GAGNON, AURORE (baptized Marie-Aurore-Lucienne), known as Aurore the martyred child; b. 31 May 1909 in Sainte-Philomène-de-Fortierville (Fortierville), Que., daughter of Télesphore Gagnon, a farmer, and Marie-Anne Caron; d. there 12 Feb. 1920 as a result of physical abuse.
Télesphore Gagnon and Marie-Anne Caron were married on 12 Sept. 1906 and they had four children: two girls, Marie-Jeanne and Aurore, and two boys. Their younger son, Joseph, was found suffocated under a straw mattress in November 1917, at the age of two and a half. Aurore’s mother died ten weeks later. Télesphore remained a widower for only a week, and on 1 Feb. 1918 married Marie-Anne Houde, the widow of Napoléon Gagnon and a mother of six. She had been living in the same house as the Gagnons when Joseph and his mother died.
On 12 Feb. 1920 Andronique Lafond, a physician living in Saint-Jacques-de-Parisville (Parisville), was called to the deathbed of Aurore Gagnon. He found “the young patient in a coma, and covered with strange wounds.” The following day a headline in Le Soleil reported that the mysterious death of a ten-year-old child in Lotbinière would be the subject of a coroner’s inquest and would require an autopsy. The procedure was carried out on 13 February by Dr Albert Marois, a forensic specialist from Quebec. His report noted 54 wounds, which “could only have been the result of the blows to the child’s body.”
The Gagnon couple were arrested and taken to prison at Quebec in March 1920. Marie-Anne’s trial began on 13 April before Mr Justice Louis-Philippe Pelletier* and lasted eight days. Numerous witnesses, including Aurore’s brother and sister, told of the physical abuse inflicted on the child. Sensational newspaper reports aroused public opinion and the large criminal courtroom was filled to overflowing. Since the accused’s actions might have been affected by the fact that she was pregnant, the defence lawyer changed her plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity. Of the eight physicians who examined her, only Albert Prévost* and Alcide Tétrault maintained that she was not responsible. On 21 April, after a damning summation of the evidence by the judge, she was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on 1 October at eight o’clock in the morning.
Télesphore Gagnon’s trial was also held at Quebec, before Mr Justice Louis-Joseph-Alfred Désy, from 23 to 28 April 1920. The jury found him guilty of involuntary homicide, or manslaughter, and made no recommendation for judicial clemency. On 4 May the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment, to be served in the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary (at Laval).
After five years in penitentiary, Gagnon was released and went back to his home village. Marie-Anne gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl) in the Quebec jail on 8 July 1920; on 29 September her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Released in July 1935, she died on 12 May the next year in Montreal. On 8 Jan. 1938 Télesphore Gagnon married his third wife, Marie-Laure Habel. He was to die peacefully in Fortierville in 1961.
Shortly after the trials, the events of Aurore’s death became the inspiration for a play written by actors Léon Petitjean and Henri Rollin. Aurore, l’enfant martyre was given its première by the Petitjean-Nohcor-Rollin company at the Théâtre Alcazar in Montreal on Monday, 17 Jan. 1921. It was an instant success and ran for four consecutive weeks, after which it played for some weeks at the Boulevardoscope, the Arcade, the Théâtre National, and the Chanteclerc. In the summer of 1921 it began touring the rest of the province. Advertising for the play referred to its “lesson in morality” for widowers who remarry and to its value as “humanitarian propaganda.” With numerous tours in Quebec, other francophone parts of Canada, and New England, the seasoned cast put on about 200 performances a year. From 1921 to 1951 the play was performed about 5,000 times.
Aurore’s story became the subject of several novels, of which the best known is La petite Aurore, by Émile Asselin, published in Montreal in 1952. From this novel, in which he had taken care to change the surnames of the characters, Asselin drew the screenplay for the film La petite Aurore l’enfant martyre, at the request of Joseph-Alexandre De Sève, who owned the company France-Film. Télesphore Gagnon tried in vain to get the film banned by an injunction. The court took into account the fictitious character of the work and the fact that the play was very well known, having been performed thousands of times without any protest from the Gagnon family. The film had its world première on Friday evening, 25 April 1952, at the Théâtre Saint-Denis in Montreal and was also shown in Quebec, Trois-Rivières, Hull, and Sherbrooke. Translated into several languages, it was astonishingly successful, even in far-off Asia.
