Back River Jane Doe & Armand Duhamel / WKT3 #22
Remember the Back River Jane Doe? The body’s found by two Hydro employees in the Fall of 1953. Gagged, and strangled with her own skirt. A 20-pound block of cement tied with rope around her neck. Body badly decomposed, having been in the water for five to nine months. We’re going to take up this story once again. It has more twists and turns than The Wild Mouse at Belmont Park.
This is Who Killed Theresa?
We’re going to pick up where we left this story back on October 13th. If you’re new to the podcast, don’t worry, here’s a refresher:
On October 5th, 1953 two Quebec Hydro employees discovered the body of an unidentified young woman in the Back River – now known as Rivière-des-Prairies , running between the islands of Montreal and Laval – near the Hydro electric plant and Visitation Island (this is between Ahuntsic and Montreal Nord). The victim was between 25 to 35-years of age, weighed approximately 150 pounds, and had blue eyes, with light brown hair. She had been gagged, and strangled with her own skirt. A 20-pound block of cement was tied with a rope around her neck. Her hands, knees and ankles were bound with half-inch rope. The body was badly decomposed, having been in the water for five to nine months. Two fingers remained on her left hand, from these police attempted to establish fingerprints.
Now that’s all we reported when I first spoke of Back River Jane Doe back in October. I’ll continue the story…
In the nine years from 1945 to 1953 Back River Jane Doe was the only unsolved murder on the docket of the Quebec Provincial Police’s 88 homicides in that period. The Back River murder remained a complete puzzle. Police interviewed hundreds of people, found scores of missing women, and checked dozens of tips. In 1954 a man imprisoned in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia claimed the woman was Rose Laflamme (which sounds like a real fake-o name if I ever heard one) , and that she was strangled in a rooming house in downtown Montreal. Many considered the story a hoax. Was it?
For a time, police were seeking to question prominent lawyer and city councilor, Lucien Gagnon as a witness in the affair. At the time Gagnon was set to stand trial for fraud and receiving bribes. He fled to New York City where he claimed to be ill, producing doctors certificates in his defense. When detectives arrived in New York they were unable to find Gagnon. Very quickly the Provincial Police backed off Lucien Gagnon, with Director Hilaire Beauregard stating that Gagnon, “is definitely not wanted for questioning in the woman’s murder.”
The last mention of the Back River Murder affair came in the Summer of 1954. For a time, police were holding 41-year-old Armand Duhamel, a rooming house owner living in Saint Eustache as a “material witness” in the case – – there’s that rooming house again. Duhamel’s attorneys – one of whom turned out to be Lucien Gagnon, he of the flight to New York City – attempted to have Duhamel released on bail, but the request was denied. There is a coroner’s inquiry, but nothing really comes of it, and in the fall of 1954 Armand Duhamel was set free. Police said he would remain as an “interested party” in Back River Jane Doe affair.
We’ve now reached our first twist. Imagine yourself in the Fun House at Belmont Park. For this is not a podcast about Back River Jane Doe. This is about Armand Duhamel.
Lucien Gagnon and Armand Dehamel would have a long association with each other. To what extent they co-conspired in the murder of the Back River Jane Doe is the subject for our next hour.
Armand Duhamel was born around 1913, and we first pick him up in November 1940 when he’s about 27 years of age. At about 3 o’clock in the morning Duhamel is driving from Montreal to Valleyfield. In the car with him are some of his male friends and a 16-year-old girl. Duhamel leaves his friends in Valleyfiled and heads back to Montreal with the girl. At 5 a.m. near Melocheville – which is just south of Chateauguay – Duhamel slams into a car parked on the side of the highway. The owner, Joel Leduc, claimed he had stopped for a few minutes in front of his house to pick up a passenger. Duhamel sued Leduc for $315 in damages, but in 1941 a judge ruled in favor of Leduc stating he had every right to stop along the highway for a few minutes. In his judgement, the honorable Joseph Archambault suggested that Duhamel was probably driving in excess of the speed limit.
