place the next day and, after this inquest, he arrested the Gagnon couple as they were leaving the church where they had been attending the funeral.

He carried out an inspection of the house and found everything to be in the greatest disorder, especially the children's room, which was very dirty. He observed blood on the floor, on the wall, and on the bed in the room where the child had slept. He also found blood on the bed, on the sparsely stuffed straw mattress, and on a night-gown. He found no sheets on the bed. He showed the jury the mattress cover and the pillowcase from the bed. He also displayed the objects that we have already spoken of -- an axe handle, a switch, etc. These objects had been given to him, some of them by little Gérard Gagnon, the brother of the victim; others by Marie-Jeanne Gagnon, the sister of the victim; and others by the victim's grandfather.

The witness could not say whether it was human blood that he had seen on the floor and on the walls of the room where Aurore slept.

He exhibited a letter that Aurore had written to her grandfather when she was at Hôtel Dieu last autumn.

Since it was after six o'clock, court was adjourned until the following day.


(From the correspondent of La PRESSE)
Quebec City, 14.- When the proceedings resumed this morning, such a large crowd had packed the courtroom that Maître Francoeur, the counsel for the accused, asked that the courtroom be cleared. He denounced the sordid curiosity of the public and pointed out in particular the large number of women in the galleries, some of whom had even brought their lunches. Justice Pelletier supported these comments and ordered the courtroom to be cleared, ruling that only lawyers, journalists and students be allowed to enter.

Doctor Lafond, of Parisville, was the first witness to be heard this morning. Parisville is located a couple of miles from Ste. Philomène. Doctor Lafond treats patients in Ste. Philomène. Last February 12, about noon, he was called to come to treat Aurore Gagnon, whom he found in a coma, with her body swollen and covered with lesions. Her scalp was covered with pus. He observed that there was nothing to be done, and she died shortly thereafter. Last September, he had been called to treat the same child, who was suffering from a lesion on her foot, the result, it seemed, of a blow. He had ordered that the wound be dressed and had ordered her to be sent to the Hôtel Dieu hospital.


Doctor Lafond saw the body of Aurore Gagnon the day after her death, in the basement of the sacristy. He assisted Doctor Marois with the autopsy, but did not take notes. The body was in the same condition that he had observed the day before. The lesions were only superficial, affecting only the skin. In his opinion, the cause of death was the large number of lesions and the fact that they were infected.

Maître Fitzpatrick asked the witness what had struck him when he had seen the wounds.

"I was struck by the depth and the symmetry of the wounds on the legs and the arm."
"How could these wounds have been caused?"
"They must have been made by a blunt instrument."


By Maître Francoeur:

The witness said that he had made a mistake concerning his first visit to see Aurore Gagnon. It was not in September, but on the last day of August. It was the accused who had telephoned him to come and tend to Aurore. He found her lying down.

Maître Francoeur asked if he had questioned Aurore about the cause of this wound.

Maître Lachance, one of the Crown Attorneys, objected to this evidence.

In reply to the judge, Doctor Lafond said that he had asked everyone present how the wound had occurred. It was the accused who had answered him.

The judge interrupted the witness at the request of the Crown Attorneys, given that the words of the accused are not admissible in this case.

Monsieur Francoeur asked Doctor Lafond to refresh his memory: was it not true that little Aurore had then told him that she had been beaten by a little neighbour boy or that she had hurt herself by falling down? The Crown objected again and there followed a long discussion on the admissibility of this evidence. The judge reserved his decision.


The witness continued his testimony and said that he had visited Aurore six times at the end of last summer. Each time, he observed that the instructions he had given for dressing the wound had not been followed. The dressings of bichloride that he had ordered had not been correctly applied and the lesions had not become disinfected quickly enough. That is why he ordered the child to be transported to the Hôtel Dieu.

Two weeks before Aurore died, someone from the Gagnon family had telephoned his home to have iodine tincture sent. He had sent two ounces in a bottle.


In passing, Maître Francoeur informed the judge about the Gagnon household. Télesphore Gagnon had first been married to Emma Caron and had had children with her before marrying his second wife, the accused, Marie-Anne Houde. Marie-Anne Houde had also been married a first time to a man named Gagnon, a cousin by marriage of her second husband, and she had had children of this first marriage.

Continuing his testimony, Doctor Lafond said that wounds of the type he had observed on Aurore Gagnon should have healed if they had been properly treated, if the dressings had been properly applied. Some diseases can prevent the healing of this type of wound on some individuals, by not on this child. He had not observed any of these diseases in her case.

At noon, the judge suspended proceedings for a few minutes.

Source: Correspondant La Presse, "Un procès émouvant à Québec. La femme Gagnon, accusée d'avoir martyrisé sa belle-fille, paraît soigneusement voilée en cour d'Assises," La Presse (Montréal), April 14, 1920.

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