In the spring of 1734, a fire occurred in Montréal that destroyed a hospital and 45 houses on rue Saint-Paul. Criminal proceedings were soon underway against Marie-Josèphe dite Angélique, a Black slave, and her White lover, Claude Thibault. The latter fled, leaving Angélique on her own to prove her innocence.
Some twenty witnesses filed before the judge, all of them convinced that the slave of the widow Francheville was guilty, yet not one of them saw her set the fire.
Among the witnesses, Marie, an Amerindian slave, claimed that the accused had intended to do her mistress in by fire, while Jeanne Tailhandier dit Labaume realised, too late, that she had contributed to the spread of the rumour. Others, such as Louise Poirier dit Lafleur, a domestic of the widow Francheville, spoke of the wicked character of the accused and Marguerite César dit Lagardelette, a person not of sound mind, maintained that the accused was particularly agitated prior to the fire.
Ultimately, Angélique would be found guilty based on one late and mysterious statement by a five-year old girl. Forced to confess her crime under torture, she was publicly executed on June 21, 1734.
According to the authorities of the colony, the accused set the fire “out of wickedness” and to conceal her plan to escape. This hypothesis has been taken up by most authors who have written on the crime. However, in reading the original documents, you will discover that doubt persists as to the guilt of the accused. Founded solely on public rumour, the proof deemed sufficient by the lieutenant-general (judge) and his counsellors remains inconclusive. As for Thibault, the presumed accomplice, he was never found and charges against him were dropped.
This site will take you back to the Montréal of 1734 and its daily way of life. You will discover how a colonial city functioned, its people, its housing and its constant fear of fires.
You will come across not only original documents on the trial itself but also 18th century documents that will provide you with an insight into French colonial society, Montréal men and women, and slavery in Nouvelle-France. You will be able to read documents on the administration of justice, the criminal court system and its application, the use of torture, and the role and duties of various officers of the court.
Reading through archival documents on the trial, you will hear the depositions submitted by witnesses; you will consider the interrogations; you will discover the daily way of life led by the rich and their servants; you will be present at the torture session and execution of the accused.
We invite you first to allow this period in the history of the judicial system of Nouvelle-France to unfold before your eyes, and then to assume the role of the judge and render your own verdict on this important chapter of Canadian history: Angélique, was she guilty or not guilty? What was her motive? Was there sufficient proof to sentence her? Was there enough of an enquiry? Was the fire accidental?
You will also notice that this story currently has significant echoes in different types of productions: monographs, documentary film, novels and plays. It is also incorporated in exhibitions at the Centre d'histoire de Montréal (1734 The Trial of Angélique. Who Set Fire to Montréal ?) and at the Musée du Château Ramezay (Crime and Punishment).