The Corriveau of Legend is a woman who killed several husbands and was condemned to be hanged and put in chains in an iron cage. She scarred travellers. But there was a real Corriveau, Marie-Josephte Corriveau (1733 -1763).
Les Anciens Canadiens
In Philippe Aubert de Gaspé‘s Les Anciens Canadiens, as Jules and Arché travel from the Jesuit College in Quebec City to the Gaspé family’s manoir, Arché is told about La Corriveau.
The Real Corriveau
Marie-Josephte Corriveau (1733 at Saint-Vallier, Quebec – 18 April 1763 at Quebec City) was married at the age of 16 to Charles Boucher, 23, a farmer. She gave birth to three children, but Charles died on 27 April 1760. At the time, his widow was not suspected of murder.
Marie-Josephte remarried on 20 July 1761, to another farmer from Saint-Vallier, Louis Étienne Dodier, who was found dead on 27 January 1763. He had wounds to his head and it was suggested he had been trampled by horses. There was an inquiry into his death and Marie-Josephte was suspected of murdering him. She was tried, convicted and condemned to death.
To protect her, her father took the blame for the murder. She was his only surviving child. However, before being put to death, he told his confessor about his lie and, as a result, the real murderess was tried in Quebec City, convicted of murder and hanged on 18 April 1763. What is told in a confessional cannot be revealed, but it would appear the priest talked.
The dissemination of the Legend
Of particularly interest is the fact that the Corriveau was to be exposed to the public view, put in chains in a cage, called gibbet, at Pointe-Lévy. She was to remain exposed until 25 May at the earliest. She was then buried.
Never had a body been exposed to the public in the land that had just become the Province of Québec. There was a culture shock. Moreover, it was presumed that if she had killed her second husband, she may also have killed her first husband. The number of murdered husbands kept growing, and a legend was born.
The Nineteenth Century and the importance of folklore and legends
Moreover, during the nineteenth century, as of the Congress of Vienna (September, 1814 to June, 1815) to be precise, the final act of which was signed nine days before Napoléon’s final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, many countries were wiped off the map of Europe. So people started to gather folklore. It was a way of giving themselves an identity.
It is not surprising therefore that, in answer to Lord Durham’s[i] deprecatory remarks to the effect that Canadiens were “a people with no literature and no history,” French-speaking Canadians were galvanized into creating a literary homeland including in their writings all the legends they could dig up.
So, the new relevance given folklore (songs, myths, legends, the supernatural) would explain why Aubert de Gaspé inserted legends and a few strange characters into his Anciens Canadiens. Jules’s mother tells a fascinating legend about a woman who has lost her daughter and is finally made to see that her dead daughter is quite literally drowning in the tears her mother is shedding. Moreover, Aubert de Gaspé creates a sorceress, Marie, whose predictions and prophecies come true. Finally, Jules tells Arché about the feu-follet (the will-o’-the-wisp).
Where la Corriveau is concerned, in the years following her execution, she was basically forgotten, but according to Wikipedia, the 1849 “discovery of the iron cage buried in the cemetery of St-Joseph parish (now the Lauzon district) served to reawaken the legends and the fantastic stories, which were amplified and used by 19th century writers[,]” and beyond. Folklore had been legitimized. Between 1849 and 2006, La Corriveau inspired eighteen stories or works of art. But Aubert de Gaspé was the first to tell about La Corriveau.
I should point out again, but for different reasons, that the Corriveau was the first person to be executed after the Treaty of Paris, which means that when Archibald Cameron of Locheill travelled to the d’Haberville’s manoir, la Corriveau had yet to perform her dastardly deed. Arché went to the Manoir several years before the Corriveau was hanged and then suspended in a chained gibbet. So it is not possible for Archibald Cameron of Locheill to have been grabbed by her body.
Fortunately, fiction has its prerogatives. We must therefore give Aubert the Gaspé some latitude in the name of poetic licence and good storytelling. Fiction and the art have their own rules which allow even the idealization of New France. I have looked upon Gaspé’s idealization of the past as a flaw, but I have since meditated upon this matter, fiction in particular, and revised my last blog accordingly, but not drastically.
For instance, Blanche remains too pure. She knows that as a British soldier, Archibald had to follow orders and burn down the Manoir. She knows it broke him. She therefore forgives him and so does Jules. Consequently, there is more to Blanche’s story, but she will not marry Arché.
La Corriveau, illustration by Charles Walter Simpson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The nineteenth-century is Edgar Allan Poe’s century. In former years one had dreaded the supernatural, but Victor Hugo was communicating with the dead.
La Corriveau’s skeleton terrorising a traveller one stormy night.[ii]
[i] John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham GCB, PC (12 April 1792 – 28 July 1840)
© Micheline Walker
1 April 2012
updated 23 October 2014