Depicts a milkmaid, startled by cow with pumpkins attached to its ears. Hallowe'en series no.980. Number 9804 appears on front, lower left

“What the boys did to the cow.” Postcard. Date unknown. Toronto Reference Library. Arts department. ARTS-PC-117. Public Domain.

Note from Andrea: When I found out that Stephanie is doing her dissertation on the history of witchcraft in early French Canada, I immediately started harassing asking her to do a special blog post about her work for Halloween. Because how super cool is that topic? And, kind person that she is, she has obliged. Enjoy!

I spent the first few years of my life in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia. After moving with my parents to Sydney, I channeled my teenage resentment into learning as much as I could about my real home at the library. This is where I first heard the story of the Cheticamp witches, in an old collection of Cape Breton ghost stories. Around the turn of the twentieth century, two warring camps in the village, the Acadians and the Jerseys, would take turns casting spells upon each other. The Jerseymen had their witch, and the Acadians had their “counter-witch.” When the Jerseys were displeased with someone in the community, they would respond with witchcraft, and the battle would begin. For example, if a fisherman didn’t come in with the expected haul, he might come home to find the family cow had stopped milking. He would call the “good” Acadian witch to solve the problem, and “unbewitch” the cow. There was one particularly amusing story of the Acadian witch getting particularly frustrated and enchanting a number of buckets to chase after the suspected Jersey witch.[1]

I had never heard of any of this growing up, and my grandmother didn’t think it was important. Having grown up in a fishing family, I think my focus on the past worried her a bit. She wanted me to be a woman of the future, with an education and the ability to depend only on myself and nobody else. We did, however, live next door to the run-down Anglican church, which by my time was an extremely spooky place, and my dad has told me stories about using his shotgun to scare off Satanists. But since Satanists are not witches, I’ll move on.

Fast forward several years, and I came across a casual mention of the 1684 witchcraft trial of Jean Campagnard in Beaubassin, Acadie. I nearly jumped out of my chair. If you can imagine me yelling “WHAT!” and spilling my coffee everywhere, that was essentially my reaction. I had no idea that Acadia had ever had a witchcraft trial. None. And a passing mention in a book that I can’t even remember the title of now was not going to be it for me – I needed to read that trial. It turns out that Jean Campagnard was Acadie’s only prosecuted witchcraft case. An expert dyke builder from Aunis, he was accused of causing the death of his employer by blowing a mysterious substance into his eyes. My favourite part of the case is during the confrontation, when one of the witnesses has his testimony read out loud

“The witness states that he saw the accused spread mysterious seeds into the marsh while reciting an incantation and the next fall he had a terrible crop,” and Campagnard replied, “He doesn’t need magic to be a terrible farmer.”

So of course, this led me down the academic rabbit hole, and now here we are.

When most people think about witchcraft in early colonial North America, they immediately think of Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, those trials are so ubiquitous that I don’t even need to explain what I am talking about. But witchcraft and witchcraft trials were also relatively common in another part of early colonial North America: French Canada. However, these two locations had very different experiences with witch trials. So in today’s blog post, I am going to talk about the history of witchcraft and witchcraft trials in colonial French Canada and share some of my favourite stories!


