Did Angélique Start the Fire? Evaluating the Evidence
Ages 11-14

MysteryQuest 2

Did Angélique Start the Fire? Evaluating the Evidence

Author: Ruth Sandwell

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11-14

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In the spring of 1734, a fire occurred in Montréal that destroyed a hospital and 45 houses on rue Saint-Paul. Two people—Marie-Josèphe dite Angélique, a Black slave, and her White lover, Claude Thibault—were accused of starting the fire. When Claude fled from the authorities, Angélique was left on her own to prove her innocence. Some twenty people gave testimony at her criminal trial, all of them convinced that Angélique set the fire, yet not one of them saw her do it. Angélique was found guilty and sentenced to death.

If no witnesses saw her start the fire, what evidence did they have to prove Angélique’s guilt? If you looked at the evidence, would you be convinced that she committed the crime?

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In this MysteryQuest, you are invited to examine key pieces of evidence presented at the trial against Angélique to decide whether you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that she set the fire.

Proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a technical term with a specific legal meaning. It refers to the level of certainty required to declare an accused person guilty of a crime. “Reasonable doubt” does not mean you are absolutely certain but it does mean that the body of evidence is sufficiently convincing that you would be willing to rely upon this kind of proof without hesitation when making decisions in your own life.

In reaching your decision, you should first familiarize yourself with the events leading up to the trial and conviction of Angélique, and then learn about four kinds of evidence. You will identify the evidence provided by a number of witnesses and consider how convincing this information is before reaching your own conclusion about Angélique’s guilt or innocence.

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STEP 1: Familiarize yourself with the trial of Angélique

Your first task is to learn more about the events surrounding the fire and the trial of Angélique. Read the seven brief accounts written by the historians who created the “Torture and the Truth” website. These documents are listed as secondary sources in Evidence in the Case.

STEP 2: Recognize four kinds of evidence

Before evaluating the evidence brought against Angélique, it is useful to appreciate the kinds of evidence used to establish guilt or innocence. Below are brief explanations of four types of evidence that are commonly presented in a criminal trial. These various kinds of evidence are evaluated differently—in other words, some evidence is more believable than others, as far as a court of law is concerned. The kinds of evidence are listed from the weakest (or least believable) to the strongest (or most believable):

  • Hearsay or second-hand evidence: Hearsay evidence is not considered to be reliable evidence since it is information you did not see or hear yourself but was reported to you by others (your friend tells you what another person did).
  • Character evidence: Evidence about the person’s general behaviour and traits may be used to decide whether or not the accused person was of a sufficiently good or bad character that he or she might be likely to commit the crime (a witness stating she never heard the accused person hurt anyone or ever tell a lie).
  • Circumstantial or indirect evidence: Circumstantial evidence is the evidence about the circumstances in which the crime occurred that indirectly suggests what might have happened (the accused person was seen in the neighbourhood around the time of the crime).
  • Direct evidence: Direct evidence may be “real evidence” which would consist of an object or document (a video or audio tape of the event) or “eye-witness testimony” (a witness reporting what she saw the accused person do at the scene of the crime) that directly establishes the action taken by the accused person.

Can you identify which kind of evidence is represented by each of the following?

  1. finger prints of the accused person in the house where the crime was committed;
  2. the criminal record of the accused person;
  3. a confession by the accused person;
  4. a newspaper report of what eye-witnesses saw at the crime scene.

If you are unsure whether you correctly identified each piece of evidence, or if you want to learn more about these kinds of evidence, please read the briefing sheet Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court.

STEP 3: Finding and classifying the evidence

Before you classify and evaluate specific evidence brought against Angélique, it will be useful to add to your knowledge of the case by reading several historical documents prepared by court officials involved in the trial. Carefully read the following primary documents:

STEP 4: Exploring the evidence from the four witnesses

The four documents listed below are by key witnesses who gave testimony during the trial. Using these documents, complete the two-page chart Identifying and Classifying the Evidence by providing the following information:

  • Column B: What is this witness presenting as evidence to suggest that Angélique started the fire?
  • Column C: How does this evidence relate to the crime of which Angélique is accused?
  • Column D: What kind of evidence is this: hearsay, character, circumstantial, or direct evidence?

The chart offers an example of how to answer these questions based on the reasons put forward by the King’s Prosecutor for arresting Angélique.

Your task is to use Identifying and Classifying the Evidence to identify and label the evidence provided by each of the following witnesses:

STEP 5: Drawing conclusions

After you have classified the kinds of evidence presented by the four witnesses, transfer the main evidence you have compiled in Identifying and Classifying the Evidence to Drawing Conclusions. Summarize the evidence according to its kind and then record possible questions or weaknesses for each piece of evidence. Think of the explanation for each kind of evidence to help you identify potential concerns about the reliability of the evidence provided by the witnesses.

Your final task is to decide whether Angélique is guilty or innocent based on the evidence offered by the four witnesses. Does this evidence provide you with “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of Angélique’s guilt? Review the definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt” before coming to a conclusion. Indicate your conclusion on the scale (provided in Drawing Conclusions) ranging from “Overwhelming proof beyond any doubt that she is guilty” to “She is definitely innocent.” Offer four reasons why the evidence does or does not provide you with “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that Angélique started the fire.

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

  • identify relevant evidence from the document;
  • and correctly label the kind of evidence.

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

  • recognize possible weaknesses in the evidence provided;
  • and offer a plausible conclusion of guilt or innocence in light of the evidence.

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What additional evidence would you need?
Describe the amount and kind of additional evidence you would need to establish whether or not Angelique was guilty of the crime.

Examine additional documents
Locate the testimony of other witnesses who were called to testify in Angélique’s trial and evaluate the kind and quality of their testimony.

Offer Angélique’s side of the story
Prepare a first person account written from Angélique’s point of view of events from lead up to the crime until her torture and death. Whether you believe she is guilty or innocent, provide a thoughtful and personal explanation of the events as Angélique might have seen them.

Colonial justice in New France
Prepare an assessment of the state of legal justice in New France. Draw about what you have learned from Angélique’s trial and consider the historical documents listed here to learn more about legal practices at the time.

Life in eighteenth century Montreal
Prepare a report comparing life and conditions of the following groups—free women, free men, and slaves—in eighteenth century Montreal. Read the historical documents listed here to learn more about each group.

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Briefing Sheet: Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court

Activity Sheet: Identifying and Classifying the Evidence

Activity Sheet: Drawing Conclusions

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Secondary documents


Angélique’s Trial

The Rumour Circulates

The Accused Denies

In The Dock

The Sentence and Appeal

Torture and Execution

Primary documents

Court documents of court officials

Petition by the King’s Prosecutor for the arrest of Angélique and of Claude Thibault, April 11, 1734

Report of the arrest of Angélique by bailiff Jean-Baptiste DeCoste, morning, April 11, 1734

First interrogation of Angélique, afternoon audience, April 12, 1734

Legal opinion by Jean-Baptiste Adhémar [conviction and sentence] June 4, 1734

Court documents of witnesses

Confrontation of Marguerite de Couagne (Angelique’s mistress) 3rd witness, June 2, 1734

Deposition of Marie dit Manon, (Panis slave) 4th witness, audience of 2 in the afternoon, April 14, 1734

Deposition of Jeanne Tailhandier dit Labaume, 8th witness, audience of 2 in the afternoon, April 15, 1734

Addition of information by Amable Lemoine Moniere, 23rd witness, 5 in the afternoon, May 26, 1734