First published in the September 2002 edition of ‘Connections’, the quarterly of the Quebec Family History Society
The morning of April 1, 1901, the sun rose above the tiny Montreal community of Ste. Cunégonde at 5:35. It was a Monday, and blustery, wet snow was forecast for later that day.
At 3168 Notre Dame Street (today 2464 Notre Dame West, just east of the Corona Theatre), Joseph Ernest Laplaine left his boarding house room to go about his first day of business as an official government enumerator for the 1901 census of Canada. He was generally considered to be a quiet tempered, sober, yet somewhat indolent man. It would take him 20 days to complete the 15 page report for the eighth district in the Montreal peripheral county of Hochelaga. Within his precinct were to be found Atwater, Delisle, and Ste. Cunégonde Streets. Despite his name, Laplaine recorded his data in English and filed it with the appropriate statistical authority some three weeks later. No one enumerated during that time period by the somewhat puzzling and moody Laplaine could have imagined that the individual who had so recently ‘counted them in’ would, the following month, turn into a cold-blooded murderer who, before the year was out, would be hanged by that same government for whom he had worked only a short time earlier.
Admittedly Laplaine was a mysterious man. Born on August 12, 1863, he was raised at the Montreal community of “Blue Bonnets” where in fact, in 1901, most of his family still resided. He was reported to have been married to a widow with one child, but had been separated from them for nearly a decade. Reports at the time suggested that his wife was living somewhere in the United States. Regardless, that left Joseph Ernest Laplaine, foundry worker and census enumerator, alone at 3168 Notre Dame in the boarding house of one Mme. Valerie Lefebvre, née Charbonneau. According to Louis Lefebvre (Mme. Lefebvre’s husband), Laplaine had been living with them for a year and half.
While her husband worked nights, Valerie Lefebvre ran a small candy and soft drink store, along with her boarding house. She was four months older than Laplaine, attractive, with rather dark features. Apparently her married yet somewhat unusual boarder passed a great deal of his time observing her, in complete and absolute secrecy, and developing a strong, yet unreciprocated, infatuation towards his landlady. Day after day and night after night, he fantasized that they were a couple and she his devoted and doting mistress. Eventually it all became too much for him and on the evening of Thursday, May 16, 1901, a little under a month after filing his census papers, Joseph Ernest Laplaine cracked. It was around 9:00 P.M. when it happened.
Only a quarter of an hour earlier, Mme. Lefebvre was attending to business in the summer kitchen at the rear of the store when Laplaine, who had worked that day at the G.T.R. foundry, entered and spoke with her for a few minutes. While the content of their rather brief conversation is lost to history, it would seem that enough was said that caused her boarder to contemplate some dramatic action. A few awkward moments of silence passed between them before he returned to the dining room table and nervously proceeded to scribble some notes on a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, Valerie Lefebvre moved to the front of her store to serve two young boys some ice cream. For that brief moment, everything seemed fine.
A few minutes before nine two other individuals entered the building which was so simply identified on the store front window as “Mme. Lefebvre’s”. Clara Houle, of 13 Maria Street, St. Henri, and Louis Benard had left the former’s residence some time earlier for what amounted to the fifteen-minute walk to 3168 Notre Dame. Houle had known Valerie Lefebvre long enough to have considered her a friend. They entered and through the open corridor leading to the back of the building, Louis Benard and Clara Houle spotted the now familiar face of Ernest Laplaine writing at the dining room table. They exchanged courtesies with the enigmatic, one-time enumerator. Meanwhile, at the counter, in the presence of the two young boys still busily devouring their evening treat, the young couple placed their order for ice cream and “a glass of oysters”. The latter request required Mme. Lefebvre to head once again to the back pantry.
As she turned for the last time from the counter of her immaculately-kept store, she proceeded through the narrow corridor leading to the summer kitchen and ice box where the oysters were kept. She passed Laplaine even yet hurriedly composing some unknown writing. Perhaps Lefebvre had noticed his anxiety but not a word was now exchanged between them as she headed to the back of the building. On arriving in her secluded summer kitchen, “the hard working, honest, and excellent business woman” stooped slightly as she opened the refrigerator door. With a glass in one hand and a ladle in the other, she energetically scooped oysters from one vessel to another, totally unaware that Laplaine had stealthily followed her there and was now standing immediately behind his imaginary mistress. Not a word was said. With a 38 calibre revolver, he fired once at point blank range with the bullet entering just behind Lefebvre’s right ear. His victim fell heavily – with the glass, ladle, and oysters…..and blood…. spewing about her.
