Manitoba Historical Society
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The Question of Louis Riels Insanity

by Olive Knox

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 6, 1949-50 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The question of Louis Riel’s insanity was, in 1885, the biggest question of the year; the answer meant life or death to a man. Death came, but the question continued, and in 1886 became the political platform for friend and foe. Yet sixty-four years (1949) after Louis Riels death the question is still being asked.

The question, on analysis, resolves itself into several questions.

  1. If Louis Riel was insane in the 1885 period why were there no references to it before the trial - even during the battle of Batoche?
  2. Was Louis Riel an insane leader of a just cause?
  3. Would sane men follow an insane leader - respect him, confide in him, risk their lives for him?
  4. Was he insane because he claimed to have a mission - though many men have dreams to realize - or missions to perform?
  5. Was Louis insane in his plan to divide Canada up into divisions and populate them with many races, Catholic and Protestant, when Canada’s population is of practically every known race now?
  6. Was Louis crazy to change the Sabbath day to Saturday as the Seventh Day Adventists have done?
  7. Was Louis insane to declare that the clergy was not man’s political leader, only his spiritual one? If so, what about Wilfrid Laurier’s years of expounding that same theory?
  8. Was Louis insane to allow his Council to appoint him their prophet, - the only known prophet appointed by a Council - or was he using every means in his power to keep the Métis united, once he had been forced into open warfare?
  9. Was he insane to declare that the New World should have a Pope of her own, the good Bishop Bourget who knew and sympathized with the problems of the North American people, and so break the ties with Rome?
  10. Or could it be that Louis’ friends, believing him sane but wishing to save his life, bent all their efforts to prove him insane for just that purpose?
  11. And could it be that his enemies, declaring him a madman, proved him sane so that there would be no chance of a pardon on grounds of insanity?

A study of the evidence of the time left no doubt that Louis had been in an insane asylum, so my next step was to find out all I could about that confinement; learn his symptoms when unbalanced; and then revalue my material in the light of how Louis acted during his period of mental illness. Did he have the same symptoms in 1885 - or was he cured?

I wrote to the asylum at Longue Pointe, the asylum of St. Jean-de-Dieu, asking for data on Louis’ symptoms. The medical superintendent, Dr. Omer Noel, answered:

Louis Riel was in truth confined in St. Jean-de-Dieu under the name of Louis R. David on the 6th of March 1876. He was the 565th patient to be confined in our institution.

The information at the moment of his confinement is nul. All we know is that he was brought to the asylum at the age of 31, that he was then a bachelor, and that he was a professional man and his race Canadian-Métis.

His home was given as Montreal, and his mental diagnosis that of ‘delusions of grandeur,’ which today is diagnosed as ‘depressive mania’. Our asylum statistics give the following data:

“19 March [1876]. During the night M. Louis Riel, insane, smashed up his cell, broke his iron cot and used it to break the ventilators and the sashes; it was truly destroyed; three robust and strong men could hardly master the poor lunatic.

“16 April. During the evening M. Louis Riel, insane, known under the name of M.David, in an access of fury, broke the window of the chapel door, and went down into the dressing rooms of the lunatics.

“10 May. Dr. Deschamps came to get M.Louis Riel, mentioned above, confined here since March.”

Dr. Noel adds this final paragraph: “Louis Riel left our asylum the 15th of January 1877, showing a slight improvement, but we do not know to whom he was entrusted. You understand that in 1876, the mental institutions were far from being organized as they are today.”

Louis left long before the date given but I will refer to that later.

Using Dr. Noel’s letter as a starting point, I wrote to Canon Groulx. [1] He referred me to Dr. Gabriel Nadeau of the Rutland State Sanatorium in Massachusettes. Dr. Nadeau is a French-Canadian, educated in Montreal, and for years has been making a study of Louis Riel’s mental state up to 1878. For months I carried on a correspondence with the doctor and last spring, when on his way to see his dying mother in Saskatchewan, he called on me and brought his notes, giving me permission to copy what I wished. His material and letters, added to what I received from Father Picton of St. Boniface, papers in our Provincial Archives and that of St. Boniface, make up the following incidents in the history of Louis Riel’s mental state.

As you know, Louis left St. Boniface to go to college in Montreal in 1858 at the age of fourteen, and did not return until 1868. During those ten years many things happened. It was the East of the Union Era - party politics, Coalition - and Confederation. It was a period of controversies; religious and language controls; clergy in politics; the spiritual authority of the Pope; threat of annexation by the States; the Fenian scares; Orangemen demonstrations. Across the line it was the period of John Brown’s struggle to free slaves; the Civil War; the assassination of Lincoln; American hopes of annexing the North-West. Politics permeated every walk of life and Louis left college to study law with Rodolphe LaFlamme (1865), a Rouge politician and the same man under whom Wilfrid Laurier had studied.

