There is no doubt that Métis leader Louis Riel was hanged for treason at the North West Mounted Police barracks in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885. Many eyewitnesses – including the jury that convicted him and reporters from The Regina Leader and The New York Times – attended the execution on that chill, clear morning. "The sun glittered out in pitiless beauty and the prairie slightly silvered with hoar frost shone like a vast plain sown with diamonds," rhapsodized the reporter from the Leader, before going into more gruesome details.
What isn't so certain, however, is what happened to the rope that was used to hang Riel. The noose was destroyed, according to newspaper reports. But now, a coil of the hangman's rope has been found in the possessions of Duff Roblin, the former premier of Manitoba. If the Roblin rope turns out to be genuine, it may help authenticate other strands given to the RCMP by troopers who guarded Riel in his death cell. Will these pieces of rope untangle the life and legacy of Riel, a man who has been reviled as a murderous insurgent and revered as the founder of Manitoba?
Souvenir hunters were as avid in the 18th century as they are today. Back when public executions were common spectacles, nooses were prized as good-luck charms. Gamblers believed that carrying a piece in your pocket was like having an ace up your sleeve. Some migraineurs wound the rope around their temples to cure headaches, while those on the shady side of the law felt they could escape the executioner if they carried a bit of the rope that had done in somebody else. In Mr. Riel's case, officials also feared that rebels might turn the rope into a rallying symbol of their martyred leader. To thwart these souvenir hunters, the rope was "seized" by the sherrif and "destroyed," according to several contemporary reports.
Therein lies the difference between official and anecdotal history. "My father always believed it was the real thing," says Jennifer Roblin, the late premier's daughter. "The rope was important to him," as part of Manitoba history and as a reminder that he didn't feel he had done enough for first nations.
She first noticed the small envelope covered in faded brown ink as a child, back in the late 1960s. Inside were five or six pieces of twine, curled like a lock of hair. "Don't touch that," her mother admonished. "It is very precious. That is a piece of the rope that hanged Louis Riel."
Before he died in May 2010, Mr. Roblin agreed to give the rope, which was always kept in the Victorian breakfront in the family dining room, to Le Musee de Saint Boniface. The museum, which is housed in the convent that was built for the Grey Nuns on their arrival in the Red River Colony in 1844, has a collection illustrating the lives and culture of the local francophone and Métis communities. One of the highlights is an extensive exhibit about Riel, including his coffin, moccasins and tuque.
"If you took all the pieces of rope that reputedly hanged Louis Riel, you would have one that would be 10 miles long," says historian Philippe Mailhot, director of the Museum. Still there were several things about the Roblin bequest that excited him. Although the envelope has no stamp or postmark, the ink and the handwriting point to the late 19th century.
Written on the outside are the words: "The rope that hung Riel." Then in a finer script, "Sent to J.B. Silcox by Captain Young in 1885, Winnipeg Manitoba." The sender is probably Captain George Homes Young. He served on the staff of General Sir Frederick Dobson Middleton, the British soldier appointed General Officer Commanding the Militia of Canada by Queen Victoria in 1884.
Gen. Middleton and his troops travelled westward on the newly laid railroad to suppress the North West Rebellion in 1885. After Riel surrendered at Batoche, he was escorted to Regina for trial (and eventually execution) in the custody of Capt. Young, presumably the author of the handwritten message on the envelope. The man to whom Capt. Young sent the piece of rope is likely Reverend J.B. Silcox, an Ontario-born clergyman who "undertook charge" of the Congregational Church in Winnipeg in 1881 and was a vocal critic of Mr. Riel and his political and territorial aspirations on behalf of the Métis people.
Modern script on the back of the envelope says: "Given to Duff Roblin on May 6, 1969 by the grandson of J.B. Silcox." The signature, which is hard to read, may belong to Gordon Silcox. Dr. Mailhot intends to do more research, but he presumes that Mr. Silcox gave the envelope to the Premier in the lead-up to the Manitoba centennial celebrations in 1970 because he considered it an important piece of Manitoba material history.
"Context is everything," Dr. Mailhot says. Before he puts the Roblin rope on display early next year in an exhibit explaining how museums authenicate artifacts, he wants to compare his strands with three similar ones in the RCMP museum in Regina.
"Generally, they have come to us through people who were in the Force at the time of the execution – people who were guarding Louis Riel or were connected to people who were guarding him," says Jodi Ann Eskritt, curator of the RCMP historical collection unit in Regina. One of the samples was tested in the RCMP forensic lab and found to be "authentic to the period." The only way to be 100 per cent certain with any execution rope is "to be lucky enough to have a piece of the person's DNA on it," Ms. Eskritt concludes.
Any discussion of nooses and Louis Riel, one of the most troubling and haunting figures in our history, is bound to attract both ghouls and scholars. Dr. Mailhot and Ms. Eskritt are prepared for that fallout. But they are hoping for something more: engaging ordinary Canadians in a discussion about the past and how material history is authenticated and used. "If," as Ms. Eskritt says, "it sparks more interest in our history, that is a good thing."
With research from Rick Cash