In 1691, New France’s high court heard its first case of “sodomy.” The three defendants were a French lord – Nicolas Daussy, Seigneur de Saint-Michel – and two commoners. All three were in army sent over to protect the colony from the English and the Iroquois, the Compagnies Franche de la Marine. Saint-Michel was the real focus of the trial.
Not much is known about the man. He seems to have been part of the garrison at Montreal. The military records I’ve found are fragmentary, and St-Michel only shows up in court records and a letter by the Governor de Champigny to his boss back in France.
What little we do know:
- He was definitely a lord – there seems to be some confusion about this among historians, but both court documents and the governor’s letter make this clear, as does his rank (commoners could not be lieutenants).
- As a lieutenant, he would have been first- or second-in-command of a company. This was an important rank – first- and second-lieutenants were the two top positions in these independent companies.
- He had no family that I can find in New France, and they’d only just started letting native-born nobles become officers, so he probably wasn’t from the colony.
When the curtain opens on this scene history, it’s late June of 1691. At the request of Catholic Church’s highest-ranking priest in Montreal – Father François Dollier de Casson, head of the Seminary – an investigation was opened. In another article, I suggested that this was probably a political move, initiated by the colony’s bishop, Saint-Vallier. The bailiff Pierre Cabassier took depositions from at least 7 or 8 witnesses, then issued a warrant for the arrest of the three men. They were captured on June 30th, and all three were interrogated by Cabassier.
The two commoners – Jean Forgeron dit La Rose and 21-year-old Jean Filliau dit Dubois – cooperated, but Saint-Michel refused to answer questions. The judge, Jean Quesneville, said that if Saint-Michel didn’t cooperate, the trial would proceed without his testimony. Saint-Michel demanded to see the governor of Montreal, the Chévalier Hector-Louis de Callières, Knight of the Order of St-Louis.
Meeting with Callières, Saint-Michel demanded the right to be judged by the highest court in New France, the Sovereign Council at Quebec City. Calliéres agreed with him, and carted the whole thing off to the colonial capital (he was probably glad to be rid of the mess).
At Quebec, Saint-Michel turned out to be something of a legal expert. He got the first investigation declared null because the bailiff at Montreal hadn’t followed procedures. The Grande Ordonnance — the legal rules handed down in 1670 — specified that only the king’s representatives could investigate and judge a “royal crime,” which included “sodomy”. These were crimes that were technically treason, and “sodomy” was considered a form of heresy, which was in turn considered an attack on God’s secular representative the King. Cabassier and Quesneville were in charge of the bailliwick — the ordinary court for nobles accused of a everyday crimes. The bailliwick wasn’t allowed to investigate a case of this kind.
The case went to the Sovereign Council, the colony’s government and supreme court. His seven judges included six lords and a count – two of them leaders of the colony (governor and intendant), and another two sons of councillors to the king. Notably absent was the colony’s bishop, Saint-Vallier, who was also a noble and a judge. This isn’t unusual in itself – he was often too busy to attend – but it is intriguing. They could’ve planned the trial for a time when he was around, but chose not to.
In any event, the Council ran a second investigation – this one run by one of the judges, Jean-Baptiste de Peiras – calling all eight witnesses from Montreal. Only seven made it (one was too sick to travel).
About most of these witnesses, we have only names. One is definitely identifiable – Catherine Tessier, wife of Montreal merchant Vincent Dugasz. Another was probably a 51-year-old man named Mathurin Moquin, whose 14-year-old son Mathurin may also have been called to testify. The sick one, Jean Hébert de Maubray, is only one of the group we can identify who has a noble’s name. We know nothing of their testimony. We do know that Saint-Michel was allowed to confront his accusers, which was unusual in the French system where people usually gave their testimony anonymously. It seems the Sovereign Council was trying to do things very much by the book.
It’s important to note that we never get Saint-Michel’s version of the story. For that matter, we only have bits and pieces of the version the judges decided on. What we do know is that Saint-Michel was convicted of “sodomy.” Dubois and La Rose admitted to it, and Saint-Michel never seems to actually deny it.
The court further convicted Saint-Michel “of having wanted to debauch many men,” and that he had “committed infamous and shameful actions to achieve this evil goal.”
Dubois and La Rose may have tried to convince the court that they’d been unwilling victims. If so, the court wasn’t buying it. It reprimanded them “for having allowed the shameful actions and emotional attachments of the said Saint-Michel, over a period of time where they could have gotten away or called for help.” Still, given that the penalty for sodomy was a minimum of exile and a maximum of death, Dubois and La Rose got off with a slap on the wrist – La Rose got two extra years in the military, and Dubois got three.
As for Saint-Michel — for a man accused of having transformed Montreal into another Sodom, trying to “debauch” many men in front of numerous witnesses – it may seem surprising that he was given the minimum penalty of exile, and a fine of 200 livres (about $1000 in today’s money) which he had to donate to charity. He also had to pay the costs of the trial.
The testimony was sealed up in a cloth bag that could be opened only by court order, so that it would never be viewed by human eyes again. To my knowledge, this testimony has been lost, and probably no longer exists.
After the sentencing, the soldier named Jean Forgeron dit La Rose disappeared from history – wherever he went, he doesn’t seemed to have raised a family in Quebec. At least one historian thought he might be Jean La Rose, married to a woman named Margeurite La Forgue. It’s possible — it wouldn’t be the first time the courts of New France had mangled a name so badly. If so, he would’ve been 30 at the time of the trial. Jean Filliau dit Dubois did start a family, however – he married three times (the first time seven years after the trial), and had 17 children, sadly none of them named Nicholas. He died at the age of 60.
As for Lieutenant Nicholas Daussy, Seigneur de Saint-Michel, we last seem him bound for the mother country. The colony’s Intendant, Jean Bochart de Champigny, told his boss back in France – at the end of one of his regular reports – that Saint-Michel “had been accused of many disgusting and filthy actions committed with some soldiers” and that he “is going back to France in one of our ships.”
For my next instalment, I’m going to talk about queer women in New France, a subject about which history has been mostly silent up to now.
I consulted literally hundreds of sources for this one, though very few yielded fruit, as it were. I won’t bother with the list of books that helped me with French law or the Compagnies Franches de la Marine, as those are easily accessible and well-known. As for Saint-Michel and his trial, I found only four sources useful:
- Jugements et délibérations du Conseil souverain de la Nouvelle-France, published by the government of Quebec, volume three, has the complete summary of the trial in old French. There are several events related to the trial, between August and November. The sentencing happens November 12, 1691.
- A letter from de Champigny to the Minister of the Marine, which was dated November 12 1691, which can be found on the last page of the document linked to this link.
- Dictionnaire généalogique des familles canadiennes online, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, and The Canadian Encyclopedia Online were all enormously helpful in locating the players in the story.
- André Lachance’s books about crime and law in New France are especially useful, I found Crimes et criminels en Nouvelle-France to be an excellent resource, especially its introduction.
- A note to anyone who tries to do further research here, is that there were at least two Seigneurs de Saint-Michel running around New France at this time, and the other — Michel Messier — is now far more famous. Naturally, this can very confusing. Messier de Saint-Michel was a commoner who was ennobled while in New France, and was married into the well-connected Le Ber and Le Moyne families. He spent most of these years serving under La Durantaye, in what’s now Michigan.