In 1885, when men began to search for evidence of Louis’ insanity, they went back to the year of his father’s death, 1864. Writing of that time, John Lee, an Irishman married to Louis’ aunt, Lucie Riel, said: “For the first time I noticed signs of mental disturbances. His father’s death caused Louis excessive grief. My wife and I brought him from college to our home to console him, but he was broken hearted, inconsolable. I saw that his profound grief affected his mind which was manifested by the exaggerations of an eccentric religion; he threw himself into an excess of piety and held religious views which I found unreasonable. My wife noticed it too and said he became very melancholy.” [2]

Of the next year, 1865, when Louis was studying with LaFlamme, Mr. Lee relates: “He still remained taciturn and solitary with grief at his father’s death. He had hallucinations. He wrote to a priest in the west to tell him that he was not Louis Riel, but David Mordecai from Marseillais [sic]. ‘I came to Canada at an early age and resembled Louis like a twin brother. The true Louis was drowned in the Missippi [sic]. I was put in Louis’ place and those in charge of Louis did not notice the difference; and since I am Mordecai,I have no legitimate right to the property of the Riels’. And because he was a Jew, he implored people to help his race and to redress the wrongs they had suffered. In truth, he was a new Messia [sic], and his mission would be saving the Jews and the Jentiles [sic].” [3]

I was inclined to doubt this incident when I first read it, but later I found a letter of Louis’ to Bishop Tache in which he refers to the time he pretended to be a Jew. [4]

At this time Louis Riel is reported to have often left his law studies and practice to go up to Mount Royal to meditate and dream. A. Montpetit said of this period: I recall having seen Riel in Montreal in 1866-7, when he was studying with Laflamme. He was a large young man with a sombre and taciturn air and lived with one of his uncles, Mr. John Lee of the village of Saint-Jean Baptiste. He busied himself with studies, sometimes serious, sometimes by writing poetry. He was visibly weary of social life as seen in a poem written at that time ...” [5]

The poem is one he wrote expressing his desire to return home to see his beloved mother and the grave of his dear father. Do these incidents show the beginnings of a warped mind, I asked myself, or is it a picture of a young man confused by life, trying to choose between the world and becoming a priest as had been his destination when he was sent to college? Undecided, I continued my search.

It was during these same years that an incident gave rise to many garbled versions of Louis writing to his mother to sell her property and meet him in St. Paul to found a new religion. Skelton, in his life of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, accuses Louis of “ ... urging his feeble-minded old mother to sell her effects to aid him, and then, after she had journeyed four hundred miles by ox-cart to meet him, writing her that a new mission required him to remain in Montreal ...” [6]

I have failed to find any suggestion that Mrs. Riel was feeble-minded. Old? In 1865 she was forty-four, with eight children at home from the ages of two to seventeen years. Was the Riel home ever sold? I have found no evidence of that either. But it is true that Louis tried to raise money at that time from men in Montreal, and according to a letter I have read, written at the time, it was to invest in business in the West.

Louis returned to the Red River in 1868 - and so far as this paper is concerned it will not deal with his struggle for the rights of his people, his forming of a Provisional Government, his six months period as its recognized President, nor the next three years in which he was in and out of the settlement waiting for the promised amnesty. Enough for my purpose is it that he was elected to Parliament by the Provencher constituency; gave up his first election to Sir Georges Cartier, was re-elected in 1873 and set off for Ottawa to take his seat. He went secretly as he was a hunted man.

When Parliament opened in March, 1874, Riel was in Ottawa with Dr. Fiset, M.P. for Rimouski and a former classmate of Riel’s, and Alphonse Desjardins, another M.P. The account of Louis signing the oath of office is interesting:

On the day of the Parliament adventure [March 30] the grounds were surrounded by troops to keep the crowd under control. The clerk’s [M. Patrick’s] office was in the main corridor of the old Chamber of Commerce. At the right there was a door which opened onto the grounds.

Riel, disguised, passed through the crowd, accompanied by Desjardin ... and Dr. Fiset, who entered the office to witness his oath and signing of the register according to tradition. Dr. Fiset made a sign to Riel to take the Bible; the clerk read the oath - Riel repeated it and signed his name, Louis Riel. The clerk read the signature and was seized with consternation. He did not know what to do. [He knew that on Riel’s arrival in Ottawa a price of $5000 had been put on his head - and here he was signing the register]. But before the clerk could make up his mind Desjardins, Fiset and Louis left, locking the door behind them, and were on their way to Montreal. [7]

In this manner Riel signed the register, but could not make his appearance without risking arrest. Lady Dufferin wrote in her Journal: “I went into the House, expecting to see Riel take his seat. There was great excitement outside, but he did not appear.” [8]

Louis never appeared and was expelled because he failed to take his seat - failed to take his seat with a price on his head and every Orangeman hoping for the glory of capturing him, because of Scott’s death.

We know that Louis went back to the States. From a letter in the Manitoba Archives we know that he spent from November 4 to January 23 at Plattsburgh, a sick man. He went back to Father Barnabe’s home in Keeseville, (New York State), and from letters also, we know that he fell in love with Evelina Barnabe and was engaged to her for many years. [9] But a few words about these friends m the New England States. Father Barnabe was born at L’Assomption, and had known Riel through the Masson family. In Suncook, New Hampshire, Father J. B. E. Richer was pastor. He had been a missionary in Manitoba from 1861 to 1873. Riel had known him in the West. In New Hampshire also was Father Jean-Baptiste Milette, a friend of Richer who had met Riel in Suncook.

