AYOTTE, PIERRE-LÉON (better known as Jaquette-à-Simon), labourer and legendary figure; b. 17 April 1845 in Saint-Stanislas-de-la-Rivière-des-Envies (Saint-Stanislas), Lower Canada, son of Pierre Ayotte (Ayotte, dit Simon), a farmer, and Marguerite Lapointe, dit Tousignant; d. 27 Feb. 1907 in Sainte-Geneviève-de-Batiscan, Que.
Pierre-Léon Ayotte lived for most of his life on the Rivière à la Lime concession in the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Batiscan. This parish had a heterogeneous population of labourers, lumberjacks, farmers, and storekeepers, whose living came from the land and the forests. William Price and Company operated a sawmill on the Rivière Batiscan; some other people had a smaller one on the Rivière à la Lime, near the village, which would remain in operation until the 1880s.
Little is known about Pierre-Léon Ayotte, because legend has largely divested him of his actual historical character. Édouard-Zotique Massicotte*, who became interested in him in 1929, was unable to find out with any certainty the cause of his bizarre behaviour. During his childhood he is believed to have contracted one of the diseases common in his day that raise the body temperature to the point where convulsions occur. These convulsions are thought to have led to brain damage, plunging his immature mind into a state characterized by two distinct manias: an urge to hide things, and a quirk that made him loathe trousers. Pierre-Léon was apparently an obsessive, prone to eccentricity. In his adolescence he still lisped like an infant and his behaviour aroused curiosity. He hid dishes, tools, and furniture. He could not stand trousers or breeches. He wore a bure, a kind of nightshirt that buttoned up like a cardigan and was long enough to cover his lower limbs, which were encased in leather boots or shreds of trousers held to the legs by a garter just below the knee. The pants he was put into were ripped as soon as no one was looking. This strange phenomenon caught the popular imagination.
Pierre-Léon lived among hard-working, needy, and poorly educated folk, who were beaten down by the forces of nature and the blows of fate. The collective imagination, peopled by supernatural beings, pictured a constant struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, a struggle that accounted for the chance happenings of everyday life and gave them meaning. The curiosity prompted by Pierre-Léon’s bizarre behaviour soon gave way to an attempt to explain it. People began saying that one evening his father, exasperated by the child’s crying, had shouted, “The Devil rock your cradle!” And from that moment, every evening the cradle had started to rock on its own and the child to sleep soundly. Bit by bit the tales grew: witnesses told of seeing the inner walls of the family home move, the barn shake on its foundations, and the dishes fly out of the cupboards. The legend of Jaquette-à-Simon, a man possessed by the Devil, was sealed by popular credulity and took shape.
This was the period when emigration to New England was depopulating the countryside and villages of Champlain county. A man by the name of Hubert Trépanier, sensing there was money to be made, persuaded Pierre-Léon to follow him to the United States. Far from making their fortunes, their tour of circuses and fairs ended in disaster. Some gamblers trapped Pierre-Léon; they dressed him in a white suit, blackened his hands, and shut him in a room. When he emerged, the shreds of blackened trousers proved that Pierre-Léon himself was the cause of the phenomenon, not some satanic spirit. Consultation with specialists in mental illness confirmed the gamblers’ opinion. Back in his own village Pierre-Léon lived on the fringes, working as a labourer. The curé begged his parishioners to stop spreading gossip, but Pierre-Léon continued to be either ridiculed or pitied. He died in February 1907 at the age of 61.
The stories denounced by the parish priest nevertheless developed into a legend. In a world of oral tradition, legends, which explain the success of some and the misfortunes of others, are necessary for ordinary people to understand what is happening to them and for the community to ensure conformity in individual behaviour. For years at evening gatherings this tale of a man possessed by the Devil would be spun; it would include the three successive actions found in every legend: commission of a forbidden act, punishment, and redemption. Many versions of his story are known, and their content corresponds to their intended social function. Novelist Marcel Trudel reports in Vézine that the story of Jaquette-à-Simon was used to threaten naughty children. Mme Gisèle Dessureault-Lizé’s version suggests that the curse hanging over Jaquette-à-Simon was a penance imposed by God to bring about the conversion of his father, who swore and drank and, what is more, had broken a taboo by giving his child to the Devil.
In our world dominated by technology and science, legends have disappeared. The story of Jaquette-à-Simon is no longer told. But the fears, anxieties, and search for meaning, which cults and the mass media try hard to control, still remain.
AC, Trois-Rivières, Qué., État civil, Catholiques, Sainte-Geneviève-de-Batiscan, 3 mars 1907. ANQ-MBF, CE1-43, 18 avril 1845. AUL, Arch. de folklore, 76, 359, 446, 798, 1133. NA, RG 31, C1, 1861, Sainte-Geneviève-de-Batiscan. Lionel Dessureaux, “La Jaquette-à-Cimon,” Le Mauricien (Trois-Rivières), 11 (1938): 9, 29. Jean Du Berger, “Le diable à la danse” (thèse de phd, univ. Laval, Québec, 1980). É.-Z. Massicotte, “Original et détraqué,” BRH, 35 (1929): 231–33; Sainte-Geneviève de Batiscan (Trois-Rivières, 1936). Colette Trudel et al., Sainte-Geneviève de Batiscan, 1833–1983 ([Sherbrooke, Qué.], 1983). Marcel Trudel, Vézine (Montréal, 1946), 74.