The Case of THE POISONED CABBIE
ANTOINE RIVARD, the tubby little Quebec Cabinet Minister who is reckoned French Canada’s top criminal lawyer and the best bet to succeed Maurice Duplessis as leader of the Union Nationale, has often been referred to as “the Perry Mason of Quebec.”
There is some truth in the sobriquet, for Rivard, who has defended 39 people charged with murder and lost only four cases, is not above using the surprise tactics which have made the fictional lawyer-detective’s name a byword for courtroom flamboyancy. And some of his cases, like “the Case of the Poisoned Cabbie,” lend themselves admirably to Erie Stanley Gardner titles.
In this astounding case, which opened in Sherbrooke, Que., in the autumn of 1930, Rivard fought doggedly and brilliantly for the life of Beatrice Chapdelaine who was accused of killing her husband by putting arsenic in his tomato soup. He saw her twice sentenced to hang in a grueling series of three trials, two appeals to the Appeals Court
and one to the Supreme Court, before he won her acquittal. He turned that trick in one of t he most dramatic scenes ever witnessed in a Canadian courtroom.
Rivard is always dramatic—even in minor cases. He once saved a client, by taking a leaf from the case book of the famous 19th-century Parisian lawyer Lachand. In this case Rivard knew that if the crown prosecutor succeeded in emphasizing a certain piece of evidence during his summation to the jury his client wouldn’t stand a chance.
When the crown prosecutor began his summary Rivard became lost in thought., his fingers idly drumming on his desk. As the prosecutor neared the dangerous part of his address Rivard absentmindedly, and without appearing to notice, dipped his left forefinger in his inkwell. With the air of a man deep in thought, his round face screwed up in concentration, his eyes staring straight ahead, he began to run his finger down the left side of his forehead and down his left cheek, leaving an
ink mark. 1 hen slowly and wit h studied casualness he quietly drummed his hand up the desk once more and again flipped his finger in the ink.
As Rivard straight-facedly traced ink designs on his left, cheek, chin, ear and neck, he could feel the jurors, one by one, beginning to stare at him.
Soon the jury was completely engrossed in what Rivard was doing and the prosecutor’s words were going over their heads. The jury was on Rivard’s left and all of them could plainly see him. The prosecutor was too engrossed with his own oratory to notice what was going on, although neither he nor the judge, both of whom were in front of Rivard, could have seen the ink marks because Rivard’s head was turned slightly to the left, and they could only see the clean right side of his face.
When the prosecutor had passed the dangerous part of his summation Rivard suddenly appeared to notice what he had so absent-mindedly been doing and quietly left the courtroom to wash his face, returning in a
Beginning the Story of Antoine Rivard, Famous Criminal Lawyer
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few minutes to give his own summation.
The ink trick not only diverted the jury’s attention from the dangerous part of the prosecution’s case, but, because it was a joke on himself, put Rivard in a sympathetic light in the eyes of the jurors. Rivard’s client was acquitted.
To Rivard, such diversionary manoeuvres are all part of the game. “A lawyer,” he says, “is sworn to fight with everything he’s got, to defend his client as though he were defending himself, whether his client is guilty in the eyes of the law or not. A lawyer is justified in using every conceivable method to get his client acquitted. Anyone who thinks lawyers should only successfully defend innocent, persons is foolish. In the first place it would be impossible; in the second, we’d need another 10,000 penitentiaries.”
Rivard has scrupulously adhered to this concept whether defending a $5 theft rap or a murder case. Starting in 1923 he took one client through four grueling murder trials over a four-year period and got her acquitted after a four-and-a-half-hour speech to the jury. He saved another woman’s life with a summation of just 58 words—one of the shortest on record. And he got the son of a political opponent off a manslaughter charge with nothing worse than a $25 fine.
As special crown prosecutor under Duplessis between 1936 and 1939 Rivard was equally relentless. He prosecuted 13 murder cases: twelve
of the accused went to the gallows, one to an insane asylum. Of the 8,000-odd court cases he has taken a leading role in Rivard has won more than 6,600. Five thousand of these have been criminal cases. He has won 11 of t*he 17 civil cases in which he has crossed swords with Louis St. Laurent.
