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GenSpotters’ Book Review: Beyond Brutal Passions. Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal by Mary Anne Poutanen

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At the outset of the nineteenth century in Montreal, the elites were wondering about the objectives of sending prostitutes to prison. Was it about dissuasion or rehabilitation? According to the prisoners themselves, jail fulfilled a need. First of all, it provided social welfare to destitute and homeless people which, most of the time, were elderly, mothers and their children, as well as prostitutes. For women of this era, running a brothel or living off the avails of prostitution were means to have access to the basics: food, clothing, and a roof. Several historians have studied prostitution—either for Québec or for the rest of Canada—but few actually covered the first half of the nineteenth century.

Poutanen's essay is divided in two parts. The first one discusses women accused of prostitution, the second one emphasizes on the judicial system's procedures related to the lodging of a complaint against the presumed prostitutes.

The first three chapters are about the places where women lived and worked. The author addresses prostitution's social geography, prostitution at home and in brothels, and street prostitution.

As for chapters four to seven, they focus on the relation between the plaintiff, the accused and several authorities from the justice system. Poutanen outlines the administrative complexity related to the filing of a complaint against a presumed prostitute or a brothel keeper. She studies the complicated relationships between policemen, watchmen, and prostitutes, concentrating on court cases. Finally, the author explains punishments and the way they evolved during this period.

This essay sheds light on the complex relationships between the women accused of prostitution and the society in which they were living and working. Beyond Brutal Passions portrays the unknown social environment, yet very real, that was prostitution in Montreal in the early nineteenth century. A relevant essay that is now essential on the subject.

Poutanen, Mary Anne. Beyond Brutal Passions. Prostitution in Early Nineteenth Century Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 409 pages.

The Elusive Lady

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While I was looking for one of my ancestors on the Web, I was in for a total surprise. I did manage to find the man but certainly not where I thought I would. I stumbled upon this history thesis about domestic violence in Montreal during the first half of the nineteenth century1.

Jean Detouin's name was mentioned therein but not for the reason you are thinking: he was not a violent man but rather a victim as someone attempted to kill him and burn his house. He had resigned himself to make a complaint against… his own wife!

Marie Archange dite Julie Daigneau was born in Boucherville in 1797. On June 20, 1821, she married Jean Detouin, a carpenter who just immigrated from Belgium. At that time, Marie Archange was living in Montreal while her parents were living in Boucherville. Her older sister, Marie Josephe, also married in Montreal in 1818 with François George Lepailleur, a notary. It is a possibility that Archange was living with her sister at the time of her marriage, although it would have been for a short period since the Lepailleurs left for Châteauguay in 1820.

Seven months after her marriage, Archange gave birth to a girl, Marie Elmire. It was not unusual for the first child to be "premature"—Archange is certainly not the first woman to get married while being pregnant. Three other daughters were born two years apart from each other: Marie Archange dite Angèle, Henriette, and Caroline. The last one was born in June 1828, seven years after her parents' marriage but passed away five days after the birth. Then, the next to youngest child dies in December 1829. Finally, Jean Detouin died in turn a victim of the cholera epidemic in 1832. The two eldest daughters are therefore left fatherless and went on to live with their uncle. And what about the mother?

Jean Detouin's statement against his wife, dated May 5, 1831, is quite informative about the family's life conditions as well as those of Montreal's families from the same era:

"… about three years ago, Julie Daigneau, his wife, has left their bed and house and abandoned her children and started drinking. She's a vagrant and a prostitute. She was out of jail last Tuesday and since then, has come several times to the deponent's house, especially today, has disturbed the peace, assaulted him and threatened to hit him and has uttered multiple threats, including wanting to burn his house…" [translation from French]

Well, well, Archange, now a vagrant and known as Julie, is out of prison and left her house about three years before. I turned to the Montreal Prison registers and started looking as of the date of her last childbirth and there it was! Julie was first jailed in November 1828 for shoplifting. She faces the same charges in March 1829. The next occurrences will be about vagrancy or for disturbing the peace.

With more sleuthing, it is no surprise that Archange was in this situation. Angélique Catafard, her youngest's godmother, was in prison too. She was arrested at the Champ-de-Mars, with other prostitutes. The policeman described them as vagrants and women of bad repute.

Archange dite Julie Daigneau will be serving no less than 28 prison terms where she will actually die on February 3, 1837. She left abundant traces of her existence in court records. On the one hand, if I had solely relied on civil records, I would have never found a death record for her. On the other hand, I would have never known about this family's misery. Finally, in light of this portrait, it is legitimate to wonder if Jean Detouin is the father of Archange's four daughters.

1 Pilarczyk, Ian C. Justice in the Premises: Family Violence and the Law in Montreal, 1825-1850.