The day Louis Riel was hanged
Winnipeg Tribune, 16 November 1965
“The sun glittered out in pitiless beauty. The prairie, slightly silvered with hoar frost, shone like a vast plain sown with diamonds.”
So wrote a sympathetic reporter in The Regina Leader to describe the death of Louis Riel, which he witnessed, 80 years ago on November 16, 1885, in the barracks of the North West Territories’ capital city.
Nicholas Flood Davin, the editor, wrote : “Riel met his fate on Monday in a manner not unworthy of a man who had aspired to play a great part in the world. He was calm, resigned, grave, passionless, forgiving, and as the great Dramatist said, the way he left the world became him better than anything he did on it.”
Mr. Davin looked back to the trial: “To those who saw him direct his counsel, noted his quick perception of the weak points in a weak and bungling defence, the theory of his insanity was indeed absurd.”
Dramatically the editor summed up the leader of the New Nation, “Riel paid the forfeit of his crime. The sacredness and silence of eternity are around him. Let us now behave with dignity.” The lesson of two rebellions to this editor was : “No man can attempt to destroy the authority of the government of this country, in any part of it, unless at the peril of his life.”
The Leader, he believed, “is the only paper west of Montreal which can give a correct account of what occurred ... for other reporters did not know French.”
At 8 a.m. that frosty mid-November day Riel was seen, in the barracks, kneeling with Fr. Alexis Andre, praying in the light of a candle.
In his hand he held an ivory crucifix, silver mounted, which he frequently kissed. On the scaffold, minutes later, the white cap was put on his head by the hangman. Riel murmured, “Courage, mon pere,” to the priest, who repeated “Courage, Courage.” Riel asked for a little more time. Two minutes, it was to be. When he reached the sentence in The Lord’s Prayer, ‘and lead us not into evil’ the hangman was to do his work. Actually the last two words were lost. Riel murmuring, in French, “and deliver us—” When the hangman pulled a crank and he fell nine feet.
In two minutes his pulse was declared stopped. In 30 minutes the white cap was turned up, showing a face calm in death, “the once fiery piercing eyes closed forever . . . the strongly marked features, the massive high brow looking peaceful.” But “the once long shaggy locks of Riel had been shorn off,” an outrage Mr. Davin called `scandalous.’
Outside of the barracks some were disappointed they had not been allowed in. Jokes were made, laughter heard.
Riel’s last interview was obtained by subterfuge, the French-speaking reporter wearing a silver cross and being mistaken for a priest. To Riel he revealed his identity. Had he any last messages? Yes, he had indeed. “Mr. John A. Macdonald, I send you a message. I have not the honor to know you personally ... Do not let yourself be completely carried away by the glories of power. Take every day a few moments for devotion and prayer and prepare yourself for death.”
To “glorious Gen. Middleton, I send a message. You were kind to me. You chose as my guard Capt. Young, one of the most brave and polite officers in your army.”
“Riel dies without a speech,” was the newspaper heading over the four columns, with “A sane and beautiful death,” beneath.
Page revised: 6 October 2012Back to top of page