Louis Riel in prison—The guard-room—Guard increased—Riel doomed—Duty
heavy—New organization—Mud and rain—A way to take up land—A
contretemps—Riel's politeness—His devotions—Apologia
pro vita sua—A prophet—Pere Andrd— Riel
sane—St. Peter appears to Riel—An early breakfast-Exercise—The
ego has caused me to neglect for some time
our friend Louis Riel, who was bewailing the failure of his ambitious
schemes, in the seclusion of a guard-room cell at Regina. A few Indians
and half-breeds, who had been sentenced to minor terms of imprisonment,
were here also. Big Bear, Poundmaker, and One Arrow had been packed off
to Stony Mountain Penitentiary, in Manitoba, for three years. They,
along with a number of others, were amnestied in 1886.
mounted police guard-rooms were the only prisons in the territory. The
place of durance vile attached to the one in the Regina barracks had
been extended a considerable distance to the rear, and a yard with a
high stockade had also been added. It was a matter of common
superstition that Riel would be eventually pardoned, and in all
probability pensioned, so that he did not receive at first the many
delicate attentions which were subsequently lavished upon him. There was
only the ordinary barrack-guard on duty.
Le petit Napolion
used daily to go out for an hour's exercise in the square, under the
escort of two constables with loaded Winchesters. These weapons of the
guard were always filled with three rounds of ball cartridge. Monsieur
Riel was also adorned with a ball and chain, whenever he left his cell.
Now to describe, as far as my feeble ability will allow me, this terror
of Red River and Saskatchewan notoriety. He was a man about five feet
seven inches in height, with a pale, flabby face, dark grey eyes closely
set together, restless in their expression. His nose was slightly
aquiline, his hair and beard were reddish in hue, his lips were thick,
and his neck long. He spoke invariably in a low and gentle tone.
Wood Mountain Division, the men from Southern Manitoba, and all those
who had been engaged in watching the International Boundary were in
barracks at the end of October. Forty recruits had also arrived
recently. As soon as the parties had come in from summer duty on the
plains the guard was considerably increased. Things had begun to look
very serious for Riel. His appeal was considered shaky; and experts had
pronounced him sane. It was at last expected that, in spite of all the
hysterical yelling of the French Canadians, in spite of all political
thimble-rigging, that he would have to "swing." The Government was on
the horns of a dilemma. The people of Ontario and the North-West
clamoured for his execution, the Catholics of Lower Canada enshrined him
as a martyr. However, as will be seen, he was doomed.
Duty began to be heavy now. An officer took command of the guard, and,
in addition, there was a sergeant and corporal. The officer of the
guard, and four troopers under a corporal, always accompanied Riel in
his walks abroad. Two sentries were on duty, night and day, in the
corridors of the prison, the whole length of which could be commanded
from the guard-room. The reorganization of the force went on apace; and
there were now three full troops, of one hundred men each, at Regina.
There were continual muster and mounted parades.
the 1st of November, 1885, the distribution of the new divisions was
published. The whole muster-roll of 1000 officers and men, with the
different troops to which they were posted, was affixed to the wall of
the mess-room. What a rush there was to see this ukase!
troop (as before), Maple Creek and Medicine Hat.
troop, Regina. This was the troop to which I found myself once more
troop, Fort Macleod.
Fort Saskatchewan. This outpost'is about eighteen miles from Edmonton,
on the North Saskatchewan River.
troop, Lethbridge. This was a new settlement, fifty miles from Fort
Macleod. Coal-mines were being worked there by the North-West Coal and
Navigation Company ; they had constructed a branch line to it from
Dunmore, on the C.P.R. H troop left Regina for its new destination on
Depot troop. This was the permanent division at Regina, and consisted of
the headquarters staff and recruits, with a sprinkling of duty men. In
fact, it was —as its name implies—the depot.
weather at this season was considerably milder than that of the
corresponding period in 1884. We had much rain, and the barrack square
and the approaches to the stables were indescribable. A man had no need
to go through the formalities laid down in the Dominion
Land Act to acquire a free grant of 160 acres of" rich argillaceous
mould." He had merely to walk from the barrack-gate to his room, and he
had the legalized quantity attached to each foot. You mounted guard in
all the pomp and circumstance of brilliant spurs and shining boots; but
when you entered the guard-room your spurs were invisible beneath the
hideous geological formation on either heel. Mounted patrols were now
established, and a couple of these were on duty in the daytime riding
round the barracks, with orders to detain all suspicious-looking
persons. This patrol was posted at reveille and was taken off at
retreat. At night a perfect cordon of sentries surrounded the place.
was away on special service under a sergeant one evening, and I
returned, leading his horse, at one o'clock in the morning. I was in a
rough " costume," wearing a slouch hat. On my approach I was challenged
by three sentries at once. The led horse and the head-gear, looming
through the darkness, looked very fishy. Evidently I was a " breed,"
from Montana, who had turned up to aid Riel to escape. I could just see
the gleam of the barrels as the carbines came to the "ready."