During the summer of 1874 Riel decided to go to Washington in the hopes of being appointed Government Agent to the Indian tribes in the West. There he met Major Edmont Mallet, a prominent French-Canadian. Mallet was a friend of President Grant, whom he had known in the Army during the Civil War. While in Washington Riel had an interview with Grant and though nothing came of it Riel wrote of the meeting in a letter: “I had the honour of presenting my respects to the President of the United States, General Grant, in the White House. It was an agreeable surprise to find myself in the presence of a General as well as a President. On leaving his presence, I tried to figure out just what had impressed me in his favour. It was his modesty that impressed me ...” [10]

But more important to this paper is, how did Louis Riel impress the men of his period during this time.

Major Mallet wrote of Louis: “I have known him well. For weeks I have talked every evening with him on questions of religion, social and politics. Riel was pious and went to Mass several times a week. His conduct was always moral and his actions irreproachable.” [11]

“I have known Riel well,” said Jean Edmond Marcoux, vice-rector of Laval in Montreal. “He spent some months in Washington with me. There never was a stronger patriot. While in Washington he prayed often, went to Mass, and received letters from Canadian and American priests. His words and conduct were chaste and modest. I have never known him to drink or smoke. He ate little, mostly milk, bread, cold meat and honey. His clothes were always proper and he was politeness itself. He went to Mass every morning, and in the evenings he retired to the church yard to recite his beads.” [12]

Louis was back in Canada on September 23, 1874, and M. Telrean, who met him at Saint Hyacinthe, wrote in his diary: “With emotion, I shook the hand of Riel, the young hero of Manitoba. He was tall, bronze like the Métis, without showing much trace of his Indian blood. He wore sideburns without a moustache.” [13]

In December of the same year Louis returned to Washington still hoping to get a government job while he waited for the amnesty. And it was while here that he had a vision. On December 18, 1874, he wrote: “While I was seated on a small hill [Mount Vernon] near Washington, the same spirit who came to Moses, appeared to me in the same manner. I was stupified. I was astounded. The voice said to me, ‘Rise Louis David Riel. You have a mission to perform.’ I received this heavenly notification with open arms and bowed head. The same spirit told me that Archbishop Bourget should be the Pope of the new world.”

After this experience Louis returned to Montreal to see Bishop Bourget who gave him $1,000. Why? I’ve never discovered. What happened to the money? Louis evidently gave it to a blind Italian who was begging at the door of a Presbyterian church on 90th Ave. in Washington. [14]

In December, 1875, Louis was back in Washington, now a man banished from his country for five years, the terms of the promised amnesty. On December 8. during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, he caused a scene in St. Patrick’s church. In his own words: “At the moment the priest finished his sermon, said the Credo, and while the people were still standing, and me with them, I suddenly felt in my heart a joy so intense, that to hide my face from my neighbours, I covered it with my handkerchief, my hands on my mouth and eyes. In spite of my precautions, a boy of twelve, just in front of me, saw my great joy. Two minutes later this great sweep of joy was followed by a great sorrow of the soul. With an effort I tried .to suppress my sobs, but my sobs and tears made a terrible noise in the church. My pain was as intense as my joy. It too passed in a little time but my spirit was full of this thought: The joys and sorrows of man are short’.” [15]

It was evident that Louis was entering a psycho-neurotic state, brought on by a continual state of “anxiety” and frustration. According to the British Encyclopaedia of Medical Practice, Vol. 10, a “progressive mental deterioration does not result from the manic-depressive psychosis.”

The Encyclopaedia also claims that a manic-depressive may have paranoid symptoms; “delusions, persecution complex. A single experience, a false accusation may be the starting point for paranoid delusions; ... Morbid feelings might be caused by: a disproportion between self-esteem and ambition on the one hand and achievement and reputation on the other; a series of humiliations and rebuffs may often be traced through the struggles and evasions of the patient’s history.”

For the past five years Louis had been subjected to symptoms that would bring on a manic-depressive state which only a less proud, sensitive and emotional character could have withstood. He was in love with Evelina Barnabe with no prospects of marriage; and in 1875 when he was exiled from his country for five years, he had a complete breakdown.

Major Mallet, realizing that Louis was ill, took him to Father Primeau in Suncook, with the help of a guard, Jean-Baptiste. For the first time Louis seems to have lost control of his actions. He could not sleep, he cried a great deal, declared he had been called to save the world and that he was part of a trilogy - of the Count Chambord - of Don Carlos, and Louis Riel. In his imagination he saw them as three bulls; a white bull, Chambord; a black bull, Carlos; and a red bull, Riel.

