The duty continues its journey back to the sources of French America, focusing on the exploration of Quebec newspapers and archives. To broaden our horizons, we will travel from the northern confines of the Hudson to the sunny dreams of Florida, while tracing the thread of a shared history. Today, the murder of Achille Taché.
Kamouraska, January 31, 1839. An American cart speeds along in the night, letting a trail of blood flow behind it. Its driver multiplies the lashes on his black horse. He removed the bell collar from his mount so as not to attract attention. It is almost midnight when the vehicle finally stops in front of the small inn in La Pocatière.
The mysterious traveler, dressed in a blue hood, demands hot water from the tenant. “He told me that it was not for him, but to wash the cart and some skins”, recounted Louis Clermont at the coroner’s inquest. The “sleigh” is smeared with frozen blood. It would have been soiled in a shed where animals were slaughtered, explains its occupant in “corrupt” French, an accent that betrays a foreign origin.
The man sports long fashionable sideburns that seem to extend the hair of his furry cap. He goes to lock himself in his room, leaning over a tub of increasingly dewy water where he cleans the crimson covers of his cart. The innkeeper’s wife, Victoire Dufour, turned pale at the sight of the blood she discovered at the bottom of her gallery, on the morning of 1er February: “I recoiled in horror and was very scared. She suspects that an assassin has taken refuge in her inn. “I noticed, all the time he was in the house, that he was avoiding me and turning his back on me. »
Up at 8 o’clock, the stranger gulps down a glass of wine. Then he resumes his journey south. He spent the following night at the Saint-Vallier inn. There, he throws his belt, which is also stained with blood, into the fire. The men in pursuit of him lost track of him around what is now Montmagny. It is presumed that he went inland to reach the American border, via Beauce.
On the trail of blood
The body of the victim was found on February 3, 1839 on the ice of the St. Lawrence. This is Achille Taché. Yes, the Lord of Kamouraska himself. One of his arms emerges from a snowdrift, which suggests that he was not quite dead when his killer got rid of him in Kamouraska Cove.
The autopsy reveals the presence of two bullets lodged in the skull. The first was fired at close range, in front of the right ear, while the second entered through the back of the head. Then, the skull was smashed with the butt of a pistol.
Taché was last seen alive on the evening of January 31, as he boarded the mysterious carriage near his stately home. The vehicle, which we lost sight of for a moment, then crossed Kamouraska at a brisk trot, at least according to the villagers interviewed by coroner Charles Panet. “This car was driven by a man who was singing and had spread his carriage dress on something that seemed to us to be another drunken man”, reports Bernard Sansterre. Singing at the top of his voice, the assassin tried to drown out the moans of his dying victim on whom he had sat.
The blood trail leads to George Holmes. Who is he ? An American-born doctor based in Sorel. His crime is passionate. The 24-year-old killer wanted to get rid of the cumbersome husband of his adored mistress, Éléonore d’Estimauville. This young woman had found refuge, a year earlier, with her aunts in Sorel to escape the grip of her alcoholic husband. The conventions of her society force her to mourn her ex-husband even though he threatened to kill her with a razor.
Holmes confesses his crime to his lover Éléonore during their reunion on February 5. The discussion seems to have been stormy between the lovebirds, at least if we rely on the confidences of Holmes to his friend George Van Ness: “ That damned woman, these damned women ruined me! he said, crying with rage. Panicking, Éléonore forges an alibi to exonerate herself. She writes a postdated letter to her “dear Achille”, whom she “kisses a thousand times”.
The vice tightens on the assassin, who crosses the border of Vermont in all haste. He was arrested there and then released, since the extradition process failed.
The Anglo-Montreal press is unleashed against the American. She tries to associate him with the patriot movement that the British authorities have just crushed in the Richelieu valley. “Some papers wanted to attribute this murder to political causes, but it is not so, replies the newspaper The Canadian February 20, 1839. M. Taché in no way interfered in politics and was, moreover, of an inoffensive character. »
Éléonore did not follow her lover. She doesn’t even know what has become of him. In 1841, the young woman was cleared of the charges against her, at least for an unsuccessful attempt to poison her husband Achille Taché at the end of 1838. The incriminating testimony of Éléonore’s servant, Aurélie Prévost, who was responsible of the manoeuvre, was rejected by the jury because of the bad life of this poor girl, whose teeth are blackened by tobacco.
The Hell of Kamouraska
The murder of Achille Taché obsessed Charles Dolbigny, one of the witnesses heard by coroner Panet. Without waiting for the outcome of Éléonore’s trial, this teacher from Kamouraska sums up the affair in A drama from hell. The novel was sufficiently advanced by the end of June 1840 for its publication to be announced in the newspapers. However, it will never be published.
The pressure exerted by the Taché and d’Estimauville families probably got the better of the Dolbigny project. French Canada is thus deprived of what was to be one of its first novels, deplores the historian Alex Gagnon in The community from outside (PUM, 2016). The manuscript passed from hand to hand on the death of its author, before being burned by one of the agents of the Estimauville family in 1890.
The murder of Achille Taché is thus relegated to the nappies of the local memory of the South Coast. This simple news item resurfaces in the Canadian Memories by Henri-Raymond Casgrain, edited posthumously by historian Gilles Pageau. Aged seven in 1839, the future abbot rubbed shoulders with the lord of Kamouraska, whom he depicted as “vigorous young man of 26, full of spirit and pure French gaiety”. He would be the antithesis of his assassin, whose “Yankee origins” and “diabolical perversity” are broadly underlined, in a perspective of nation-building through rejection of the Other.
However, Casgrain gives the benefit of the doubt to the beautiful Éléonore. But by virtue of what, if not its charm? In 1846, he met her while vacationing in Charlevoix with her father, Charles-Eusèbe. Crossing the village of Les Éboulements, the teenager looks towards a house surrounded by a gallery covered with wild vines. “We saw in the garden adjoining the cottage a young woman leaning over a grove of wild roses. The widow Taché, who became Mme Clement, sits up, throwing a furtive glance in his direction. “Dressed simply, but very elegantly, in a pearl gray dress that brought out her buxom waist, she was wearing an Italian straw hat. »
Éléonore’s charm obviously works on the young Casgrain: “She had a disturbing expression in her sight that you don’t forget. The abbot will have to wait another twenty years before speaking to her, during a stay at the Laterrière family manor in Les Éboulements. “She always had an astonishing freshness of complexion, with an expression of interesting melancholy, and the deep gaze, of which one could not help dreaming. »
At Anne Hebert’s
The novelist Anne Hébert also grew up in the cult of Éléonore. According to the family account given to her, the reputation of this woman would have been unfairly tarnished by an “evil American” who would have murdered her husband without her knowledge. This family legend was transmitted to him by his mother, Marguerite Taché, a descendant of one of the collateral branches of the lord of Kamouraska. When the latter died in 1965, Anne Hébert reconstructed, from her Parisian home, this story of “snow and horror” based on the coroner’s inquest. She takes up most of it in her novel, while changing the names of the protagonists, starting with Taché, which becomes Tassy.
Kamouraska is published at the dawn of the October crisis of 1970. Claude Jutra will make a film from the book starring Geneviève Bujold and Philippe Léotard. “So much blood in a man’s body,” launches the romantic assassin imagined by Anne Hébert after having killed his rival. I’m sure that dog Tassy did it on purpose. »