By Mireille Mayrand-Fiset
When wandering around the streets of Old Montreal, one may come across a public square facing City Hall named Place Marie-Josèphe Angélique. Most people will not give much thought to it, unaware that the woman who gave her name to the square was once accused of setting fire to the very streets they are walking on.
Marie-JosephAngélique was a black slave who lived in New France during the early eighteenth century. Her fascinating story reveals a facet of our history that remained hidden for a long time and that is, still today, widely unknown to the public: the presence of slaves in New France.
The story of Marie-Joseph Angélique
Marie-Joseph was born in Madeira, Portugal, one of the most important cities of the Atlantic slave trade market. At the age of 15, she was sold and brought to the New World.
She first lived in New England, until François Poulin de Francheville, a French businessman, bought her and brought her to his home in Montreal. De Francheville died not long after her arrival, but Marie-Joseph was still owned by his wife, Therese de Couagne. It is she who renamed Marie-Joseph “Angélique,” after her dead daughter.
Unlike the common idea one might have of a slave, Marie-Joseph Angélique had a fiery temper, was stubborn and willful. Not long after her arrival in Montreal, she got involved in a romantic relationship with François Thibault, a white servant who also worked for the Francheville widow. The Montreal community disapproved of this union between a black woman and a white man.
In the midst of winter 1734, the pair intended an escape: they fled together, by night, across the frozen St. Lawrence River. They were hoping to get to New-England and, from there, back to Europe. But bad weather forced them to stop not far from Montreal, and they were quickly discovered by the militia and escorted back to town.
Angélique was sent back to the widow Francheville and her intended escape went unpunished. Thibault, on the other hand, was sent to prison. Angélique continued to visit him during his imprisonment, providing him food and support, despite her mistress’s disapproval. Thibault was released two months later, on April 8th 1734, two days before the fire of Montreal.
The Fire of Montreal
April 10th, 1734, was an exceptionally mild day in Montreal. Around 6:30pm on that Saturday, most of the community was attending the evening prayers. As they were making their way back to their homes, the sentry sounded the alarm: fire! A fire had started on the south side of rue St-Paul.
Chaos ensued. The military tried to tame down the fire, but it got so strong, so fast that it was almost impossible to get close to it. Montrealers, in panic, hoped to enter their burning houses so they could save furniture and belongings from the flames. But a strong wind propagated the fire and not much could be saved: in less than 3 hours, 46 houses were burned, including the hotel-Dieu hospital. Luckily, no one died.
Accusation of Marie-Joseph
Quickly, rumor started that the widow Francheville’s slave Marie-Joseph Angélique and her lover Thibault were responsible for the fire. Many people said that Angélique was in an agitated mood that evening. Others claimed they saw her going up the stairs of the Francheville house minutes before the fire was declared. And the coincidence of the release of Thibault, her lover whom she had tried to escape with not long ago, arose suspicions. Was the pair trying to create a diversion before they would flee again? Was an angry and rebellious Angélique trying to make a statement, because her owner did not accept her love with Thibault and refused to grant her freedom?
Nevertheless, the angry Montrealers, frustrated by their losses, were looking for a scapegoat. The day after the fire, Angélique was arrested, despite the fact that she had firmly denied causing the fire. The authorities searched in vain for Thibault: he had fled and was never seen again in New France.
Trial, Torture and Execution
The arrest of Angélique began an exceptionally long judiciary process. Her trial lasted six weeks, uncommon in New France, where trials lasted no more than a few days.
22 persons – rich and poor, men and women – testified against Marie-Joseph Angélique. All admitted that they did not see Angélique start the fire, but they were unanimously convinced of her guilt. Only her mistress, the widow Francheville, stood up for her slave, persuaded of her innocence.
Despite the fact that everyone wanted her to be guilty, the judge responsible for the case, Pierre Raimbault, reputed for his severe judgments, had nothing solid against Angélique. Nothing, until a new witness appeared out of nowhere, after six weeks of trial: Amable Lemoine Monière, the five-year-old daughter of Alexis Lemoine, a merchant. The little girl swore under oath that she had seen Angélique going to the attic of the Francheville house holding a shovel full of coals, just before the fire.
Amable’s testimony sealed Angélique’s fate: although she kept claiming her innocence, she was condemned to death. She was submitted to the torture of the boot – wood planks bound to the prisoner’s legs, squeezing them and crushing the bones – before her execution, in order to make her name her accomplices. Under torture she admitted the crime, but, begging for mercy and for a quick death, she maintained she was acting alone.
Marie-Joseph Angélique was hanged on June 21, 1734, in front of the burned buildings of Old Montreal. Her body was then burnt and her ashes scattered.
Innocent Victim or Fierce Arsonist?
Historians such as Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, author of the Le Procès de Marie-Josèphe Angélique (Beaugrand-champagne, 2004), believe it is clear that Angélique did not start the fire. They argue that she was just the unfortunate victim of incriminating circumstances, rumors and discrimination. But for others, like historian and poet Afua Cooper, who wrote The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (University of Georgia Press, 2007) and who dedicated 15 years of her professional life to research on Marie-Joseph Angélique, the woman undoubtedly started the fire in a gesture of rebellion and her actions were a cry for the freedom of African American slaves.
History will never tell if Marie-Joseph Angélique truly was guilty of setting Montreal on fire. But her story and the people she represents should be remembered.
Mireille Mayrand-Fiset is a travel, music and theater enthusiast. She writes for the stage and television, and is working as a freelance blogger for Tourism Montreal, an organization that recommends hotels in Montreal.
If you would like to learn more about Marie-Joseph Angélique, we invite you to check out our educational website: Torture & the Truth: Angélique & the Burning of Montreal. This bilingual site offers an extensive collection of primary documents, images and maps. There is also a teachers guide with lesson plans, mysteryquests, etc. The site was developed by historians as part of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project, which is based in the History Department at the University of Victoria. http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/indexen.html
I’m doing a project on her!!