Father Primeau wrote to Major Mallet: “The poor young fellow, when I tell him that what he imagines is unreasonable, he weeps. ‘Is it necessary to perform miracles to convince you?’ he asks. ‘Command me then ...’” Primeau added: “What we expected has come true. His role is finished. Only a miracle can bring him back to normal.” [16]

So for a spell Louis, thinking he was a bull, roared everywhere, in the rectory, on the streets, and wanted to preach his mission in Worcester. But he had calm days, too, in which he wrote rational letters; one of them on January 8, 1876, to Archbishop Tache; another to Bishop Bourget; the latter answered: “I pray to God who is all good and merciful, not to abandon you and to lead you in all your ways [voies] so that you will not leave the road that leads to the Divine Providence for the good of you and your people. Be then blessed of God and man, and take patience in your illness.” [17]

Louis, with his guard, Baptiste, still in attendance, returned to the Barnabes at Keeseville. He had another bad spell in which he wept at night, didn’t sleep or eat, and frightened Evelina and her mother. He wanted to escape, and finally his friends sent for John Lee, Louis’ uncle. Lee gives an account of the trip home and the next few months:

He (Louis) continued to cry in the train. I told the travellers that he was a poor lunatic and to please excuse him. When they talked or laughed, Louis said, ‘Keep still. Do not laugh, I beg you. I am a prophet.’ So I sent a telegram for a carriage to meet us at Saint Lambert.

We crossed the river on ice and mounting the bank to pass the church [Bonsecours] Louis tried to throw himself from the carriage so that he could enter the church. Only by promising him that we would go to church after lunch, was I able to calm him.

We arrived in Montreal about 11 o’clock a.m. My wife, and Henri Flageolle, a trusted friend and myself, looked after Louis. For the next six nights he did not sleep, cried, saying always that he was a prophet, and had a mission to fulfil. He had contortions like a man in a rage. After six days he became calmer but tried to get outside, even threatening to throw himself out of the window, saying he wished to go to church ... After four or five weeks he seemed to get better, still begging to go to church. I consented when he promised to act sensible. But he interrupted the Mass to contradict the priest. There was a commotion and I took Louis out. The priest called for silence saying that it was nothing, just a poor lunatic.

After that I took him for drives in my carriage. Later he tore up his clothes, the bed coverings and would not say why. He tried to escape through the window to go to church, and when I remonstrated with him for his craziness, he said: ‘No, I’m not crazy. Never say I am crazy. I have a mission to fulfil and I am a prophet. I am sent from God.’ His manner was of the fanatically exhalted. But finally we were all tired out. I went to Dr. Lachapelle (a friend of Louis at whose home he had stayed many times) to ask him to admit Louis to an asylum. He told me how to get permission ...

I told no one but took him there under the pretext of going for a ride to Longue Point. I told him that his friend Dr. Lachapelle was going there to see him. I promised to return to see him next day. Dr. Howard received him.

I went twice to see him there, and he seemed content and showed no signs of further insanity before me.

Dr. Howard tells of Louis’ arrival:

He, (Louis) was a fine looking man with a spiritual face. He had a dignified air, and I could hardly believe he had committed crimes of which he was accused. I felt a great pity for him. I went towards him to shake hands; ‘I am glad to see you, Mr. David, I am Dr. Howard,’ I said.

‘Why do you call me David?’ he demanded. ‘My name is Louis David Riel.’ Taking a book from his pocket, he opened it. ‘See, there is my name. My beloved sister wrote it [Sara].’ The Sister Superior grabbed the book and tore out the page, tearing it into bits. ‘You are known here as Monsieur David,’ she said, and a terrible scene followed. It took us all to get Louis Riel to his room, such was his rage. He finally stopped weeping and said, ‘This book was a gift from my sister on my birthday. Wherever I have gone, I have carried it with me.’ After that Louis still insisted that his name was Riel.

He covered reams of paper writing his thoughts while in the asylum and his uncle visited him and related: “One day I found him in a strait jacket. Why? I asked. ‘I found that a thief had stolen some papers from my valise,’ he said, ‘and when I discovered it, I made a scene. The guards put me in this strait jacket.’ He [Louis] became suspicious of all who approached him, especially his friends. He unceasingly begged to be released.

Another time I found him in a strait jacket. He had taken a stick and broken all the ornaments and candles in the choir. He said it was to show the Mother Superior that he was to be treated like a gentleman. I warned him to be calm. Another time I found him standing in his cell against the wall, his arms like a cross. He said he wished to show the nuns that he was Christ crucified. I told him to go to bed and he obeyed.

On the 16th or 17th of May (1876) I found him in an excited state. He said he was going to be assassinated, and showed that the bars of his window had been broken during the night. ‘It has been arranged so that I would escape,’ he said, But if I had gone out of that window during the night I would have been killed. Do not tell anyone about it, but for the love of God, get me out of here.’ [18]

On May 19 Louis was transferred to Beauport - even though the records have him leaving the following January. Dr. Howard claimed that the Mother Superior feared the vengeance of the Orange Order, and had begged him to have Riel moved. Dr. Howard wrote for permission, fearing that Louis would take his life. So on May 19, 1876, Dr. A. Deschamps of Montreal presented himself at Longue Point with a note to the Mother Superior: “I, being a practising doctor of the city of Montreal, certify that I set out for a small voyage and take with me Monsieur L. R. David to re-establish his health.” [19]

Dr. Lachapelle, Hon. Adolphe Chaleau, Hon. J. O. Mousseau and a guard accompanied Louis to Beauport. John Lee was on the pier, but kept out of sight so as not to excite Louis. “Louis cried and went into a rage and did not wish to go on the steamboat. He was put on by force, tearing his clothes and lost his hat. It was pitiful to see.” [20]

