Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

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La Presse, April 21, 1920, p. 1



The speeches for the defence began at this morning’s session and Maître Francoeur, the counsel for the cruel stepmother, spoke. – The courtroom where the trial is being held is packed with spectators.


Doctor Brochu’s testimony, corroborated by the superintendent of the St. Jean de Dieu Asylum, maintains that the accused was of sound mind when she committed her crimes.


(From the correspondent of La PRESSE)
Quebec City, 21.- We are very likely – at last – in the last phase of the notorious trial of Marie-Anne Houde (the Gagnon woman), accused of having martyred her stepdaughter, Aurore, a ten-year-old child, in Ste. Philomène de Fortierville, in the county of Lotbinière. As we know, the father of the innocent victim, Télesphore Gagnon, is himself in prison, and his trial for murder will begin as soon as the law has finished with the cruel stepmother, who the Chief of Staff of the Beauport Asylum and the Superintendent of the St. Jean de Dieu Asylum have declared, respectively, “responsible for her actions” and “of sound mind when she committed the acts of which she is accused.”


The speeches for the defence in the Gagnon woman’s case were delivered this morning before a huge crowd that packed the courtroom, despite the fact that it was decreed at the beginning of the trial that proceedings were to be held behind closed doors. Maître Francoeur, the counsel for the defence, spoke first. He sought to prove that the accused was not responsible, precisely because the crimes that have been established before the court are so monstrous. He listed all the acts of cruelty that we have reported, pointing out that the mistreatment which the cruel stepmother is accused of inflicting increased in monstrosity and in frequency as her delicate condition advanced. All these acts of cruelty were carried out in front of the accused’s own children without her trying to hide them. The cruel stepmother told anyone who would listen that she was forced to discipline her children harshly. The Crown was unable to establish any real motive for the accused to want to get rid of the child, said the lawyer for the defence. The marriage contract of the accused and her husband, which Maître Francoeur produced before the court, stated that the goods of either spouse would go to whichever one of them outlived the other.

The accused thus could not have wanted to kill her husband’s children for their money, since she was to inherit all of her husband’s goods after his death. Then why did she commit these crimes so openly? How can they be explained, save by insanity? Why did she not hide any of the instruments she used to inflict Aurore’s fifty-four wounds?

The accused did not prevent the neighbours from preparing Aurore’s body for burial and laying it out. She might have committed acts which seemed to indicate that she had an intelligent mind, but there are people in asylums who, even in their acts of insanity, perform acts which indicate intelligence. This woman burned a child, and then she treated her with ointment. Is that the act of a criminal mind? All the facts established before the Court lead us to conclude that the accused did commit these acts of cruelty, but that she is pardonable by reason of insanity.

The experts who testified on behalf of the defence swore that the accused suffered from mental debility and moral insanity, a disease probably resulting from the meningitis that she had when she was young, and from the many times she had borne children since she first married at 17 years of age.

The Crown paraded an imposing army of experts before us. Their opinions can be the subject of discussion, as can the opinions of the other experts. However, none of them could formally swear that the accused was responsible for her actions. There are many people who are insane but who do not prove it until they have the opportunity. They can reason well on all subjects save for one, on which they are “crazy.”

The plea of insanity exists in all civilized countries and dates very far back into history. Christ said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Maître Francoeur pointed out to the jury that their verdict will affect not one person but two, since the woman bears in her womb a child whose life may depend on the verdict they render.


Maître Arthur Fitzpatrick, one of the Crown Attorneys, then made a long speech. He described some of the acts of cruelty committed by the accused, reminding the court that the counsel for the defence had first tried to prove that Aurore Gagnon’s wounds were attributable to some illness. They had had to give up this attempt when faced with the monstrosity of the facts that came to light during the trial, and the defence had had to change its plan of attack and plead insanity.

Maître Fitzpatrick described the details of several of these acts of cruelty, to establish that they were committed with rare intelligence. The experts heard by the Crown all agreed that this woman was in possession of all her mental faculties. He named a number of famous crimes committed in this province, to which the perpetrators had pled insanity .