Immediately after pulling the trigger, Laplaine ran the block and a half to the Ste. Cunégonde police station (see footnote below) where he was already relatively well known. He found Police Chief Joseph Tremblay chatting in the adjacent fire station with several men.
“Joe”, an agitated Laplaine called from the door, “Come here. I have something to tell you.” Both men headed to the police chief’s private office.
“What’s wrong? You seem very excited!,” observed Tremblay.
“I have just killed my girlfriend,” responded the disturbed former government census taker.
To that, the police chief interjected: “You’re crazy, you’re joking. You don’t have a girlfriend.”
“My girlfriend, Mme. Lefebvre!” shrieked Laplaine, now beside himself with distress.
“And with what did you kill her?”, probed a somewhat bewildered Joseph Tremblay.
“With this revolver,” rejoined Laplaine.
As he reached into his pocket, the municipal police chief leapt to his feet and grabbed the hand of his rather bizarre interlocutor. Hand over hand, they slowly removed the weapon, still warm from recent use. Tremblay then noted that one of its five chambers was empty.
At this point, fearing being lynched by an angry Ste. Cunégonde mob, the now less-than-courageous Laplaine, begged to be “locked-up”. The chief of police willingly accommodated him.
Tremblay and another officer then rapidly rushed off to 3168 Notre Dame where they found both Clara Houle and Louis Benard still patiently awaiting the return of Mme. Lefebvre from the back of the store. Finding nothing suspicious in the front, the two men proceeded to the area of the summer kitchen. There they stumbled upon the macabre sight of the body of Mme. Valerie Lefebvre bathing in its own blood. The officers ran from the building seeking medical assistance in order to confirm what seemed fairly obvious: the young woman was dead. At that point, the authorities of criminal justice were called in.
Montreal coroner Edmond McMahon visited the building shortly before midnight and after viewing the body, which still lay where it had fallen when the bullet struck, gave orders for its removal to the morgue. Also around midnight, Chief of Police Joseph Tremblay went once again to see Laplaine who was fast asleep in his cell. He stirred when Tremblay entered and asked, almost playfully: “So then, is my little darkie dead?”. When the police chief answered in the affirmative and that the prisoner was accordingly under arrest for murder, Laplaine seemed as in a daze, asking again and again if, in fact, he (Tremblay) were certain that she were dead!
Somewhat later, the suspect was taken from the Ste. Cunégonde jail to the Montreal district morgue, accompanied by two officers. Upon arriving Laplaine rapidly fell into, what The Montreal Star reported as a condition of “absolute collapse”. The Star further stated that he wept, and moaned, and refused to be pacified by the two constables, who did everything they could for him in the way of providing ice water and other necessaries. He was taken to the waiting room, and choosing a seat in the corner huddled himself up against the whitewashed walls. Here he was the object of much curiosity on the part of the crowds of people who succeeded into getting into the building by various excuses”.
The Coroner’s Inquest commenced the day after the murder at 11:00 A.M. sharp. Maitre. Arthur Geoffrion was assigned to represent Laplaine who, by all accounts, appeared throughout the hearing as a man totally downcast and despondent. He repeatedly stated that he had nothing to say to the jury because he didn’t recall anything about the drama! Notwithstanding the prisoner’s plea of ignorance during the inquest, Coroner McMahon argued forcefully that, by Laplaine’s own admission to Police Chief Joseph Tremblay, he had shot and killed Mme. Valerie Lefebvre and should, therefore, stand trial for that crime. Indeed, found on his person in no time after the shooting was the very note that he was seen to be scribbling just minutes before. It was dated May 16 and read as follows:
“To the people who don’t know what love is: I’m going to die for love. I can’t bear it no longer (sic). My little love is going to die with me. It is all her fault. She will die sure.”
