PILOTTE, ANGELIQUE, servant; b. c. 1797 near Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.), in her own words “the natural daughter of a Squaw, and a native of the Indian Country”; fl. 1815–18.
About 1815, because of her “good natural qualities,” Angelique Pilotte was engaged as a servant to a woman on Drummond Island (Mich.). She accompanied her mistress on a trip to France but when the latter died suddenly, Pilotte returned, landing at Quebec on 4 June 1817 and making her way back to Drummond Island. With “strong recommendations in her favour,” she was hired as a “waiting woman” to Elizabeth Ann Hamilton, also of Drummond Island, and they left almost immediately on a three-week voyage to the home of John Ussher (Usher) of Chippawa, Upper Canada, arriving on 29 July 1817.
Pilotte attended to her routine household duties until about 8 August when the body of a dead baby boy was discovered in a very shallow grave near the Ussher home. When questioned by her mistress the following day, Pilotte confessed to being the baby’s mother, “and was for the first time apprised, that she had committed a crime in the Eye of English Law.” Later that day, while “in a state of extreme convulsion,” she made the same admission before justices of the peace Samuel Street* and Thomas Clark*, whereupon she was held over for trial under a bill of indictment for infanticide; the act invoked was that of 1624 (21 Jac. I, c.27), which had been passed “to prevent the destroying and murthering of Bastard Children.”
The assizes began at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) on 8 Sept. 1817. A grand jury was summoned and found a true bill against Pilotte. At the outset of the trial the next day justice William Campbell* appointed lawyer Bartholomew Crannell Beardsley* as Pilotte’s counsel; she pleaded not guilty. The attorney for the crown, Henry John Boulton*, prosecuted the case to a quick conclusion after the introduction of Pilotte’s confession and the examination of seven witnesses. The petit jury found her guilty but “strongly” urged mercy. On 11 September Campbell, who later claimed that the defendant had been convicted on “clear and sufficient evidence,” sentenced her to be hanged. His confident assertion to the contrary, however, the case was not clear-cut. Pilotte’s own petition for mercy, written on 15 September and maintaining her innocence, was supported by the grand jury; its members were “strongly inclined to give credit to its assertions” and, like the petit jurymen, they recommended that she be pardoned. Moreover, several other petitions championed her cause. Campbell soon decided to respite the execution and refer the case to the administrator of the province, Samuel Smith*, to determine whether Pilotte was a “fit object for the exercise of the Royal Mercy.” On 18 September he sent Smith copies of the pertinent documents, along with Pilotte’s petition, in which she pleaded her innocence. A few weeks later, Smith, noting “the very uncommon Interest the case seems to have excited in all Ranks” and the “unusual demonstrations” on the part of the juries in particular, transmitted these documents to Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst to forward for royal consideration.
The reaction of the “respectable” to Pilotte’s plight – a reaction that was not to be duplicated at the trial of Mary Thompson* in 1823 – was possibly the most notable aspect of the case. On the grand jury that supported Pilotte’s petition, 11 of 20 members were justices of the peace and included such worthies as Robert Nelles*, William Johnson Kerr*, and William Hamilton Merritt*. A number of the magistrates and “principal Inhabitants” of the Niagara area, among whom were Thomas Clark, an associate judge at the trial and one of the jps who originally examined Pilotte, William Claus*, and James Crooks*, also recommended mercy. Even the officers of the 70th Foot stationed at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake), although admitting that “it may perhaps be out of our line of duty,” petitioned for mercy through their spokesman, Henry William Vavasour* of the Royal Engineers. This popular clamour is difficult to explain, but it may be significant that many of those who came to Pilotte’s defence had connections with the Indian community through the American revolution and War of 1812, the fur trade, the Indian Department, and intermarriage.
By the terms of the act of 1624 Pilotte was guilty on her own admission. The act was of unusual construction. One of the few statutes in English law that presumed the guilt of the accused, it made the very fact of concealment of the birth of a bastard child, later found dead, sufficient presumption that the mother had committed murder. Although Pilotte did not deny that the child was a bastard, her statements about its birth were contradictory. In her petition she maintained that the child had been stillborn en route to Chippawa, but her confession established that the child had been born on the Ussher property, that he had been born alive, and that his birth had been concealed. Claiming to have given birth in a field adjoining the Ussher home at about 2 a.m. on the morning of 30 July, Pilotte stated that the child “moved its little legs, but did not move its arms.” After staying with him for an hour or so, she left him “upon the grass then moving his legs but not crying.” She went back to the house for about two hours, “being sick,” and returned to the field to find the baby “which was still moving its legs.” After wrapping a “cloth very tight about the child,” she left him behind a stable until about 2 a.m. on 31 July. When asked by the magistrates why she had wrapped the infant tightly, she replied that “it was for the purpose of choaking it.” Then, if her confession was true, she buried the child, possibly while he was still alive.
