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Marguerite Pitre: The Last Woman Executed in Canada

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It takes a special kind of villain to be willing to kill two dozen people just to murder one person the perpetrator wants to get rid of. The criminal in this story enlisted the help of a woman who paid for her involvement with her life.

The ill-fated flight minutes before takeoff.

The ill-fated flight minutes before takeoff.

Canadian Pacific Airlines Flight 108

On the morning of September 9, 1949, a Douglas DC-3 aircraft took off from Montreal on a flight to Baie-Comeau 670 km (416 miles) to the northeast. The Canadian Pacific Airlines flight was scheduled for a stopover at Quebec City.

On the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, Patrick Simard was tending his eel traps when he saw flight 108 approaching. The plane had left Quebec City about nine minutes earlier and was climbing to its cruising altitude.

At about 10:40 a.m. Simard later told reporters “There was a puff of white smoke, then the plane fell into the trees with a big noise like the ripping of my tents.”

There were other witnesses in this remote and largely unpopulated area. Railway worker Oscar Tremblay heard an explosion and he “looked up and saw this big plane suddenly turn and head for the hills north of the railway line. It struck a big cape that sticks up near the shore of the St. Lawrence but on the inland side of the St. Lawrence.”

The debris came to earth near a place called Sault-au-Cochon. There were no survivors among the 19 passengers and four crew members. Among the dead were four children, three executives from the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation, and woman called Rita Morel Guay.

Crash Investigation

When rescuers arrived at the site, they quickly realized there was no rescuing to be done; it was time to call in the police and aviation investigators.

Despite the remote location of the crash site some gawkers arrived to view the scene. Among them was a visibly distraught Joseph-Albert Guay who was anxious for news of his wife, Rita.

As investigators sorted through the wreckage they found explosives residue and analysis showed it had come from something stowed in the forward cargo hold. The only items in that area had been loaded in Quebec City and included luggage for passengers joining the flight and a few express parcels.

Joseph-Albert Guay.

Joseph-Albert Guay.

The Woman in Black

In the days before the words “suicide bomber” had entered into common use it seemed unlikely that one of the passengers boarding at Quebec City was carrying a bomb. Attention was turned to the express parcels and one heavy one in particular.

People in the airline cargo office remembered a nervous woman, dressed in black, dropping off a package for shipment to Baie-Comeau. Then, a taxi driver recalled driving such a woman to the airport and waiting to take her home.

With the cabby, police staked out the neighbourhood where he had dropped off his fare. Soon enough the “woman in black” was spotted coming out of an apartment building. She identified herself as Marguerite Pitre and, after questioning, acknowledged that she had taken a parcel to the airport for shipment on Flight 108. She said she had made the delivery at the request of a friend, Joseph-Albert Guay, whose wife had died in the crash.

Guay was already on police radar because, two days after the crash, he tried to claim a life insurance policy for $10,000 he had taken out on his wife on the morning of the disaster.

Marguerite Pitre.

Marguerite Pitre.

The World of Joseph-Albert Guay

Born into a rough, working-class family, Guay became a petty hustler of jewellery with an opinion of his skills that far exceeded his actual accomplishments. He made several unsuccessful attempts to set himself up in the jewellery and watch repair business.

He fancied himself a ladies man and undoubtedly displayed the surface charm that is often the case with con men and sociopaths. In 1941, he married Rita Morel. When a child arrived, and Rita’s attention was diverted to her daughter, Guay struck up a relationship Marie-Ange Robitaille, a 17-year-old cocktail waitress. He promised the teenager he would marry her after he got a divorce from Rita.

However, divorce was very difficult to obtain in Quebec at the time because of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in all matters both social and political. Joseph-Albert Guay thought up another way of ending his marriage.

Joseph-Albert Guay with his wife Rita Morel.

Joseph-Albert Guay with his wife Rita Morel.

Flight 108: The Final Chapter

Using his charm and persuasive powers, Guay enlisted a couple of people to help him with his plans to murder his wife. Marguerite Pitre ran the rooming house in which his young lover lived. Her brother, Généreux Ruest, had skills as a watch repair man that could be put to use in building a time bomb.

Once police identified Marguerite Pitre’s role in the plot identifying the other links in the conspiracy was easy.

Pitre bought an alarm clock, dynamite, and batteries that she handed over to Ruest. This made her later assertion that she thought the package she delivered to the airport was a religious statue a little shaky at best.

The bomb was timed to go off when the plane was over the deep waters of the St. Lawrence River where the evidence of the bombing would disappear. But, Flight 108’s departure was delayed by five minutes so the debris fell on ground for investigators to scrutinize.

The separate trials of all three plotters resulted in the same verdicts and the same sentence―death by hanging.

  • Joseph-Albert Guay had his date with the executioner on January 12, 1951. In an attempt to find solace in the strangest of situations, he told those in attendance “At least I die famous.”
  • On July 25, 1952, it was Généreux Ruest’s turn. Crippled by tuberculosis, he was taken to the gallows in a wheelchair and was hanged sitting down.
  • A drunk Marguerite Pitre was executed on January 9, 1953. Having fortified herself to face the ordeal with liquor she sang a French drinking song “Prendre un coup c’est agreable.” (Take a shot, It’s nice). She was the 13th and last woman to be executed in Canada.

Bonus Factoids

  • Judge Albert Sevigny, who presided over Guay’s trial, told him before sentencing that “Your crime . . . has no name.”
  • In November 1955, United Airlines Flight 629 from Denver to Portland was blown up shortly after takeoff. All 44 people aboard died in what appears to have been a copycat murder based on Joseph-Albert Guay’s attack. John Gilbert King was convicted of placing a time bomb in his mother’s luggage. He bought life insurance on her shortly before the flight. He was executed in January 1957.
  • The worst mass murder in Canadian history happened in June 1985 when a bomb in the baggage hold of a Boeing 747 exploded. Air India Flight 182 from Vancouver to New Delhi plunged into the Atlantic off the coast of Ireland, taking the lives of all 329 people aboard. The atrocity was clearly the work of Sikh extremists but a sloppy investigation and prosecution failed to result in the conviction of the terrorist plotters.

Sources

  • “The Bombing of Flight 108.” Dave O’Malley, Vintage Wings of Canada,
  • “Sault-au-Cochon Tragedy.” Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert, Canadian Encyclopedia, June 10, 2014.
  • “A Monstrous Plot.” André Pelchat, Canada’s History, May 7, 2015.
  • “To Murder His Wife, He Killed 22 more.” CBC, September 9, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

DW Davis from Eastern NC on January 20, 2021:

Thanks for the interesting and disquieting Hub.

The darkness in the heart of some people is unfathomable.

To cold-bloodedly murder a planeload of people to eliminate 1 person is sick beyond measure.

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