Marie Cordelia Poirier (nee Viau)

Cordelia Viau was born on June 22, 1865 in Ville de Ste-Scholastique, a village in Canada’s Quebec Province. She married Isidore Poirier, 10 years her senior, who was a carpenter and cabinet maker, at Saint-Canut on November 4, 1889.  (Saint-Canut was renamed Mirabel in 1973) The marriage was childless.  Cordelia could read and write and was a good musician, playing the church organ.  The couple lived in a house that Isidore had built and Cordelia worked as a seamstress to help with the family income.  Isidore was a devout Catholic and both were active in the local church.  See drawings of Cordelia, Isidore and Sam.

It was at the church that Cordelia met Samuel Parslow who was 36 at the time of his execution and was unmarried.  He worked for the Poirier’s as a handyman, helping Isidore with his carpentry business and also helping out round the house.  Isidore often had to work away from home, when he could not get business locally.  In September 1895, he was working in Fresno, California when he received a letter from his parish priest, Fr. Pinault, telling him to come home as there were problems in his marriage.  Although Fr. Pinault does not accuse Cordelia of infidelity as such, the inference is clear.  As is so often the case, it seems that everyone in the village knew that Cordelia was having an affair with Parslow, except, of course, Isidore.

On Sunday November 21, 1897, Isidore was at home in Saint-Canut and was sleeping.  Cordelia went to church and Parslow joined her there.  They got back to the marital home around 3 p.m. and an hour later Cordelia left to visit her parents and Parslow went to tend to his elderly mother.

On the following day Cordelia returned to the village but went straight to church to play the organ at a wedding.  When she went home she could not get into the house.  She asked her neighbour, Noah Bouvrette for help and he managed to gain access through a window.  Isidore’s body was found on the bed.  He had been stabbed repeatedly and his throat had been slashed.  There was a great deal of blood and the room was in disarray, evidencing a considerable struggle.  There was also what appeared to be a woman’s shoe print in the blood on the floor.  Cordelia asserted that her husband had committed suicide.  The post-mortem showed that this was impossible and a police investigation, headed by detective McCaskill, led to the arrests of Cordelia and Parslow on November 25.  Isidore was buried in the village cemetery on November 27, 1897.

Cordelia and Parslow maintained their innocence and were held awaiting trial at the Ste. Scholastique jail. McCaskill attempted to extract a confession from each of them by telling them that the only way to avoid the gallows was for each of them to blame the other.  Cordelia claimed not to have been present at the crime, but Parslow insisted that she was there and had been planning the murder for some time.  He also claimed that he was her love slave.  He admitted to stabbing Isidore but told detective McCaskill that Cordelia had cut his throat.

The first trials opened at Ste. Scholastique courthouse on January 17, 1898, before judge Henri-Thomas Taschereau.  Cordelia was convicted on February 2, 1898.  Sentence was deferred as the defense filed a motion over the unorthodox methods used to obtain the confessions.  This led to a successful appeal which set aside the convictions on June 7, 1898 and ordered re-trials for each defendant.  Cordelia’s second trial took place at Ste. Scholastique on December 5, 1898 before the same judge and lasted eleven days. Among the evidence was the fact that there was a $2,000 life insurance policy on Isidore and that Cordelia had asked some odd questions of the insurance agent, regarding how the policy would pay out depending on the manner of Isidore’s death.  Parslow’s second trial began on 19 December and concluded on 29 December, 1898.  Both trials again resulted in guilty verdicts and death sentences, however the jury in Parslow’s case made a recommendation to mercy.  The judge set Friday March 10, 1899 for the executions.  An application for commutation of the sentences was made by their defense attorneys to the Governor General in Counsel but this was rejected on the 5 March, 1899.

Public hangings in Canada had ceased in 1869, but witnesses were still permitted at the discretion/invitation of the sheriff.  Additional police and prison officers had been sent from Montreal by train on March 9 to maintain order.  Depending upon which report one accepts between 200 and 600 people were present in the yard of Ste. Scholastique jail to witness the executions.  A much larger crowd had gathered outside the prison, estimated at as many as 2,000.  There was even an attempt to break down the prison’s main gate, but fortunately the bolts held.  The police were forced to fire shots over the heads of the crowd to restore order.

In the centre of the prison yard stood a traditional American style gallows with steps up to the platform and two nooses tied to the beam.  A curtain was suspended from the centre of the beam, as it was normal at double hangings in Canada for the prisoners to stand back to back and not be able to see each other.  The space under the platform was enclosed by a black curtain. (see drawing).

John Robert Radclive (also given as Ratcliffe) was the executioner.  He was British and had studied the methods of William Marwood.  He thus used the “long drop” designed to cause fracture/dislocation of the upper cervical vertebrae.

It was reported that both Cordelia and Parslow slept well on the Thursday night and rose at 5 a.m. to attend two masses conducted by Fr. Méloche and Fr. Collin and attended by some of their family and friends.  Afterwards they were able to eat a light breakfast.

The executions were to take place at 8 a.m. on the Friday morning.  Sheriff Lapointe led the procession to the gallows followed by Cordelia wearing a long black dress, supported by Father Méloche. "She showed not the slightest sign of breaking down, and slightly lifting her skirt so as not to trip, she bravely ascended the steps of the gallows." They were followed by Parslow "in a very shaky condition," assisted by Fr’s. Collin and Constant and the executioner.  Once on the platform Radclive finished the pinioning and placed the hoods over the heads of each, followed by the nooses.  The preparations were completed and the drops fell at 8.04 a.m.  In both cases they were sufficient to break the prisoners’ necks.  At this point some of the witnesses tore down the curtain under the platform to reveal the hanging bodies.  This photograph, probably taken illegally, shows the pair hanging.  Father Méloche scalded the crowd saying, "Shame! Shame! For decency's sake! Have you no decency?"

The prison doctor was able to certify Cordelia dead in six and a half minutes and Parslow in 12 minutes.  These times being when no further heartbeat could be heard using a stethoscope.

Both bodies were buried in Saint-Canut cemetery.  Parslow was interred on the Friday, but Cordelia was not buried until the Saturday, at her request, as she was terrified of being buried alive.


This case and especially the hangings attracted huge public interest and a very large number of column inches in the newspapers, both in Canada and the USA.  Newspapers could not publish photographs in 1899 but could print artist’s impressions, as they did in this case.
Cordelia’s execution was only the third female hanging in Canada since confederation.


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