Previously published in the Westmount Examiner circa. 2006
The Sunday morning of October 27, 1901 was unlike any in Westmount’s history. The town awoke to horrific news, the like of which Westmounters had never known. The night before, around 6:30 in the evening, Eric Alyne Marrotte, a young seven-year-old neighbourhood boy, was brutally murdered by one Thorvald Hansen, a drifter from Copenhagen, who had for several days been roaming the streets of Montreal looking for work. The motive for this heinous crime turned out to be a paltry seventeen cents with which the aggressor, already inebriated, had hoped to buy yet another bottle of whiskey!
Little Eric was the third of four boys born to Samuel Marrotte and Louisa Frothingham Murray. The child’s disposition was such that “he was a favourite with all and though not eight years of age he had begun to exhibit an interest in things that puzzled much older boys”.
That Saturday afternoon “one of the dearest children that ever lived in Westmount” attended his first and last dancing lesson at the Westmount Dancing Academy. Upon leaving the school, or so his friends recalled, he was heard to be jingling some coins in his trouser pocket. From the academy, the young boy headed for his grandmother’s, Mrs. J. S. Murray, on Greene Avenue. He left there just after six for the short walk home, never to be seen alive again.
His family lived at 31 Hillside Avenue, at the corner of Hillside Lane (today where stands the building which houses the Royal Canadian Engineers, immediately adjacent to Westmount High School). Descending Metcalfe Avenue from St. Catherine Street, the little boy took a popular path that cut through the northeast corner of Metcalfe and Hillside (today the location of Vanguard High School). It was on this fateful pathway, jingling his coins, that young Eric Marrotte encountered Thorvald Hansen, a wanderer who had arrived in Canada only weeks earlier. Hansen had for some time struggled with bouts of alcoholism. It was nighttime and there were virtually no lamp standards in the neighbourhood.
As they passed one another on the footpath, Hansen accosted the unfortunate child, demanding his coins. When the latter refused to hand them over, he assaulted the boy who screamed in horror. After strangling him with his bare hands, Hansen stabbed him three times: once in the abdomen, and once on each side of the neck just below the ears. The latter wounds indicated, according to the autopsy, that Hansen had actually twisted the pocket knife about, once it had fully penetrated the flesh. The young child died virtually instantly. Eric Marrotte’s body was unceremoniously dumped behind a pile of construction bricks, just off the pathway in question. Hansen then continued coolly along his way.
Needless to say, when their son failed to return home that evening, the family became quite concerned. Friends and relations, including the grandmother, were contacted and an extensive search of the neighbourhood was conducted, but to no avail. However, around 9:30 that evening while returning home along the same pathway, from what had been until then a futile search, the thirteen-year-old brother of the victim, Cecil George Marrotte, found little Eric cold and lifeless behind the five-foot pile of construction bricks. Running to his home about one hundred feet away along Hillside, the terrified teenager returned to the scene with his father who picked up his inanimate son and carried him home. The family physician was called and it was he, Dr. J. M. Elder, who determined that the child was indeed dead. For the doctor it was a particularly difficult moment for it was he who had assisted in the birth of the child some eight years earlier.
An autopsy was performed the following day at 11:00 A.M. at the Montreal General Hospital. It was conducted by Dr. Wyatt Johnston in the presence of Dr. Elder. It was determined that the neck wounds were of such a shocking nature that many wanted to believe that they were inflicted in a fall from the pile of bricks on Metcalfe Avenue. Dr. Johnston continued with his work.
A couple of hours before the autopsy on young Eric’s body had commenced, around 9:00 A.M, a dishevelled and exhausted Thorvald Hansen entered the Police Central Headquarters (then located in the Montreal City Hall on Notre Dame Street) where he confessed the crime to the officer on morning duty, Sergeant Poulin. “I want to report myself. I want to be locked up. I have committed a murder; where, I don’t know, but in a place near a square just outside the city I have killed a boy”. On his person was found the seventeen cents, the exact amount of money the boy was known to have carried from his grandmother’s the evening before. So straightforward and matter-of-fact was Hansen’s statement that Poulin rightly feared that he was telling the truth. Detective James O’Keefe was assigned to the case. His first task was to discover if a young boy’s body had turned up in any city institution.
As the autopsy continued, with all signs pointing in the direction of a quick yet horrifying end for young Eric Marrotte, suddenly and unexpectedly Detective O’Keefe entered the hospital room. He stated clearly to those assembled exactly what had happened: “The boy is about eight years of age. He has a wound in the stomach and has been stabbed on each side of the neck near the ear. The deed was done a little before seven o’clock on Saturday night in a vacant lot, just outside the city limits.” The autopsy team was staggered by the information yet continued with their analysis.
