Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

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La Presse, April 20, 1920, p. 1



On the other hand, two alienists called by the defence have already declared that the accused is not responsible.-The father and the brother of the accused woman testify.


Doctor Brochu, the eminent chief of staff of the Beauport Asylum, declares that the stepmother is an absolutely normal human being.- The important testimony of this medical authority.


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(From the correspondent of La Presse).

Quebec City, 20.-Your correspondent in Quebec City went to see the Honourable Justice L. P. Pelletier about the Mailhot incident, in relation to the trial of the Gagnon woman, and told him that the information he had provided last Saturday had been communicated to him by Monsieur O. Mailhot, a justice of the peace from Fortierville. Moreover, Maître Fitzpatrick himself has stated that he was the authority that Monsieur Mailhot went to see, as we have related. However, as we reported yesterday, the Honourable Justice Pelletier wants it known that the Crown Attorneys did their duty in this matter. We take it as our duty to report the protests of Maîtres Lachance and Fitzpatrick, as well as the opinion of the Honourable Justice Pelletier.

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(From the correspondent of La PRESSE)

Quebec City, 20.-The trial of Marie-Anne Houde (the Gagnon woman), accused of having martyred her ten-year-old stepdaughter Aurore, may end today.

When the session began this morning, Maître Francoeur declared that he had concluded his examination. He asked permission, however, to call the notary Monsieur Parent to the stand, during the course of the day, in order to submit to the Court the marriage contract of Télesphore Gagnon and Marie-Anne Houde. The judge granted him permission to do so. The defence was supposed to have had Doctor Carignan testify, to prove that the accused had suffered from meningitis at the age of 12, but they were unable to have him come. The Crown thus began its counter-evidence. Doctor Lafond, from Parisville, was examined by Maître Fitzpatrick. He is the Gagnon’s family doctor. He stated that he had treated the accused in 1918 for a miscarriage, and in 1919, for the birth of a child. He noticed nothing abnormal about her and he never observed anything that would have led him to suspect that she was insane. In reply to Maître Francoeur, he said that he had never undertaken any special studies on mental illnesses, and he does not consider himself to be an alienist. He admitted that when he had treated the accused in 1918, he had not stayed for long. The judge suggested that Monsieur Fitzpatrick ask the witness if he had seen the woman in any other circumstances. Monsieur Francoeur objected to the Court starting to hear evidence again. The judge told Monsieur Fitzpatrick: “If you don’t ask the question, I will!” And Monsieur Fitzpatrick asked the question. Doctor Lafond said that he had seen the accused last summer at the home of Monsieur Adjutor Gagnon, when he had gone to treat Madame Adjutor Gagnon. He had noticed nothing that would have led him to suspect that the accused suffered from insanity.


A resident of Ste. Philomène de Fortierville, she was the next witness heard. She lives in a house next to Télesphore Gagnon’s, about two and one-half to three arpents away. She had often met with the accused and had never noticed anything abnormal about her. She was a woman like other women.

Madame Hamel and Madame Badeau, of Fortierville, Madame Phillip, the matron of the Quebec City prison, and Monsieur Adjutor Gagnon, of Fortierville, all stated that in their opinion, the accused was of sound mind. She was an ordinary woman.


Doctor Gosselin, a doctor at the Quebec City prison, declared that he had treated the accused when she was suffering from influenza. He found her absolutely normal.

Doctor M. D. BROCHU

This eminent doctor, who has been the chief of staff at the Beauport Asylum for 17 years, stated that he has been practising medicine for 44 years. He examined the accused on Sunday, with Doctor Devlin and Doctor Marois, and this morning, with Doctor Marois. During the external examination, he observed a deformation of her face. An examination of her teeth showed that it was only an inflammation and not asymmetry. She has a decayed tooth and inflamed gums. He observed a very minimal deformation of the accused’s palate, which could not have had much influence on her mental state. The accused displayed some variations of sensitivity of her skin. These are common signs and are of little importance as long as they are isolated. They can be found in hysteria but not in mental debility. They are found only in inherent mental debility. When we consider the circumstances that the prisoner has experienced for the past several months, it is quite possible that she has developed hysteria since her incarceration.

