June 21, 2015

It Happened on June 21st

Marie-Joseph Angelique Executed for Burning of Montreal, 1734

Marie-Joseph Angelique was a black slave born in Portugal in about 1710. After a few transactions, she ended up in Montreal, the property of a French businessman named Francois Poulin de Francheville. Francheville died in 1733 and ownership of Marie-Joseph passed to his widow, Therese de Couagne.

Marie-Joseph was apparently not a very submissive slave. She was known to talk back to her mistress, and she once tried to escape with her lover, a white indentured servant named Claude Thibault. They were recaptured about two weeks later.

Therese de Couagne was a busy woman, handling her deceased husband's estate. She didn't have time to deal with a recalcitrant slave and so she arranged to sell her to one of her husband's former business partners. De Couagne would pay for Marie-Joseph's transport to Quebec City and would receive 600 pounds of gunpowder in exchange for the slave.

Thibault, meanwhile, was still being held in prison for his part in the escape, and was not released until April 8th, two days before the fire. Upon his release, he went to see de Couagne and demand his unpaid wages. She paid him, and forbade him to ever set foot on her property again. She also told him that Marie-Joseph would be sent to Quebec City as soon as the ice on the St. Lawrence River cleared.

On the evening of April 10th, fire broke out at the de Couagne home. Despite the best efforts of the townspeople, the fire spread through the town, burning down 46 buildings -- homes, shops, and the local hospital and convent. No one was killed, but some householders lost everything they owned. Looting was also taking place in the midst of the turmoil.

Soon rumors began to spread that Marie-Joseph had started the fire. A young Native American slave named Marie-Manon seemed to be the source of the rumors. She claimed that she had heard Marie-Joseph say that Madame de Couagne would not sleep in her house that night. Soon, nearly everyone in town believed that Marie-Joseph and Thibault had started the blaze.

The next morning, Marie-Joseph was arrested. Two days later, a warrant for Thibault's arrest was also made up, but he had disappeared, and was never seen again. The trial lasted over six weeks. Every witness called believed that Marie-Joseph had started the fire, but no one had actually seen her do it. The prosecution was about to ask for permission to question Marie-Joseph under torture, since there was no evidence to convict her.

At this point, an eyewitness appeared. It was a five-year-old girl named Amable Moniere, who said that she had seen Marie-Joseph carrying a shovelful of coals to the attic on the day in question. No one questioned why the child had remained quiet about it all this time.

The verdict was guilty and the punishment was severe. Marie-Joseph was to be taken in a cart to the parish church. There, after she admitted her crime and asked forgiveness, she was to have her hand cut off. She would then be taken in the cart to a public place where she would be burned alive. Before all this happened, she would be tortured in "both ordinary and extraordinary ways." They still hoped that she would name Thibault as her accomplice.

Fortunately for Marie-Joseph, the verdict was automatically appealed, as it was on all criminal verdicts. The Superior Court was more merciful. She was no longer to have her hand cut off, or to be burned alive. Now, the sentence was that she would be hanged until dead and then burned. The torture still stood, however.

The torture method used was called the "boot." It consisted of four planks that were nailed together and tied to the prisoner's legs. Wedges were then inserted between the planks and the legs, and hammered in. Four wedges constituted "ordinary" torture, and four more were administered for "extraordinary" torture. The increased pressure slowly crushed the victims' legs.

Marie-Joseph confessed to her own involvement, but insisted that she acted alone. She was then executed on June 21, 1734.

Alexander J. Dallas Born, 1759

Alexander J. Dallas, volunteer
Alexander J. Dallas was born in Kingston, Jamaica on June 21, 1759. His family moved to Scotland when he was five years old. He also lived in London for awhile, and moved back to Jamaica after his marriage. His wife's health, however, was not good in Jamaica, so they settled in Philadelphia.

Dallas was a lawyer, but not a very busy one. In order to eke out a living, he also edited the Pennsylvania Herald and the Columbia Magazine. One of his functions as editor was to report the legal cases that took place in Philadelphia.

In 1791, when the U.S. Supreme Court -- along with the rest of the Federal Government -- moved to Philadelphia, it was a natural development for him to begin reporting their cases and decisions. He was unpaid and unofficial, but the results of the work were his own, and he was allowed to profit by publishing them and selling the volumes. He was the first Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States.

His work was criticized by his contemporaries for being incomplete and inaccurate. They were also produced very late -- in some cases as much as five years after the decisions.

The Supreme Court moved to Washington DC in 1800, and Dallas stayed behind. He said, "I have found such miserable encouragement for my reports that I have determined to call them all in, and devote them to the rats in the State-House."

Dallas's successor, William Cranch
Dallas was succeeded by William Cranch as Reporter of Decisions. Cranch was another unpaid volunteer. In 1817 the position was made an official one, which paid an annual salary of $1000. Since this was not adequate to pay for the publication of the reports, the Reporter was still allowed to profit from their publication.

In later life, Dallas served as Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. He was also Acting Secretary of War and Acting Secretary of State for a brief time.

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