From the archives February 1839 executions of patriotes were the last

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This story was first published on Feb. 18, 2001, in the Montreal Gazette.


Shortly after nine o’clock, the five unfortunate individuals appeared on the platform, attended by the Reverend gentleman who assisted them in their devotions on the awful brink of eternity.

Gazette, Saturday, Feb. 16, 1839


It would be one of the last acts in the tragedy of 1837 and 1838. After the executions that bright winter’s day of Charles Hindenlang, Francois Nicolas, Amable Daunais, Pierre-Remi Narbonne and Chevalier de Lorimier, no more patriotes would face the noose, martyrs to their cause.

The risings the two previous Novembers had profoundly shaken Lower Canada, and the authorities were determined to crack down hard on the renewed treason. Lord Durham’s amnesty after the first rebellion had not worked; the patriotes did not suddenly forget why they had taken up arms. So the velvet glove gave way to the hemp rope: this time, there would be no mollycoddling.

The trials, from late November 1838 to the following May, were conducted under martial law. While there would be recommendations of mercy, and indeed acquittals, it was clear that harsh examples were also going to be made. A gallows capable of accommodating half a dozen condemned men at a time was erected outside Montreal’s Pied du Courant jail even before the trials got under way.

The first to die were Joseph-Narcisse Cardinal and Joseph Duquette, on Dec. 21. Then, on Jan. 18, it was the turn of Joseph-Marie Robert, Francois-Xavier Hamelin, the Sanguinet brothers, Ambroise and Charles, and Pierre-Theophile Decoigne. The third group were taken on Feb. 15 (hence the title of Pierre Falardeau’s new movie, 15 Fevrier 1839).

Hindenlang, 28, was a French soldier who had arrived in Lower Canada the previous autumn anxious to join the patriotes’ renewed struggle. Narbonne was 33, a painter and sometime notary who had lost an arm in childhood. Nicolas, 41, was a teacher and Daunais, just 20, was a farm boy. The 35-year-old de Lorimier was a well established notary who had been active in the Patriote Party before the rebellions broke out.

On the night before their executions, a bizarre scene unfolded in the Montreal jail. A banquet table was set up in the main-floor corridor outside the cells. Candles were lit and, as other prisoners gathered about and their jailers looked on, the condemned men sat down to their last meal.

Or at least most of them: de Lorimier was consoling his wife at the other end of the corridor. When the order came for her to leave, she fainted and Lorimier had to carry her to friends waiting at the door. As it closed behind her, he said, ”The worst blow has been struck.” He then joined the banquet long enough to raise a glass of wine to his comrades before retiring to his cell to write his final letters, including a political testament in which he expressed the hope that British domination would some day pass.

Dawn came. The five men were taken from their cells and offered cups of coffee. Their arms were bound at their sides and their collars opened, the better to accommodate the rope that awaited them. The door swung open and as the crowd’s rumbling grew louder, they were led outside through parallel lines of soldiers to the waiting scaffold.

Also waiting was the hangman, a man named Humphrey, whom historian Joseph Schull describes as ”a folk-image of his trade … huge-handed, bent almost double, with no mask hiding his scarred, grotesque face.”

As Schull relates it, ”Hindenlang gasped and swayed as the sight struck him but de Lorimier touched his arm. ‘Courage, my friend.’ It was enough to recall the pride and restore the mask, and the soldier’s head snapped up. ‘Death is nothing to a Frenchman.”’

As he stood beneath the noose, he gave a short speech ending with ”Vive la liberte!” which The Gazette, ferociously opposed to the patriotes, dismissed with contempt (and skewed grammar): ”The real object of such expressions, uttered at such a moment, it is very difficult to imagine.”

Nicolas also spoke, and his words – at least as reported – suited The Gazette’s agenda: ”He fervently prayed that his countrymen might take warning by his fate, and expressed an ardent hope that fathers and mothers of children would instill into their hearts sentiments … of liberality and affection for all mankind, of whatever country or religion.”

Daunais, Narbonne and de Lorimier did not speak, yet there may have been a ghastly eloquence in Narbonne’s death. His single arm was not properly pinioned and as he fell through the trap he was able to grasp the rope above him. Humphrey kicked at his hand once, twice; the third time, his grip failed and he fell to his death. Two months before, the execution of Duquette had also been botched; the misplaced noose had failed to snap his neck, and the awful Humphrey dragged the half-strangled man back up and dropped him through again. All in all, it took him 20 minutes to die.

Those two very public horrors, Duquette’s death and Narbonne’s, may have done something to sicken even the stoniest officials and ordinary Montrealers. More prisoners would join those already condemned to death, but all would be reprieved. Exile to Australia would be the fate of 58; there would be no more executions.

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