“When I examined her,” said Doctor Brochu, “the accused answered in an intelligent manner. I saw nothing in her expressions, her judgement, or her understanding that indicated a mental defect.”


-"To evaluate her moral sense in relation to the serious acts she is accused of, I asked her questions about these facts, specifically, about the lye that was spread on bread."

Maître Francoeur objected to the witness reporting what the accused might have said about facts given as evidence. The witness said that, when he had asked her about the lye spread on bread, the accused had found the question ridiculous, and that she understood the seriousness of such an act. At the request of the Court, the witness stopped reporting facts discussed during the examination, and he immediately gave his conclusions.

-"My conclusions are that the accused was capable of understanding the nature of her acts, that she has all her wits, and that she possesses a sense of moral judgement.

Monsieur Lachance asked Doctor Brochu a long hypothetical question, supposing that the acts of cruelty with which the woman has been accused are true, and asked him if, in his opinion, the accused understood the difference between good and evil. Doctor Brochu said that the acts first indicate that the accused had an exceptional hatred of Aurore. The fact that the accused tried to blame some of her acts of cruelty on other people proves that she knew these acts were wrong. The case continues.


Quebec City, 20.-Yesterday afternoon was devoted almost exclusively to the testimony of the alienists that the defence had called to establish that the accused was not responsible for reason of insanity.


The first witness heard at yesterday afternoon’s session was Monsieur Trefflé Houde, of Ste. Sophie de Lévrard, the father of the accused. He is a little old man of 62, with a white beard. He has been a farmer for five years; before that, he was a day labourer. He had worked on log drives

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and in logging camps from the age of 14.

He has had 11 children, four of whom are still alive. Two died as adults, and five died at a young age. His daughter Ernestine was still single when she died of consumption. The witness swore that he didn’t indulge in the immoderate consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Monsieur Houde swore that the accused, at 12 years of age, had suffered from meningitis for several days. She was treated by Doctor Carignan. He didn’t know whether the accused suffered from an inflammation of the lungs. She was married at 17 years of age. Today she is 30 years old.

In reply to Maître Lachance, the Crown Attorney, Monsieur Houde said that he had not been home when his daughter Marie-Anne had been sick with meningitis. He had learned that when he returned from the woods.

In reply to Maître Francoeur, the witness said that his daughter Marie-Anne had suffered from headaches at home. They would last for nights and days, sometimes for several days.

Marie-Anne’s first husband was Napoléon Gagnon. Early in her marriage, she would stay in bed for entire days, sometimes for two entire days.

Replying to Maître Lachance, Monsieur Houde stated that these headaches began when she was very young.


Monsieur Willie Houde, of Ste. Sophie de Lévrard (Nicolet), is the brother of the accused. He is 34 years old. He had been brought up with her and lived with her during the first year of her marriage to Napoléon Gagnon, and also during the third year. He recalls that, when his sister was in a delicate condition, she was much meaner than usual.

“What did she do, to make you say that?” asked Monsieur Francoeur.

“She beat her children much more often and much harder than at any other time, and for no reason at all. But she never hit them hard enough to leave marks.”


This Montreal doctor was the first alienist to be heard for the defence. He holds the Chair of Nervous Diseases at the University of Montreal and is a consulting physician at the St. Jean de Dieu hospital.

In reply to Monsieur Francoeur, Doctor Prévost said that he had examined “the sick woman…”

“Who?” asked the judge.
“Madame Gagnon.”
“You called her ‘the sick woman?’”
“Let’s say the defendant.”

Doctor Prévost said that he had examined the defendant for more than three hours, on Saturday, in the company of Doctor Tétrault, Doctor Paquet, and Doctor Fortier. On Sunday, he examined her in the company of Doctor Tétrault alone.

Monsieur Francoeur then began to formulate a hypothetical question. He asked the witness if, supposing such and such a thing were true, the accused would be responsible for her acts. The facts thus hypothesized were the acts of cruelty that have been established by the Crown. The Crown Attorneys objected repeatedly to this question, insisting on changing this word or that word. The judge himself became involved in the discussion. In all, it took more than half an hour to finally draw up the question in a way that satisfied the court, the Crown, and the defence.