"Halt! Who comes there?"
"Stand, friend, and give the countersign."
"Hang the countersign! Haven't got it. Policeman on duty. Call the
might have ended I know not, for some zealous youth might have potted
me. However, some one on the guard-room verandah recognized my voice,
and I was allowed to advance.
was now on continuous duty ; when not on mounted patrol, on guard. The
barrack-guard mounted at 2 p.m., and I only enjoyed the luxury of going
to bed every second night. The sentries were posted, as the guard
numbered off. Thus the even numbers would find themselves placed inside
the prison one day; and probably the odd numbers the next. It was very
frequently my lot to find myself stationed inside.
first experience of taking care of the rebel leader was as follows. I
was marched into the corridor, and given my orders by the corporal. Then
the provost sergeant, who is responsible for the discipline of the
prison, came to me, and impressed upon me that I was tc keep a
particular eye upon Riel, and see that, under no circumstances did he
communicate with, or speak to, any of the other prisoners.
is sitting warming himself by the stove just now, and you can turn him
into his cell after a little while."
stove stood in the centre, between two blocks of cells. The passages ran
down the front of the cells from both sides of the guard-room. Every
door could be fastened simultaneously by a lever worked from the latter
place. Each of the little apartments possessed an open grating in the
centre of its wooden door, which was the only space through which light
could penetrate. There were windows along the opposite walls, which at
night were hung with lamps with powerful reflectors.
found Riel clad in a dark tweed suit, wearing a blue knitted tuque upon
his head. There were a number of other prisoners, including a few
troopers, "in" for breaches of discipline, standing around him. He was
sitting on a wooden stool, with his feet up against the stove. It was
necessary for him to move, that I might pass. " Excuse me, Mr. Riel, I
wish to pass ; sorry to trouble you."
! no troo-bell at all. If that was all the troo-bell, it would be well."
This was said with a pleasant smile, French accent, and a soft tone of
voice. He was always most studiously polite, and painfully deferential.
occupied the cell next to the guard-room, on the left-hand side. Writing
was his continual employment, when he was not praying or at exercise. A
shelf formed his bed, and a small table stood alongside. In front of him
was a metal statuette of St. Joseph; and when he was telling his beads
he would carry this little image in his hands, and hug it. His
countenance usually displayed a calm composure, and his grey eyes were
nearly always bent on the ground, as though he were wrapt in
contemplation and study. The literary work on which he was engaged was
supposed to be a sort of
Apologia pro vita sua. He commenced spouting
French vigorously, one night, when all was still; reading aloud from his
manuscript. This brought the sergeant very briskly to the wickethe
ordered me to "tell Riel to stop that racket! "
did so, and after he had subsided into silence, he came to his peep-hole
and beckoned to me.
for the others—No!" he exclaimed in a hurried
must read. The Spirit tells me,--1
must. I tell you—for fifteen years—it is
since— that I have been a prophet on the Saskatchewan." This of course
was a fable, and I knew it.
confessor, Pere André, was a constant visitor, with his unkempt beard
and greasy cassock. This priest had left Brittany when quite young, to
lead a hard life of exile amid far-off savages. His manners had become
abrupt from much contact with the wily redskins. He was the very
antithesis to the courtly abb£, of the glowing land of his youth.
Medical Commission had been appointed to examine Riel as to the insanity
alleged by his friends. When these gentlemen arrived, he was marched
daily to the orderly-room, where the inquiry was conducted in private.
Every one knows the result. I was standing by the open door of the cell,
when Dr. Jukes, the principal medical officer of the mounted police, had
a protracted interview with him. The doctor sat beside him for fully an
hour, listening with exemplary patience to a random list of visions
vouchsafed to this Metis apostle, which utterly eclipsed any of the
mystic ecstasies of any ascetic of the Middle Ages. The doctor
cross-examined him with considerable acumen; and it was amusing to note
his skill in inveigling the astute Riel into contradictions. The
arch-rebel, among a host of similar revelations, stated that St. Peter
had appeared to him in the church of St. James at Washington, District
of Columbia, and had ordered him to undertake his mission. This I heard
must say his conduct in prison was most exemplary, and he gave no
trouble. Every request he made was most courteously worded. At 1.30
a.m., upon a certain Saturday, he requested me to endeavour to procure
him some meat. Up till midnight he had fasted, as it was
un jour maigre.