Louis recalled the trip later and said he knew what he was doing, but could not stop himself. He entered Beauport under the name of Larochelle. After his entry he became violent, wrote letters and verse. Lee visited him. “I found him indifferent and taciturn. After saying a good day he would turn his back, or walk the corridors, or the pits, without paying any attention to me. That surprised me, for he was always very affectionate to his relatives, especially to us. At Beauport I found him more melancholy than at Longue Point.” [21]

While in Beauport Louis had many visions in which he thought himself prophet, pontiff infallible, priest and king. In January, 1878, (he left Beauport January 21, 1878) Louis wrote of that time:

I had come to believe myself a prophet. It seemed to me that the papacy should leave the moth-eaten soil of Europe for the new world. I saw the light of civilization grow from the Orient, the Euphrates, Palestine, Rome. It seemed to me that it was America’s turn, and I believed that I had an important role to play in the new order of things. By pen and sword I tried to make converts.

However, one day tired of fighting opposition, I asked myself if I was right or if everyone else was right. At that moment, the light came to me. Today I am better, I laugh myself at my hallucinations of my brain. I have a free spirit, but when one speaks to me of the Métis, those poor tragic people, the fanatic Orangemen, of the brave hunters who are treated like savages, who are of my blood, of my religion, who have chosen me as their leader, who love me, and whom I love as brothers, ah, alas! my blood boils, my head gets on fire, and it is wiser if I speak of other things. [22]

In his calmer periods while at Beauport, Louis must have been allowed freedom to go and come from the asylum. In the Manitoba Archives there is a letter from Desilet at Three Rivers, saying that Louis had been there on September 23, 1877, and that the police were looking for him, but his friends had called on the coureur de bois to see that the police did not find him. [23] At this time, also, Wilfrid Laurier met Riel at the home of the priest of a neighbouring village. Laurier’s biographer, O. D. Skelton, wrote: “He [Laurier] was much impressed by the vigour and daimonic personality of the Métis leader, and found him surprisingly fluent and, on the whole, well informed, on American and European politics. When, however, religion was touched upon, Riel’s deep set eyes lit up, and he launched into an excited and jumbled harangue, boasting vaguely of the great mission for the further revelation of God’s will which a heavenly vision had urged him to undertake ...” [24]

Anyway, Louis was formally discharged from Beauport on January 21, 1878, and returned to the States, to Keeseville and to visit Father Richer at Suncook, and his other friends. He discussed his sickness freely and asked Dr. P. E. Dansereau whether his mental illness would return. If you keep yourself away from that which gets you excited, especially politics, you will have nothing to fear,” [25] was the answer.

On October 12, 1878, Father Bamabe wrote to Major Mallet: “I am convinced that a little rest will make him perfectly well. His spirit shows the most perfect lucidity, the greatest flexibility. Truly one would say that he had never been feeble minded, if we did not know it as a certainty.” [26]

Louis rested until the following spring, but in April we find him at St. Josephs on his way to Montana. Here his mother and sister Octavia visited him. [27] At this period in the United States the government was trying to buy up the land from the Indians for the white settlers, and put the Indians on reservations. The result was that the Métis were being pushed further and further west. Louis had not given up his mission of helping his people. He took a band of them into Montana and tried to help them start a colony. He became an American citizen, entered politics, made enemies among the Democrats because he voted Republican, got into a law suit, was acquitted for lack of evidence, and wrote letters to the Montana papers to interest the people in the half-breed question, and against the whites selling them whiskey. He married a Métis girl, born at Fort Ellice, and his romance with Evelina was finished. Why, I have not discovered as yet. In 1879 a letter from her reveals that he intended to come for her when he had a position and a home for her. Her brother died and she returned to L’Assomption with his body. And in 1884, when the delegation from Saskatchewan arrived, he was living at St. Peter’s and teaching in the boy’s school. [St. Peter’s mission had begun in 1878 as a half-breed settlement by the Jesuit missionaries.] At that time he had a son and a daughter. The following months were months of constitutional petitions and agitation ... and then came the rebellion.

Now the question arises: Did Louis Riel in these months, through the rebellion, and while waiting trial and later death in the Regina prison, show any symptoms of the undoubted insanity of the period 1875 to 1878? Did he have sleepless nights, fits of crying, fits of rage in which he destroyed things, or did he act like the average man faced finally with open warfare, using every means in his power to achieve his aim, which was to take hostages, and force the government to come to terms with not only the half-breeds of Saskatchewan, but the white settlers also?

There are no surviving accounts of periods of sleeplessness, of crying fits, or rages, or destruction. He did let his Council make him a prophet, foretold events and spoke in parables. The foretelling of events, with the information his scouts brought in, was easy to see through. His parables, when studied, show his attempts to keep his men, Indians and half-breeds, many of them uneducated, united and firm in their resolve to carry the rebellion through until the government came to terms. And as to his opposition to the clergy, I will quote part of a letter from Father Fourmond to Archbishop Tache, written on the evening of May 11, the last night of the battle of Batoche. In this letter Father Fourmond does not mention the word insane. After preliminaries in which he said the war had gone on for two months in spite of their protest, he wrote:

Riel then imagined acting the Mandi and, as well to gratify his pride as to avenge the strong resistance he had encountered from us, he became a sectary, fascinating our poor people by the seductive and hypocritical language, rejecting the Pope and the Church because they condemn his rebellion; making Saturday as of old, the Lord’s day, renewing the errors of ancient and modern heretics, giving himself out as a prophet and a great reformer of religion, causing his followers to pray day and night.

