The Execution of St. Pierre

St. Pierre, 1887
Courtesy Wikimedia

Two islands off the coast of Canada, St. Pierre and Miquelon, are all that remains of the once-vast “New France” colony in North America.  Both are still very much “French” in ways that the rest of French Canada are not — not only do they use the Euro as their currency (though the Canadian dollar is accepted), they speak a form of the language that itself is closer to that spoken in Paris than it is to Montreal.  St. Pierre, the “capital city,” if you want to call it that, only has a population of 5,000 to this day and remains on the cod fishing industry and is its main economic engine.  All in all, a fairly small and sleepy seaside town.

Back in 1888, however the town was reeling from its first murder.  “Murder?!” you exclaim.  Yes, murder.

Sacre Bleu.

Joseph Néel was convicted of the murder of a Mr. Coupard on Île aux Chiens (or Island of Dogs) on the 30th of December, and executed on the 24th of August, 1889.

So why the eight month wait?  It’s not like the case had to wind its way through the appeals process, right?

It turns out that the punishment for murder in the Republic of France back then was execution.  And how does one carry out an execution in 19th-century France?


CC/AJ Cann

That’s right, the guillotine.  To this day, St. Pierre is the site of the first and last use of the guillotine in North America.

The problem with the guillotine-as-execution-method in St. Pierre was that no one exactly had one on hand.  And by “not exactly” having one on hand, I mean they had to get one from the other French colony of Martinique, in the Caribbean.  When the extraordinarily precise instrument of death arrived, however, it turned out it had broken somewhere along the trip over and now needed to be fixed.

“Job done then,” you say.  “Sure they need to write a letter to Martinique, then have the thing shipped up, then put it back together, but I know how FedEx works and I painted my bedroom once so I know that the shipping and repairs couldn’t possibly take eight whole months!”

No, it doesn’t take eight whole months to complete repairs on some pieces of wood and slab of sheet metal.  The real problem arose at the time of execution.

As it turns out, people in small towns don’t exactly like to kill each other.  When it came time to execute Mr. Néel for his crimes, the townspeople couldn’t find anyone willing to actually pull the switch and send Mr. Néel to meet his maker.  Eventually, they convinced a recent immigrant to do the job.

This whole case raises all those traditional questions about the death penalty and human psychology (i.e.,  what does it say when we, collectively, will sentence a man to death, but refuse to actually carry out the sentence ourselves), but I wonder more about that lone immigrant.

Who was he?  Why had he come to St. Pierre and Miquelon?  And what was his initial reaction to getting into a new land and being essentially faced with “So, uh, we kinda have this dude here…”

A movie was made based on this case in 2000, titled La veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Pierre), but it’s more a romantic tale of loss and redemption, etc. etc.. Borrring.


About Michael Ballaban

Editor, The Ball-Aban News

2 thoughts on “The Execution of St. Pierre

  1. You should know once for ever that “sacrebleu” was maybe used in some sailors circles in the XIXth century, but absolutely nobody in France says it . Besides, it’s written in one word, sacrebleu .
    When we read this we know “Hey, another US guy who thinks French men wear berets, eat snails, don’t wash and French women don’t shave” .
    France is NOT like Hollywood or Fox News say .

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