The confession was sufficiently damning and the statements of the witnesses supported it to the extent that they established that the child had been born on the Ussher property. Thomas Clark stated that the confession “was freely made, neither threats nor promises being used to induce or influence her.” Mary McQueen, the Usshers’ servant who had shared her bed with Pilotte, testified that Angelique had got up two or three times during the night of 29–30 July and appeared sickly. Mary Margaret Clark, one of three women who had “privately examined” Pilotte, concluded that “she had lately been delivered of a Child.” Elizabeth Hamilton also reached the same conclusion. Mary Ussher (née Street), John’s wife, had gone through Pilotte’s linen and found with her clothing “an Infant’s Shift.” She had not suspected her to be pregnant but recalled that she had heard a “Strange Noise” on the night in question, “which instantly occurred to her was like the crying of an Infant – but having no idea of any Infant being there, she imagined it must have been a Cat.”
As to whether the baby had been alive or dead at birth, the evidence of the witnesses was less conclusive. Miss Hamilton and Mrs Clark reiterated Pilotte’s assertion to them that the baby had been stillborn; however, Pilotte’s own confession made that possibility seem highly unlikely. Moreover, a local surgeon’s testimony that the body “was perfect in form, and had every appearance of mature birth” was coupled with the statement that a live child so “tightly pinned up . . . must necessarily soon be smothered.” Under cross-examination by Beardsley, he added that death might have been caused by “the want of proper assistance at time of delivery.”
Another point that either was established by the testimony or, if not made in the first instance, emerged under cross-examination was the fact that, as Thomas Clark noted, Pilotte “appeared Simple and Stupid.” No one disagreed and indeed Elizabeth Hamilton said that Pilotte “borders on Idiotism” and was “so Simple and ignorant as not to know right from Wrong, nor that she thought it a crime to Kill her own child.” Later, when faced by the pressure of the combined petitions, Campbell used Hamilton’s testimony on this matter as grounds for ordering a respite of execution and referring the case for further consideration.
Pilotte’s petition was carefully framed, no doubt by her counsel, and emphasized the extraordinary circumstances of the case. She was a “poor girl,” with “no education whatever, nor the slightest instruction in the Principles of Christian Religion.” Utterly helpless, she was depicted as a victim of the judicial process. She had been unaware of her right to counsel and thus the lawyer appointed by the court to defend her had had insufficient time to prepare her case adequately. Moreover, some of the statements in her confession were flatly contradicted by her petition. Here she claimed that while in France she had had “an unhappy connection” with a friend of her employer, a British officer whom she identified as a Lieutenant Luckman of the 81st Foot, and became pregnant. During the latter days of her voyage to Chippawa she went into labour. The child was stillborn and, fearing the wrath of her mistress, she wrapped the body, brought it ashore, and on the night of 29–30 July buried the baby in a shallow grave in an open field. The petition pointed out that the presence of infant’s clothing, by proving the mother’s intention to care for the child, was sufficient evidence according to English legal practice to remove a case from the purview of the 1624 act. More important, it drew particular attention to the different cultural customs of Indian women in childbirth. All Pilotte knew was the “customs and maxims of her own nation”; thus, she was guilty only of “the invariable custom of Indian women to retire and bring forth their children alone, and in secret.”
Pilotte had to spend many months in prison before learning of the crown’s response to her plea for mercy. Transatlantic appeal was, naturally enough, a lengthy process and the delay eventually led Robert Fleming Gourlay* to claim that the government had not acted with proper dispatch, a charge that was completely unfounded. On 27 March 1818 Lord Sidmouth, acting on behalf of the Prince Regent, changed her sentence to one year’s imprisonment. On 13 May Bathurst notified Smith of the royal decision.
It is extremely difficult for an historian to judge on the basis of incomplete records whether Pilotte was guilty or innocent of infanticide. Certainly, according to the act under which she was charged, the grand jury (in the first instance, the petit jury) and the judge agreed that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial and ultimately to convict her. The peculiarities of that act aside, it cannot be known for certain whether the baby boy was stillborn or murdered. However, Pilotte’s assertions on the former count are not very convincing. What moved the juries and local inhabitants was probably sympathy for her helplessness and simplicity before a law which, in a sense, put the Indian tradition of childbirth on trial. As for Pilotte herself, it is not known what became of her. She probably served her sentence and then returned to her birthplace and her people.
AO, RG 22, ser.134, 4, 9 Sept. 1817. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 322-1: 245–76; RG 5, A1: 16102–26, 18104–5, 19067–68; RG 7, G1, 59: 13–18. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the laws of England (4v., Oxford, 1765–69; repr. Chicago and London, 1979), 4: 220–21. U.C., Statutes, 1831–32, c.1. Niagara Spectator (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.]), 28 Jan. 1819. W. C. Keele, The provincial justice, or magistrate’s manual, being a complete digest of the criminal law of Canada, and a compendious and general view of the provincial law of Upper Canada . . . (2nd ed., Toronto, 1843), 86, 157. S. R. Clarke and H. P. Sheppard, A treatise on the criminal law of Canada (2nd ed., Toronto, 1882), 208–9. Leon Radzinowicz, A history of English criminal law and its administration from 1750 (4v., London, 1948–68), 1: 430–36, 629.