From the outset, Doctor Prévost did not hesitate to affirm his conclusion that the accused suffers from insanity.

“On what do you base your conclusion?” asked Monsieur Francoeur.
“On the facts that have been revealed during the trial and on the observations that I have made myself. When I questioned her, I observed that she often displayed signs of insanity.”

She claims that every time that she is in a delicate condition, she hears bells ringing, cries, someone calling her name. She has problems with her senses of taste and smell. When she ate beef, she thought that she was eating “eel.” Every night (still when she was in a delicate condition), she would awaken feeling frightened, thinking that she was seeing ghosts.

Considering that the accused was married at 17 years of age; that she was a widow for three years; that she has given birth seven times and had two miscarriages; that she is in a delicate condition, being six and one-half months with child, we can say that this woman has spent all her life in childbirth. She suffers from hallucinations.

“So,” said Doctor Prévost, “the defendant told me that she never caresses her children, saying that it is not customary, and that she kisses them only once a year, during the holiday season.”

"When I told her what the result of the trial could be, that she could pay with her life, she showed no emotion at all. She simply said that, as soon as the trial was over, she would return to her home.”

Doctor Prévost was not surprised that, along with normal behaviour, she has been observed to exhibit abnormal behaviour, such as the acts of cruelty proven during the trial. Her state of pregnancy makes her irritable. She gets out of bed every night, her husband says. And the matron of the prison said the same thing today. There are also physical signs of insanity. Her palate is slightly high arched, which is a physical sign of mental degeneracy.

The defendant suffers from facial asymmetry. One side of her face is larger than the other. She has bump which indicates a state of abscess that is not developing.

The defendant is excessively anaemic. She is pallid. She displays obvious disorders of sensitivity: when her skin was touched with sharp instruments or pinched with fingers, she did not display the same level of sensitivity everywhere.

Doctor Prévost persisted in concluding that she suffers from insanity resulting from debility that manifests particularly in the genital organs.

Examined by Monsieur Lachance, one of the Crown Attorneys, Doctor Prévost said that he often serves as an expert alienist witness in trials, in Montreal, both for the Crown and for the defence.

“ Is this very lucrative?” asked Justice Pelletier.
“Not always,” replied Doctor Prévost.

Monsieur Lachance then asked the witness a number of questions, relating to him the main facts revealed during the trial which establish the acts of cruelty committed by the accused. Doctor Prévost persisted in saying that that didn’t change his opinion.

Doctor Prévost told Monsieur Lachance that facial asymmetry is not specifically an indication of insanity, but it is a sign which, if taken together with other signs, leads to the conclusion of insanity.

Monsieur Lachance asked why it was that the accused always targeted Aurore with her blows. Doctor Prévost replied that there was no reason that it happened like that, that she simply gave into it.


The next witness is a doctor at the St. Jean de Dieu Hospital in Montreal. He is in charge of the clinic for mental illnesses at the University of Montreal.

Doctor Tétrault replied that the accused displayed an abnormal mental state. Taking for granted that the accused had suffered from meningitis at the age of 12, along with all the other facts that had been brought to his knowledge, he has reason to believe that she suffers from mental problems when she is pregnant. She has perverse, pathological tendencies. It is inconceivable that a normal thirty-year-old woman could burn a child as she had done. The woman is incapable of judging what is appropriate punishment for misbehaviour when disciplining a child.

Monsieur Francoeur asked Doctor Tétrault if he believed that the accused could have invented the symptoms that he had observed in the accused.

“I don’t think so,” said Doctor Tétrault. “When I asked her if she had had any serious illnesses during her childhood, she didn’t answer by naming a common disease, such as measles or scarlet fever. Instead, she told me that she had suffered from meningitis, and she explained the symptoms.”
“Do you have any similar cases in the asylum?”
“Not exactly the same, but cases that are somewhat like this: cases of people who have cruel tendencies, who refuse to eat, etc.”

The judge remarked that for several days, hundreds of people have been letting themselves starve to death in Mount Joly prison, in Ireland.

