In 1642, the town of Ville-Marie — the future Montreal — was founded as part of the effort by some very extreme Catholics to convert the Native people to Catholicism. A mere six years later, in 1648, the city had its — and the future Canada’s — first recorded mention of homosexuality among Europeans.
A military drummer was sentenced for “crimes of the worst kind.” History doesn’t record the drummer’s name, nor his partner’s. One historian has suggested that this partner might have been a Native man who escaped the drummer’s fate, though this isn’t known for sure.
What is known is that the drummer’s case was moved to Quebec City. French law traditionally prescribed death by fire for homosexuality. According to the Journal of the Jesuit Fathers for September 1648:
“About this time, there was brought from Montreal a drummer, Convictus crimine pessimo [convicted of a crime of the worst kind], whose death our Fathers who were at Montreal opposed, sed occute; he was then sent hither and put in the prison. It was proposed to him, so that he might at least escape the galleys, to accept the office of executioner of Justice; he accepted it, but his trial was first disposed of, and then his sentence was commuted.”
So only the intervention of the Jesuits saved him from death, and they further managed to argue him down from a life of hard labour to a job as New France’s executioner. Given his choices, the drummer chose to become an executioner. This was extraordinary, given that executions of “sodomites” in France were then at their peak, at that the Jesuits were at the centre of it.
We don’t know what happened to the drummer after that, but we do know that his first victim was a girl of 15 or 16, convicted of theft. This is the last we hear of him. By 1653, the colony was looking for a new executioner. No record survives to tell us what happened to the drummer — whether he was dead, convicted of another crime, or had escaped.
Some historians working on this issue — Pierre Hurteau and Patrice Corriveau, for example — have taken to claiming the drummer’s name wasn’t lost to history, and are calling him “René Huguet dit Tambour.” I’ve checked the sources they cite, however, and can’t find that name in any of them. I’ve also checked Marcel Trudel’s Catalogue des Immigrants, which lists the names of everyone known to have arrived in the colony, from any known source Trudel could get a hold of, for the years the drummer would’ve been in Ville-Marie.
There is a “René Huguet” on genealogical records who arrives in the colony in 1680, however, by which time our drummer is long gone. So it seems Hurteau and Corriveau have made some kind of mistake. The drummer’s name is still unknown.
For my next instalment, I’ll be moving outside of New France, to homosexuality among the First Nations of North America.
I consulted many, many sources trying to find the drummer, but these were the only ones that provided any solid and accurate information:
- The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, volume 32, pages 102-103, edited by Reuban Gold Thwaites.
- Au coeur de l’histoire, évocations et récits tirés de la chronique et de l’histoire de la Nouvelle-France : avec annotations by Louis Raoul de Lorimier
- Le bourreau au Canada sous le regime français by André Lachance