Article first appeared in the Montreal Gazette on October 3, 2009.
Tucked in at the busy intersection of St. Catherine Street and de Lorimier Avenue in the city’s east end are the celebrated remains of the oldest public building on the Island of Montreal. Constructed from 1830 – 1836, Montreal’s ‘New Gaol’ was rapidly dubbed the ‘Pied-du-Courant’ Prison because of its proximity to the fast-moving St. Mary’s Current in the adjacent St. Lawrence River. At the time, the facility replaced an earlier jail that stood near the Champ-de-Mars.
No sooner had the new penitentiary been completed that it was used to incarcerate, at different times, over 1300 patriots who participated in the insurrections of 1837 and 1838. Twelve were even executed on that very site by the British colonial authorities of the day. The very public hangings took place over the main entrance (then located on what is today Notre Dame Street) of the prison and each execution contained its own particularly dramatic moment.
For instance, Joseph Duquette, at the age of 20 one of the youngest of the condemned patriots, was so paralyzed with fear that he had to be carried firmly to that ominous square atop the scaffold. Once there, the noose was too loosely affixed about the neck of the sobbing and trembling man. Regardless, the death trap was quickly sprung, causing him to crash face first into one of the beams below. The drop was so badly bungled by the hangman that the untoward Duquette was left dangling with the rope drawn tightly over his bloodied nose and mouth. Despite agonisingly pathetic pleas for his life from both himself and the dumbfounded crowd below, his bruised and battered body was dragged back to the scaffold, the rope reset, and the drop repeated, this time successfully. In all, twenty minutes of unmitigated horror.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the solid stone structure quickly thereafter took the name ‘La Prison des Patriotes’, a designation that stuck. Interestingly, the entirety of the late Pierre Falardeau’s epic 1999 film ‘February 15, 1839’ was shot within the walls of the old penitentiary.
The historic edifice was constructed following the model of a prison in Philadelphia which had been terminated just a few years earlier. There were three wings, one of which was reserved for women, quite an innovation for the period. It served as Montreal’s principal jail until it was replaced in the early twentieth century by Bordeaux Penitentiary in the city’s north end.
The imposing compound was originally meant to hold 225 prisoners and was simultaneously deemed to be sufficient for the ensuing two centuries. However, as the city’s population grew so did its level of urban crime and at times there were over 500 inmates within the besieged institution. Other offenders were sent to penal establishments as far away as Trois Rivières and Quebec City.
Today this jewel of Montreal heritage is owned by the Société des alcools du Québec that has, since 1921, unceremoniously used much of the building as a storage warehouse. However, aware of the location’s notable background, the SAQ sponsored the creation of an Interpretation Centre in the basement of a part of the prison which survives to this day and where the doomed patriots were held until the day of their deaths.
Much of this colourful display focuses on the role the jail played in the 1838-39 executions and the other 14 hangings of common criminals that took place throughout the years. In the latter category, one of the most notorious was that of Thorvald Hansen, a Danish drifter who had been in Montreal only a few days before brutally murdering Eric Marrotte, a seven-year old Westmount boy. For his totally unprovoked offense, Hansen was sent to the gallows within the walls of that same old prison on, appropriately enough, Friday, June 13, 1902.
Other interesting stories surface, however, including that of one daring convict who successfully escaped the dank structure by burrowing through a sewer conduit to eventual freedom. As unimaginable as it might seem, the desperado initiated his getaway by entering a 25 centimetre. latrine pipe which, when followed, emptied into a collector drain at the corner of Notre Dame and de Lorimier. He later emerged from the underground network some three kilometres away from the seemingly well-fortified prison! His pungent escapade rapidly earned the convict a folk – hero status within the city, and the outlaw was never recaptured.
The Interpretation Centre, which is located at 903 De Lorimier Avenue, offers curious visitors individualized guided tours that last about an hour and a half or, alternatively, the possibility of touring the centre on one’s own. There is no charge for either, and plenty of free parking. The museum is open Wednesday to Friday from 12 to 5, and Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 to 5:00. Telephone: 254-6000 extension 6245.
A heritage building like no other, ask for my guide, Francois, an extremely knowledgeable and welcoming young man.