But Doctor Tétrault retorted that those people have a motive: they are sacrificing themselves for the love of their country.

Doctor Tétrault affirmed that in the hospital there are patients who can reason very well on some points but who are absolutely unbalanced on others.

Replying to a direct question from Monsieur Francoeur, Doctor Tétrault said that the accused would belong in an insane asylum.

The judge asked Doctor Tétrault if he believed that the accused is in this state only when she is in a delicate condition.

“Especially,” replied Doctor Tétrault.
“Then,” said the judge, “she should be committed to an insane asylum when she is in a delicate condition, and she should be released when she is not?”
“It is difficult to answer this question with a yes or a no. It often happens that women who display these disorders are in danger of becoming insane for life if they become pregnant again. This condition is a factor of insanity for people with this predisposition.”

In the present case, Doctor Tétrault is basing his opinion that the accused has a predisposition for insanity on the fact that she had meningitis when she was young.

In the answers he gave Monsieur Lachance, Doctor Tétrault maintained the theory that he had advanced, saying that the horrific nature of the crimes attributed to the accused is an element of the evidence that the accused is not responsible. In his opinion, the accused suffers from moral insanity.

At the end of the hearing, the judge wanted to continue into the evening. It was after six o’clock. Monsieur Francoeur announced that he had only one more witness to have heard. The judge took note of this and agreed to adjourn the trial until this morning.


We would like to point out to our readers who are fascinated by the appalling drama that is being played out in the Quebec Court of Assizes, that the following details are being reported exclusively in our special issue. Yesterday morning the defence began to hear witnesses testify as to the physical state of the accused. Doctor Lafond of Parisville stated that he had treated the accused twice during childbirth. Doctor Emile Fortier, who examined the accused in prison, stated that she was in a delicate condition, six and one-half months with child.

She suffers from an illness whose scientific name is translated, in layman’s terms, as “an inflammation of the kidneys.” “Is she in danger of dying?” asked the judge. “No,” replied the doctor.

Doctor Albert Marois also examined the accused and he reached more or less the same conclusions, with a few variations: there is congestion of the kidneys. He does not believe that the kidneys are inflamed, but allows that there could be a minimal lesion of the kidneys, and that that could be the result of the accused’s current state. He does not consider this to be an illness. Doctor Arthur Vallée, who had analysed the accused’s urine, found minimal traces of albumin.

In reply to Maître Francoeur, Doctor Vallée said that it was impossible to either confirm or disprove categorically the presence of kidney disease. Maître Francoeur then called Télesphore Gagnon, the husband of the accused, who is himself accused of murder. He is a 37-year-old lad who is six feet tall. Justice Pelletier told him that anything he might say could not be used against him in his trial. Gagnon said that he married the accused two years ago; that he had had two children with her, one of whom had died. When his wife is in a delicate condition, he observed a change in her, particularly with respect to irritability. You had to be careful not to cross her.

Maître Francoeur asked him if he knew that the accused’s father indulged considerably in the consumption of alcohol. He replied that his wife had told him so. In response to Maître Fitzpatrick, the witness said, “My wife loved the children from my first marriage as much as her own. She never told me that she hated Aurore any more than the others.“

“Didn’t she say that Aurore made filthy messes?“
“I knew it; I observed it myself.“

Gagnon was then sent back to prison.

Madame Demers, from Trois-Rivières, who said that she knew the accused’s family well, was questioned about the family’s history. She had seen the men under the influence of alcohol. One sister of the accused had died in Lyster. The witness had seen the accused beat her child on several occasions. Once, she had seen her beat one of her husband’s children with a strap to make him say his prayers. The woman had said, “I hate him too much.“

The witness had thought it appropriate to take the child away from her. The child was five years old. Another one of the accused’s sisters had led a dissolute life before she married, claimed the witness. The witness had never known that the accused’s father was an alcoholic.

At this point, the session was adjourned.

Source: Correspondant La Presse, "Le crime de Sainte-Philomène. Le médecin de la famille Gagnon assure n'avoir jamais rien constaté qui put lui faire croire que la marâtre souffrait d'aliénation mentale," La Presse (Montréal), April 20, 1920.

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