He has appeared in many of French Canada’s headline-making courtroom duels. It was Rivard who sent Dr. Raymond Boyer to jail for espionage. In the more recent Jehovah’s Witness trials Rivard has sent 150 members of the sect to prison.
During one of these cases when the defense argued that the “Witnesses” were being persecuted on religious grounds, Rivard produced some of the sect’s pamphlets and books and read aloud from them for 18 solid days. Much of this contained scathing attacks on the Quebec Government. The judge agreed with Rivard’s point that this could not be considered the teachings of a religious body.
He Resists a Temptation
It was Rivard who was the prime mover behind the sensational developments in the current Guay case. As Attorney-General in everything but name (Duplessis is officially his own Attorney-General and Rivard is Ministre D'Etat) the old trial lawyer checked every one of the 19 dead passengers of the ill-fated CPA plane and found that only one, Mrs. Rita Guay, carried flight insurance. This led to the arrest of her husband, Albert Guay, who stands charged with her murder.
During his arraignment the pale, sallow-faced Guay did not utter a word. But back in his cell in Quebec jail he quickly summoned the young lawyer representing him and sent him by taxi to Rivard’s impressive, three-story, 11-room home at Bouganville Street and St. Foy Road.
The young lawyer lost no time in
explaining that Guay wanted Rivard to defend him. A battle light gleamed in Rivard’s eye. “There’s nothing I'd like better,” he said. “I think the Guay case would be the kind of tough fight I like—but I can’t.”
Four days later Rivard got a second call, this time from buxom Marguerite Pitre, whom the Crown claimed transported a time-bomb to the plane. If she was tried on a charge of attempted suicide, as she very well might be, would M. Rivard defend her? Again Rivard gave a regretful “No.”
Later, Rivard told an acquaintance: “For a moment I was tempted to throw up everything and take the Guay case. I think it is the biggest, most sensational murder case we’ve ever had in Canada. It is the one case I would have liked to defend, but being in the Government and knowing the prosecution’s side, I couldn’t do so.”
Rivard is a roly-poly man with thick black hair, a bushy, belligerent mustache, horn - rimmed spectacles and shrewd brown eyes. He stands just five feet five inches in his triple-soled shoes, and in courtrooms he often appears as a tiny David attacking a Goliath. A beerless diet has recently cut his weight from 176 to 155.
He is a natty dresser in light grey flannel suit, white shirt, polka-dot bow tie, gold diamond-studded cuff links and watch fob, pearl-grey silk socks and brown oxfords. His wardrobe includes three dozen expensively tailored suits and 216 bow ties, 100 of them polka-dotted. When he campaigned in 1948 in rural Montmagny riding Union Nationale organizers tried to make him wear rougher clothes for the factory worker and farmer voters. Rivard flatly refused. “They are not dumb,” he said. “They have seen me in court.” He won with a majority of 700 votes, a record for the riding.
Rivard Takes the Bait
Although he has been in the Government for only two years, and in the Cabinet for one, Rivard is already known as Duplessis’ hand-picked successor. “Le Boss” expects to lead his party to victory in 1952 and hand over the reins before the next term is up. Duplessis, however, has known Rivard since law-student days 29 years ago.
It was Rivard who alone repeatedly warned Duplessis against giving full support to George Drew during the June federal election. He is the only Quebec Minister (including Duplessis) who did not speak in support of Drew’s Conservative candidates in Quebec. On election night Duplessis phoned Rivard to congratulate him on his foresight. Last summer he offered Rivard the attorney-generalship of the province. Rivard turned it down. He told Duplessis the time wasn’t ripe politically, but said if the offer was open in a year’s time he’d take it.
