Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saint Pierre Island: site of the only guillotine execution in north america

The Territorial Collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a group of small French islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, the main ones being Saint Pierre and Miquelon, south of Newfoundland, Canada. The islands are as close as 25 kilometres (16 mi) from Newfoundland.
The archipelago is the only remnant of the former colonial empire of New France that remains under French control.

"On december 30th, 1888, two fishermen, Louis Ollivier and Auguste Neel, after a night of heavy drinking, decided to go eat dinner at the cabin of Francois Coupard, Louis' fishing boat captain. The cabin, located on l'Ile aux Chiens, across the bay from the harbor of Saint-Pierre, was expected to be vacant. The two arrived to find the door locked. Dismayed they proceeded to kick in a window and, crawling inside, they came nose-to-nose with Coupard, knife-in-hand, ready to defend his property. Neel disarmed the old man, picked up the knife and stabbed him. Ollivier did the same, at the instigation of Neel, who wanted his companion to share the blame for the attack. The two drunken men then got into an argument over whether Coupard was fat or just big. In an effort to find out they mutilated the body, then left it under a sail in the corner of the cabin. They stole whatever they could find then took Coupard's boat to sea in an attempt to reach Newfoundland. The wind and the rough seas threw them back on the coast of Saint-Pierre where they were arrested the next day."

"Their trial was held in February 1889 and resulted in a sentence of death for Neel and ten years Hard Labor for Ollivier. Neel's sentence seemed harsh considering that the murder was not premeditated and not committed for the purpose of robbing Coupard but the horrible mutilation of the body seemed to have weighed heavily on the court. His appeal was rejected and the Governor of the islands made a recommendation of "no clemency" to the President, because it was felt that a rise in criminality on the islands had occurred since a few recent death sentences had been commuted because of a lack of means to carry them out. French law in 1889 not only required that "tout condamne a mort aura la tete tranchee" - every person sentenced to die shall have his head severed - but also that the sentence must be carried out in a public venue near the place where the crime was committed. Despite the inconvenience an example had to be made. The President rejected the clemency and the Governor then requested that Louis Deibler, Executeur des Hautes Oeuvres de la Republique, be sent, with his equipment, to Saint-Pierre to carry out the sentence. This request was turned down (Deibler did not travel outside metropolitan France) but arrangements were made to ship a guillotine from Martinique. The Governor was also told to find a local person to perform the grim task."

"Meanwhile, Neel spent his days in the prison in Saint-Pierre in the care of Sigrist, the warden and his wife. The guillotine arrived on the island on August 22nd 1889 and Neel was executed two days later by a pair of local fishermen, of dubious reputation, who were paid 500 francs and given a pardon on a 3-month petty larceny sentence after the Governor failed to find an executioner among the local tradesmen and the military personnel stationned on the islands. The two headsmen were despised by the islanders for what they had done and everyone refused to accept their "blood money", forcing them to leave the islands before the winter."

"Contrary to widespread reports, the execution was rather uneventful, although the head did remain attached by a thread that the executioner had to sever with a knife. The protocol followed "standard" French procedure, with the awakening before dawn, the mass, a glass of wine and a bowl of tea, the "toilette", a chew instead of the traditional last cigarette, the ride in a carriage to Place de l'Admiral Courbet where soldiers formed a square around the guillotine and most of the population of Saint-Pierre had come to see the event. Neel thanked the Sigrists for their care, told unlookers "Learn this lesson: I killed and now I will be killed, don't do like me" and then said to the executioner "Do not miss" before being basculed."

"Contrary to other reports the guillotine was not an old machine from the French Revolution (I did see the report that stated this, but it was written by someone totally unfamiliar with guillotines) but a rather new Berger machine of 1880-1885 vintage. It was never used again and remains on the island to this day. It was stored in a museum basement for a number of years but is on display since June 2008."

The guillotine is exhibited at Musee de l'Arche, open to the public during the summer months, and is the only place in North America where a real guillotine can be seen. Access to Saint-Pierre is a bit difficult (ferry or small plane from Newfoundland) but well worth a detour if you want to experience a French village in the middle of North America and see "The Guillotine".

*credit due to the author of
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