Louis Riel Day


It’s November 16th: LOUIS RIEL DAY

For those of you who are a bit rusty on your Canadian history: Louis Riel (1844-1885) was the leader of the Métis, a Father of Confederation, and a founder of the province of Manitoba – executed as a traitor to the country he remains today a controversial figure in Canadian history.

But what does Riel’s story have to do with the history of psychology?

Riel was tried for treason in 1885 – an event that has become not only one of the most famous trials in Canadian history but also in the history of the insanity defense. Riel’s lawyers based their argument for Riel’s insanity largely on the fact that from 1876-1877 Riel had spent time as a patient in the Québec asylums at Longue-Pointe and Beauport under the assumed name “Louis R. David.” Prior to his admission, Riel had declared himself “the prophet of the new world,” the liaison between God and the Métis – reports describe his behaviour as becoming increasingly excitable and sporadic in the year leading up to his admission to the asylums.

In support of their plea of insanity, the defense called Fathers Alexis André and Vital Fourmond to testify about Riel’s religious visions and beliefs. Two medical experts were also called: Drs. François Roy (Medical Superintendent of the Beauport Asylum, Québec) and Daniel Clark (Medical Superintendent of the Toronto Asylum, Ontario).

Roy testified Riel was a megalomaniac:

Q. Will you give the symptoms of this disease?
A. Many of the symptoms of that disease are found in the ordinary maniac. The particular characteristic of this malady is, that in all cases they show great judgment in all cases not immediately connected with the particular disease with which they suffer.

Q. Will you speak from memory or by referring to the authors, what are the other symptoms of this disease?
A. They sometimes give you reasons which would be reasonable if they were not starting from a false idea. They are very clever on those discussions, and they have a tendency to irritability when you question or doubt their mental condition, because they are under a strong impression that they are right and they consider it to be an insult when you try to bring them to reason again. On ordinary questions they may be reasonable and sometimes may be very clever, in fact without careful watching they would lead one to think that they were well.

The Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines “megalomania” as: “In Psychol.: delusions of power or self-importance, esp. resulting from mental illness; a passion for grandiose schemes. More generally: lust for power, a desire to control” and cite Roy’s testimony at the Riel trial as one of the earliest quoted uses of the term.

(Though long, the transcripts of the testimonies are very interesting to read)

Riel maintained that he was sane throughout the trial. In his closing remarks, he stated that:

I have been in an asylum, but I thank the lawyers for the Crown who destroyed the testimony of my good friend Dr Roy, because I have always believed that I was put in the asylum without reason. To-day my pretension is guaranteed, and that is a blessing too in that way. I have also been in the lunatic asylum at Longue Pointe, and I wonder that my friend Dr Lachapelle, who took care of me charitably, and Dr Howard are not here.

The jury found Riel guilty. The judge stated:

You have been found guilty of high treason…For what you did, the remarks you have made form no excuse whatever…It is not my painful duty to pass the sentence of the court upon you…on the 18th of September next you be taken to the place appointed for your execution, and there be hanged by the neck till you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

insane1.jpgWhether or not Riel was actually mentally ill has remained a debate to the present day:

Flanagan, T. (1979). Louis “David” Riel: Prophet of the new world. Toronto, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Flanagan, T. (1978). Louis Riel: A case study in involuntary psychiatric confinement. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 23, 7, p. 463-468.

Interview from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online archives (1994) with Maggie Siggins.

Patterson, R. & Lee, A. (1992). Louis Riel and the insanity plea that never came. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 147, 1, p. 84-87.

Wallace, D. (1988). Louis Riel: A case of insanity. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatric Nursing, 29, 1, p. 9-11.

Perr, I. (1992). Religion, political leadership, charisma, and mental illness: The strange story of Louis Riel. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 37, 2, p. 574-584.

About Jennifer Bazar

Jennifer Bazar is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care. Her research focuses on the history of psychiatric institutionalization.

3 thoughts on “Louis Riel Day

  1. The possibility of neurosyphilis should be considered as well. The early symptoms may go unnoticed but, in later stages, grandiosity and delusions can become apparent. Many syphilis patients were placed in insane asylums since the symptoms were often indistinguishable from other forms of mental illness (which is why syphilis was called “the Great Deceiver”). There were no reliable diagnostic tests at the time. Since Riel was 41 when he was hanged, there is no way to know for sure now but he may well have progressed to the dementia stage if he had lived.

  2. I came across a few more references that discuss Riel’s (in)sanity:

    Clark, D. (1887). A psycho-medical history of Louis Riel. Journal of Insanity, 44, 38-51.
    (Toronto Asylum Medical Superintendent, Daniel Clark, on his observations of Riel)

    Thorner, T. (Ed.). (2003). A country nourished on self-doubt: Documents in post-confederation Canadian history. NY: Broadview Press.
    (See Chapter 3, “Two Distinct Personalities”: The Question of Riel’s Sanity, in which the various testimonies are revisited)

    Anderson, F. W. (1950). Louis Riel’s Insanity Reconsidered. Saskatchewan History, 3, 3, 104-110.
    (Anderson re-examines the evidence and comes to the conclusion that Riel was “sane”)

    The University of Saskatchewan Library & Archives holds the Northwest Resistance database in which there is a full list of sources (throughout the generations) that discuss Riel’s mental state:

    Things I’ve learned since posting earlier today:

    Several bills have been put before government to revoke Riel’s conviction though, from what I understand, none have yet to pass. See, for example:
    (Wikipedia’s entry on Riel provides a table summarizing each of the bills concerning Riel put to government between 1999-2004)

    Manitoba has named their new holiday in February “Louis Riel Day” after suggestions were taken from students across the province
    (This seems to confuse things a bit considering that there is now a “Louis Riel Day” on the anniversary of Riel’s execution nation-wide as well as this new “Louis Riel Day” intended to give a break between New Year’s and Good Friday):

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