Beyond Salem

While we most famously associate witchcraft law with Britain and Spain, many other countries, including France, also had witchcraft laws that were unique to each particular location. French witchcraft laws were very different from the British models. For one thing, because of the prevalence of witchcraft cases in certain areas, anyone found guilty of witchcraft, a capital offence, had the right to appeal to the provincial parlement.[2] So, for example, if someone was found guilty of witchcraft in Rouen in 1645, and sentenced to death, they would have the right to appeal their case to the provincial parlement of Normandy, which acted as the higher court. To avoid the costs of appeals, most individuals found guilty of witchcraft (and blasphemy, an accusation which was often intertwined with French witchcraft accusations) were condemned to banishment rather than death – a condemnation which could still be appealed, and was, but wasn’t payable by the community magistrates. Rather, it had to be paid out of pocket by the accused (or the condemned, as it were). The French courts also outlawed all forms of spectral evidence; “swimming” a witch to see if she would float, finding a witch’s mark, or testifying to how she could fly, change into some form of animal, or had visited you in a dream to torment you – popular forms of evidence in English courts – were not admissible in France. Essentially, anything that was deemed impossible in the natural world, or against God’s law, was deemed impossible by French judiciaries and therefore not credible evidence. Even someone confessing to witchcraft was deemed suspicious. In order to convict someone of witchcraft, tangible evidence needed to be presented. In the case of an individual accused of using witchcraft to poison someone, the actual poison would need to be presented in court – either a mysterious powder, potion, or even a toad would be considered damning. This is in direct contrast to the British, who, in the same era, were still condemning witches based on the swimming test.[3] By the time French colonization has reached the level where there is a formal legal process, there was already more than fifty years of precedent for witchcraft proceedings in the French legal framework, which was transported to the colony. While the New England colony is often seen as a separate place with separate laws, New France was very much an extension of the metropole. (That’s a controversial view to hold these days, but it’s true.)


Sexy Witches

It will perhaps come as no surprise to find out that sex is a frequent theme in the magic of New France. The first witchcraft accusation in the records of New France dates from 1661. A Local man, René Besnard, was accused of using the “nouement à l’aiguillette” (which can be translated as knotting the needle) on a young couple in the town, Pierre Gadois and Marie Pontonnier. The nouement à l’aiguillette was an extremely popular and feared spell in early modern France, used by jealous rivals to cause impotence in newly wedded grooms. It involved tying a piece of string three times while reciting an incantation, and was so feared, in fact, that getting married in secret, in the middle of the woods or in the dead of night, or both, to avoid possible rival witchcraft, was not unknown.[4]

The documents for Besnard’s trial are actually pretty scant, which is probably understandable considering the courts are only barely established at this point. All we have are his interrogation, which at the very least makes a couple of things clear. First, much of the trial centred on why Pontonnier and Gadois had been married for three years, and yet had still not provided a child. Besnard is interrogated regarding the subject of his conversations with Marie Pontonnier. It is not clear who started the rumours of magical intervention being the cause, but it’s definitely being talked about. Finally, after being asked over and over again if Besnard had told Pontonnier that he would remove the effects of the spell if she would have him over to her house while her husband was away, he admits

“yes, I did say that, but not because I did the magic – it was only because I wanted to enjoy her.”[5]


Books are Dangerous

Often witchcraft came alongside other charges, as was the case with Anne Lamarque, a cabaretière (tavern-keeper) in 1680s Montréal who was not only accused of witchcraft, but also debauchery, adultery, and suspected infanticide for good measure. Anne’s records are long, complicated, and gossipy. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, this trial will feel intimately familiar to you. Her neighbours are testifying to how often her husband is spending the night at the house, how often she is taking walks with suspected lovers, how frequently certain men are walking in and out of her tavern. But most importantly, she’s accused of having a magic book, or a grimoire. The doctor in particular is concerned with this book; he not only sees it, but reads some of it. He tells the court that the passage he read has to do with “making people love you,” and it disturbed him so much that he didn’t read any further. It didn’t disturb him so much that he refrained from telling the entire town, though. In fact, every witness who is asked if they know of the existence of such a book and who answers positively says, “Yes, I know of that book, the doctor told me about it, but I’ve never seen it.” The rumour begins to spread that Lamarque is using the spell the doctor saw in her book to draw all the young men to her tavern, and is debauching all the youth of Ville Marie with her magic and her sex.

