Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

Marie-Anne Houde Escapes Hanging

During the last months that Marie-Anne Houde spent in prison prior to the date of her hanging, which was scheduled for October 1, 1920, a campaign to spare her life emerged. Citizens of Quebec and Ontario, mainly English-speaking ones, probably imbued with reformist spirit, supported commuting her death sentence to life imprisonment. This campaign unfolded mainly during August and September and took the form of a series of letters and petitions sent to the Minister of Justice in Ottawa. But support for the idea of commuting the sentence of “Aurore’s cruel stepmother” was far from unanimous, especially in French-speaking Quebec. Various parties – including Justice Pelletier, who had passed the sentence – wrote to the Minister to express their opposition to this campaign for clemency. However, following repeated appeals from citizens, as well as the rise of groups who increasingly opposed the death penalty in general, the sentence of Marie-Houde was indeed commuted to life imprisonment.

Marie-Anne Houde was not the last woman to be condemned to death in Quebec. However, not all the others would be lucky enough to have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. In the Bordeaux jail in Montreal, three women were hanged in 1935, 1940, and 1953 respectively. The last woman to be hanged in Canada was Marguerite Pitre, accused of having participated in a conspiracy that killed 23 people when an airplane exploded in mid-flight. She was hanged at the Bordeaux jail in 1953.

The Canadian Prisoners’ Welfare Association, with Robert Bickerdike at its head, was very active in the campaign to commute the sentence of Marie-Anne Houde. Robert Bickerdike was a pioneer in the movement to abolish capital punishment in Canada. He presented bills to the House of Commons for several consecutive years (from 1914 to 1917), to no avail. The death penalty was finally abolished in Canada in 1976, but it had been unofficially suspended since 1962, the year that the last hangings took place.

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Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History