1945, and Armand Duhamel is in trouble with the law again. Duhamel is running an all-night, high stakes poker game. In the course of the night one of the players, a barber named Arcadius Boisclair, is parched so Duhamel offers him a glass of lemonade. In court, Boisclair recounts what happened next:
“I don’t know…. I remember the lemonade; then waking up the next day on the chesterfield.”
When Boisclair awakes he notices that his $450 ring is missing from his finger. Boisclair questions Dehamel what happened to the ring to which Dehamel replies, “Don’t you remember? You lost it to me last night, you will find a paper to that effect in your coat pocket.”. Dehamel also shows Boisclair a $500 cheque he claims Boisclair had signed. In court Boisclair admits he liked a good card game, “Nothing but $100 bills were on the table!”. Boisclair spent 24 hours in the gambling house. The defense counsel asked, “Is it not possible that you were exhausted?”.
“Not before I drank the lemonade!”
From the court proceedings we learn that Armand Duhamel lived at 1529 Sherbrooke street west. He is later acquitted when the judge rules there was a strong doubt in favor of the accused.
For the next few years, Armand Duhamel is in and out of the courts in a series of lawsuits with a variety of plaintiffs and defendants; Georgette Coutu, Paul Dorias, Edouard Fillion. Most of these actions involve Duhamel obtaining property under false pretenses. Georgette Coutu it turns out at one point was Duhamel’s landlord and attempted to have him evicted. She died destitute in the 1970s with all her possessions on the auction block. At one point in 1946, Duhamel counter sues Arcadius Boisclair for failure to pay his debt from the poker game, but the matter is dismissed in 1948. In 1950 Duhamel’s wife, Dame Laurette Bisson files for separation.
Then in 1951, something interesting. Dehamel – who we now learn had several aliases ( Robert Dion, Lionel Lalonde, M. Demers) – is fined $2,000, the heaviest fine imposed by the criminal courts in that era, for over-charging on room rents. And the interesting thing is that the “rooming house” was located at 1085 St. Lawrence boulevard (it’s now a vacant lot): was this the rooming house where “Rose Laflamme” aka Back River Jane Doe was murdered?
There now comes one of the most bizarre tales in the saga of Armand Duhamel. In 1952, the SPCA is called to the corner of Sherbrooke and Guy after locals spy a Cadillac strapped with two deer carcasses across its hood. In this era during deer season it was not unusual to see such a thing in downtown Montreal, but the unusual thing is that there was also a live doe in the back seat. The Cadillac belonged to Duhamel and he is immediately arrested. From the matter we learn that in the trunk of the Cadillac police found a box containing the cut up meat of two other deer. We also learn that Duhamel had a second residence at 1191 Berri street, not far from the Saint Lawrence blvd. rooming house. In 1954 Duhamel is convicted and fined several hundreds of dollars. The doe was taken to the St. James street headquarters, then released in the wild never to be heard from again.
By 1954 Duhamel is now also living in St. Eustache, just off the island of Montreal. It is at this point that he is held as a “material witness” in the Back River Jane Doe affair. Duhamel is questioned by police but later released.
In 1955 Duhamel is again before the courts, this time for causing a fight with one of his tenants at a Westmount rooming house, and for failing to provide information about his income taxes. The tenant argument case is dismissed, in the case of the income taxes Duhamel is again acquitted when it can never be established that he actually received a registered letter from the tax department.
1960: Duhamel is convicted and sentenced to two-months in jail and fined $200 for using slugs at three toll gates on the Laurentian Autoroute.
The Bond Scam
In 1963 Armand Dehamel is charged with conspiring with two other men, Armand Gagne and Guy Desjardins to defraud various bank branches in Quebec and Ontario. The case involved stolen bonds valued at over $5,000,000. Over 3 million of the bonds were stolen from a Brockville trust and savings company in 1958, with the remainder coming from a Bank of Montreal branch in Outremont in 1957.
Now Duhamel may have stumbled upon the potential for such grifts quite by accident. In 1956 a $500 bond is stolen from a bank in Charlesbourg, on the northern outskirts of Quebec City. The bond ends up in the possession of a man called Beaudoin who in 1960s happens to be staying in one of the Montreal rooming houses operated by Duhamel. Beaudoin quote, “disappears”. While cleaning his room Duhamels’s then wife, Laurette quote “finds” the bond while going through his effects. Again, Duhamel got off scott-free in this affair with the judge stating that, “the witnesses had incredible memories but that their testimony was believable.”
