Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Gavazzi Riots in Montreal


[This text was written by William Henry Atherton in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

On October 23d [1852] Mr. Charles Wilson, mayor of Montreal, was added to the legislative council. Before the session ended there occurred the famous Gavazzi riots in Quebec and Montreal, the latter place especially maintaining its reputation for mob violence. As the government was afterwards attacked for delay in ordering an unavoidable and searching investigation into the perpetrators of the fatal disaster at Montreal the story may be told here rather than in the ecclesiastical history of the city. During the spring of 1853 Alessandro Gavazzi, an ex-monk, had been giving a course of lectures in the States, mostly against Romanism. He had previously been received with success in England. Posing as an Italian patriot of liberty, with the reputation for impassioned and eloquent oratory and the added piquancy of being an ex-priest, he had attracted elsewhere a favourable hearing. But on his entrance to Lower Canada, at Quebec, he received a check on June 6th when delivering a lecture on the Inquisition in the Free Church on St. Ursule Street. A scene of disorder occurred in the church. The lecturer was attacked in the pulpit, and though he defended himself right valiantly with a stool, knocking down some sixteen of his assailants, he was overmastered and thrown on to the heads of the people below. Confusion reigned. The military were providentially soon on the scene and quiet obtained. The proceedings were sufficient to warrant an informal discussion in the House next day. On the night of the 9th of June Gavazzi was in Montreal, lecturing in Zion Church on the Haymarket square, now Victoria Square. Without, to prevent a recurrence of the Quebec assault, a posse of police was placed opposite the church, another in the Square and a small body of military, hard by, in concealment. These were the "Cameronians" but recently arrived in the city. There was an attempt of a body of Catholic Irishmen to break a way into the church, but they were repulsed. On retreating the second time a shot was fired by one of the intruders who was immediately shot down by a Protestant. Other shots followed. Confusion reigned. The lecture was hurriedly concluded and the people made for home. On the church being attacked the Gavazzi called for three cheers for the Queen and congratulated his hearers on freedom of speech being maintained. On their way through the streets shots were fired at them by the military. Who gave the order to fire has never been discovered. The mayor, the Hon. Charles Wilson, who had read the riot act, was accused and denied it. So also did Colonel Hogarth, of the Twenty-sixth Cameronian Rifles, also accused. It is said that the soldiers fired, at the order of some one in the crowd, but over the heads of the people, so that those making their way up Beaver Hall Hill received the shots. The Cameronians were very unpopular for a time. About forty were killed or wounded, of whom many were injured by stones and other missiles. Two women were struck down and almost trampled to death. The scene was one of frenzied riot, heightened by the screams of women. Gavazzi made his way between two clergymen to St. James street, narrowly escaping with his life. He afterwards escaped from St. Lawrence Hall in an inclosed cab to the wharf, where the Iron Duke took him to La Prairie. Thus his career ended in Canada. On June 26th an investigation was held into the causes of the riot, but nothing was the outcome and there were no apprehensions, at which there was much disapproval, as it was thought the affair was being hushed up as a political move. It is for this reason that the story has been inserted in this portion. The occasion was made an occasion of odium theologicum. At that time the St. Patrick's Society, founded in 1834, was composed of Irishmen of different religions, but as Mr. Hincks and the mayor, the Hon. Charles Wilson, were both prominent members, Mr. Hincks was accused of being under the influence of the Roman Catholic majority for political puposes. Mr. Drummond, the attorney-general for Lower Canada, being a Catholic, was also accused in being dilatory in bringing the rioters to justice.

Return to the Gavazzi Index Page / Retour à la page d'index sur Gavazzi


Source : William Henry ATHERTON, Montreal , 1534-1914. Vol. II. Under British Rule, 1760-1914, Montreal, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914, 642p., pp. 170-172.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College