The inquest itself commenced its hearing at 2:15 Monday afternoon in the Council Chamber of the Westmount Town Hall. The jurors were fourteen in number and, after being sworn in, they were taken to view the body which had just been returned to Westmount from the Montreal General Hospital. It lay in a little child’s coffin in a lower room of the building in question. The only mark of violence on the face was a rather bad bruise under the right eye. Hansen, who was present throughout the inquest, showed considerable signs of weeping, especially when the boy’s mother entered the room.
In his testimony, Doctor Wyatt Johnson declared that he had found neck wounds and “several gashes on the lower part of the abdomen” while in the autopsy report itself, Dr. Johnson wrote that he had observed “a slight mutilation of the genitals”. Indeed, the day before, Hansen himself had stated in his confession that he had tried “to cut him in his private parts”. Interestingly enough, this fact was not reported in the somewhat prudish newspapers of the day.
The verdict of the Coroner’s Court was unequivocal in its declaration that “Eric Elyne (sic) Marrotte died at Westmount on the twenty-sixth day of October nineteen hundred and one from wounds in his throat inflicted with a knife in the hands of Thovald Hansen”. The weapon, which Hansen had discarded during his long sleepless night following the murder, was found a few days later in the garden of Mrs. Alexander Nelson of Victoria Avenue, Westmount. It was subsequently handed over to Constable Wrenn of the Westmount Police Department and later produced as evidence during the legal proceedings. The accused, even though he declared his guilt, was formally committed for trial in November before the Court of King’s Bench. That, at the request of his defense counsel, was later changed to the spring.
The funeral of little Eric Marrotte was conducted in the family home on Hillside Street by Reverend George F. Johnson, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. It was meant to be private but when the tiny casket, covered in flowers, emerged from the family residence, it was obvious that that was not to be the case. In point of fact, a large crowd of mourners, including his classmates from Westmount Academy, had gathered throughout the immediate neighbourhood to show their sympathy to the bereaved family. Many cried openly. All avoided the field where the atrocity took place. After a few moments of awkward silence and hesitation, the horse-drawn hearse proceeded to transport the child’s body to its final resting place – Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery. Now all eyes could turn towards the justice system.
Hansen’s dark fate rested in the hands of Mr. George E. Mathieu (of the law firm Adam and Mathieu). His task was not an easy one as he attempted to construct a defense for the self-confessed murderer who was seemingly, for a moment in time, thoroughly detested by all Montrealers. Indeed, according to The Gazette, “after Hansen gave himself up, several people, who are cool headed under most circumstances, thought that he should be lynched”. In fact, Thorvald Hansen was so despised in this city that Montreal’s Danish community, as small as it was at the time, took up a subscription within its ranks which was placed at the disposal of Mr. Mathieu. His fellow countrymen living in this city desperately wanted to believe that the murderer was insane.
While awaiting his spring rendez-vous with justice, Hansen, 5’6” and 175 lbs., spent most of his time sleeping in his prison cell, receiving the occasional letter from Liverpool. Admittedly he had a rather lengthy connection with Great Britain, having enlisted in 1885, under the name Peter Mensen, in the 72nd Regiment in Wick, Scotland. Hansen served with them as a private for five years in India. In 1893, he was discharged from the army as a “bad character”. Late in the 1890’s, back in Copenhagen, Hansen was arrested for theft by the local police for which he served six months in that country. Clearly his background before coming to Quebec was not above reproach and, in fact, a story ran in The Montreal Star of November 25 that a similar murder of a child in England had taken place only days before Thorvald Hansen had set sail for Canada. The escaped murder’s name, according to the newspaper report, was believed to be one “Hansen”!
His trial in Montreal commenced on April 1, 1902. The selection of a jury was not an easy task and took nearly the entire day to accomplish. The fact that the trial was to be conducted in English led to the exclusion of most of the thirty francophone candidates who had stated that they did not feel comfortable enough in the language of Shakespeare to serve on the jury. On the other hand, amongst the thirty anglophones present, sixteen were from Westmount and most chose to exclude themselves on grounds of prejudice. Finally, twelve brave souls were found, consisting of the following Montrealers: P. R. Krasel, Vincent Lacombe, Samuel Brown, Ildege Marsan, Robert Thompson, Auguste St. Germain, Cornelius Meaney, Alfred Butler, Adolphe Lapierre, R. Cunningham, J. W. Hannah, and, perhaps somewhat ironically, J. H. Hanson! The trial could finally begin.
