Family Violence and the Reluctance to Speak Up
Ages 16-18

MysteryQuest 1

Family Violence and the Reluctance to Speak Up

Author: Donna Alexander

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16-18

WARNING: Child abuse can be a very emotional and disturbing topic, and the case of Aurore Gagnon is one of the most terrible on record. If you need to talk to someone, remember that your teacher, counsellor, or parents are available.

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It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Families and communities usually raise children in loving environments, protecting them and making sacrifices to give the very best life possible. But what happens when something goes terribly wrong, and instead of being loved and protected by their family, a child is harmed? What is the responsibility of individuals and organizations outside the family to notice abuse and stop it? What does it take for someone to break the silence and speak up?

Aurore Gagnon was a ten-year-old girl who died of abuse on February 12, 1920. Her story shocked her community and “Aurore, the Child Martyr” has become a famous figure in Québec popular culture. She lived and died in the small community of Sainte-Philomène de Fortierville. Much of what we know of her life is based on the testimony of those who witnessed her abuse and did nothing to save her. How did this small community become so dangerous for this young girl? Why did no one intervene?

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In this MysteryQuest, you will investigate what kind of person might have saved Aurore’s life when so many others did not. Your first step is to understand the facts of the case. You will begin by reading about the murder and the shock across the province as the details of the case became known during the trial of Aurore’s father and stepmother. Next, you will consider present-day explanations of why child abuse within a family may not be reported. Armed with this background information, you will analyse the behaviour of five witnesses in the trials of Aurore’s parents as you answer the question “Why didn’t they help Aurore?” Your final task is to select a fictional character who might have overcome the factors that prevent people from speaking out. In the role of this character, you will imagine the inner thoughts as this individual decides to “do the right thing” for Aurore by reporting the abuse. You will present these thoughts as a first person “interior monologue.”

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STEP 1: Learn about the incident

Aurore Gagnon was a young girl who died February 12, 1920, under suspicious circumstances. She was born on May 31, 1909, in Sainte-Philomène de Fortierville, in the county of Lotbinière, Québec. When she was eight years old her mother died. Her father, Télesphore Gagnon, a farmer and logger from Fortierville, immediately married Marie-Anne Houde, a widow with four children from a previous marriage. Aurore died two years later at the age of ten. The coroner’s inquest revealed that she had died of blood poisoning and general exhaustion, the result of a great number of untreated wounds covering her body.

With the death of Aurore Gagnon, the community was in crisis. Fingers quickly pointed to the stepmother, who had made no secret of the violence she and her husband inflicted on the child. Both were quickly brought to trial. Her stepmother was convicted of first-degree murder after her defence of insanity was rejected. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because she was pregnant with twins. She died in prison a few years later. Although Télesphore Gagnon was clearly involved in the violence against his daughter, he was convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter. After serving a short sentence, he returned to Sainte-Philomène where he spent the rest of his life.

Before you continue further with this MysteryQuest, read more about the details of the case:

Background to the case
Look at two newspaper articles from La Presse, published in April 1920, just before Marie-Anne Houde was sentenced.

Cast of characters

Timeline of events

STEP 2: Decide why no one intervened

Despite the fact that many individuals in the community seemed to have known about the mistreatment of Aurore, no one stopped it. As it turns out, the silence of the people in Sainte-Philomène is not unusual. Child abuse often goes unreported. Your next task is to learn more generally about the factors that typically contribute to people’s reluctance to act against abuse. You will then look specifically at the evidence from the Aurore case to determine which of these factors contributed to the lack of action by people in the community.

Read the briefing sheet The Reluctance to Report Child Abuse to learn why victims, and even people who suspect violence in a family, may not report child abuse. Of particular interest are 11 factors that seem to explain why adults may be reluctant to intervene:

  • Avoid involvement
  • Condone punishment
  • Not serious
  • Make matters worse
  • Wouldn’t stop abuse
  • Personal safety
  • Family matter
  • Self doubt
  • Ignorant of responsibility
  • Ignorant of procedure
  • Official indifference

Read five testimonial documents, found in the Evidence in the Case, and present the testimony of individuals associated with the case that will help you understand why these individuals did not intervene to save Aurore. Use the chart Interpreting Individuals’ Reluctance to Intervene to help you complete this task:

  • in the first column, record the title and details of the document you are analyzing;
  • in the second column, record information from each document that suggests why
    people did not intervene;
  • and in the third column, decide which of the 11 factors seem to be operating and
    explain why you believe this is the main factor.

