An iron cage resurrects the story of La Corriveau — the witch of Quebec folklore.
The legend of a French-Canadian folklore character becomes true history after the discovery of her cage.
IN SEPTEMBER 2013, AN UNUSUAL ITEM APPEARED IN THE QUEBEC MEDIA: LA CORRIVEAU’S CAGE HAD BEEN FOUND. THE DISCOVERY MADE HEADLINES AND WAS THE SUBJECT OF NUMEROUS COMMENTARIES. WHAT WAS THE STORY, AND WHY DID IT CAPTURE SO MUCH ATTENTION?
In 2011, Claudia Méndez, a volunteer and tour guide with the Société d’histoire de Lévis, in Lévis, Quebec, found a surprising artifact at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The wrought-iron exoskeleton was identified as having been used for the exposition of “Mme Dodier’s body” after the woman’s execution in 1763. Méndez was familiar enough with Quebec history to recognize that Dodier was the married name of the woman known to Quebecers as “La Corriveau” of French-Canadian legend.
The grim object was taken to the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City to be authenticated, and in October 2015 experts confirmed that it was, indeed, the infamous “cage de la Corriveau.” Though essentially unknown to the rest of North America, the story of the woman who was imprisoned in that cage is part of Quebec’s history, legend, and folklore.
According to historian Luc Lacourcière, in all of Quebec history there is “no woman with a worse reputation than Marie-Josephte Corriveau.” La Corriveau was born in Saint-Vallier-de-Bellechasse across the river from Quebec City in 1733. In 1749 she married Charles Bouchard. Their union produced three children and all seemed to go smoothly until Bouchard died in 1760 of “putrid fevers,” a diagnosis nobody appears to have doubted at the time. Later legends whisper that Marie-Josephte poisoned Charles or perhaps poured molten lead in his ear while he was sleeping. Eventually, rumour would suggest that as many as seven husbands died by her hand, but the stories were pure invention.
After Charles’ death (in the presence of a priest and several witnesses, none of whom saw anything suspect) Marie-Josephte sought another husband, as was expected of a young widow with children. In 1761, she remarried to a farmer named Louis-Étienne Dodier. The new union was tumultuous. The couple fought frequently, and Dodier also clashed with his stepfather, Joseph Corriveau — mainly, it seems, about money issues and matters related to the management of the farm. The family was dirt poor during the difficult years of British military occupation immediately following the conquest of New France.
On January 27, 1763, a neighbour found Louis Dodier in the stable, dead in a pool of blood. At first the militia captain who had been called in to investigate thought Dodier was “killed by his horse,” which the officer wrote in his report to Major James Abercrombie, commander of British troops in the area. But a rumour soon spread among neighbours that Joseph Corriveau killed his stepson, and in February Dodier’s relatives filed a complaint, prompting General James Murray, the region’s governor, to order an investigation. Dodier’s body was exhumed, and Dr. George Fraser performed an autopsy. On February 14, he ruled that “none of the wounds found on Dodier’s body could have been made by a horse.” Joseph Corriveau and his daughter were arrested.
The trial was held in Quebec City, at the Ursuline convent. Because Quebec was under military rule, the proceedings took place in military court with a jury of twelve British officers, none of whom knew French, the only language understood by the accused and the witnesses. Most of the testimony was based on “gossip and hearsay,” Lacourcière noted, and focused on the enmity among the victim, his wife, and his stepfather. Some witnesses also painted Marie-Josephte as a woman of loose morals, but no evidence exists to suggest she was unfaithful to her husband or in any way behaved improperly according to what was expected from a wife. On April 9, Joseph Corriveau was found guilty and sentenced to hang. MarieJosephte was found to be an accomplice and was sentenced to sixty lashes and to be branded on the hand with the letter M for murderer.
