Any Black Sheep in Your Family?


We all expect our ancestors to be nothing but virtuous: war heroes, doctors, notables—the usual—but what if there was a black sheep in your family? One must cope with reality—but what at first seems to be a disgrace may actually prove rewarding: convicts left paper trails!

I came across this essay thanks to the Internet—History of the Montreal Prison from A. D. 1784 to A. D. 1886, written by Rev'd J. Douglas Borthwick. When published in 1886, the prison—known then as Pied-du-Courant, now the SAQ (liquor commission) head office on De Lorimier Avenue—had been opened for 50 years. Great work as a whole, but foremost, what I found particularly interesting is featured on pages 257-268 where the author lists the names of the prison's inmates from 1812 to 1885. The years 1812 to 1825 are precious: the prison registry available at the Archives starts in 1826. Of course, this listing is far from comprehensive, but nonetheless valuable.

This book is what we call a secondary source, it thus has to be used with circumspection. Do your homework—if a name looks familiar, make sure such person is the one you believe he (or she) is. Visit the BAnQ Archives on Viger Street and unearth everything there is to know about that black sheep you are going after.

You think I am being beyond cautious?

Here is a case study: I was all excited when I noticed a certain Jean-Baptiste Tourville, who was sentenced to death in 1836. My mind was racing so fast. I know my people—who could he be? Well, he might have been from the Dutau-Tourville line after all—which is not related to the Hubou-Tourville's (my own). He might have lived in Terrebonne or Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu as, in these early years, people were transferred to be imprisoned in Montréal should the crime have been committed in a small village outside of the city.

I decided to go to the Archives to check this story out. I perused the prison registry and the trial papers, and finally realized that the name was misspelled in the book: it was a poor guy named Jean-Baptiste Fournelle who was hanged, not Tourville. Obviously, the family honour was restored, but I was a bit disappointed—that Mr. Fournelle did leave quite an impressive paper trail!

The bottom line is that one must not jump to any conclusions following the sole review of this listing (or for any other secondary source for that matter). You need to validate the facts.

Happy hunting!

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