Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

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La Presse, April 22, 1920, p. 1



The Honourable Justice Pelletier sobs as he sentences the Gagnon woman to hang on Friday, October 1 of this year. The eminent magistrate is so overcome with emotion that a bailiff has to support him as he leaves the courtroom. – The jury did not deliberate for long.


The odious shrew collapses, wailing, and the guards drag her from the dock after her sentence is pronounced. – An alienist is sharply reprimanded by the judge.


(From the correspondent of La PRESSE)
Quebec City, 22.-The cruel stepmother Marie-Anne Houde, the wife of Télesphore Gagnon of Ste. Philomène de Fortierville, accused of murdering her ten-year-old daughter Aurore Gagnon, the little martyr, was found guilty by the jury at the Quebec Assizes and was sentenced by the Honourable Justice L. P. Pelletier to hang in Quebec City on Friday, October 1 of this year.

Such is the result of the trial which has lasted eight days and which has inflamed public opinion as no other case has done for many years.

Although the judge had decreed at the beginning of the proceedings that the trial would be held behind closed doors, the courtroom was packed to overflowing yesterday afternoon. First lawyers, then doctors, and then students had been allowed to enter. The result was that, in the end, all who wanted to attend the trial were able to find their way into the courtroom.

The scene that took place when the jury declared the cruel stepmother guilty of murder and when she was sentenced to death was the most dramatic that we have ever had the opportunity to witness.

Everyone, from the judge to the most hardened of spectators, was moved to the very bottom of his being. Many eyes were wet with tears.

After she was sentenced to hang, the Gagnon woman, who has until now been utterly stoic, burst into noisy sobs.

No one was surprised by the jury’s verdict, especially after the extraordinary charge that Justice Pelletier had delivered against the accused.


The judge delivered the charge with the skill and expertise of a consummate jurist. But when it came to pronouncing the death sentence, he was almost unable to complete this thankless task. As he condemned the unhappy woman, his words were broken by sobs. A bailiff had to help him walk as he left the courtroom.

We venture to say that this is the last murder trial that Justice Pelletier will preside.


Judge Pelletier reconvened proceedings at exactly two o’clock.

“The counsel for the defence,” said the judge, “was correct when he told you that there were three possible verdicts: murder, manslaughter, or insanity. But I do not agree with him when he says that you could reach a verdict of justifiable homicide. Such a verdict would be worthless.”

Proceeding to the examination of the facts, the judge said that there could be no doubt as to the cause of death.

Doctor Marois, who performed the autopsy, swore that death was caused by the 54 wounds that the child had suffered. Attempts had been made to diminish the credibility of the doctors who work for the government. The fact that Doctor Marois has been the doctor in charge of autopsies for the government for the past twenty years proves that he has had the trust of all the governments who have been in power during that time, both Bleu and Rouge. Doctor Lafond also attributed the cause of death to the infection of those 54 wounds and lesions.

Both the defence and the Crown have agreed that the wounds were serious. The Crown Attorney even used the word “monstrosity.”

“I would not have gone so far,” said the judge, “but since this word was first used by the defence, I do not hesitate to say that these were monstrosities.

“Someone who commits monstrosities is either a criminal or an insane person.”


The judge then reminded the jury that it was established that the child’s 54 wounds could all have been healed. The child did not receive the necessary treatment. Télesphore Gagnon had the means to have his children treated. His father had given him three plots of land; he owned 25 head of livestock; his neighbours said that he was a man “of means.” The father left for work early in the morning, and the accused was supposed to take care of his children, and to treat them, or to have them treated.

When the child was first hurt last summer, Doctor Lafond had observed that the dressings he had ordered had not been applied, and that is why he had sent the child to the hospital.

In describing the lack of care, the judge included the lye spread on bread. Instead of medication, the accused served the child lye.

The child had been sturdy and healthy. When she died, she was extraordinarily thin. Even without considering the other facts, the child’s loss of weight was

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an element of proof of lack of care.

On January 16, Madame Hamel went to the Gagnons’ and saw what a dreadful state little Aurore was in. Like any good mother, she told the accused to send for the doctor. And what did the accused say? “We’re not going to spend $50 on her. Let her die, and I won’t shed a tear.” What terrible words! She wanted the child to die!

Three days before Aurore died, Madame Lemay saw the child and told the accused, “Your daughter is going to die. Send for the doctor!” The accused agreed to have a call placed to the doctor, but recommended that the doctor not be told that it was for Aurore. Why not? No doubt because Doctor Lafond was all too aware of Aurore’s situation.