I had several open disputes with him - the result of which was to strength, en the well disposed. The greater number of his followers, partly terrified by his threats, partly fascinated by his alluring words and his hypocritical air of sanctity, agreed to renounce all that he required of them and to believe his dreams, take him for a saint or as persecuted while we were looked upon as the slaves of ancient Rome ...” [28]

This letter gave the priest’s viewpoint - but it also gave me a picture of a man using every weapon in his hand to hold his men together - even to playing upon their superstitions. It was later verified in another letter which I will quote later.

Louis’ hopes for making terms with the government by means of hostages was gone, with the loss of the battle of Batoche. What did he then do? Run away to save his own skin? No. He gave himself up. Not in the dramatic fashion as pictured in the May, 1949, issue of the Canadian Army Journal - at the point of a gun with two brave Mounted Police facing him - but quietly, walking up to Constable Armstrong and presenting his note from General Middleton, went into the camp.

At this point I was ready to admit Louis was insane - insane to give himself up expecting justice. If he was thinking of his own glory, he certainly was insane - but if he was thinking of his mission, the welfare of his people, he did the wisest thing he could. Nothing helps a cause so much as the death of a martyr.

Once he was in jail, the struggle for Louis’ life began. His lawyers from the first thought his only chance was a plea for insanity; Louis from the first refused to fall back upon that plea, still believing that men had enough justice in their hearts that when they knew the real cause of the rebellion he would be free to continue his work.

What evidence do they bring up that he was insane?

1. His confinement in 1876-77 in asylums. Therefore he must still be insane.

2. His split with the church and his actions towards the clergy ... and his disrespect for Rome. Louis’ reply to this charge was: “I wish to leave Rome aside inasmuch as it is the cause of division between the Catholics and the Protestants. Even if it takes hundreds of years the time will come when our children will shake hands with the Protestants of the New World in a friendly manner.”

Father Vegreville, writing to the Archbishop on June 10 from Batoche, wrote: “I believe that it was only spite and politics that made Riel form a new division of the church, to commit heresies, and abandon our religious faith. But I am told there are printed proofs, evidence that for years he has been outside the church.” [29]

The good father had seen through Louis’ acts in keeping his men united; and now I asked myself, “Was the feeling towards Rome peculiar at that time only to Louis Riel?”

It seems not. In another letter written on June 11, 1885, I came across the following paragraph: “Till of late I had no idea of the intensity of feeling with which I have met in the fine Province of Quebec. Rome is as yet all powerful there - but unless it casts aside all vacillation and combines the fortiter in re with its suaviter in modo its influence is in imminent danger of diminishing to a degree frightful to contemplate.” (Signed Jos. Grennier.)” [30]

The Crown proved Louis sane much to his delight and he made a very witty retort; and, by the way, Louis was noted for his wit and for punning. Is punning a sign of insanity? If so, I know some very charming gentlemen who should be confined - and sometimes I wish they were.

Louis’ retort was: “If you believe the plea of the Crown, that I am sane and responsible for my acts, acquit me ... I have acted reasonably and in self-defence, while the government being irresponsible (and not a responsible government) and consequently insane, cannot have acted wrongly, and if high treason there is, it must be on its side and not on mine.” [31]

Anyone making a careful study of the verbatim report of Louis’ trial cannot help being impressed by his speeches and his manner throughout. Could a man suffering from insanity make those two famous speeches of his, one before his verdict of death, the other afterwards? I think not.

But in the meantime what was the Canadian Government doing? They were taking the stand that they knew nothing about the discontent in the West, had never been petitioned. On July 4 a letter from Hon. J. A. Chapleau to a group of French-Canadians in Massachusettes who had written in defence of Louis Riel, appeared in the Canadian Pictorial & Illustrated War News:

If the half-breeds had serious grievances against the Canadian Government the ordinary channel of petition was open to them as to all free citizens. They did not avail themselves of it. If their petitions were not listened to by the Government, they had the right as free citizens, to enter upon a constitutional agitation and to induce their friends in parliament to make known their grievances, their abandonment, their protestations. They did not do this ... etc ... (We know this to be untrue).

Louis Riel has but one excuse for the crimes of which he has been the cause; it is the mania from which he suffers. He is a dangerous crank, one of those distracted spirits to whom religion and law are nothing when their pride is in play. What he has done is a folly which even pity cannot excuse and which the law should visit with the same severity as would be visited upon malicious premeditation ...

Do not say that my duty as a Minister was to protect them. Nothing was presented to the Council on their part requiring the special action of their friends, and neither Riel nor any of the half-breeds ever sent me a petition or even a simple letter asking me to protect them ... That these half-breeds were deceived I readily believe ... As to their leader, he deserves no sympathy, except that which attaches to the misery of a man who has committed a great crime of which he must suffer the just punishment.

