Author: Garfield Gini-Newman
Editor: Ruth Sandwell
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-16
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?
The lingering mystery is how such a tragedy could have been allowed to happen. Does the blame for her brutal death lie solely at the feet of her father and stepmother, whose abuse led to Aurore’s death? Or, do others (including neighbours, family members, local authorities, the local priest, and the family doctor) share in the responsibility for allowing the abuse to continue? Is the safeguarding of children the sole responsibility of the parents or do others in society have an obligation to ensure the safety of all children?
In this MysteryQuest you are invited to determine what responsibility, if any, various family and community members might share in the tragic death of Aurore Gagnon. Although Aurore’s father and stepmother were held criminally responsible for her death, many other people in the community knew or suspected what was being done to Aurore and yet the abuse continued. Do any of these people deserve to be held at least partially responsible for Aurore’s death?
First, you will need to learn more about the details surrounding Aurore’s death. After considering the kinds of factors that might influence whether someone is indirectly responsible for an event, you will examine documents describing the actions of ten people in Aurore’s life. You will use the evidence collected to assign degrees of responsibility for Aurore’s death to each of these people.
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.
Learn more about the case by reading three documents in the “Background to the case” section of Evidence in the Case. These documents include Aurore’s father’s testimony and two newspaper articles published just before Marie-Anne Houde (Aurore’s stepmother) was sentenced for killing Aurore.
STEP 2: Consider individual responsibility
Your task is to assess whether various family and community members, other than Aurore’s father and stepmother, may share some responsibility because of their failure to act to prevent her death. Various factors affect our justification for holding a person responsible for an event, even if they didn’t actually cause the event. Three important factors in assigning indirect responsibility are:
STEP 3: Look for evidence
Your next task is to examine documents describing the actions of ten people who may have contributed indirectly to Aurore’s death. Work on your own or with a partner to read the ten documents in “Testimony of Family and Community Members” found in Evidence in the Case. Although there are many documents, most of these are short and consist largely of questions and answers presented to the witness at one of the hearings into Aurore’s death.
As you read the documents, consider the evidence in light of the three factors discussed above. Record information on each factor in determining responsibility on the chart Looking for Evidence of Responsibility.
STEP 4: Prepare your assessment of responsibility
When you have examined the documents and recorded evidence for each of the ten people, you are now ready to determine what degree of responsibility, if any, each person bears for Aurore’s death. Sort the people into the following categories or levels of responsibility:
0 These persons should not be held responsible in any way for Aurore’s death.
1 These persons are only slightly responsible for Aurore’s death.
2 These persons are responsible for Aurore’s death but do not deserve to be punished.
3 These persons bear considerable responsibility for Aurore’s death and deserve some form of punishment.
4 These persons are as responsible for Aurore’s death as the people who actually killed her.
Using the chart Assigning Levels of Responsibility, record the names of the people who belong at each level of responsibility and explain your reasons for assigning the people to this level.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Conclusions may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant evidence from the historical documents and draw plausible conclusions about individual responsibility.
What additional evidence would you need?
Describe the amount and kind of additional evidence you would need if you were to write a coroner’s report outlining the most important steps to be taken to ensure another tragic death like Aurore’s would not happen again.
Examine additional documents
Locate other historical documents in Aurore! The Mystery of the Martyred Child that provide more complete evidence as to the role that various people played in the life and death of Aurore Gagnon.
Put yourself in the place of these community members
Apply your detective skills to a related mystery associated with Aurore’s death. MysteryQuest 1 invites you to put yourself in the situation of someone living in the community and to try to understand why people failed to protect this desperate child.
Activity Sheet: Looking for Evidence of Responsibility
Activity Sheet: Assigning Levels of Responsibility
Background to the case
Testimony of family and community members