In the face of the Crown’s evidence, the defence deemed it best to plead insanity.

Anyone is presumed to be of sound mind until he is proven to be insane. It is not enough to say, “I am insane.” That would make it very easy for criminals. All they would have to do at their trials would be to declare themselves insane.

A man who kills another man is always a little insane. A man who leaves Montreal to go and steal $1300 in Kenogami and who kills his victim seems to me to be a little insane. Why kill to steal, when there are so many ways to steal without killing! This is a type of insanity. But such men are criminals nonetheless.

The judge reminded the court of the words of Christ that Maître Francoeur had quoted: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But the judge did not interpret these words the same way that Maître Francoeur had. Christ was pardoning his executioners because they didn’t know, or didn’t want to believe, that he was the son of God; but no one is seriously going to believe that the people who participated in the death of Christ were insane.


The distinction must be made between insane people and criminals. In years gone by, the insane were considered criminals and were sent away to be punished or executed. Today, they are locked up in asylums in an attempt to cure them.

The judge then cited the Criminal Code concerning responsibility in such a case. Section 19 of the Criminal Code says that no one can be held responsible for a criminal act if it is established that, at the time the act was committed, the person suffered from natural imbecility or a mental illness such that the person was incapable of judging that he was doing something wrong.

Is the accused insane? That is the big question.


The accused took precautions to hide her acts. The children were not supposed to talk, and the fact that the children did not tell the truth to the coroner proves that she was starting to succeed. As long as the children were under the supervision of the accused, they did not talk. It was only when their grandfather, Gédéon Gagnon, told them to tell the truth, after the accused had been arrested, that they decided to talk and told the truth.

It was thus that we were able to witness the painful but convincing sight of these children coming forward to testify truthfully against this woman. Her own son, Gérard Gagnon, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, bone of her bone, respecting the sanctity of his holy oath, was the strongest witness against his mother. Providence truly intervened.


The judge then cited the Thaw affair, wherein a millionaire succeeded in passing himself off as insane with the help of very skillful experts, only then to hire yet other experts, at even more expense, to see to having him released from the asylum.

It was only after the children revealed her monstrous acts that the accused decided to plead insanity. She hadn’t thought to do so before that. If the children had not spoken up, the evidence would have been quite weak and the accused would not have discovered that she was suffering from insanity.

The witnesses that the defence presented to establish the insanity of the accused – her husband, her father, and her brother – were not able to identify one single act of madness that she had committed in her entire life. The husband had already had the misfortune of being married to a woman who went mad, and, after having the accused live and work in his home, he married her. We have to believe that he would not have wanted to marry another insane woman.


The judge had some very scathing words for Doctor Prévost from Montreal, the expert professional who had found this woman insane after a few hours of examination, when others who knew her found her to be normal. He thought that this expert witness was more to be pitied than blamed, and that he had received some powerful help with his testimony.

"The delicate condition of the accused," said the judge, "is a major point of the defence, but the accused did not commit acts of cruelty only when she was with child. Marguerite Lebeuf described acts of cruelty that the accused perpetrated on Aurore last August, when she was not in a delicate condition."

After citing these acts of cruelty, the judge pointed out that when the defence asked Doctor Prévost its hypothetical question, it had omitted these facts as well as several others. Had these facts been included in the hypothetical question, Doctor Prévost’s answer might well have been different. The hypothetical question had said that there were no motives for hatred. The accused had told Madame Badeau that she was afraid that her husband’s children would disrupt her marriage. There was also the motive of financial interest.


As for the ghosts that the accused claimed to see, and voices she claimed to hear, and the problems with her senses of taste and smell that caused her to mistake ham for eel, the judge said that the accused had said these things to Doctor Prévost and Doctor Tétrault to make them believe that she was insane. These things should have been proved before the jury. The father and the husband of the accused had never noticed these extraordinary disorders.

“If your wives,” said the judge, “had problems with their senses of taste and smell so extreme that they mistook eel for ham and ham for eel, don’t you think that you would know about it, that you would notice it?”

The judge was less harsh with Doctor Tétrault, who had been less categorical and who had not concluded "ex cathedra" as had Doctor Prévost.

In any case, five experts said that the accused was of sound mind, and two said that she was insane. Five against two – the weight of the evidence was against the accused.

Moreover, the judge preferred to believe people who had known the accused and who said that she was intelligent, rather than the testimony of two experts who had examined her for a few hours.


The letter that the accused had written in prison to her parents-in-law proved that the woman, far from being insane, was very intelligent. If everyone who wrote letters like that was declared insane, we would need to build more asylums.