In the 1920s the casual dramatization of sensational news items was frequently condemned by critics and also by municipal councils, which called for a ban on such a practice. Despite obvious coincidences, there remained a certain discrepancy between the facts as they had actually occurred and their presentation on stage. The first version of the play contained comic and musical elements, and amusing scenes and songs, that helped turn it into a melodrama – almost a burlesque Punch and Judy show. It was an expression of popular culture, in contrast with the dominant scholarly and classical culture that belonged to the privileged class. The deletion of the more colourful elements from later versions and the screenplay produced a solemn and pathetic portrayal of the “martyr.” The literary quality of the script was as lamentable as the sketchy psychology of the characters speaking the lines. In 1982 the first edition of the manuscript of the play was published, with the division of roles set out. These roles had been handed on jealously by the actors, who kept them as a private preserve, a practice common in popular theatre. The myth of Aurore would be parodied by such later playwrights as Gratien Gélinas and Jean-Claude Germain. A version of Aurore for puppets, in which the mother was given much greater psychological depth, was produced at Quebec by Michel Garneau in 1982.
Reference to the name or story of Aurore Gagnon has become a commonplace in Quebec, usually susceptible of an interpretation emphasizing the sordid aspects of the event itself and of her survival as a spectacle. Aurore is the name commonly given to any victim of physical abuse or overly harsh education. On the other hand, to see the character of Aurore as a symbol for Quebec as a nation and to interpret the phenomenal success of Aurore, l’enfant martyre from an ethnocentric standpoint, as an indication of collective alienation or as the “inevitable path of all forms of racism,” now seems a crude oversimplification revealing more about the analyst’s aberrant projection than about the cultural entity being analysed. The phenomenon of battered children is a universal reality. No one would venture to maintain that ethnic background, colonialism, and political domination explain the infatuation of spectators the world over who line up at cinemas where the latest Dracula is on the marquee. A taste for sadistic shows and films is as old as the cinema, and its causes have nothing to do with nationhood. The exceptional popularity of Aurore, l’enfant martyre can be explained by reasons of the same kind.
In addition to the work by Émile Asselin, four other novels inspired by the story of Aurore Gagnon have been published: Robert de Beaujolais, La petite martyre, victime de la marâtre (s.l., s.d.); Benoît Tessier [Yves Thériault], Le drame d’Aurore, l’enfant martyre (Québec, 1952); Pascale Hubert, Le roman d’Aurore, la petite persécutée (Montréal, 1966); and André Mathieu, Aurore (Saint-Eustache, Qué., 1990).
The trial records of Marie-Anne Houde and Télesphore Gagnon are found in NA, RG 13, B1, 1507, file 649A/cc143, and in ANQ-Q, T6-302/3; T11-301/2344, no.33 (13 févr. 1920); T12-1/69; and T12-1/605.
Also relevant is the published text of the play by Léon Petitjean and Henri Rollin [Willie Plante], Aurore, l’enfant martyre, ed. Alonzo Le Blanc (Montréal, 1982).
AC, Montréal, État civil, Catholiques, Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Montréal), 13 mai 1936; Québec, État civil, Catholiques, Sainte-Philomène (Fortierville), 1er juin 1909; 2 juin 1912; 10 avril 1913; 7 nov. 1917; 26 janv., 1er févr. 1918; 1er sept. 1961; Saint-Jacques (Parisville), 8 janv. 1938. La Presse, 11 mars, 14–30 avril, 5 mai, 5 juin, 8, 16 juill., 14 août, 10, 27, 29–30 sept. 1920. Le Soleil, 13 févr.–8 mai 1920; suppl.: Perspectives, 30 déc. 1978. Peter Gossage, “La marâtre: Marie-Anne Houde and the myth of the wicked stepmother in Quebec,” CHR, 76 (1995): 563–97. Alonzo Le Blanc, “Aurore, l’enfant martyre,” DOLQ, 2: 97–100; “La tradition théatrale à Québec (1790–1973),” Arch. des lettres canadiennes (Montréal), 5 (1976): 220–21.