A Murder Mystery- An Airliner Bombing and the Last to Hang
At 10:25 A.M. on September 9, 1949, Canadian Pacific Air Lines Flight 108 took off from L’Ancienne Lorette airport outside Quebec City and headed northeast along the St. Lawrence River. The Douglas DC-3, with 23 passengers and crew aboard, was on a scheduled run between Montreal and the pulp-and-paper hub of Baie-Comeau in the northeastern township of Sept-Iles, with a stopover in Quebec City. 20 minutes into the flight, the aircraft was rocked by a massive explosion and plummeted to the ground near Sault-au-Cochon, killing everyone aboard. Investigators rushed to the scene and quickly determined that the flight had been taken down by a bomb planted in the baggage compartment. It was a crime that shocked Canada and the world, one of the first airline bombings in history and the largest mass-murder ever committed on Canadian soil. Yet unlike later, more well-remembered attacks, this bombing was motivated not by politics or religion, but by simple greed and lust. And the investigation and trials that followed would result in one of the accomplices, Marguerite Pitre, becoming the last woman in Canada to be hanged for murder.
The mastermind behind the bombing of Flight 108 was Joseph-Albert Guay, a 31-year-old door-to-door watch and jewelry salesman from Quebec City. During the Second World War Guay had worked at the Canadian Arsenals Limited munitions plant at St. Malo in order to avoid conscription in the armed forces. He supplemented his income by selling watches and jewelry to employees at the plant, and soon caught the eye of a fellow worker named Rita Morel. The two soon married, and after the war Albert left the factory and set up his own jewelry and watch repair shop. At first the marriage was a happy one, but soon after the birth of the couple’s first and only daughter Lise in 1945 things started to fall apart. The jewelry business was failing, debts were piling up, and the couple fought constantly. Though a jealous and possessive man when it came to Rita, Albert carried on a string of extramarital affairs, including with 17-year-old waitress Marie-Ange Robitaille. Joseph became deeply infatuated with Marie-Ange, and began meeting regularly with her under the alias of Roger Angers. When Marie-Ange’s family found out about the affair and kicked her out of their house, Albert took her to Sept-Iles where they lived together for a while. But his young mistress soon threatened to break off the affair unless he left Rita. Unfortunately, in the deeply Catholic province of Quebec, divorce was a difficult, complicated process and officially banned by the Church.
So Albert Guay did what any reasonable man would do and began plotting to kill his wife. At first he planned to use poison, even offering a friend money to spike his wife’s drink, but soon decided that bombing an airliner full of passengers was a surer way of covering his tracks. As an added bonus, such a scheme would allow him to collect a handsome life insurance policy on his wife, netting him the funds needed to start a new life with Marie-Ange.
To carry out his scheme, Albert enlisted the help of Généreux Ruest, a 49-year-old jewelry repairman who owed him $600, and his 41-year-old sister Marguerite Pitre. Pitre ran the boarding house in St. Roch where Albert Guay and Marie-Ange Robitaille had first met, and had also helped arrange some of their early romantic liaisons. Due to her habit of wearing only black clothes, Pitre was widely known as “Madame le Corbeau”AKA“Madam Raven.”
At Guay’s request, Ruest assembled a time bomb in the most cartoonish way possible- using sticks of dynamite, a battery, and an alarm clock, the dynamite being purchased by Marguerite Pitre under the pretence that Guay needed it to clear a field he owned of tree stumps. At the time the sale of such explosives was not regulated in Canada, and dynamite could readily be purchased at most hardware stores.
With the murder weapon in hand, Guay next told his wife that he had left two suitcases of jewellery in Baie-Comeau and convinced her to fly over and retrieve them for him. On the morning of the flight, Guay took out a $10,000 life insurance policy on Rita, in addition to an existing $5,000 policy dating back to 1942. This was less suspicious than it sounds, and was actually a common practice for travellers in the early days of commercial aviation when accidents were more common.
And so it was that on September 9, 1949, as Guay drove his wife to the airport, Marguerite Pitre arrived separately with a parcel containing the bomb and checked it aboard Canadian Pacific Flight 108. It was then that Albert Guay’s carefully-planned scheme began to fall apart. Rita, who had never been enthusiastic about her strange assignment, balked anew at having to leave. The couple arguing loudly in the departure lounge before Rita at last relented and agreed to board the aircraft, delaying the flight’s departure by five minutes. As it transpired, this minor delay would prove the thread that would unravel the whole scheme.