All heads turned in the crowded courtroom as Thorvald Hansen entered. He appeared pale and emaciated. His five months in prison had clearly taken their toll and, accordingly, he was permitted to take a seat immediately upon reaching the bar. As Hansen sat, he rested his head on his right hand, his eyes closed half the time. He seemed totally indifferent to his fate.
Having confessed to the crime, all that remained to be determined was the extent to which he was responsible for his actions; that is to say, the degree to which he was sane at the moment of the murder. The defense attorney maintained that the killing and partial mutilation of such a young and innocent child was clearly an act of insanity. Also the fact that Hansen had given himself up to the authorities, when he most probably could have ‘gotten away with it’, pointed in the same direction. Indeed, Thorvald Hansen’s legal counsel, led by Mr. Mathieu, revealed to the somewhat surprised courtroom (based on Canadian investigators who were sent to Denmark) that the murderer’s mother had died in an insane asylum in Copenhagen and, at the very time of the trial, his sister was in the same institution! However, for Crown Prosecutor Cooke the tragic case broke down into two relatively simple facts: firstly, Hansen, by his own admission, had killed the boy and, secondly, he was mentally responsible at the moment of the gruesome murder.
The jury took only twenty-four minutes to arrive at its guilty verdict, at which point Mr. Justice Wurtele withdrew from the courtroom for five minutes. When he returned, he was wearing the customary black cap and black gloves. Hansen was asked if he could offer any reason why a sentence of death should not be passed upon him. As the prisoner appeared somewhat confused, the question was repeated. Hansen mumbled “nothing” and Judge Wurtele proceeded with great emotion to his unenviable task –
“What could have been your motive for taking the life of that poor little innocent child? To my mind, the murder was the result of debauchery and drink. I hope your fate will be a lesson to all those who are addicted to the unlawful and excessive use of liquor. There can be no doubt as to your guilt. When you confessed the crime, remorse must have begun to work within your mind. I can give you no hope whatever of a reprieve or commutation of the sentence which it is my duty to pronounce. Only one thing now rests with you to do: repent the crime you have committed and prepare yourself to meet your Maker. Let us hope that with true repentance you will find mercy for your crime when you go before the throne of Almighty God. In my heart I pity you, but it is my duty to pronounce the sentence which the law lays down for such a crime.
“The sentence of the court is that you be taken hence to the gaol, whence you came, detained there until Friday the thirteenth day of June, when you will be taken to the place of execution and hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
As vicious and bloody as Hansen’s crime was, some tears were nevertheless shed for the condemned amongst the jurors and spectators. Thorvald Hansen himself wept bitterly, almost uncontrollably, when the sentence was passed. Now he knew for certain that he had just a little over two months to live.
One can only imagine how seemingly quickly those two months passed for the Danish prisoner. On June 11, two days before his Friday the 13th rendez-vous with death, Hansen handed the governor of the prison a statement which he had prepared. In it, he thanked the many who had assisted him during his seven and half months in jail and pleaded with the Marrotte family to forgive him “the great sorrow I have caused them”. So well-written was the document that The Montreal Star could not help but proffer the opinion that “it would appear to be the work of an educated Englishman instead of a wretched foreigner such as Hansen”.
The government hangman of the day, known simply ‘Radcliffe’, arrived in the city on the morning of June 12. Hansen, who was to be hanged the following morning at 8:00 sharp, spent nearly the entire night with his spiritual advisers (he had converted to Catholicism while in jail). When the fateful hour arrived and the execution party appeared at his cell, the condemned man declared his readiness to comply with the requirements of the law. Radcliffe entered the cell, pinioned the condemned man’s arms, and the grim procession towards the place of execution was begun.
Hansen mounted the scaffold with courage and firmness. He walked deliberately towards the trap. As his legs were bound, his lips moved in answer to the continued prayers of the Roman Catholic priest, Father Meloche. Radcliffe drew the black cap from his pocket, covered the murderer’s head and Hansen’s last view of earth. All stepped back. The trap bolt was released and the lawbreaker dropped to his death below. An autopsy was performed on the body and Hansen was subsequently buried in Montreal’s Roman Catholic cemetery.
And thus ended, as the LaPresse newspaper described the morning after the crime, the story of one of the dastardliest murders in the history of this city.
Below, sketch of Thorvald Hansen