So wrote and published Hon. J. A. Chapleau - yet a year later the same gentleman was producing affidavits to prove that Louis Riel wasn’t insane, had never been insane, not even when he was confined to an asylum.

In 1886 there was a motion made before the House of Commons to blame the Government for having allowed the execution of Louis Riel, and it was in the Government’s defence that Chapleau produced these affidavits:

I, the undersigned, physician of the asylum St. Jean-de-Dieu, certify that a few days after the entrance of Louis Riel into the asylum, I perceived that with him insanity was simulated. The exaggeration of his acts was such and so much beyond what we generally remark in subjects affected with real insanity that with a physician accustomed to treat such cases there would be no room for doubt. Upon making the observations to him that I was not to be taken for his dupe, he confessed to me in effect that he was shamming insanity. And the evidence that I was right in my surmise and that his confession was really sincere, is that on all occasions, and there were many, I have been alone conversing with him, he has always talked in a manner absolutely lucid and sane upon all and every subject with which he has entertained me.

(Signed) F. X. Perrault, M.D.

Chapleau was asked why he had signed papers for Riel’s confinement if he knew he was shamming. His answer was that he knew it from reports as well as the guards, but did not think it wise, as his life was in danger, to turn him away from the Institute. Then he produced the second affidavit; by Dr. Brunelle who knew Riel in Montreal and lived with him for several weeks in the States. He was a doctor at Beauport Asylum.

I, the undersigned, certify that at the time of and after the confinement in Beauport Asylum of Louis Riel, I have ascertained divers occasions that outside some eccentricities in his manner which were little to be noticed, he was perfectly lucid in his mind and sane in his intellect, and spoke absolutely well on all subjects when he was not observed. I attest, moreover, that in my presence the said Louis Riel had been simulating insanity in such a manner as to leave no doubt in my mind as to the character of his pretended insanity ... Louis also told me the secret of his insanity ...

Verily the path to truth is a crooked one!

But in spite of these affidavits I think we can agree that Louis was suffering from mental illness while he was in the asylums. The point now is, was he mentally ill in 1885? The Court said no. His friends still wanting to save his life demanded that an unbiased commission interview Riel and give their unbiased opinion. The result was that the Government agreed and sent out Dr. Valade, a French-Canadian, and Dr. Lavell, who was in medical charge of the penitentiary at Kingston. Why they didn’t send doctors from the asylums, I do not know. As to it being unbiased, Sir John A. Macdonald’s letter to Dr. Lavell throws some light on that point.

Sir John in his letter advised Dr. Lavell to talk confidentially to several men; the ones he named being those who gave evidence of Louis’ sanity during the trial. He also told him that no matter what he discovered Louis was still guilty, even though he was sent to an institution to be cured first. “Remember that the jury have decided that he was sane when his treasons were committed and at the time of his trial.” Also ... “A man may have his mind so unhinged as to warrant two medical men to certify his insanity so as to send him to an asylum for curative purposes and yet be open to the penalties of the law for a breach of such law.”

My next step was to find Dr. Lavell’s account of his interviews with Louis - not just the formal one to the government in which he stated: “I am of the opinon that the said Louis Riel, although holding and expressing foolish and pecular views as to religion and general government, is an accountable being and capable of distinguishing right from wrong.”

I finally located, at Queen’s University, a letter of Dr. Lavell’s relating his visit to Louis, which I quote in part.

Louis Riel was physically well developed, and in his prime, when I saw him early in November, 1885, manly expression of countenance, sharp eyes, intelligent and pleasing address. His conversational powers were remarkable, voice capable of any amount of modulations, with a rare charm about it. At times in conversation he maintained all the characteristics of his race, excitable and enthusiastic, while at other times, when speaking of circumstances having reference to his present position and prospects, his voice was soft, mellow and sweet, interesting to a degree, drawing out the sympathies of the listener.

Dr. Lavell kept his name and purpose from Louis Riel until their last interview. He said:

I knew I had a wily, clever and ambitious man to deal with, and therefore took every precaution against possible imposition ... The presumption of insanity was based upon delusions and hallucinations of a religious and political character. He posed as an inspired Leader and Prophet, and as such had not much difficulty in impressing a simple and superstitious people. He was a man having force of character, education, and a thorough knowledge of the people and country, shrewd, cunning, selfish, ambitious and vain. Attractive in person, manner and speech, he could easily sway his followers to deeds of daring - they believed and trusted him, and he well knew it.

Among other questions, Dr. Lavell asked Riel what induced him to turn his back suddenly upon his faith and teachers, and seek to establish a false religion.

He replied that his people being superstitious, he would be more able to lead them to follow him if he impressed them with a belief that he had a divine gift. In other words, that he could sway them more easily and this is shown in an incident of the Duck Lake fight, which I alluded to. I asked him to explain why he had acted so wildly then, running about displaying a Crucifix before his followers. His reply was that he had a superstitious people to do with and could by such means retain his influence and control over them and in this manner excite enthusiasm.

