Historian discovers new details in Canada's first documented 'demon possession' case

A demonic possession, a do-it-yourself exorcism, and the execution of an accused witch — welcome to daily life in Quebec City, circa 1660. Historian Mairi Cowan shares the story of Canada’s earliest reported ‘demon possession caused by witchcraft’ case.

Demon attacks, an exorcism and witchcraft were reported to happen in Quebec City in 1660, says Mairi Cowan

A profile picture of Mairi Cowan is to your right. She is smiling and to the left of the image is her book cover.
Historian Mairi Cowan investigates a rumoured demon attack in Quebec as described by French settlers in 1660 in her book, The Possession of Barbe Hallay — a microhistory of Canada’s earliest reported 'demon possession caused by witchcraft' case. (McGill-Queen's University Press/submitted by Mairi Cowan)

*Originally published on December 14, 2022.

Historian Mairi Cowan has been investigating one of Quebec's weirdest true tales — and she's finally able to piece together a detailed story of what happened.

Leading figures in Quebec City during the 1660s suspected an alleged witch, Daniel Vuil, of employing "diabolical arts" to induce a demon to possess Barbe Hallay, a teenage girl working at a manor house in nearby Beauport.

Both Vuil and the Hallay family had recently arrived in Quebec — at the time, the tiny village had fewer than 800 people.

"Strange things started to happen to this family," Cowan told CBC's IDEAS. "People recorded details about them we don't have for other people in New France."

A sepia toned picture shows the Beauport mansion near the river, a few sail boats in the distance and scattered trees surrounding the house.
A view of the manor house of Beauport as it looked in the nineteenth century. Barbe Hallay worked and lived as a domestic servant in this mansion where she encountered demons and witchcraft. (L.P. Vallée/courtesy of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec )

Visions and demonic behaviour

Cowan, a history professor at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, became aware of the story of Hallay while visiting Quebec City on a family trip.

Upon learning that no detailed factual account of the events existed, she began drawing together sources including the memoir of a local aristocrat, the personal correspondence of a nun living in the town's Ursuline convent, the biography of another nun who spent a year attempting nightly exorcisms, and the daily records of nearby Jesuit priests.

These accounts shed light on how town authorities attempted to deal with Hallay's afflictions, which included horrifying visions and violent outbursts supposedly caused by the demon. They also give new insights into the culture and mindset of French colonists.

"The colonial project was not secure," said Cowan. "And the leaders were not in agreement about what to do to make it secure."

The French had hoped to convert their Wendat allies to Catholicism, but by 1660, this project was not going according to plan.

A map of Quebec in 1663
'Le Véritable plan de Québec en 1663' — a map made by cartographer and businessman Jean Bourdon. (Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France )

"Often you have exasperated Jesuits talking about devils and evil spirits and how Satan is at work in these missions," said Scott Bertholette, a historian at Queen's University who specializes in French-Indigenous relations.

"If anything, I think this encounter with Indigenous spiritualities leads to further insecurity about witches and demons in New France."

That said, the French colonists treated Hallay's particular case of demon possession in the ways familiar to them from their country of origin. They appear to have assumed the demon itself matched the demons of Catholic tradition.

Hallay's exorcism

Hallay continued to experience the symptoms of demonic possession for months after the alleged witch was executed, apparently on the orders of Bishop François de Laval (although the court details of Vuil's crime and sentencing have been lost).

A black and white drawing of Saint Jean de Brébeuf shows a bald, white man, looking to the side. He has white hair on the side of his head and a white beard. He is wearing a high collared shirt and jacket.
Saint Jean de Brébeuf was a French Jesuit missionary who was captured and killed in 1649. (Reuben Gold Thwaites )

Cowan notes that the end of Hallay's ordeal came in the form of an exorcism — or what sounds very much like one — conducted by a layperson using a rib-bone believed to belong to the deceased Jean de Brébeuf. 

"We have a lay woman who normally would not be permitted to perform an exorcism, in fact, performing an exorcism in all but name," said Cowan. She considers this an example of the cultural compromises that the frightened colonists felt they must make.

"These colonists were few in number," Cowan explained. "They were cut off from France for most of the year, and they were dependent. They needed support from a king in France who might turn his attention away from New France at any moment toward colonies generating more income. And they needed help from Indigenous allies whose priorities the French did not always respect."

Guests in this episode:

Mairi Cowan is the author of The Possession of Barbe Hallay: Diabolical Arts and Daily Life in Early Canada. She is an associate professor in the Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto-Mississauga.

Scott Berthelette is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Queen's University. He researches the history of Indigenous Peoples, the Métis, New France, and the Hudson's Bay Company. His new book is Heirs of an Ambivalent Empire: French-Indigenous Relations and the Rise of the Métis in the Hudson Bay Watershed.

Colin Coates is a professor of Canadian Studies and History at Glendon College (York University). He specializes in the history of early French Canada.

Sarah Ferber is a professor at the University of Wollongong, specializing in early modern European religious history; contemporary religion, and modern medical history. Her books include Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France and, most recently, IVF and Assisted Reproduction: A Global History.


*This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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