The judge cited a number of precautions that the accused had taken to conceal her actions from her husband and others and to smear Aurore’s reputation so as to justify her mistreatment of the child.

The Crown’s evidence was extremely weak. The plea of insanity was only found at the last minute because there was no other defence to mount.

The fact that this woman is pregnant should not influence the jury’s decision. If a woman in a delicate condition can commit any crime with impunity, it would become dangerous. A woman in a delicate condition could rob your home and say to those who arrested her, “Don’t touch me. I am carrying a child; I am not responsible.”


As for the child that this woman is bearing, there is no need to fear for his life. The law allows for that: a woman cannot be hanged while she is carrying a child. "I will see to this myself. I give my word. We are not a society of barbarians."


The judge then explained the consequences of the verdicts that could be reached. A verdict of insanity would send the accused to an asylum. A verdict of manslaughter would result in her being sentenced to prison for a period varying from 24 hours to life. A verdict of murder would condemn her to the gallows, but if it were accompanied by a recommendation for clemency on the part of the Court, the Governor-in-Council could commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

There are men who have been sentenced to be hanged and who are walking the streets today. In the past four years, in our country, 46 people who have been sentenced to death have been reprieved or else their sentences have been commuted.

The judge said that the jury, if absolutely necessary, had the right to reach a verdict of manslaughter but that, as a magistrate, wanting to see the law strictly applied, he could not recommend such a verdict to the jury. In his own personal interest, he would like to be able to authorize the jury to reach such a verdict, but he could not do so.

In concluding, the judge asked God to bless the jurors and enlighten them.

The judge completed his charge at 4:15. He had spoken for two hours without interruption. Before lunch, he had spoken for half an hour. His charge thus lasted two and three quarter hours.


Immediately after receiving the judge’s charge, the jury retired to deliberate. Scarcely one quarter of an hour later, at 4:30, the judge returned to the courtroom and announced that the jury had reached its verdict. He asked the spectators not to display any reaction when the verdict was pronounced.

Then the jurors returned to the courtroom, each one answering to his name. One of the members of the jury, Théophile Huot, was their spokesman.


In reply to the formal question asked by Monsieur Charles Gendron, the court clerk, as to whether the accused was guilty of the crime of murder for which she was charged, the jury spokesman replied, "Guilty."

The verdict was greeted by a deathly silence in the courtroom.

"Are you unanimous?" asked the clerk.
"Yes," replied all the jurors.
"That will be all," said the judge. "You are free to stay or go. I thank you. You have done your duty."


Maître Francoeur asked the judge when he would be ready to hear some questions of law that he would like to raise.

The judge advised Monsieur Francoeur to confer with his advisor, Monsieur Lemieux, to choose a day the following week.

The judge then suspended the session for fifteen minutes.


While the proceedings were in recess, the Gagnon woman sobbed behind her heavy black veil.

The judge did not return for what seemed a long time.

The people in the courtroom found the wait long. The prisoner must have found the wait long as well.

At 4:55, the judge returned to the bench.

Maître Fitzpatrick asked that the prisoner be given the death sentence.


On the order of the judge, the court usher exclaimed,

"Marie-Anne Houde, rise!"

The prisoner stood up with difficulty.

Monsieur Alphonse Pouliot, the senior court clerk, asked the prisoner,

"Do you have anything to say so that the death sentence will not be pronounced against you?"

The prisoner remained silent for a few seconds. Then she could be heard to mutter a few incomprehensible words.

Monsieur Francoeur rose and said:

"On behalf of my client, I declare that she has nothing to say."

The judge then put on his black tricorn. He was visibly upset, very upset. He held his head in both his hands. With extreme effort, he said:

“You have been found guilty of murder. I agree with the jury’s verdict. You have understood my comments. I have nothing to add.

“The Court sentences you to be taken to the public prison of the district of Quebec and to be detained there until the first of next October when, at eight o’clock in the morning, you will be hanged by your neck until dead.

“May the Good Lord forgive you and be with you.”

The judge then retired to his chamber, sobbing.

The prisoner, who had until then been crying silently, broke into noisy sobs. She cried out, cried out and collapsed. It was distressing. The prison guards supported her as she left the dock.

And so concluded this sad affair!

Source: Correspondant La Presse, "La justice humaine venge l'enfant martyre. La condamnation à mort prononcée contre la marâtre de Sainte-Philomène donne lieu à de dramatiques incidents aux Assises de Québec ," La Presse (Montréal), April 22, 1920.

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