Even soldiers were not immune to witchcraft charges. Three soldiers were caught with love spells in their pockets in 1699 in Trois Rivières, and subsequently charged with witchcraft. These spells were in the form of scrolls of paper with words written on them, but as part of the judgement was to burn the paper in question, sadly we’ll never know what the paper said. If it was anything like the counter-spells used by grooms who feared the nouement à l’aiguillette, it was likely bits of Latin written backwards. Lamarque’s grimoire, according to the doctor, had bits of Latin, French, and Greek mixed together. Love was obviously a huge concern for the witches of the seventeenth century.


The Best Laid Plans…

But by the eighteenth century, love (or sex) was less on the minds of the magically inclined. The 1742 trial of Charles Havard condemns him for the blasphemous use of a crucifix in a divination spell. A neighbour had lost a sum of money, and he promises to find it using a rather creative spell involving oil, ash, herbs, an upside-down crucifix which he sets on fire, and a mirror. Much to his error, he invited pretty much the entire neighbourhood to witness his feat, and like a true showman, had set the proper atmosphere with a banked fire and spooky candlelight. They all made sure to attest to every single minute detail when testifying against his blasphemous acts in court afterwards, especially since he failed to find the money.[6]

I wasn’t going to include the story of Jean Boudor, but Andrea asked me to (Andrea: can you blame me?). The actual charge against Boudor is blasphemy, but I’m classifying it as witchcraft cause it’s weird. A well-connected merchant with plenty of well-connected friends in 1680s Montréal, Boudor decided to have a dinner party. His chosen form of entertainment was his drunken servant, who got so inebriated he passed out. On the dinner table. So Boudor set up a crucifix, and his servant into position as if he were Christ, and “resurrected” him using a bucket of cold water, thereby re-enacting the resurrection of Christ. There were numerous complaints from those in attendance to the Montréal judiciary.[7]


La Corriveau

Of course, the most famous witch in all of New France was La Corriveau. The real-life woman, Marie Joseph La Corriveau, was accused and condemned of murdering her second husband in 1763. I find the popularity of La Corriveau mystifying. She’s on beer, she has songs, I think there’s a television show or a movie or something. French Canada can’t name any other witch, but something like 90% of them know about La Corriveau.


The whole mythos of La Corriveau and her supposed witchcraft evolved decades after her death. She was the first woman executed by the English regime in Québec, and I think that’s where her mystique comes from – they used a gibbet to hang her dead body, and the device had never been seen before in French Canada. She was actually accused of murdering her husband. Nothing in her trial speaks even a whisper of witchcraft. (If you want to see her trial documents, you can find them here.) I am almost certain the primary reason the association with witchcraft actually originates from Salem, and the iconography of the gibbet. So I guess you could call it ironic that French Canada’s most well-known witch is not a witch but is thought a witch because of English iconography. There are lots of interesting, actual witchcraft cases in French Canada’s archives, but for some reason, it’s the one that was never accused of witchcraft that gets the most attention. Go figure, I guess.

If you’d like to know anything else, please feel free to ask any questions you’d like! In the meantime, Happy Halloween!

That’s it for today! We hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And as always, don’t forget to check back on Sunday for our regular Canadian History Roundup. Until then, have a Happy Halloween!



[1] For more information on the Cheticamp witches, you can consult the masters thesis written by Elizabeth Beaton, held at the Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

[2] This determination was made in 1624. Alfred Soman “The Parlement of Paris and the Great Witch Hunts (1565-1640)” Sixteenth Century Journal, 9:2 (30-44)

[3] Soman “The Parlement of Paris and the Great Witch Hunts (1565-1640)”

[4] Kevin Robbins, “Magical Emasculation, Popular Anticlericalism, and the Limits of the Reformation in Western France circa 1590” Journal of Social History 31:1 (61-83)

[5] All primary source material originate from the BANQ; the Montréal trials from the Vieux-Montréal branch, the Campagnard trial at the Québec branch (as well as digitized on their online Pistard search engine). Interrogation of René Besnard, 1660.

[6] The trial of Charles Havard, Montréal 1742. BANQ.

[7] The trial of Jean Boudor, Montreal 1689. BANQ.

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