Marie-Josèphe Angélique was born a Black enslaved person in Portugal around the year 1705. During her childhood she was bought and sold by different masters, and moved with them around the Atlantic world. Around the year 1725, François Poulin de Francheville, a prominent businessman from New France, bought Angélique and brought her to work in his home in Montreal in New France.
When Marie came to Montreal, it was still a very small city, with a population of about 2,000 people. Like the other enslaved people in Montreal, Marie lived in the home of her owners. She worked under the daily supervision of her owner’s wife Thérèse. Marie was responsible for performing all of the domestic labor necessary to keep a prosperous household in working order, like cleaning, cooking, doing the laundry, and running errands.
In 1731, Marie gave birth to a baby boy, who died only a month later. The next year she gave birth to twins, who only survived five months. The father of all three children was Jacques César, an enslaved man owned by a friend of Marie’s owners. It is not known whether Marie and Jacques had a voluntary relationship, or whether they were forced to reproduce by their owners, a common practice pursued by slaveholders who wanted to increase the slave population. Regardless of the circumstances, the experience of bearing and losing three children in two years must have been an immense strain on Marie.
Marie’s owner, François, died in 1733, and Thérèse began the complicated process of settling his estate and learning to run his businesses. During this chaotic time, Marie began to openly rebel against her mistress. She started a relationship with an indentured servant named Claude Thibault, and fought frequently with Thérèse’s white maid. Thérèse fired the maid and began to make plans to sell Marie to a slave trader. Marie knew enough about the Atlantic world to fear that she would end up on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, and begged Thérèse to keep her, but Thérèse continued to make plans for her sale.
On February 22, 1734, Marie ran away with Claude. Their plan was to make it to the English colonies, where they hoped to catch a ship to Portugal. But harsh winter weather forced them to take shelter in a small town only ninety miles from Montreal. They were captured, and dragged back to the city. Claude was imprisoned for breaking his indenture contract, and Marie was returned to her mistress.
Thérèse did not punish Marie for running away, probably because she did not want to risk diminishing her value on the slave markets. Marie now lived in constant dread of being sold. She shared her anger, fears, and frustrations with other enslaved people and servants who lived nearby. She told some of them that Thérèse would live to regret her decisions. These complaints and threats made an impression on her neighbors.
On the evening of April 10, 1734, a fire broke out in Marie’s neighborhood. Aided by strong winds, the fire quickly spread. When the night was over, forty-five homes and businesses had been destroyed, including Thérèse’s home and the city hospital (see map). Hundreds were left homeless, and everyone wanted to know who had caused such a catastrophe.
Marie’s neighbors accused her of starting the fire on purpose. They told Montreal officials that Marie had threatened to punish Thérèse. Based on these reports, the city government arrested Marie on April 11, and launched a full investigation to determine whether she was guilty.
To this day, historians debate whether Marie was truly guilty of the crime she was executed for, or whether she was a convenient scapegoat for a community in crisis.
French courts in the 1700s operated very differently from the modern American legal system. Court sessions were held behind closed doors, and cases were decided by a single judge. Defendants were not allowed to have lawyers; they were expected to appear before the judge alone and convince him of their innocence. Torture was freely used to get confessions. In these circumstances, Marie, an enslaved woman with an established history of rebellion and a well-known grudge against her owner, had to convince the judge that she was innocent.
Over the next six weeks, Marie endured four official interrogations and over a dozen “confrontations,” during which she was allowed to challenge each witness the court had against her. The onslaught was intended to confuse and intimidate her, and yet, through it all, she maintained her innocence.
The trial came to a head on May 27, when a five-year-old neighbor of Thérèse, called Amabel, told the judge that she saw Marie carrying burning coals to the attic before the fire broke out. She even identified the coal shovel Marie had used. Marie’s only response was to cry, “My little Amabel, come here by me, and tell me who it is that told you to say this; I will give you a morsel of sugar.” In spite of the witness’s age, the judge decided that her testimony was proof enough to move Marie’s trial into the next, more serious phase. Marie was interrogated two more times in the “criminal seat,” a very low bench that allowed her interrogators to loom over her. This was a mandatory step in every trial for a crime punishable by death. Through these two, more extreme, interrogations, Marie continued to declare her innocence.
Finally, on June 4, the judge handed down his decision. He found Marie guilty, and sentenced her to a round of torture followed by execution. He hoped the torture would force Marie to name her accomplices. The sentence was carried out on June 21, 1734. During her torture, Marie confessed to setting the fire, but refused to name any accomplices. She only begged the executioner to kill her. After her public hanging, her remains were burned, and her ashes scattered to the wind. To this day, historians debate whether Marie was truly guilty of the crime she was executed for, or whether she was a convenient scapegoat for a community in crisis.