published in storytime tapestry and gather.com
I think that most Americans are familiar with the legend of how Mrs. O”Leary’s cow knocked down a lantern and caused the Great Chicago Fire on October 9, 1871. If you haven’t you can refer to my sources below. People are obsessed with blaming someone or something with causing a whole city to burn down.
I am also fascinated with the legend of how Montreal was burned to the ground in 1734. The legend has it that a black slave woman by the name of Angelique started the fire. She was a very willful woman and burnt down the city for spite. How much of this story is true, will not be known due to the torture she had to endure before she confessed under duress.
Angelique was a Portuguese Black slave woman in New France later to be known as Quebec. The full slave name given to her by her owners was Marie-Josephe Angelique. Angelique was born in Portugal around 1710 and transported to the New World during the Atlantic Slave Trade era.
Angelique first lived in New England and then was sold to a French trading family in 1725. She was expected to do the chores for the Francois De Poulin Du Francheville household and to breed with other slaves. Angelique refused to breed with the other black slaves and took a white lover, a servant by the name of Claude Thibault who was also a member of the household.
After the dead of Du Francheville, she became the property of his wife, Therese de Couagne. It is said that de Couagne beat her for years. Futhermore, at the time of the death of Francheville, Angelique was to be sold. She asked for her liberty but de Couagne refused. De Couagne felt threatened by Angelique who had allegedly vowed to burn her and so she sold Angelique to a French government official by the name of Francois-Etienne Cugnet. In order to appease Angelique and stave off her anger, De Couagne suggested that the new owner might free her.
On October 9, 1871, while Angelique was still living with Therese de Couagne, the hospital and Convent Hotel-Dieu and 45 residences on Saint Paul Street was burned down. Today St. Paul Street is one of the most important streets in the tourist sector called Old Montreal.
It was said that Angelique and her lover were the culprits. There were 20 witnesses who claimed that this was what happened yet not one of these witness ever saw Angelique, the slave of the widow Francheville actually commit the crime. What they saw was her running from the scene shouting fire. Angelique actually helped with saving the belongings of the owner.
Her lover was no help. He fled the scene and left Angelique to stand trial on her own. Marie, an Amerindian slave, claimed Angelique wanted to kill her owner in the fire, and other witnesses such as Louise Poirier dit Lafleur said she had a bad character. There was even a testimony by Marguerite César dit Lagardelette, who was perhaps not even sane at the time.
The only evidence the courts had to actually convict Angelique was the testimony of a five-year-old little girl named Amable who claimed she had seen Angelique set the fire. However in those years, the court did rely on public testimony however flimsy as proof of a crime.
Angelique was tortured in order to extract her confession. She was beaten and then they crushed her legs with an instrument called “the boot.” The beating was customary for arson cases but the boot was reserved for prisoners sentenced to death. Why was she given this punishment, why was she even sentenced to death? The punishment seemed harsh, she was an arsonist by the days standards, but she had not killed anyone.
One has to wonder why this extra cruel punishment was administered upon her. She was executed on June 21, 1734. According wikipedia, “after torture, she confessed to the crime, but claimed to have done it alone. Angélique was sentenced to be burnt alive and to have her hands cut off, but the Superior /council in Quebec City altered her death sentence to hanging in a public ceremony presumably saving her hands. This altered sentenced involved her being driven through town tied in the back of a cart wearing a sign reading “arsonist”; the drive included a stop at the church where she was made to kneel and beg for forgiveness from God, the King of France, and her fellow subjects (a process known as “amende honorable”). Personally I wonder how she could do that with her legs broken by the boot.
She was hanged and once dead, her body was burned and her ashes scattered.”
The courts concluded, “the accused set the fire out of wickedness and to conceal her plan to escape.”
There is no actual proof of Angelique setting the fire. It was all based on public hearsay, and the testimony of a five year old little girl.