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The Islands of Saint-Pierre, Miquelon and Langlade lie off the southern coast of Newfoundland in the waters of the North Atlantic. They were the only portion of "New France", the French colony in North America, that remained in French hands at the end of French and Indian War in 1763. Those windswept rocky knolls had a hidden economic value to France: they gave the French fishing fleet access to the Grand Banks and their huge cod population. The islands were occupied by the British several times between 1763 and 1815, when they were permanently returned to France. The population of the islands has fluctuated between 4,000 and 6,000 over the years and consists mostly of local fishermen and government officials dispatched from Paris for tours of duty of various lengths. Very cold winters, cool and wet summers, stormy weather, rocky coastlines and lack of vegetation makes the land inhospitable and life for the fishermen of the 19th century was not easy. Many split their time between forrays into the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic and drinking binges in the few local taverns on the islands.

Saint-Pierre in the 1890s Saint-Pierre in the 1890s

The picture on the left is a detail of a huge painting (24Ftx100Ft) showing life on the island, made for the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon pavillon at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The original has been returned to Saint-Pierre and now hangs in the exhibit hall of the Musee de l'Arche. Photo on right shows the bay of Saint-Pierre and part of the town in winter around 1890 when the Neel affair took place.


On december 30th, 1888, two fishermen, Louis Ollivier and Auguste Neel, after a night of heavy drinking, decided to go eat dinner at the cabin of Francois Coupard, Louis' fishing boat captain. The cabin, located on l'Ile aux Chiens, across the bay from the harbor of Saint-Pierre, was expected to be vacant. The two arrived to find the door locked. Dismayed they proceeded to kick in a window and, crawling inside, they came nose-to-nose with Coupard, knife-in-hand, ready to defend his property. Neel disarmed the old man, picked up the knife and stabbed him. Ollivier did the same, at the instigation of Neel, who wanted his companion to share the blame for the attack. The two drunken men then got into an argument over whether Coupard was fat or just big. In an effort to find out they mutilated the body, then left it under a sail in the corner of the cabin. They stole whatever they could find then took Coupard's boat to sea in an attempt to reach Newfoundland. The wind and the rough seas threw them back on the coast of Saint-Pierre where they were arrested the next day.

Their trial was held in February 1889 and resulted in a sentence of death for Neel and ten years Hard Labor for Ollivier. Neel's sentence seemed harsh considering that the murder was not premeditated and not committed for the purpose of robbing Coupard but the horrible mutilation of the body seemed to have weighed heavily on the court. His appeal was rejected and the Governor of the islands made a recommendation of "no clemency" to the President, because it was felt that a rise in criminality on the islands had occurred since a few recent death sentences had been commuted because of a lack of means to carry them out. French law in 1889 not only required that "tout condamne a mort aura la tete tranchee" - every person sentenced to die shall have his head severed - but also that the sentence must be carried out in a public venue near the place where the crime was committed. Despite the inconvenience an example had to be made. The President rejected the clemency and the Governor then requested that Louis Deibler, Executeur des Hautes Oeuvres de la Republique, be sent, with his equipment, to Saint-Pierre to carry out the sentence. This request was turned down (Deibler did not travel outside metropolitan France) but arrangements were made to ship a guillotine from Martinique. The Governor was also told to find a local person to perform the grim task.

Meanwhile, Neel spent his days in the prison in Saint-Pierre in the care of Sigrist, the warden and his wife. The rehabilitation of Neel, which is portrayed in the 2000 Patrice Leconte film "La Veuve de St Pierre", did not really take place neither did his "adoption" by the local population. The guillotine arrived on the island on August 22nd 1889 and Neel was executed two days later by a pair of local fishermen, of dubious reputation, who were paid 500 francs and given a pardon on a 3-month petty larceny sentence after the Governor failed to find an executioner among the local tradesmen and the military personnel stationned on the islands. The two headsmen were despised by the islanders for what they had done and everyone refused to accept their "blood money", forcing them to leave the islands before the winter.

Contrary to widespread reports, the execution was rather uneventful, although the head did remain attached by a thread that the executioner had to sever with a knife. The protocol followed "standard" French procedure, with the awakening before dawn, the mass, a glass of wine and a bowl of tea, the "toilette", a chew instead of the traditional last cigarette, the ride in a carriage to Place de l'Admiral Courbet where soldiers formed a square around the guillotine and most of the population of Saint-Pierre had come to see the event. Neel thanked the Sigrists for their care, told unlookers "Learn this lesson: I killed and now I will be killed, don't do like me" and then said to the executioner "Do not miss" before being basculed.