On the day before Joseph’s scheduled execution, though, there was an extraordinary reversal. When the priest came to hear Joseph’s confession and to prepare him for his death, Joseph suddenly claimed he had lied to protect his daughter and that, in truth, she was the one who committed the crime. His eleventh-hour honesty, he said, came from his fear of going to hell. The obviously
self-serving declaration was enough for Governor Murray to have the confessions of both accused re-examined. Marie-Josephte eventually signed a confession in which she admitted to killing Dodier with an axe, “due to the bad treatment she received from her husband.” Joseph went free, and Marie-Josephte was sentenced to hang. She was put to death on April 18, and the legend of La Corriveau was born soon after.
What captured the public’s imagination was Murray’s decision to expose the young woman’s body in a human-shaped iron cage, hung at a crossroad at La Pointe-de-Lévis on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Nothing like it had been seen before, and the macabre display created a stir among the locals. In a morbid prank, a group of young people took the cage down and carried it to the local cemetery. The cage was removed after forty days at the same spot and buried in the cemetery, only to be exhumed in 1849, when it was found to contain just “one bone of a leg,” according to early nineteenth-century writer Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé.
The macabre cage, or gibbet, was briefly put on display in Montreal, “at the house of Mr. Leclerc,” according to the newspaper La Minerve, and then, reported Le Canadien, by a Mr. Hall on the Côte du Palais in Quebec City. The cage — stolen, according to poet and author Louis Frechette — was eventually sold to the American showman P.T. Barnum. After that, all traces of it were lost until Claudia Méndez stumbled upon it in Salem. Since then, researchers have discovered that the cage was listed in 1899 among artifacts owned by the Boston Museum and that a tourist guidebook included it in a description of the holdings of the Essex Institute in Salem.
After her death, La Corriveau became a regular character in French-Canadian folklore. In his cloak-and-dagger novel The Golden Dog, published in 1877, writer William Kirby makes her a poisoner by trade and a descendant of an Italian alchemist with ties to the Borgias, no less. Aubert de Gaspé, in Les Anciens
Canadiens (1866), provides us with one of the first written accounts of the classic folk tale involving La Corriveau and her cage.
In his version, a man named François Dubé, the father of the narrator, is taking a nighttime stroll along the Lévis shore of the St. Lawrence and hears a “tick-tack noise.” Suddenly he feels “two big dry hands, like a bear’s paws, squeezing his shoulders. Terrified, he turns his head and sees La Corriveau, clinging to him. She extends her arms through the bars of her cage and tries to climb on his back.” La Corriveau tells the man that she wants him to carry her to Île d’Orléans, where her witch friends are holding a Sabbath. La Corriveau can’t cross the St. Lawrence on her own because it is a “blessed” river.
François can hear the witches holding their rites on the island and shouting at him, “Are you coming, lazy dog? Bring our friend to us! We have 14,400 rounds to make before the crowing of the cock and we have to leave!”
La Corriveau tells Dubé, “Well, if you won’t carry me there, I will strangle you and I will get to the Sabbath by riding on your soul!” And that she does. François, however, doesn’t die. He loses consciousness and wakes up in the morning in a muddy trench near the road. He struggles up and finds his bottle of firewater nearby. He wants to take a sip but ... it’s empty. Apparently, “the witch had drunk it all!”
For generations, variations of this story have been told and retold in French-Canadian families. I heard a very similar one from my grandmother and found it a very scary tale. The name of the traveller changes, but La Corriveau in her cage, climbing on the man’s back and wanting to go to the witches’ Sabbath, always remains.
Stories of creatures that scrabble to cling on a traveller’s back are found in folk tales around the world — it even happens to Sinbad in the Arabian Nights. But in Quebec this familiar motif attached itself to an actual historical character, La Corriveau, with a real artifact, the cage in which her body was exposed. And that is why the discovery of her cage in a museum is so striking: To a Quebecer who heard the creepy tale as a child, the discovery of La Corriveau’s cage is comparable to somebody unearthing Cinderella’s slipper or Aladdin’s lamp.
In 2015, three separate experts concluded that the cage found in Massachusetts was the one used to expose Marie-Josephte Corriveau’s body. According to Jérome Morissette, an art restorer who specializes in metals, the uniform corrosion on the iron bands makes it “impossible that this piece be a reconstruction.” And so it was that, in the tale of La Corriveau, legend suddenly entered history.