A Spectacular Justice
On the town square, with drums rolling, an announcement is made that an accused will be given his or her punishment. Bystanders gather to witness this thrilling spectacle.
Indeed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, imprisonment was not real punishment. The worst offences entailed instead physical punishments carried out in public to serve as a deterrent. The authorities sought to eliminate any chance the offence would be repeated.
The Court vs. “La Corriveau”
On April 15, 1763, a British Court Martial found Marie-Josephte Corriveau (1733-1763) guilty of murdering her second husband, and sentenced her to hang openly and publicly for one month in an iron cage, an unusual punishment in New France.
The tragic story of “La Corriveau” captured the public imagination and has expanded over the years with more or less accurate facts. Legend has it that on some nights, La Corriveau terrorized passers-by on Île d’Orléans… long after her death.
Crime and Punishment
Each offence entails a punishment. In the first half of the 18th century, major offences included predatory offences, such as verbal or physical assault, and property offences, such as theft, concealment and arson. Public drunkenness, forgery and insurgency – crimes of lese-majesty – were also recorded as crimes in those days, in addition to sex offences such as incest and prostitution.
Judges gave offenders various sentences, including fines and public apologies. For major crimes, offenders were liable to be shackled, flogged, branded with a hot iron or even hanged.
Houses of Detention
In the 17th and 18th centuries, cities like Quebec City, Montreal and Trois-Rivières used existing buildings as prisons, even private homes and military barracks. Conditions were horrible in these unsanitary, foul-smelling and ill equipped jails.
In those days, a prison was more often than not a house of detention where the accused would be held until they were sentenced. It was during the 19th century that houses of detention became prisons or penitentiaries, where offenders were deprived of their freedom for a specific amount of time to atone for the crimes they had committed.