Update: January 24, 2024

Since this story was originally published, the City of Montreal has added a poster next to Metro Champs de Mars to make it clear that Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s park will be within the Place de Montrealais!

Thanks to Annie for letting me know, and thanks for everyone who made sure that her story is not forgotten!

Original Story, Dec. 20

For an hour on the first cold day of the year last month, I wandered around City Hall looking for the memorial park named after an enslaved woman whose torture led to her conviction for arson in 1734. She was then ridiculed, hanged, and her body was burned to ashes and thrown to the wind.

I couldn’t find it.

I’m not sure what happened from the time the park was created in 2012 to today, thirteen-and-a-half years later, but the one-time park still appears on Google Maps. In person, I couldn’t find anything to indicate where it might be.

According to various articles on the web, a green space just west of Champs de Mars métro station honours Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s memory. The official inauguration of the park took place on Aug. 23, International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, 2012.

As I walked through the area last month, the one-time park seemed to be encompassed in a massive construction site underway for Place des Montréalais, a new public space being created next to the Champ des Mars metro on Viger Street. The posters on site explaining the current project included nothing about Marie-Josèphe Angélique.

Despite being honoured with an award-winning film, a bronze plaque, lilies and a presentation by Governor General Michaelle Jean in 2006, and a public park created by the city of Montreal in 2012, she’s disappeared again.

Before this experience, I was already struggling to see Angélique as the symbol of freedom and resistance she serves for many, but I don’t want her to be forgotten. Did she set the fire or was she a convenient scapegoat? If she didn’t, who did? As I began exploring her story last month as part of a project for NANOWRIMO (the National Novel Writing Month), she served as a reminder of the kind of unnecessary suffering a biased political, policing and justice system can create. Despite the fact that she was a victim of slavery, hatred, spite, racism, class bullying and the worst that a mob could throw at her, her spirit remained strong and unrelenting.

Angélique proclaimed her innocence until the day she was tortured, throughout the court case, and through questioning. Despite that, three weeks after the fire, she was hanged, ridiculed publicly, then burned with her ashes tossed into the wind. Clearly, the authorities at the time wanted her punishment to be seen and remembered.

I read the details about Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s case on Torture and the Truth, a fabulous website set up in 2006 by multiple people, including one of my genealogical mentors, Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne and one of my historian mentors, Dorothy W. Williams. Both of these women have researched, written, spoken and taught many people about the history of Montreal and why studying it is so important.1

The site is one of thirteen different “historical cold cases” established for classrooms across Canada. It was created through the work of six writers, a photographer, an artist, and two translators collaborating with six funding agencies, seven production partners, and 15 archive and museum partners.

It is one of the best historical websites I’ve ever read. If you do nothing other than read through this site, you will get a good overview of the community, the victim arsonist, and life in early Montreal.

As I read about Angélique’s story, she sounded like just the kind of person anyone would like to get rid of. She was a woman who told people she would burn them alive in their homes. She said so to her owner for refusing to grant her freedom, to other slaves for making her work harder than she wanted and to others too. To anyone who slighted her, she threatened the worst thing she could think of. She would burn their homes down.

When 45 houses in her small community did in fact burn down, people blamed her. In retrospect, it may have been an accidental kitchen fire that caused the flames, but her words came back to haunt them all.

The fire began at 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening in spring, April 10, 1734. In only three hours, it destroyed 45 homes and businesses on Rue Saint Paul. Even the Hôtel-Dieu hospital and convent, where people initially took shelter, burned to the ground. Hundreds of people were left in the cold; supplies from many merchants burned, never to be seen again.

Plus, who knows how many caches of fur got wiped out. At that time, Montreal was the centre of the fur trade, more than half of which was illegal trading with the Dutch and English communities in Albany, Boston and other communities to the south. According to a 1942 thesis by Alice Jean Elizabeth Lunn, furs were stored in the backs of shops and even buried just beyond the Montreal wall, which was still under construction at that time, in order to be shipped without being seen by New France authorities. A lot of money went up in smoke that day.2

Everyone in Montreal knew about the fire, given that all the church bells throughout the city began ringing when it started and continued until it was over and people were safe again. Although stone buildings existed at the time, most of the buildings were made of wood; fire could destroy them all.

I had ancestors who lived in Montreal then, the Hurtubise clan on my father’s mothers side. One of them, Jean Hurtubise, the grandson of Étiennette Alton and Marin Hurtubese, was thirty-nine years old, ten years older than Angélique when the fire took place. He and his wife Marie-Jeanne (Marie-Anne ou Marianne) Tessereau had been married for seven years in 1734.

Jean was born in Ville Marie and lived in Montreal for his entire lifetime, so he and his family would have experienced the fire, at least from a distance. They certainly would have seen the ordinance compelling witnesses to appear, given that “it was posted and cried out everywhere in the city and its suburbs.”

Jean and his family farmed a 3×20 arpent property they bought three years earlier from Raphael Beauvais and Elisabeth Turpin on Rue Côte Saint-Antoine.”3 The property was in a part of Montreal that was considered the countryside at that time. Their home was then one of four wood houses on Côte Saint-Antoine in 1731.4

Given that the area was still very rural, and on a major hill, I can’t help but wonder. Did they see the smoke rising into the sky as the hospitals and 45 other buildings in Ville Marie were destroyed?

They certainly had strong links to Ville Marie, particularly the hospital. His grandmother, Etionnette Alton, had died there in her 84th year only two years earlier. They couldn’t have helped wondering what would happen to others like her, being treated in the hospital that the fire destroyed. Were they among the crowd clamouring for revenge? Did they go to Ville Marie to see Angelique hanged? Did they watch her corpse burning? Did they see her ashes spread into the wind? Did they care at all?

I can’t help but imagine that the controversial hanging effected all 2000 people who lived on the island that year. Five years after Angélique’s death, Jean built Hurtubise House, a storey-and-a-half fieldstone structure on land originally rented by his father in 1699 on Mount Royal. The family built the gabled home out of stone to protect themselves from fire, as required by a law passed the summer after Angelique’s death. You can still visit the home today.5


Tracey Arial

Unapologetically Canadian Tracey Arial promotes creative entrepreneurship as an author, cooperative business leader, gardener, family historian and podcaster.

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