However, those perpetrators had been sentenced and had paid for their crimes with their lives. The Gagnon woman had martyred Aurore Gagnon in order to rid herself of the child. She succeeded, but God did not wish this crime to pass unnoticed and the hand of the law had borne down on her. Monsieur Fitzpatrick demanded a verdict in accordance with the evidence.

To be continued on page 23


Continued from page one


At twelve fifteen, Justice Pelletier began his charge. After having pointed out to the jury the importance of their duties in this trial, which is one of the most important ones to be held in this province in many years, he explained points of the law to the jurors.

He told them that there was a Court of Appeal and that, if he made any mistakes when he informed the jury about points of law, any verdict that would be reached could be overturned. “Moreover,” said the judge, “if one single judge from the Court of Appeal deems that I made a mistake, the case can be taken all the way to the Supreme Court.”

The judge explained the difference between voluntary homicide and manslaughter, and he explained what murder was. He cited various sections of the Criminal Code on this subject. In the present case, the judge believes that, if it was murder, it would fall under the second paragraph of Section 259, which says that there has been murder if a guilty person inflicted on the person killed blows or wounds that he knew to be capable of causing death. This is absolutely what applies in this case. The judge also pointed out that the accused can be sentenced only on the basis of a unanimous verdict.

The judge said that there were three possible verdicts that could be reached: murder, manslaughter, or insanity. There is no question of justifiable homicide, since the lawyer for the accused had not requested it. There can be no acquittal. At twelve forty, the judge adjourned the session until two o’clock in the afternoon.


When the sitting resumed yesterday afternoon, the Chief of Staff of the Beauport Asylum, one of the Crown’s psychiatrists, continued the testimony he had begun in the morning.

"The fact," he said, "that the worst of the atrocities were committed at times when the husband was generally away from home, especially in winter, proves that the accused realized that the consequences of her actions could be more or less serious depending on whether her husband was there or not. The same goes for the precautions the accused took by preventing the children from telling their father what was happening when he was away.

“The fact that, when the victim died, before calling for help, the accused washed the victim to get rid of the traces of blood appears to indicate that she was calculating the consequences that could result when strangers came to the house.

"There was talk," said Maître Fitzpatrick, "of mental debility and moral insanity.”
"Those are," said Doctor Brochu, "two permanent states found in those who suffer from insanity. Mental debility is generally manifested in the second part of childhood, at the time of puberty and adolescence."

"It doesn’t seem to me," he said, "that any evidence has been established before the court to make us believe that there was moral insanity, except perhaps during the times when she was pregnant.

"The Gagnon woman went to school. She knows how to read and write; she proved this in the letter she wrote in prison to her parents-in-law to gain their sympathy. It proves that she is as intelligent as anyone else would be in her situation.

"I stress the moral perversion of the accused."


Doctor Brochu believes that Télesphore Gagnon thought that Marie-Anne Houde was intelligent, since, after having had her under his supervision for two years, while his first wife was suffering from insanity, he married her. It is true that the husband had said that, when she was pregnant, he had to be careful not to cross her, but he didn’t think that this was a sign of mental degeneracy advanced enough to allow him to say that the moral sense of the accused was seriously affected.

As for the problems with her senses of taste and smell reported by Doctor Prévost, Doctor Brochu does not consider them to be of major significance with respect to her mental state. They would have to be corroborated and associated with other disorders that have not been observed.


There was talk of hallucinations, of the accused hearing voices and hearing her name spoken. This can easily be explained by the fact that, in the Quebec City prison, the accused could have easily heard the voices of the guards or other prisoners. She has interpreted these voices in her own way, but that is not important, since she displays no other signs of insanity.


Maître Fitzpatrick asked if, last August, when she was not in a delicate condition, the accused was not responsible when she committed the acts that she has been accused of committing at that time.

The witness said that that destroyed the theory that the cruelty she has been charged with can be attributed to her being in a delicate condition.