The above statement of facts is a summary of the full report, written in 1938, by an eyewitness and member of the court, Emile Sasco. The full report (in French) can be downloaded here.

Sasco indicates that the guillotine was an old machine from the French Revolution but the machine that I found in Saint-Pierre is a newer "Berger-type" machine of post 1872 vintage. The Museum personel assured me it was the machine used for the 1889 execution. Subsequent research, by Mr.Rodrigue G., irrefutably proves that the guillotine arrived in the island in 1890, nearly a year after the execution of Neel. He also uncovered a February 1890 article in a local St Pierre paper describing SIX guillotines lined up in the famous garage, Rue de la Folie Regnault, waiting to be tested by Monsieur Deibler. The six new Berger machines were ordered by the Justice Ministry and destined for Cochinchine, Tonkin, Tahiti, St Pierre & Miquelon, St Laurent and Cayenne. Workers were painting numbers on the machines to facilitate assembly and prevent the mixing up of the parts. The explains the number "4" painted everywhere on the machine I saw in St Pierre. It turns out this guillotine was never used and has remained on the island since 1890. It was stored in a museum basement for a number of years but is on display since June 2008.


I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to examine "La Veuve de Saint-Pierre" in detail by Le Musee de l'Arche . I spent two days measuring and photographing the machine and was also given access to some documents dating back to the time of Neel's trial and execution. In exchange, I was able to identify the machine, which was thought by most on the islands to date back to the French Revolution - per the eyewitness account referenced above. I also uncovered a few minor assembly errors and pointed out a couple of missing parts. I am in the process of producing a full documentation package on the machine for the museum. The guillotine is exhibited at Musee de l'Arche, open to the public during the summer months, and is to my knowledge the only place in North America where a real guillotine can be seen. Access to Saint-Pierre is a bit difficult (ferry or small plane from Newfoundland) but well worth a detour if you want to experience a French village in the middle of North America and see "The Guillotine".

Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889

The guillotine is exhibited in the stairwell of the museum making it difficult to take a full height photo. The headtub is missing as is the hinged sideboard and the ladder. These parts are all listed on the shipping list that came with the machine. On the other hand the blade case, the toolbox which contains the various bolts and pins needed to assemble the machine and the large zinc-lined cane basket were all there, but are currently not exhibited with the machine. The hooks for the rope are not installed but I found them in the museum warehouse. The wood is in very good condition with no sign of rot or insect damage, just a few cracks and splinters here and there resulting from rough handling. The original paint includes a series of stenciled letters and numbers on the parts matching the ones on the assembly instructions. The number "4" also appears repeated on nearly every part.

Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889

For safety reasons the mouton has been locked in place with wood sticks screwed into the tracks on both sides so I had to forego an actual blade drop test. One of the blade nuts is missing and has been replaced with a new nut of smaller size. One fact that makes this machine very interesting is that, unlike other Berger guillotines, this one is known to be in its original 1889 state having never been used or modified. Like all the newer machines the mouton is equipped with brass rollers, disproving the claim by several authors that Anatole Deibler was the one that had the rollers added to the mouton. Due to age, a few of the bolts are a bit tough to thread like this one on the bascule pedestal.

Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889

The braces are hinged as on all the pre-1900 Berger type guillotines. The hinge pins have a kind of "side barb" to facilitate removal using only a hammer. I verified that, when the bolt securing it to the frame is removed, the brace pivots out in a 90 degree arc. On the next picture you can see that for once, the C-brace got installed in the proper position! The spring buffers have much shorter springs than on the 1907 guillotine. Contrary to the newer machine they have no rubber anvils. These were probably an improvement added later to remedy the ever-present problem with broken springs.

Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889

The brass tracks are asymetrical, which I had never realized before. On this machine they are held by two rows of twelve screws. The release handle is made of forged steel and can be removed so the post is easier to handle during transportation. Here it is secured with two of the cylindrical brace bolts, but this is an error. When they assembled the machine they came up short two of these bolts for the cross brace, but had square head bolts left over... From the well known 1907 picture it appears that the lever should be attached with the square head bolts and the cross brace with the two last cylindrical bolts.

Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889 Guillotine 1889

The folding shield that surrounds the head tub served a double purpose of protecting the executioner's first aide from splashing blood and hiding the most graphic view of the execution from onlookers. The folding sides overlap thanks to a small wood block offset on the right panel that allows the contraption to fold completely flat. The massive grab that hold the mouton in place. The top mounted pulley that was used to hoist the mouton and blade up to the grab. The rope should have been tied to an "8-shaped "ring, as was clearly explained in the operating instructions, but the ring is missing. As I suspected the pulley frame is forged of one straight length of steel bar.