An eyewitness account of Riel's execution
The Huron Expositor, Nov. 20, 1885
The execution of Louis David Riel took place at Regina on Monday morning last. He met his fate bravely and never winced even to the last moment. Riel never slept after receiving intelligence that the execution would take place Monday morning, and thoughout the night was constant in his devotions. At seven o'clock he had a light supper, and at five in the morning mass was celebrated, following two hours later by the administration of the last sacrament. Riel towards the last almost entirely dropped his new religious idiosyncracies and decided to die a devout Catholic.
His Last Devotions
The hour fixed for the execution was eight o'clock, but it was fifteen minutes past that hour before those who had passes from the sheriff were admitted to the guard-room. Here was found the prisoner kneeling on the floor of an upper room, from which he was to step to the gallows. It was a sad scene. Around him were gathered members of mounted police, Sheriff Chapleau, Deputy-Sheriff Gibson and a few others. The room was illuminated by a small window covered with a rime of frost through which the sun, now risen but an hour, shot a few weak rays. Riel now knelt beside the open window, through which the gallows could be seen, and prayed incessantly for fully half an hour. Fathers McWilliams and Andre conducted the service for the doomed man in French, Riel repeating the responses in a clear voice, which could be heard distinctly above the murmurs of the priests' whispering tones.Riel wore a loose woolen surtout, grey trousers and woolen shirt. On his feet were moccasins, the only feature of his dress that partook of the Indian that was in him. He received the notice to proceed to the scaffold in the same composed manner shewn the preceding night on receiving warning of his fate. His face was full of color, and he appeared to have complete self-possession, still responding to the service in a clear tone.The prisoner decided only a moment before starting for the scaffold not to make a speech. This was owing to the earnest solicitation of both the priests attending him. He displayed an inclination at the last moment to make an address, but Father Andre reminded him of his promise.
The Procession to the Scaffold
Jack Henderson, the regular hangman, an old Red River pioneer, who had no cause to love Riel because of the first rebellion, commenced the work of pinioning the prisoner. Henderson himself had in former time been Riel's prisoner. The melancholy procession soon began to wend its way toward the scaffold, which had been erected for Khonnors, the Hebrew, and soon came in sight of the noose. Deputy-Sheriff Gibson went ahead, then came Father McWilliams, next Riel, then Father Andre, Dr. Jukes, and others. As he stood on the trap-door Riel continued invoking the aid of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, during his last agonies. "Courage, pere," he said, addressing Father Andre and then he addressed Father McWilliams in the same words. The latter priest kissed Riel, who said," I believe still in God."
"To the last?" said Father Andre.
"Yes, the very last," answered Riel; "I believe and trust in Him. Sacred Heart of Jesus have mercy on me."
Dr, Jukes shook hands with the prisoner who said in English: "Thank you, doctor." Then he continued: "Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assistez moi en ce dernier moment."
The InquestThe Fatal Drop
Deputy-Sheriff Gibson then said, "Louis Riel, have you anything to say before death?" Riel answered, "No." He was given two minutes to pray, and he repeated the Lord's Prayer, Father McWilliams leading, while the cap was being drawn over his face and the rope adjusted. At the words "Lead me not into temptation" the hangman sprang the bolt, at 28 minutes past eight, and Riel shot downward with a terrible crash. For a second he did not move. A slight twitching of the limbs was noticed, but instantly all was still again.In two minutes after the fall, Louis Riel was no more. His neck was broken instantly. His conduct on the scaffold was very courageous. He was pale but firm, and kept up his courage by constant prayer, thus diverting his thoughts from the terrible death before him. His neck was broken by the fall; the doctors say he could have experienced no physical suffering. For a second or two his limbs twitched slightly, then a convulsive shudder ran through his frame, and all was over. In less than three minutes Dr. Dodds pronounced him dead. Few persons were present. The only people on the scaffold besides the condemned man and the hangman were Deputy-Sheriff Gibson, Dr. Jukes, of the Mounted Police, Father Andre, Father McWilliams, and the press representatives.
The body was cut down after half an hour and the usual inquest and post mortem held. Dr.Jukes reported the execution most cleverly performed. From the moment he fell, judging from the nature of the injuries received, he must have been entirely without sensation. The neck was entirely dislocated from the bone of the two upper joints of the vertebrae, thus paralyzing all the lower portion of the body, and he could have felt no pain whatsoever. The circulation ceased in four minutes, an unusually short time. The coroner and jury then viewed the body and found the features much distorted. One juryman had to retire from the sight.
What Father M'Williams Says
Father McWilliams, in referring to the conduct of the condemned man on the night before his execution, said that when Riel was praying with him and Father Andre he frequently interrupted them when they said "Louis Riel," interpolating "David" each time. Father McWilliams was a classmate with Riel at the college in Montreal. He says he never attended a condemned man who was so fully prepared to die, and with whose conduct he was so much edified. Father McWilliams said that until the last moment came he firmly believed something would interfere to prevent the execution.
Father Andre, whose ministrations to the executed rebel have been constant during his confinement, says it was Riel's custom to read the Bible every day, his mother having sent him a Bible. The reverend father detailed a conversation he had with Riel in the morning a short time previous to his execution, relative to the Scott murder.Riel said:---"I have been reproached with the death of Scott, but at this day I think it was only a political mistake, and by bringing the half-breeds to a sense of what they were doing it saved hundreds of other lives. I think I made a mistake, but before God and my conscience I did not commit a crime. Sir John Macdonald is now committing me to death for the same reason I committed Scott, because it is necessary for the country's good. I admit Scott's shooting was mismanaged, but I commanded it because I thought it necessary. He tried to kill his guards. They came to me and said they could do nothing with him. The rebellion was on the eve of breaking out all over the country, but as soon as Scott was killed it subsided."
Being asked to divulge Scott's place of burial, Riel said, "That's not my secret. I have been pardoned once for his death, but am now going to die for it."
Forced Into Rebellion By Dumont
In response to a query by Father McWilliams, Riel said:--- "I assure you that three weeks before the Duck Lake fight I had no idea of rebellion, but it was forced on me by Gabriel Dumont and others, who came and said the people would abandon me if I did not do something to bring the government to terms. I had been six months in the country and done nothing."
Riel was then asked why when the rebellion was fairly started, he did not act decisively by attacking Prince Albert and Carleton.
Riel said, "I was afraid, for if I went with the Indians there would inevitably have been a massacre."
Being asked why he left all his papers to be captured, thereby criminating many, Riel replied:---"During the last three days at Batoche I confess I lost my head. I told Pierre Parenteay to destroy them all, but in the hurry and confusion he did not do so."
The Last Letters
At 3 a.m. Riel wrote a letter to the lawyers who defended him, saying he was thankful for all they had done. They had done everything in their power, and if they had failed it was not their fault.He also wrote letters to his wife, his mother, and his relatives and then kneeling prayed extempore for an hour and a half, using the most beautiful language. He asked that God give Sir John wisdom, but take him very quickly to himself. Riel laughed as he said this, and Captain White Fraser, who was watching, said that was bad. Riel replied that he couldn't do better than wish Sir John in heaven.
Then rising, he smilingly said, in a reflective manner, "Twas very strange to see a poor man like myself with all the power of Canada arrayed against him. It is not because (unreadable) prophet for they knew that cannot help me in my present position."