Although he is Number 2 man in Quebec politics it is before the law courts that Antoine Rivard has made his name. This isn’t surprising for as far back as anyone can remember, his ancestors have been distinguished lawyers and judges. His 104-year-old law firm (Rivard, Blais and Gobeil) Is among the oldest in Canada. There has always been a Rivard in it. (His father was the late Hon. Mr. Justice Adjutor Rivard.) But in one marked respect Antoine has differed from his ancestors. Until he came along the firm had never taken a criminal case. Today it handies as many criminal cases as it does civil cases.
Rivard says a murder trial is the most exacting experience a lawyer can have and he always swears that each murder case is his last. Once in 1930
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he positively decided to quit the “murder business,” as he calla it. Then he received a phone call from an old law-school friend in Sherbrooke -Cesaire Gervais (now a judge of the Superior Court of Sherbrooke).
Gervais reminded Rivard of a lawschool pledge to team up on the first promising murder case either of them got. Rivard told his friend he was handling no more murder cases.
“Well,” needled Gervais, “it would probably be too tough for you to win.” Rivard snapped at the bait and thus stepped straight into the famous “case of the poisoned cabbie.”
The Chapdelaine case, one of the strangest in Canadian criminal history, is still discussed in legal circles. It was Rivard’s most famous and toughest case. It began when an East Angus, Que., taxi driver named Chapdelaine ate a howl of tomato soup. A few minutes later he was stricken with severe stomach pains. He died three days later in hospital.
Chapdelaine’s doctor was convinced that his patient’s death had been caused by arsenic poisoning. All the symptoms pointed to it. The police were interested because Chapdelaine had carried heavy insurance and because neighbors reported that he and his wife had quarreled frequently.
Mrs. Chapdelaine, a good-looking but not exceptionally beautiful woman, was the beneficiary of several insurance policies, some of which had been taken out during the previous years and which provided double indemnity in case of violent death. The total sum involved was about $50,000. The police decided to pay Beatrice Chapdelaine a visit.
The interview was singularly disappointing until one of the detectives went into the bathroom. On a hunch he looked in the medicine cabinet. On the shelf was a bottle bearing the label “Arsenic.”
Two Confessions were signed
The detective wrapped the bottle in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, but said nothing to Mrs. Chapdelaine.
Other men were put to work tracing the arsenic, and an autopsy was performed on Chapdelaine. The medical examiner found all the internal symptoms of arsenic poisoning but not the slightest trace of the poison itself. It seemed like a false alarm.
Then Dr. Rosario Fontaine, the Provincial Government’s top medicolegal expert, decided to perform a second autopsy. He reported that while he found no trace of arsenic in the dead man’s stomach, he had not the slightest doubt that Chapdelaine had been poisoned. He explained that because Chapdelaine had not died for three days the poison had passed through his body in the natural way or had been sweated out.
When police called again on Beatrice Chapdelaine she had disappeared.
Meanwhile, the arsenic found in the Chapdelaine house had been traced to Eugene Bernard, the brother of Mrs. Chapdelaine. He was picked up days later in Montreal, quietly lodged in a suburban jail where three days later he signed a confession. “I bought the arsenic and gave it to my sister because she wanted to poison her husband,” he told the police.
The same day the police found Beatrice Chapdelaine in Montreal. She too was quietly lodged in jail and, like her brother, after three days she also signed a confession in which she admitted murdering her husband by putting arsenic in his tomato soup.
Mrs. Chapdelaine was charged with murder. Her brother was charged with
being her accomplice. To the police and the Attorney-General’s Department, the Chapdelaine case was as good as closed. But they reckoned without Antoine Rivard.
The day the murder trial of Beatrice Chapdelaine opened in Sherbrooke that autumn of 1930 Gervais remarked to Rivard that their case looked pretty black and hopeless. “My dear Cesaire,” Rivard chided confidently, “of course it looks black and hopeless. All murder cases look black and hopeless for the defense at the beginning. Otherwise, the Attorney-General would not dare to bring the accused to trial. But wait, we shall see just how black this case remains.”