“To the Coroner McMahon: What money is coming to me from the census I want that to be given to A.G. Lauzon, merchant tailor, 3133 Notre Dame, Ste. Cunégonde, and I want him to get what money is coming to me at the Grand Trunk Railway, for the work in the foundry. Please do this for me.” – J. E. Laplaine
It is perhaps not surprising that the note made no mention of the estimated $50. that the suspect owed the murdered woman for room and board.
For the thirteen-member panel (see Appendix “A” below) which composed the Coroner’s Jury the above was more than sufficient evidence to hold Laplaine criminally responsible for the death of Mme Lefebvre. What was not understood by them was why the murderer chose to abort his stated intention to commit suicide!
As previously mentioned, Laplaine was not unknown to the police. Indeed, at one point, he had been hired by a private detective agency but was later fired for being more of an unreliable nuisance than anything else. Ironically, Laplaine had even worked for a brief period of time for the Ste. Cunégonde Chief of Police, Joseph Tremblay, which explained, or so would argue later the defense attorneys, why the murderer was carrying a gun at the time of the fatal incident. It may also have explained the familiarity the two men had with one another.
At two o’clock in the afternoon of Monday, May 20, Joseph Ernest Laplaine, self- confessed murderer of Valerie Lefebvre, boarding house keeper, was brought before the Honourable F.X. Choquet, Police Magistrate and Judge of Sessions Court, for the preliminary hearing of the case. Despite the fact that several witnesses who had not appeared at the Coroner’s Inquest were called to testify, the Crown had practically no new evidence of any great importance. Messrs. Arthur Geoffrion and J. L. Decarrie were to represent the interests of the accused and, in so doing, a plea of insanity was expected.
In fact, it was altogether likely at this point in the legal proceedings that the defense would plead “insanity”. As was the case with Thorvald Hansen in the 1902 Westmount murder of the young Eric Marrotte (see “Murder Most Foul” also on this same site), it was later discovered that several members of Joseph Laplaine’s family had died from insanity and that, admittedly, at the very moment of the hearing, another was incarcerated at Longue Pointe, the same institution in which his paternal grandfather had died in 1877. Be all that as it may, the defense also gave every intention of attempting to show, even though the accused was carrying a revolver at the moment of Mme. Lefebvre’s murder, her homicide was not premeditated.
The funeral of Mme. Valerie Lefebvre, boarding house keeper, took place on Sunday, May 19 from the same house and store where the murder had taken place. The body lay exposed in a little room to the left of the store and was viewed by hundreds of people. The doleful procession set out for Cote des Neiges Cemetery at two o’clock that afternoon and, in spite of a steady downpour, it was one of the largest and most impressive ever seen in Ste. Cunégonde.
Several months later, in September 1901, the case came before the Court of King’s Bench in this city. The witnesses were heard quickly and with little cross-examination. The egregious Laplaine, although haggard and distressed in appearance, was somewhat animated because of the presence of several relatives in the court room. The chief witness was the husband of the murdered woman who repeated the familiar story of the circumstances leading to the murder. Additional evidence was provided by Doctors Joseph A. Cardinal, Theodule Cipyhot, and Wyatt Johnson. Their expertise dealt with, more than anything else, the wound inflicted by the bullet and and the result of the autopsy which was held just prior to the Coroner’s Inquest.
One individual who did create a bit of a stir by her presence was the mother of the accused who declared that he had been born out of wedlock and had acted strangely all his life. Both of these assertions seemed to surprise and intrigue her son! At the age of thirteen, she further stated, Joseph Laplaine had run away from home and had, since that time, cared for himself. On the same day, Dr. Charles Robillard, the Laplaine family physician, appeared before the court. Like the mother, he informed the attentive court that he always found the accused to be somewhat peculiar in his behaviour but never odd enough that he would have recommended his incarceration. Laplaine’s own brother, Benjamin, swore that his sibling was erratic in his actions, especially just before the shooting.
Notwithstanding the above, at 2:45 P.M. on September 26, the jury (see Appendix “B”), after a short deliberation, found Joseph E. Laplaine guilty of willful murder in the slaying of Mme. Valerie Lefebvre. Having nothing to say on his own behalf, the Honourable Justice Alderic J. Ouimet donned the traditional black cap so closely associated at the time with a sentence of death, and declared before a totally silent and standing room only court:
“Joseph Ernest Laplaine, the jury has found you guilty of murder, and it is my duty to pronounce upon you the penalty according to law. You have had a fair trial, and have been eloquently and ably, indeed, very ably, defended by your counsel, but the proof against you was too strong.