Guay had timed the bomb to detonate when the aircraft was over the St. Lawrence estuary, reasoning that the wreckage would sink beyond the reach of the salvaging and forensics technology of the day. However, the 5-minute delay instead caused the aircraft to come down in a wooded area on the Cap Tourmente just 65 kilometres east of Quebec City. Among the victims were four children, three American executives from the Kennecott Utah Copper Company, and two senior engineers from the Ontario Paper Company.
The attack on Flight 108 was not, as is often claimed, the first airliner bombing in history. That honour belongs to an October 10, 1933 incident in which a United Airlines Boeing 247 bound from Cleveland to Chicago was destroyed by a nitroglycerin bomb over Chesterton, Indiana, killing all 7 aboard. While the case was never solved, the bombing is believed to have been a Chicago gangland assassination.
Moving on from there, on May 7, 1949, just four months before the bombing of Flight 108, a pair of ex-convicts planted a bomb aboard a Philippine Air Lines DC-3 bound from Luzon to Manila, killing 13 aboard. The bombers had been contracted by a woman to kill her wealthy husband so she could inherit his estate and marry her boyfriend. It is thus speculated that this event served as the inspiration for Albert Guay’s own scheme.
Whatever the case, the explosion and fall of Flight 108 was witnessed by eel fisherman Patrick Simard [“See-Marr”], who directed the authorities to the scene of the crash. Investigators quickly discovered the hole blown by the bomb in the baggage compartment, and in a pioneering feat of forensics Dr. Jean-Marie Roussel and Robert Péclet [“Peh-clay”] of Montreal’s Laboratory of Legal Medicine and Technical Policing were able to use the brand-new technology of emission spectrography to identify the components used to build the bomb.
As news of the heinous crime circled the globe and recovery teams struggled to get the bodies of the victims off the remote hillside, investigators began looking for possible suspects. Of the 23 passengers and crew, one, Henri-Paul Bouchard, was missing from the wreckage, leading investigators to speculate that he had been the bomber. Another favourite suspect early on was Tarrence Flahiff, an executive of the Quebec North Shore Paper Company. Flahiff had originally planned to fly all the way to Baie-Comeau, but had been persuaded for unspecified reasons by his wife to get off in Quebec City. Upon learning that a 23rd victim was missing, Flahiff assumed the police were looking for him and travelled to the crash site to present himself to investigators. Flahiff was soon ruled out as a subject, while the body of Henri-Paul Bouchard was found a week later some 300 metres from the wreckage.
Despite these early dead-ends, the police soon hit upon a more promising lead: the bomb itself. Staff at the air freight counter at L’Ancienne-Lorette airport vividly remembered a nervous woman dressed in black frantically trying to check a heavy but fragile parcel onto Flight 108 at the last minute. A taxi driver also remembered driving the same woman to the airport, and was able to take police to the neighbourhood where he had picked her up. There he identified Marguerite Pitre exiting her apartment, and she was taken in for questioning. Pitre admitted that Albert Guay had asked her to deliver the package to the airport, but claimed he had told her it contained a religious statue.
Meanwhile, Albert Guay put on a convincing show of grief for his slain wife. He organized a funeral at the Saint-Roch church and, according to a 1953 story in The New Yorker: “…bought a wreath in his daughter’s name, and as his own tribute purchased a five-foot cross of red roses with a heart of white roses at the center, which bore the inscription “From your beloved Albert.”
Guay even accepted a $1,000 cheque from his Knights of Columbus council to defray the costs of his wife’s funeral and “console him in his bereavement”. But as greedy men are wont to do, Albert soon gave away the game when, barely three days after the explosion, he attempted to collect on the $10,000 insurance policy. In response, police moved to arrest Marguerite Pitre at her apartment, only to find her unconscious from an overdose of sleeping pills. Knowing that the police were on his trail, Guay had contacted Pitre and encouraged her to commit suicide to avoid being blamed for the bombing. However, Pitre survived the overdose and was arrested on charges of attempted suicide, which was still a crime in those days. Based on the insurance payout and Marguerite Pitre’s testimony, on September 23, only two weeks after the crash, Joseph-Albert Guay was arrested and charged with murder.
