“The rope used has been destroyed by Deputy Sheriff Gibson, according to orders, to prevent relic hunters getting hold of it. It was a stout hempen cord, one-eighths of an inch in diameter,” so goes an account of the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel in the Manitoba Daily Free Press of November 17, 1885.
According to the newspaper, Gibson was in charge of all the arrangements for the execution of Riel, who was condemned to death in Regina for leading the Northwest Rebellion that was suppressed by Canadian troops under the command of General Frederick Middleton. Riel had been taken prisoner following the Battle of Batoche, the decisive encounter between the Métis and the militia during the rebellion.
The recent donation of an alleged 10 to 12 centimetre strands of the rope used to hang Riel to the St. Boniface Museum by Jennifer, the daughter of former Premier Duff Roblin, is completely contrary to the above report in the newspaper. How a portion of the rope, however small, still exists, when it was specifically pointed out immediately after the hanging that the rope was destroyed, becomes a matter of historical speculation.
It does stand to reason that the rope would be destroyed to prevent it falling into the hands of souvenir seekers. It is likely that the government of Sir John A. Macdonald in Ottawa wanted the rope destroyed in order to prevent it being used to rally the forces who had been opposed to the execution. The execution was controversial, not only in Western Canada, but among French-Canadians, officials of the Catholic Church and MPs from Québec. English-Canada may have favoured Riel’s execution for treason, but French-Canada viewed the Métis leader as a martyr to the cause of religious freedom and language rights.
In Montréal, the city council passed a motion to adjourn “as a protest against the odious violation of the laws of justice and humanity in the execution of Riel.”
People took to the streets in Montréal and Québec City to protest the hanging of Riel. They hanged and burned effigies of Macdonald and many of his cabinet ministers. In these cities, many shouted out, “Glory to Riel!”
The strands of the rope turned over to the museum were held inside an envelope that on one side was written, “Rope that hung Riel” (September 25 Free Press article by Larry Kusch). More text explained that the piece of rope had been given by Capt. Young in 1885 to J.B. Wilcox. On the other side of the envelope is written, “Given to Duff Roblin on May 6, 1969 by the grandson of J.B. Silcox.”
Rev. Silcox was the presiding minister of First (later Central) Congregational Church in Winnipeg. The Capt. Young mentioned is believed to be George Holmes Young, a Canadian militia officer who was born in Niagara, Ontario, in 1851, but grew up in the Red River Settlement. He was the only son of Rev. George Young, who himself played a role in Manitoba history by ministering to Thomas Scott, who was executed on March 4, 1870. In 1871, Capt. Young served with the troops that in 1871 were to repel Fenian invaders from the U.S. into Manitoba (ironically, he probably would have seen Riel who led a Métis contingent against the Fenians). It was a farcical invasion that was stopped by the U.S. Cavalry near Pembina.
Given that Rev. Young had tried to prevent Scott’s execution and detested Riel, it’s no wonder that Phillipe Mailhot, the director of the St. Boniface Museum, told Kusch that Capt. Young, the reverend’s son, was “not a fan” of Riel.
In 1885, Young served as a brigade major on Middleton’s staff and fought at the battles of Fish Creek and Batoche. He was given the task of escorting Riel after his capture to Regina, where the Métis leader was imprisoned to await trial. Queen’s University Archives has a field notebook by Capt. Young, which contains a map of the Battle of Batoche as well as several pages of notes written by Riel himself.
Maillot told Kusch that Capt. Young was well-placed to have either witnessed the hanging of Riel and have access to the rope afterward.
“Contextually, it holds water for me,” said Mailhot, believing the rope segments to likely be authentic.
The museum holds a collection of Riel artifacts, including the hood that was wrapped around Riel’s head when he was hanged, a pair of his moccasins, a shaving kit and other personal items, as well as Riel’s coffin. The coffin is the one into which Riels’ body was placed following his execution and was then carried to Winnipeg for burial by his family. At St. Vital, Riel’s body was put into a more elaborate coffin and it was buried in St. Boniface Cathedral Cemetery. The original, simple wooden coffin was kept by the family and later donated to the St. Boniface Museum.
Three alleged small pieces of the rope used to execute Riel are in the RCMP Museum in Regina. Mailhot wants to compare the St. Boniface Museum rope to those held in the Regina museum.
In a June 22, 1936, Free Press editorial page column, W.J. Healy, the provincial librarian, wrote that the library received a lock of Riel’s hair, which Father André, who was ministering to Riel on the scaffold in Regina, gave to D.W. Bole, one of the witnesses of the execution.
In 1999, the RCMP Museum is also reported to have received hair clipped from Riel’s beard after he was hanged. The strands of curly reddish hair were said to have been clipped from Riel’s body as it lay in the casket awaiting transportation to Winnipeg. The hair was claimed to have been taken by W.H. Hamilton, the owner of a Regina livery station who was hired by the funeral parlour to get Riel’s body. The beard clippings were later given by the museum to the Riel family.
When Riel’s coffin was later opened in Regina to show officials that no mutilation had occurred, it was determined that only a few hair clippings had been taken and his mocassins were missing. The coffin was then renailed shut.
That Hamilton would take clippings as souvenirs from Riel’s body lends greater credence to the strands of rope donated by Roblin’s daughter being authentic. With such an historic event, people would have been clammering for souvenirs, despite how they were obtained. “Relic hunters,” including Capt. Young, were undoubtedly quite willing to take their piece of history regardless of the orders issued by federal authorities.
But most small relics said to be from Riel’s execution cannot at the moment be proven or disproven. And even with a successful DNA comparison of the RCMP Museum and St. Boniface segments of rope, it can only be proven that they are part of the same hemp plant(s).
Still, an historical context coupled with new scientific evidence would add more strength to the belief that the artifacts are real.