LÉVEILLÉ, MATHIEU, Negro slave, executioner in Canada from 1733 to 1743; b. c. 1709 in Martinique; d. 9 Sept. 1743 at the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec.
After the death of the executioner Pierre Rattier [see Jean Rattier*] on 21 Aug. 1723, the colonial authorities searched the colony in vain for a successor to him. Three years later they asked the minister of the Marine, Maurepas, to find a hangman for Canada in France. In reply Maurepas recommended that they buy a Negro from Martinique, but quickly thought better of this idea and sent them a certain Gilles Lenoir, dit Le Comte, an inmate of the Hôpital Général of Paris. Gilles Lenoir was a confirmed drunkard, “so violent when he had been drinking and so disorderly in his conduct” that he had to be kept in prison all year long. He proved useless as an executioner and was sent back to France in the autumn of 1730. Guillaume Langlais, originally from London, England, replaced him. But he was so “old [about 51], feeble, and addicted to wine,” that he was no better than his predecessor. Finally, on 12 Oct. 1731, the colonial authorities decided to take “the necessary measures to obtain a Negro from Martinique to act as executioner.” On 24 March 1733 Maurepas asked Jacques Pannier d’Orgeville, a royal official in Martinique, to send to Quebec the Negro slave requested by New France. On 1 Aug. 1735 the treasurer general of the Marine, Barthélemy Moufle de La Tuillerie, paid 800 livres, drawn from the funds remitted by the farmer-general of taxes of the Domaine d’Occident, to a certain Sieur Sarreau, who lived in Martinique, “as the price for a Negro sent to Quebec to serve as executioner.”
Léveillé, the Negro hangman, had scarcely arrived in Quebec when he was hospitalized at the Hôtel-Dieu on 31 July 1733. He had lived until he was 24 in the hot climate of the West Indies, and he had great difficulty adapting himself to the sudden changes of temperature in Canada. He had to be hospitalized at the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec many times.
The hangman was very poor, if we are to judge by the facts recorded in the judicial documents of the period. On 28 Nov. 1740 he received a visit from François Mouïsset, a young ne’er-do-well of good family, to whom he had offered hospitality at Quebec around 1736. With the help of two other vagabonds, Nicolas Contant, dit Lafranchise, a day-labourer from Montreal, and the latter’s sister, Élisabeth, the wife of Antoine Tranchant of Cap à l’ Arbre (Cap à la Roche, near Deschaillons), Mouïsset got Léveillé drunk and proceeded to steal his belongings: a pot, a jacket, and a blanket. The thieves were arrested almost immediately and were first tried before Pierre André de Leigne, lieutenant general of the provost court of Quebec. They were sentenced to be put in the market-place pillory in Lower Town, Quebec, by the hangman Léveillé and to carry on their backs and chests signboards on which was written: “Vagabonds, vagrants who live a scandalous life.” The lieutenant general also sentenced them to be banished from the government of Quebec for three years and to pay to the king a fine of 3 livres each. But the king’s attorney, Henry Hiché, appealed this sentence to the Conseil Supérieur in conformity with title xxvi, article vi of the great criminal ordinance of 1670. This tribunal finally modified the sentence and condemned François Mouïsset and Nicolas Contant, dit Lafranchise, to two months in prison on bread and water. As for Élisabeth, the council ordered her to return to her husband, and to furnish the king’s attorney general with a certificate that she had indeed returned and was living with him.
Léveillé suffered from “melancholy,” as the executioner’s profession did not take up a great deal of time at that period. Intendant Hocquart* thought he would cure the slave’s morbid ennui by buying a West Indian wife for him. When she arrived in Canada in 1742, Léveillé was ill again. For fear of infecting the fiancée, the intendant wanted to wait for the executioner to recover before giving permission for their marriage. Léveillé’s condition, however, grew worse; on 5 Sept. 1743 the hangman was again hospitalized, and four days later he died, a bachelor, at the Hôtel-Dieu. He was buried in the hospital cemetery on 10 September.
The colonial authorities then decided to have the Negress baptized Angélique-Denise – this was done on 23 Dec. 1743 at Notre-Dame de Québec by the parish priest, Joseph-André-Mathurin Jacrau* – and to put her up for sale, probably at a price of 700 or 800 livres, if we are to judge by the sum paid by the authorities for Léveillé and the prices for the purchase of slaves proposed in 1737 by a La Rochelle merchant to settlers in Louisiana. Intendant Hocquart must have succeeded in selling her, for after 10 May 1744 Angélique-Denise is no longer mentioned in the documents consulted.
Mathieu Léveillé’s case brings into relief two facts in the social history of New France. After his death it seemed obvious that it was difficult for a Negro from the West Indies to adapt to Canada’s harsh climate. Maurepas therefore advised Hocquart to replace “the Negro executioner who had died” with a white man. This policy was followed until 1760. The impasse which had led to bringing Léveillé to Canada also illustrates the constant difficulty in finding an executioner locally. In Canadian society as in French society under the old régime the position of executioner was a dishonourable one. According to the legislation of the period a condemnation was all the more ignominious in that it had to be carried out by the hangman, and indirectly the infamy associated in the public’s mind with the penalty itself was cast upon the executioner.
AHDQ, Registres des malades, 5 août 1723, 31 juill. 1733, 5 sept. 1743; Registres des sépultures, 10 sept. 1743. AJQ, Registre d’état civil, Notre-Dame de Québec, 23 déc. 1743. AN, Col., B, 52, ff.516, 549; 58, f.410; 78, f.145; F1A, 32, f.177; F3, 11, f.176. ANQ, NF, Coll. de pièces jud. et not., 1234; NF, Registres de la Prévôté de Québec, LXVI, 44v–45; NF, Registres du Cons. sup., registre criminel, 1730–1759, ff.65v–67; Manuscrits relatifs à l’histoire de la N.-F., 3e sér., IX, 411; XII, 15, 25, 28 oct. 1730, 12 oct. 1731 [sans folio]. Bornier, Conférences des ord. de Louis XIV, II, 336–37, 348. [J.-N.] Guyot, Répertoire universel et raisonné de jurisprudence civile, criminelle, canonique et bénéficiale; ouvrage de plusieurs jurisconsultes... (17v., Paris, 1784–85), VII, 156. Lachance, Le bourreau au Canada, 78–81. Trudel, L’esclavage au Canada français, 116–17.