The trial of Albert Guay began on February 23, 1950. Though the trial itself was a closed affair, open only to reporters, law students, and officials, it caused an international media sensation, with newspapers lavishing over every detail of the sordid affair.
Three weeks later on March 14, the judge instructed the jury to retire for deliberation. They returned barely 17 minutes later with a verdict – guilty – a record at the time in the history of Canadian murder trials. The judge sentenced Albert Guay to death by hanging, and set his execution date for June 23. Soon after his sentencing, Guay turned on his accomplices, claiming the Généreux Ruest and Margerite Pitre had been complicit in his scheme from the very beginning.
Whether this is actually the case remains a matter of considerable debate. Throughout their subsequent trials, Ruest and Pitre maintained that they had no knowledge of Guay’s murderous intentions and that they believed the dynamite and the bomb were for clearing tree stumps on Guay’s land. More than likely, Guay’s denunciation was intended as a means of delaying his own execution, as he expected he would be called to testify at the trials of his accomplices. In the end, Guay did not testify at either trial, and following a short stay on appeal was finally hanged on January 12, 1951 at Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison. His last words were “At least I die famous.”
But whatever Guay’s motive for naming his accomplices, the evidence against them continued to mount, and on June 6, 1950 Généreux Ruest was arrested and charged with murder. His trial began on November 27 and concluded on December 13 with a verdict of guilty. The jury took even less time to convict Généreux than it had Guay, deliberating for only 13 minutes. Two days later Marguerite Pitre was also arrested and charged, her trial beginning on March 6 1951. Justice for Madame le Corbeau was equally swift, and after only 10 days and a 29-minute jury deliberation she was also sentenced to death. The execution of Généreux Ruest took place on July 25, 1952 with Ruest, who had been suffering for years from osseous tuberculosis, having to be transported to the gallows in a wheelchair. Following numerous appeals and stays, the execution of Marguerite Pitre followed on January 9, 1953. She was the thirteenth and last woman to be hanged in Canada. 50 more executions would be carried out in the country, culminating in the hanging of Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin for murder at Toronto’s Don Jail on December 11, 1962. Capital punishment would remain on the books for another decade, but no executions would be carried out before the death penalty was abolished in all Commonwealth countries in 1976.
The Albert Guay affair captured the morbid imagination of the Canadian public and looms large in the history and folklore of Quebec, inspiring numerous novels, plays, films, and other works. It also inspired at least one copycat murder.
On November 1, 1955, United Airlines Flight 629, bound from Denver to Seattle, exploded over Longmont, Colorado, killing all 44 passengers and crew aboard. The plane was taken down by a dynamite time bomb planted by 24-year old Jack Gilbert Graham in an attempt to kill his abusive mother and collect on her $37,500 life insurance policy. A long history of insurance fraud and other crimes quickly lead to Graham’s arrest and conviction, and he was executed by gas chamber at Colorado State Penitentiary on January 11, 1957. At least two other airline bombings – of National Airlines Flight 967 in 1959 and Continental Airlines Flight 11 in 1962 – are known to have been carried out for the purposes of insurance fraud. While all murder is of course reprehensible, these particular crimes come off as particularly heinous and senseless as they involve the deaths of so many innocent people in the name of killing just one. As the judge of Albert Guay declared after sentencing him to death: “Your crime is infamous. It has no name.”
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Généreux Ruest Dies on Gallows, The Ottawa Journal, July 25, 1952, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/7993466/Généreux-ruest-dies-on-gallows/
Albert Guay, Famous Canadians, http://www.famouscanadians.net/name/g/guayalbert.php
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Executions in Canada from 1860 to Abolition, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/canada.html
O’Malley, Dave, Coupable! The Bombing of Flight 108, Vintage Wings of Canada, http://www.vintagewings.ca/VintageNews/Stories/tabid/116/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/623/The-Bombing-of-Flight-108.aspx
Kahn, E.J, It Has No Name, The New Yorker, November 7, 1953, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1953/11/14/it-has-no-name
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