Now, to look for meat in a prison during the small hours is about as
forlorn a hope as to expect to find holy water in an Orange Lodge.
However, I foraged among the cupboards in the corridor, and discovered a
plate of hash, which I suppose had been put away by some unfortunate to
serve as a bonne
bouche at some needed moment.
the Sunday previous to his execution I was on guard, and formed one of
the escort when he was taken out for exercise. On this occasion we
proceeded to the square patch of ground between the orderly room and the
guard-room. The officer strolled about on the sidewalk, while we stood
at ease, one at each corner. Riel walked between us in a diagonal
direction. A covered-in platform had been put up in the yard, at the
rear of the prison, with all the grim accessories of the coming
ceremony. Presently he asked me, pointing,—
that the scaffold?"
said it was.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed theatrically, "I do not fear the scaffold." .
Then he grew excited, and appealed to the officer to send a telegram to
his wife, who was at St. Boniface, the French suburb of Winnipeg. I
remember the scene well: the figure holding the ball and chain on one
arm, and gesticulating wildly with the disengaged hand.
Mass had been said every Sunday at a temporary altar in the prison; Riel
and the other Metis were always present. The guard at this time was very
strict, and the walls of the place were hung with boards, each bearing a
whole string of commands. The guard-room was terribly overcrowded every
night, after the picquet mounted. It was very small, and resembled any
other such building anywhere. There were guard-beds on either side, with
racks for the carbines at their head. A stove was in the centre. A table
stood opposite the entrance, with pen and ink, and a book to record the
visits of the orderly officer and the surgeon. Above the table was a
shelf, and over the latter ticked an ancient clock, which was a
perpetual curse to all the watches in barracks. The bugler sounded the
calls by this official timepiece, which either lost or gained one hour
in the twenty-four.
steeds which we were obliged to ride on patrol at this time were
execrable. They were a lot about to be cast. We were not allowed to take
our own troopers, and every man had a fresh mount on each succeeding
occasion. At last the date of the execution was definitely fixed, and
extraordinary precautions to prevent an expected rescue were taken.
Dismounted bodies of men marched round the barracks at stated intervals
through the night. Strong patrols, mounted, were continually scouring
the surrounding prairie. The date of this historical event was set down
as the 16th of November, 1885.
was relieved from guard at 2 p.m. on the 15th. Two hours afterwards I
was warned for a special mounted patrol at four o'clock on the following
morning, —the 16th—and I was also informed that I should be for
barrack-guard at 2 p.m. on the same day. It was not a bright prospect to
a worn-out man. My eyes were sore and bloodshot. I was haggard, and, in
fact, just properly done up, and of course I grumbled and growled as
every good soldier does. Growling is his especial privilege. Did not
"our army in Flanders" swear terribly, and is not a trooper supposed to
be a past-master in this art? This particular patrol, for which I was
detailed, was to consist of one corporal and three men.
was most bitterly cold and densely dark when we turned out at half-past
three on the eventful morning, and stumbled over half-asleep to the
stables, where a dingy lantern was flashing about. We saddled our horses
in silence. Early as it was, Colonel Irvine was here to inspect us,
after we had mounted. The only road from the town, now, came past the
rear of Government House, as the other bridge had been destroyed. We
were ordered to proceed to Mr. Dewdney's residence and take up our
station on the trail at that point, and to allow no one to approach the
barracks who did not possess a pass properly signed. We rode in
half-sections past the guard-room and out into the gloom of the prairie.
On our way to the bridge across the creek, we met the two priests, who
were to attend upon Riel during his last moments, driving from town in a
buckboard. The frost was very keen this morning, and
Our feet, in boots and
spurs, suffered severely. When dawn stole gently over the plain,
everything was white with hoar-frost. It was a magnificent sunrise ! And
on this heavenly morning, Louis David Riel was to look his last upon
these prairies which he had loved so well. We rode quietly up and down,
and whenever any object appeared we made it an excuse for a stirring
gallop. When the sun had risen, we could see the polished arms of the
sentries—a perfect ring,—around the barracks. Scouts were out in every
direction, trotting off in the distance. Bugle-calls rang out in the
clear air. An inner cordon of fifty men was posted around the guard-room
at seven, and at the same hour a party of forty men, mounted, drew up at
the end of the bridge opposite to us.
crowd of people could now be seen advancing along the level plain from
Regina, whose white houses were bright in the sunshine. Men on foot, on
horseback, in buckboards, buggies, and " democrats," hurried along.