Maître Fitzpatrick asked whether the enormity of the crimes the accused allegedly committed is not a sign of mental illness.

The witness replied that it is in fact a sign of mental illness, but that sign would have to be accompanied by other sufficient signs. The series of acts appear to be coordinated, as is often the case in criminal cases. In his opinion, she began as all criminals do, following the principle, “Minor crimes always precede major crimes.” All her actions establish that the accused intelligently calculated to rid herself of the child, as she had mentioned doing on numerous occasions


"God blinds those he wishes to lose," said Doctor Brochu. “And that is why, as a last resort, after a series of blows, the accused finally gave lye to the child, knowing full well that it was capable of causing her death.”

From all that, Doctor Brochu concluded that the accused should be held responsible for her actions.


Questioned by Maître Francoeur, the counsel for the cruel stepmother, Doctor Brochu said that, with respect to the mistreatment of last summer, it was of no particular significance that, following the abuse, the accused treated the child and had others treat her. If she treated the child, it was to make herself look innocent.

As for the mistreatment inflicted since the accused had become pregnant, the witness admitted that her delicate condition could have aggravated her moral perversion, but that he believes that one cannot conclude that she is insane on that basis alone, in the absence of other signs.

Maître Francoeur tried to make the witness say that the very atrocity of the acts attributed to the accused is a sign of mental abnormality, but Doctor Brochu would admit no such thing.

Maître Francoeur asked if a truly intelligent person would not have used other means to rid herself of the child.

The witness replied that the means the accused used were those that a criminal is free to choose. In all instances, she used those means in an intelligent manner.

As for the supposed congenital degeneracy that is said to have resulted from her many pregnancies, Doctor Brochu said that this should have been flagrantly apparent, particularly in the extraordinary circumstances that she has just been through. On the contrary, all those who have just examined her have found her to be a normal person.


Maître Francoeur asked the clear question: "Do you swear that the accused should be held responsible for her acts?"

Doctor Brochu replied, "I am morally convinced of it, based on experience and science, but I could not swear to it absolutely."


The Crown then recalled this doctor to the stand. The defence objected, but the judge disregarded the objection.

Doctor Marois testified that the accused did not suffer from any kind of mental illness. The defence asked no questions of this witness.


This doctor, who is affiliated with the Beauport Asylum, had examined the accused to assess her mental state. He stated that the acts of cruelty with which she is accused could in no way be attributed to insanity.


The medical superintendent of the St. Jean de Dieu Asylum in Montreal, who had also examined the mental condition of the accused, stated that, in his opinion, this woman was of sound mind when she committed the acts with which she is charged.

In reply to Maître Francoeur, Doctor Devlin said that he had been appointed by the government and that Doctor Tétrault had been appointed Chief of Staff for the same hospital.


The Crown had not yet finished and called Doctor Wilfrid Derome of Montreal.

"I object to this twelfth expert,” said the defence. This objection was disregarded for form.

Doctor Derome had examined the mental state of the accused and stated that the acts the accused has been charged with cannot be attributed to insanity.

"You have no doubt about that?" asked Maître Francoeur.
"No," said Doctor Derome.
"Because, as Doctor Brochu said, although her actions were extraordinary, they must be corroborated by other previous actions in order for us to be able to conclude that she was insane."
"Are you able to swear that, at the time she committed the acts with which she is charged, the accused was of sound mind to the point of being responsible for her actions?"
"I believe so."
"Do you swear it?"
"I swear it."
"You are going further than Doctor Brochu," said Maître Francoeur as he concluded.

And that was the end of the examination.

"Are we to finish this evening?" asked Maître Francoeur.

Maître Fitzpatrick said that he was very tired and asked if the proceedings could be adjourned until ten o’clock this morning.

The judge consented.

Source: Correspondant La Presse, "Dernière phase d'une cause célèbre. La femme Gagnon connaîtra probablement à la fin du jour le sort que lui réservent les jurés de la cour d'Assises de Québec," La Presse (Montréal), April 21, 1920.

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