“The court concurs in the verdict. You must then die. I can give you no hope, and I have no intention of giving you a lecture upon the gravity of your position. There is still some time left for you to reflect well on your deed before you are called upon to render an account before the Supreme Judge in whose presence you must appear.
“The sentence of the court, therefore, is that you be conducted from this court room to the common jail where you shall remain until the 25th of October, and you will then be conducted from there to the place ordered for public executions, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God help you.”
The reaction in the court room was swift and painful for those present. The condemned man broke down and had to be led from the dock by two guards. His mother fainted on hearing the sentence and, along with one of Laplaine’s sisters, had to be helped from the court. Clearly, the family had had great hopes that the worst would be a verdict of murder while temporarily insane.
Not discouraged, Maitre Arthur Geoffrion obtained a postponement of the execution until December 13 citing additional evidence of hereditary insanity which he would submit to the federal cabinet. This he did during the week of December 2 but to no avail. The Laurier Cabinet considered the case and announced that it could not counsel the governor-general to interfere.
On December 13 at 8:09 A.M. Joseph Ernest Laplaine, government census enumerator, was hanged before a crowd of over 200 people for his cruel and senseless deed committed some seven months earlier. Like his victim’s, his demise was instantaneous, the hangman having done his work expertly. Laplaine faced it bravely, almost running up the steps to the scaffold to meet his fate. He had met with several family members the night before, assuring them that he was ready for death and that he would not suffer in the process. By all accounts, he was right.
Footnote: The Ste.Cunégonde Municipal Building, where much of this drama took place, still stands at the corner of Vinet and Workman Streets in what is today Little Burgundy. Constructed in the mid-1890’s, the edifice now houses the Georges Vanier Cultural Centre and Library. Somewhat ironically, it was the location of the launch of my book ‘Montreal 1909’ on June 4, 2017. Incidentally, Ste. Cunégonde was named after the virgin wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, St. Henry (973-1024), who was also reputed to have been a virgin! The once independent municipality was annexed by the City of Montreal in 1905. All that remains today of the place name is a street and park of the same designation, and Ste.Cunégonde Church on St. Jacques Street, also at the corner of Vinet.
As a secondary footnote to this sad story, Laplaine’s 1901 hanging was the first to take place in Montreal in over 18 years! That last execution had been of Timothy Milloy who was hanged in this city on March 16, 1883. He had been found guilty of the murder of one William Nesbitt, a Longue Pointe farmer.
Finally, one personal note: It was during the very period of the Lefebvre murder that my Birmingham-born Grandfather Wilkins moved to Montreal, choosing initially to settle in the rather small community of Ste. Cunégonde! It was surely a news item with which he was familiar.
Appendix “A” –
Names of Montrealers who served on Coroner’s Jury for the death of Valerie Lefebvre:
1- Pierre Blais, 871 Albert, St. Henri
2- Gilbert Bérard, 89 Champ-de Mars
3- Aegidius Fauteux, 3172 Notre Dame
4- Leopold Léonard, 3141 Notre Dame
5- Alexandre-André David, 155 Dufferin
6- Cléophas Chouinard, 76a St. Timothée
7- Césaire Larivière, 251 Wolfe
8- Jean-Baptiste Gervais, 76 St. Timothée
9 – Emery Ranger, 1846 Sanguinet
10- Amédée Lemieux, 189 Nazareth
11- Georges Gareau, 148 St. Laurent
12- Edmond Pelletier, 163 Cadieux
13- Alphonse St. Onge, 163 Vinet
Appendix “B” –
Names of Montrealers who served on the Court of King’s Bench jury for the murder of Valerie Lefebvre:
1- Lucien Gagnon, foreman
2- Seraphim Taillefer
3- Joseph Leriche
4- Philias Viau
5- Alphonse Legault
6- Wilfrid Mongeau
7- Marcel Martin
8- Theophile Bastien
9- Placide Lecavalier