Somehow Rivard had found out that the police had taken not only Mrs. Chapdelaine’s fingerprints but also those of her dead husband off the bottle of arsenic, which meant that the poison could have been either accidentally or deliberately self-administered. As a last resort he had the fact that no arsenic had actually been found in the dead man’s body—a fact that could not help being potent with a jury of laymen, no matter how many medical experts tried to minimize its importance. Rivard had also found out by a little astute detective work that Eugene Bernard had flatly refused to testify for the Crown against his sister, on the grounds that his testimony might incriminate him in his trial as an accomplice to the murder.
The Prosecution Plays an Ace
The little lawyer was confident that he could get the two confessions ruled out as evidence. Mrs. Chapdelaine and her brother, he argued, had been held for three days in a suburban jail while police grilled them; they had not only not been charged at the time, but had also been denied their rights to a lawyer. The confessions, Rivard maintained, had been “forced” and obtained under duress. They were both “illegal and false.”
But the judge allowed the confessions to be admitted as evidence. The jury took seven minutes to find Beatrice Chapdelaine guilty. The judge took only four minutes to sentence her to death.
Defeat only makes Antoine Rivard fighting mad. As he strode from the
courtroom a reporter asked him what he thought of the trial and Rivard uttered the words that were soon blazoned across the headlines: “I do
not choose to accept the verdict.”
The Appeal Court judges, in whose laps Rivard promptly dumped the case, did not accept it either. They unanimously ruled that the confessions had not been free and voluntary and had been improperly admitted as evidence. Rivard had dramatically produced several guards from the jail where Mrs. Chapdelaine and her brother had been held and they had admitted that the two had been given a tough thirddegree treatment.
At the second Chapdelaine trial, which took place in Sherbrooke a year later before a new judge and jury, Rivard again took the offensive. But this time the prosecution pulled a fast one. Between the end of the first trial and the Appeal Court hearing Eugene Bernard had been tried on the accomplice charge, had been found guilty, and had been sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary. At the second trial the crown prosecutor put him on the stand and he repeated his confession word for word. His dramatic admission that he had given his sister the arsenic “because she wanted to poison her husband,” proved sensational newspaper copy. It also prompted the judge to make some pertinent remarks to the jury on the probable guilt of the accused.
Once again Beatrice Chapdelaine was found guilty of murder and once again she was sentenced to hang.
Rivard immediately appealed. He charged that the comments of the judge on the evidence of the brother had been “improper, unfair, prejudiced and illegal.” The four Appeal Court judges studied the case for several months. At last they handed down their decision, and the newspaper headlines screamed: APPEAL QUASHED; MRS. CHAPDELAINE TO HANG!
The same reporter who had quizzed Rivard after the first trial again approached him and asked again what he thought of the case. “I still do not choose to accept the verdict,” Rivard snapped. The newspapers had a new headline: RIVARD TO FIGHT ON IN CHAPDELAINE CASE!
The Appeal Court verdict had not been unanimous. One judge had dis-
sented. This gave Rivard a last chance to save Beatrice Chapdelaine’s life. He carried the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Again the newspapers jumped into black type when the Supreme Court justices unanimously reversed the verdict of the Appeal Court and ordered a new trial.
Rivard asked that the new trial be held in Quebec City (most of his toughest cases have been won on his home field) on the ground that newspaper accounts of the first two trials had prejudiced the Sherbrooke district against his client. His request was granted.
But Beatrice Chapdelaine was by no means out of danger. If anything, her fate seemed only more certain. The case still looked as black and hopeless as it had in the beginning. Rivard knew that the prosecution would again put Bernard on the stand and that he would again damn his sister to the hangman’s rope.
“You know,” Rivard told Gervais one day, “there’s something funny about the brother’s confession. I’ve had to learn to be a shrewd judge of people since I took up criminal cases, and I’m convinced that that man was lying.”
“Come to think of it,” Gervais agreed, “there did seem to be something vaguely wrong with his testimony. It seemed just a little too pat —almost as though it had been prearranged.”
“That’s it!” said Rivard. “I’ll bet it was prearranged. I’ll bet Eugene Bernard was bribed to say it. We’ve got to get to him and force him to tell us the truth before the trial starts. It’s our only hope.”