The sample answers in the first row, which illustrate how to complete this chart, refer to information from the newspaper report in La Presse, April 20, 1920, that you read earlier.

STEP 3: Imagine an intervention

Although no one in the community did so, imagine that Aurore was saved because someone spoke up. Instead of being silenced by the factors that prevent people from intervening in child abuse, suppose that something was triggered in one individual that caused that person to do the right thing.

Select one of the fictional characters listed below or create a historical character of your own. Your task is to capture that person’s inner thoughts as he or she overcomes at least three factors preventing others from acting on Aurore’s behalf. You will write an interior monologue as though you are the individual thinking through your dilemma and eventually deciding to do something about the abuse. Suggested fictional characters include:

  • Humane Society representative — Historically, the movements for the humane treatment of animals and the protection of children against child abuse emerged at the same time as a result of work by some of the same people. Imagine that the person investigating Aurore’s case sees things that he or she does not ignore.
  • Visiting nurse — In rural Canada, the system of visiting nurses was sometimes the only health care available. Imagine that one of these nurses, on a routine visit, sees what is happening and decides to speak up.
  • Neighbour — In the Aurore case, a neighbour knew what was happening but did not speak out. Imagine a neighbour who did.
  • Priest – Imagine that you are a priest who has been told about the parents’ treatment of their daughter. How would you intervene?

STEP 4: Prepare an interior monologue

An interior monologue is a written representation of a character’s inner thoughts as though directly overheard. Once you have chosen your character, communicate the person’s action or inaction and the reasoning behind it using the kind of evidence you have assembled on the chart. Imagine the character reliving his or her interaction with Aurore. What would the person think or say to her? Explain how your character was able to overcome at least three factors that inhibited others from acting. Prepare a 500-word monologue to explain your character’s action, showing his or her inner motives, struggles, and emotional response. Your character should speak as though talking to himself or herself.

The following links discuss and offer samples of interior monologues:

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Inferences Drawn from Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to meet the following criteria:

  • identify relevant evidence about the individual’s motives;
  • and draw plausible inferences about the underlying factors.

The evaluation rubric Assessing the Internal Monologue may be used to assess how well you were able to meet the following criteria:

  • explain the character’s motives and internal struggle with reporting the abuse;
  • express the character’s tone and emotions;
  • and exhibit a polished writing style.

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The main reasons for neglect
Based on your analysis of the reasons why people in the community did not intervene to protect Aurore, determine the three most significant factors that explain their neglect. If you were to prevent further incidents of this kind, what policies would you recommend to overcome these three factors?

Bias in the media
Study a selection of the newspaper coverage of the two trials to decide whether or not the media was biased against the “wicked stepmother”:

Coverage of the trial of Marie-Anne Houde

Coverage of the trial of Télesphore Gagnon

Was she a victim, too?
In the months following her trial, Marie-Anne Houde’s sentence of death by hanging sparked calls to reduce her sentence. Examine the documents to explain the case against hanging this convicted child murderer:

Coverage of the campaign to commute Marie-Anne Houde's death sentence

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Briefing Sheet: The Reluctance to Report Child Abuse

Activity Sheet: Interpreting Individuals’ Reluctance to Intervene

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Background to the case – Newspaper Articles

“The Gagnon Case at the Quebec Assizes: A Neighbour Testifies that the Accused Allegedly told her ‘I Wish Little Aurore Would Die Without Anyone Knowing About It’”, La Presse, April 15, 1920

“Why did the Authorities Not Intervene Until After the Little Girl Died?”, La Presse, April 17, 1920

Testimony of witnesses

Sworn deposition of Oréus Mailhot, Justice of the Peace, February 17, 1920

Deposition of Odilon Auger at the Trial of Télesphore Gagnon for the murder of Aurore Gagnon, no date

Deposition of Emilien Hamel (Télesphore Gagnon’s nephew) at the trial of Télesphore Gagnon for the murder of Aurore Gagnon, April 24, 1920

Testimony of Marie-Jeanne Gagnon (Aurore’s sister) at the Inquest of Aurore Gagnon, February 13, 1920

Testimony of Marie-Jeanne Gagnon (Aurore’s sister) at the Trial of Marie-Anne Houde for the murder of Aurore Gagnon, April 15, 1920