There were visitors from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Winnipeg, and
even from British Columbia. Those who were without passports were turned
back, and we drew our horses across the trail, while the non-com.
examined the papers. There was a good deal of pleasant chaff, and the
voice of the great Nicholas Flood Davin, now Member for Assiniboia, in
the Dominion House,—more power to his elbow!—was heard in the land ; the
brogue of the emerald isle sounding rich and racy. After the crowd had
cleared away, a great silence seemed to have filled the air, save for
the horses champing their bits and pawing the hard ground.
Regina Leader gave the most minute
description of the final scene in this drama, which has been of such
importance in the history of the young Dominion.
Gibson, the deputy-sheriff, entered the condemned cell a few minutes
before eight, and informed Riel that his hour had come. The latter
turned ashy pale as soon as he realized his position, but braced himself
together as well as he could. The procession was now formed. Riel was
placed between Father McWilliams, who was first, and P&re Andr£, who was
behind him. Mr. Gibson led the way. After this, Mr. White Fraser, who
was our orderly officer, and ten men of the guard followed. Colonel
Irvine and other officers of the mounted police, Dr. Jukes, and four
members of the press brought up the rear. They ascended by steps to a
room above the guard-room, which ran the entire length of the building.
At the far end was a window, and through this was the scaffold. As they
passed along, Riel exclaimed, "Courage,
hangman was Jack Henderson, who had been a former prisoner of Riel at
Fort Garry in 1869. Verily the tables were turned with a vengeance! He
was waiting on the platform. Before stepping out upon this, the priests
and the prisoner knelt down in prayer; all, except the guard, removing
their hats. Riel made the responses in a firm voice. His whole demeanour
betokened suppressed excitement; his brow was covered with beads of
perspiration, while he held a crucifix which had been lent to him by
Madame Forget, the wife of the clerk to the N.W. Council. At twenty-five
minutes past eight, the deputy-sheriff touched Father McWilliams on the
shoulder, as an intimation that the time was up. Pere Andr6 told Riel
that they must cease. They all rose, and P£re Andre asked the doomed man
if he were at peace with all men. Riel answered in the affirmative.
you forgive all your enemies?"
Riel then asked if he might speak, but he was advised not to do so. He
then received the kiss of peace from both priests, and Father Andre
" lors, allez an ciel! "
While the conversation was in progress, Henderson had been engaged in
pinioning the prisoner's arms. Dr. Jukes, Colonel Irvine, with the two
priests, and two of the newspaper-men went out upon the platform. Riel
was placed upon the drop, where his legs were pinioned and the rope
adjusted. His last words were to say good-bye to Dr. Jukes and to thank
him for his kindness, and, just before the white cap was pulled over his
face, he said,—
While he was praying the trap was pulled. Death was instantaneous. His
pulse ceased beating four minutes after the trap-door fell. Thus ended
the man who had inaugurated and carried out two rebellions. As for the
wild outburst of political frenzy that swept over the province of Quebec
after the execution, is it not written in the books of the chronicles of
Bugle-calls, the movements of men, and the returning tide of visitors
apprised us that the tragedy was over. We fondly cherished a hope that
now we should be relieved, and that some welcome coffee and breakfast
would be waiting to cheer us over at the barracks. Nothing of the sort!
We were ordered to fall in with the troop, and were kept marching and
counter-marching, merely to suit the whims of some one who was
muddle-headed enough to imagine it was of use. It was not the colonel's
wish, I am sure. He, and Lord Boyle, and Colonel McLeod, C.M.G., were
breakfasting together in his quarters.
length came the order, "Leading-section, right!" And we went straight to
the barrack-yard. "Form half-sections! Rear, halt! Half-sections, right!
Halt! Prepare to dismount! Dismount! File to your stables" —and we
trudged off with our reins upon our arms. As we were removing our
saddles, the merry call to "stables" sounded, and consequently we had to
wait until dinner-time to break our fast.
all these trivial details may not be of much interest to the ordinary
reader. But it is the continual succession of such incidents that forms
the reality of a soldier's life, and the wear and tear, and constant
irritation therein. All is not beer and skittles. The whole duty of man
in the ranks, is not simply to "slap your thigh with your cane and wink
at the girls." And nowhere is the gilt so ruthlessly stripped off the
gingerbread as in the North-West.