Many Ways to Skin a Cat
“Oh, fine!” Gervais groaned. “He’s in the penitentiary for 10 years. The prosecution certainly won’t let us see him. But we’ve got to get him to confess that he was bribed to lie!”
“My dear Cesaire,” Rivard chuckled as he preened his thick black mustache, “you forget that there is more than one way to skin a cat. We shall see what we shall see.”
The third trial of Beatrice Chapdelaine opened in Quebec City in the autumn of 1933. As Rivard and Gervais had feared, the Crown put Eugene Bernard in the witness box and he repeated his testimony that he had given his sister the arsenic to poison her husband. It looked as if the hanging of Mrs. Chapdelaine was a foregone conclusion. Rivard did not even bother to cross-examine Bernard.
But on the last day of his defense Rivard suddenly recalled Bernard to the stand. Dramatically, he confronted him with a paper.
“Is this your handwriting?” he demanded.
“Is this a confession you signed while in the penitentiary?”
“Do you not admit in it that the testimony you have given before this court is completely false, that your first confession was all lies, and that you were forced and bribed to testify against your sister, the defendant in this case?”
Pandemonium. Spectators shouted, newspapermen fought their way to the nearest phones, and the prosecutor vigorously objected. The judge pounded his gavel and called for “order in the court.” The prosecution’s objections were overruled and Rivard continued.
“Was this confession freely and voluntarily given?” he asked.
“Do you now wish to repudiate any
Then it is true that all you have said before is lies and that you wert1 bribed to make that false confession?”
Rivard cocked a sarcastic eye at the prosecutor. “Your witness,” he said sweetly.
“No questions!” the prosecutor snapped back.
The Mantle of Perry Mason
It did not take the jury long to arrive at a verdict. “We find the defendant not guilty . . .” Three years in jail, thrice tried for the murder of her husband, twice sentenced to death, Beatrice Chapdelaine was free. It had taken Antoine Rivard three years, three trials, two appeals to the Appeals Court and one to the Supreme Court, but he had won his case.
It also had taken a secret midnight visit to the penitentiary cell of Eugene Bernard. Exactly how he managed to get into Bernard’s prison cell, and exactly how he managed to persuade Bernard to confess, Rivard will not tell, on the grounds that it is a professional secret and might incriminate people who are still living. But he did it, and it established him in the eyes of the public as the Perry Mason of Quebec.
There are a few other loose ends in the Chapdelaine case that need explaining. One is the reason Rivard did not use Bernard’s confession (the third confession in the case) earlier. He had sworn Bernard to strict secrecy about the new confession and had told him to carry on and repeat his testimony of the second trial. As the evidence of the first two trials could not be considered by the jury of the third trial, Rivard had to have Bernard’s false testimony on the record so that he could refute it with his secret confession. To have introduced the confession on cross-examination would have given the prosecution too much time to think of ways to retaliate. To have introduced it at the very outset of the trial would have defeated his purpose. He had to use it not only at the most appropriate and opportune moment but at the crucial point of the ca.se—a time when it could be used with full dramatic effect.
The question of who bribed Bernard to lie—if indeed, he was bribed—has never been determined. Bernard never said, nor did Rivard, and the crown prosecutor obviously did not care to press the question or he would have re-cross-examined Bernard.
From a legal standpoint there was another and even stranger question posed by the famous Chapdelaine case. For, while Mrs. Chapdelaine was acquitted on the murder charge, her brother served his 10 years in penitentiary as her accomplice in the crime—a crime which, technically at least, never existed !
The Chapdelaine case and its successful conclusion marked a new peak in the Rivard career. It illustrates his most consistent characteristic—persistency. In Quebec he is regarded as one of the most stubborn lawyers ever to orate before the bar. This was vividly illustrated the first time he defended a client on a murder charge.
For four long years Rivard fought the Gallop case through four separate trials. And, in the end, the life of his client, a beautiful New Brunswick woman, hinged on the translation of an English sentence into French.
(This is the first of a three-part article. The second part, recounting the Gallop case and other Rivard triumphs, will appear in the next issue of Maclean's.) ★