Why write this book now?
When I did the series The major trials For TVA 30 years ago, I told myself that it took an absolute demented to do that to a child. I subsequently read Marie-Anne Houde’s file in the National Archives in Ottawa, because each death row inmate had their own file. Her letters were very sensible, and those from the chaplain and the prison director refer to a model prisoner. My interpretation of this woman has changed. About ten years ago in Paris, I saw an interactive theatrical show about an old French trial. At the end, the audience was asked to return a verdict, guilty or innocent. I played around with this idea a bit with my book. I decided to look at the trial, all the testimony, and saw that something was wrong.
Why was she sentenced if she was innocent?
The one who started the case is the autopsy. He heard the gossip about this woman, a foreigner who had married a wealthy widower as a second marriage. He saw that the little one was covered with ulcerative sores and concluded that it was the result of beatings. At first, the defense wanted to explain that Aurore was rather suffering from a spinal cord injury characterized by these wounds. Shortly before, she had been hospitalized for a month for a foot injury that did not heal and there were no sores elsewhere on her body. In addition, there have been reports that Aurora urinated and defecated uncontrollably, another symptom of this lesion. But the prosecution called the other children of the house to testify about the abuse committed by the mother-in-law, the “stepmother” as she was called in the newspapers. The defense lawyer was taken aback and decided to plead dementia instead. He was not used to criminal trials.
Would the verdict be the same today?
No, first of all because all the evidence must now be disclosed to the defense in advance. And then because we now know better that we have to be very careful with children’s testimonies, because they can change their answers if we ask them the same question several times. In addition, none of the children’s testimonies were corroborated, they were never two to see a particular episode of abuse at the same time.
Did any of the children subsequently repent?
We do not know. I tried to find them or to find their descendants, but it was not possible. What we do know, however, is that in their letters to their mother in prison, they called her “dear mother”, she knitted them stockings. There is a very normal mother-child relationship. We know that children have changed their names to no longer be associated with this tragedy.
What does this affair say about Quebec at the time?
In the village, Marie-Anne Houde was treated like a foreigner. There was a very negative prejudice towards stepmothers, even though, because of the war, there were a lot of remarriages. It’s been around a long time ago. In fairy tales, the witch is often the mother-in-law. Then, it is a good time for the newspapers, before the radio, they had the monopoly of information. The case gave rise to a play that caught the headlines and was a huge success.
Where does your interest in court cases come from? Are you a lawyer?
No, I studied literature. I have a brother who is five years older than me, I worked for his criminal law office during my studies. It got me the idea of a series on major trials, and then the specialty channels needed police documentary series and I responded to the request.
When was the first time you saw the 1951 film?
I was 7 or 8 years old, so I didn’t see him at the time. But everyone knew who Aurore the child martyr was, it was in everyday language. There are three mythical characters in the history of Quebec: Séraphin Poudrier, Maria Chapdelaine and Aurore Gagnon. Only Aurore really existed. But she was not a martyr, but sick.
The lie of the century
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