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Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Cursed Wedding

French Settlers

Most French Canadian wedding records are fairly predictable - name of groom, his parents, residence, age, name of bride, her parents, residence, age. Sometimes you get lucky and the priest recording the marriage will make a note of the relationship of the witnesses or guests present to either of the couple. If anyone is capable of signing their name you may also be able to see that on a digital copy. You may also learn if the parents are dead or alive. You can get fairly cross eyed trying to read the handwriting and the French with the added challenge of paper that has bled through from the other side, blots, tears and great variety of handwriting - some quite undecipherable. While going through the register of Notre Dame parish  for my eighth great grandmother Marie Pontonnier's wedding  I discovered the record of her first marriage to Jean Gadois. Stuck in the pages of the register was a decree of annulment for the marriage. I thought I was misreading the crabbed handwriting when I saw the cause: non consummation because of sorcery.

Church annulments in the 17th century were rare - almost non existent. The story of my ancestor's annulment was not typical. Marie had immigrated from Lude in the old province of Anjou, France when she was a young teenager perhaps only about 13. She was born there in 1642 to Urbain Pontonnier and his wife Felice Janin. Was she an orphan when she traveled to New France? She arrived around 1656 and on arrival lived at the Hotel Dieu in Montreal under the care of its foundress,  Jeanne Mance, along with other young women awaiting a marriage alliance in the colony. The uneven ratio of men to women made such immigrants prized.

Through another girl at Hotel Dieu, Elizabeth Moyen, she met a dashing young corporal Rene Besnard, twice her age, a friend of Elizabeth's suitor Major Lambert Closse. Initially attracted to the man her interest cooled when she began to hear gossip about his amorous adventures. For Marie that ended any relationship but not for Rene who was not used to being rejected. He became, what we would call today, a stalker. Seething with rage and injured pride he watched Marie form a relationship with the son of one of the founders of Montreal, Pierre Gadois. Age 25, Pierre was younger and a a gunsmith with a solid reputation as a brave Indian fighter. . 

On May 6 1657 Marie and Pierre signed a contract to marry which was witnessed by her guardian Jeanne Mance as well as others including Major Closse. As was customary an announcement of the pending marriage (wedding bans) was done at the parish church for three Sundays. When Rene heard of the marriage he threatened Marie and informed her that he had occult powers. If she went ahead with the marriage he would put a curse on her that would prevent her from having children. Despite this, she and Pierre decided to go ahead with the wedding. Friends advised Pierre that to ward off the curse he should recite psalm 51 in Latin backwards during the wedding. One wonders if an already nervous groom could manage to carry this off! Marie and her friend Elizabeth scheduled their wedding on the same day August 12, 1657.

Rene Besnard attending the wedding - after all Major Closse, Elizabeth's fiance, was his commanding officer. During the ceremony he was observed knotting a cord and mumbling. Accounts don't mention if Pierre had the presence of mind to say the psalm backwards but obviously he was shaken by the experience. As a result, although Elizabeth and her new groom were soon awaiting their first child he was unable to consummate the marriage with Marie. He believed in the curse.  After a year the young couple approached the bishop in the hope that a bishop's blessing might remove the curse but nothing seemed to help.  In the meantime their persecutor was having problems himself. Marie and Pierre brought charges against him claiming  that he had propositioned Marie and sought to exchange sexual favors in return for removing the curse. He had boasted to others of  his role in their childlessness and two other people joined the couple as witnesses. Rene had a sudden lapse of memory about these conversations and tried to turn the charge around. He accused Marie of offering sex to him meeting with him when her husband was out of the house. Eventually the judge was able to sort out the charges and counter charges and Rene admitted to having made the threat of the curse but only to seduce Marie - and for that was jailed.

Witchcraft was taken seriously in the 17th century in New France as well as other parts of North America and Europe. Although Rene said he had not put the curse on Marie and Pierre but only threatened it he was liable to be tried on the charge of sorcery and even could have been burned at the stake. Although the court found Rene guilty he was lucky since he was only fined 300 pounds and banished to live no closer than 75 miles from Montreal.  Rene settled up the St. Lawrence river in Trois Rivieres and his reputation doesn't seem to have damaged his career or his marriage prospects. He married there in 1661 and was corporal of the Trois Rivieres garrison by his marriage. He was later named a public prosecutor and even  became a respectable church warden. He had some legal difficulties over the next 20 years  but managed to become a fairly prosperous farmer by 1681. .

Nearly two years had gone by since the wedding and even the trial of Rene did not cure Pierre's impotence. The couple had to wait another year according to church law to see if the situation could be remedied. When it wasn't they received the decree of annulment that I found over 300 years later in the pages of the wedding record of the parish of Notre Dame in Montreal. The marriage was annulled  August 30, 1660 because of "perpetual impotence caused by sorcery" and both were free to marry another. Pierre was ordered to provide compensation to his former wife both in money and beaver skins which would allow her to have a dowry and form another alliance. In her case she didn't take much time making a decision and was married to Pierre Martin November 3, 1660. Pierre was an immigrant from La Fleche also in the old province of Anjou and had arrived in 1653 with a large group of settlers referred to as the "Grand Recue". He was both a surgeon and a lawyer. It didn't take long for Marie to become pregnant - the curse was broken.

Unfortunately she had little time to enjoy her new married happiness, Pierre Martin was caught up in an Iroquois ambush four months later and decapitated. His body was found in June 1661. His posthumous daughter was born Nov 9 of that year to the young widow. A month later Marie married Honore Langlois about 10 years her senior who had been recruited to come Quebec in 1651. At the request of the governor of Montreal he was one of ten men recruited to move there to aid in the defense of the settlement against the Iroquois. Honore had made his home in Montreal buying cattle and clearing a large tract of land.

Montreal was a small settlement of perhaps 50 families. The census of 1666 enumerated 627 men, women and children. In that enumeration were Marie Pontonnier and her husband Honore Langlois with her daughter Marie and two of their children, a daughter Jeanne b. 1664 and a small son Honore who would die that same year. However she and Honore would go on to have 8 more children. In the same census is found her former husband Pierre Gadois who, perhaps with good reason after his experience with his first marriage, waiting until 1665 to marry. He and his bride Jeanne Bresnard (no relation to Rene) married in April of 1665 and were awaiting the birth of their first child. He and Jeanne had 14 children successfully overcoming the curse.
Looking over the census of 1666 I can see several other families who appear in my own family tree: Interestingly my direct ancestor Pierre Chicoine is living in the village having arrived a few years before. He is still single as are a number of men in the village. A scarcity of French women is being remedied by importation of the "Filles du Roi" imported brides begun three years previously. His future bride Madeleine Chretien would arrive in 1670. Also in the village were the LeMoyne family. Charles Lemoyne and his wife Catherine Thierry and sons would play a role in my family history since Pierre would work for them and settle in their seigneury of Longueuil.. Charles would be a witness at Pierre and Madeliene's wedding and sign the register. His son Pierre known as d'Iberville, soldier and explorer with his younger brother Jean Baptiste LeMoyne would survey the territory of Louisiana. Jean Baptiste would be the  first governor of the colony and in 1718 found the city of New Orleans where I currently reside. .

(for more information see  series of biographies in Our French Canadian Ancestors/Nos Ancetres by Gerard Leber and Thomas LaForest - Marie Pontonnier and the men in her life )

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