He frequently talked of his children, and when speaking of his execution as a criminal, and the disgrace of it to his family, he was overcome with emotion. When informed that a respite of six days was given him, his manifestation of gratitude was touching in the extreme, thanking God for having more time for giving him preparation. He asked to have a shorthand writer to whom he could dictate what he might have to state in vindication of his course, so that his children when they grew up, would not feel ashamed of their father ...

Dr. Lavell, like so many others, seemed after meeting Louis Riel not only to admire, but to sympathize with him. One more quotation:

I departed from him with depressed feelings. The consciousness of the convictions I held as to his accountability gave me pain. I became during my interviews with him very much interested. He impressed me as a notable character, with other characteristics I have mentioned. He was enthusiastic and impulsive and if those characteristics had been diverted in proper channels he would have made his mark for good in the Great North West.

I suppose the “proper channels” depend upon one’s viewpoint. Louis’ was that his mission was to help the half-breeds, the Indians, and the whites.

I finally located Dr. Valade’s telegram to Macdonald:

After having examined carefully Riel in private conversations with him and by testimony of persons who take care of him, I have come to the conclusions that he is not an accountable being, [32] that he is unable to distinguish between wrong and right on political and religious subjects, which I consider well-marked typical forms of insanity under which he undoubtedly suffers, but on other points I believe him to be sensible and can distinguish right from wrong.

In the printed reports of the Insanity Commission which declared Riel sane, the phrase, “not an accountable being” was omitted.

In the report of Dr. Juke’s, who attended Riel in Regina, to Governor Dewdney [33] the following part was omitted from the printed version:

That Riel differs systematically from the large majority of mankind in the views he entertains respecting certain questions relating to religious subjects or rather to certain spiritual phenomena such as Inspiration, and Prophetic Vision in relation thereto, must be admitted; on these subjects he cherishes illusions or hallucinations which vary materially in intensity under varying physical and mental conditions; but diversities of opinion, I believe, upon these kindred subjects do not properly constitute insanity.

The Government were apparently unwilling to strengthen the hands of their opponents by printing the complete reports.

After reading articles Louis wrote during the rebellion, and in prison, as well as in his note books, I have come to the conclusion that Louis was not insane in 1885. His diary, or note books, made up mostly of prayers, are said to be incoherent. But are we coherent in prayer when we are faced with death? Only God knows.

Louis’ last letters to his mother and his wife are beautiful; he met death bravely, won the respect of all who knew him in prison. He went to his death still sincerely believing that he had a mission - and he forgave his enemies.

Father Andre spent the last night with Louis and wrote of it: “My father,” said Louis, “I love my family, my wife, my children, my compatriots ... and to be able to live and be with them would fill me with joy. But the thought of spending the rest of my life in an asylum or penitentiary, away from society, obliged to submit to indignities, fills me with horror. I thank God for sparing me this experience and I accept death with joy and gratitude ...” [34]

Louis then said to himself in Latin: “I rejoice in those things which have been said to me. I shall go to the house of the Lord.. ” Then to Father Andre, who seemed to need courage more than Louis, he said: “Be at ease, Father Andre, I will die happy and brave. With God’s Grace I will go bravely to my death.” [35]

He spent the rest of the night in prayer, and near morning wrote to his mother ...

“Never,” said Father Andre, “have I seen a more radiant face than his as he prayed marching to the scaffold. Beauty of soul reflected in his face; divine light seemed to shine on him. His eyes looked into the future.” [36]

Louis was hanged while saying the Lord’s Prayer ... and his body three days later was returned to the house of Father Andre. Quote from Andre’s letter: “His (Louis) face was so calm it [37] seemed to smile as if happy to be in a better world ... It is a saint, the poor Riel, just to see him is to believe that.”

You might ask, “What does it matter now if Louis was insane or not?” It mattered to him then. It mattered to his family and friends - and it matters to us if we have any regard for truth in our recording of historical events.

To me it mattered because I saw into the dark recesses of his mind as well as the light. I agreed with the government that Louis wasn’t insane in 1885 - neither was his cause insane. The injustice was not that an insane man went to the scaffold, but that a sincere man with a just cause was hanged for the mistakes of others.


1. Professor of History, University of Montreal, [Eds.]

2. From data collected by Dr. Gabriel Nadeau.

3. Nadeau.

4. Archives of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.

5. Nadeau.

6. O. D. Skelton, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Toronto, 1921) p. 291.

7. Nadeau.

8. Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, My Canadian Journal (London, 1881) p. 137.

9. Nadeau.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Riel to Edmond Mallet, July 2, 1875. (Nadeau collection.)

15. Nadeau.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Public Archives of Manitoba, Riel Papers.

24. Skelton, Laurier, p. 294.

25. Nadeau.

26. Ibid.

27. P.A.M., Riel Papers.

28. Archives of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.

29. Ibid.

30. P.A.M., Riel Papers.

31. The Queen vs. Louis Riel, Ottawa, 1886, pp. 153.4.

32. Authors italics.

33. Hon. Edgar Dewdney, Lieutenant-Governor of the North West Territories, 1881-88. [Eds.]

34. Archives of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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