Later, Duhamel was again acquitted in another bond conspiracy case where he was found to be in possession of stolen bond coupons from a Valleyfield bank. By 1963 the acquittals were over for Duhamel. The judge set bail at $35,000, an amount Duhamel was unable to come up with, and he was forced to await trail in the Bordeaux jail.
At the preliminary inquiry co-conspirator Armand Gagne testifies that while working as a bank accountant at the Banque Nationale Canadienne in Laval he was “tipped” $800 for cashing $16,000 worth of the stolen government bonds. Gagne went on to say that he was introduced to Duhamel by the other co-conspirator, Guy Desjardins who took Gagne to Duhamel’s home in NDG with a desire to “do a little night work.” Gagne testified that at that meeting Duhamel was extremely generous, the champagne and cognac flowed. Duhamel finally explained to the two men that he was in possession of a substantial amount of securities, but need assistance to liquidate them.
Duhamel’s eventual trial dragged on for months, and set the precedent of continuing into a Saturday session; a first in Quebec court history. Duhamel eventually made bail and was released from Bordeaux. While out on bail, Duhamel made what he thought was an anonymous call to the Montreal police, but the detective recognized his voice:
“If you don’t stop playing with me I am going to fix things once and for all.”
Then in October 1963 the judge set a new, and even higher bail amount of $40,000, and Duhamel was returned to Bordeaux once again.
Bordeaux jail / Christmas Eve 1963
Inmates assemble to attend a special midnight mass. Armand Duhamel doesn’t make it to the service. The 50-year-old rooming house operator is found at the bottom of a staircase. Guards carry him to the infirmary where he dies of a skull fracture. Jail governor Albert Tanguay says he did not call police because there was no evidence of foul play. Besides, Duhamel had been in failing heath for months.
Nonetheless, Coroner Marcel Trahan calls for a non-jury coroner’s inquest scheduled for January 8th, 1964. It is a closed-door affair and Coroner Trahan hastily rules Dehamel’s death a suicide.
Rumors begin to circulate that Duhamel was actually tossed from the second-story balcony by a fellow convict. But what if Armand Duhamel’s death was neither accident, suicide, or murder? Some begin to speculate that Duhamel – a man of affluence and influence – may have faked his own death. There are calls for the sealed casket to be exhumed.
Director General of the Surete du Quebec – known then as the Quebec Police Force or QPF – Josaphat Brunet demands a re-opening of the case. The request is met with “utter amazement” by the Crown Prosecutors’ office and emphatically denied by the Attorney General of Quebec, Charles-Edouard-Cantin:
“All pertinent facts were presented before the coroner and I see no reason to re-open the inquiry.”
So, who’s in the coffin? Better still, was Armand Duhamel simply a swindler – the Lando Calrissian of his generation ( or actually… I can’t begin to describe his ugly puss) – or was he also a murderer? Months after his death, the papers finally confirm, no doubt what the public already knew: Armand Duhamel was a prominent underworld figure. In an October, 1963 McClean’s article on the inner workings of the mob named Duhamel “the biggest fence for the Montreal syndicate”. He was also known to have vacationed in Japan accompanied by his lawyer, presumably Lucien Gagnon, the man who fled Montreal for New York City claiming an illness.
Some things to note when considering the Jane Doe murder, and Duhamel’s supposed death:
The Nova Scotia prisoner claimed Back River Jane Doe was Rose Laflamme, and that she was strangled in a rooming house in downtown Montreal. Duhamel legitimate job was a rooming house operator. Duhamel was apparently a hunter, capable of butchering deer and putting the meat in a box in the trunk of his Cadillac. Back River Jane Doe wasn’t butchered, but the manner in which her corpse was disposed was brutal. Then there’s the mysterious disappearance of the bond holder named Beaudoin, never to be seen again. Also, Armand Duhamel always seems to escape conviction in the face of an insurmountable amount of evidence against him. It’s not hard to imagine – given his unscrupulous and high-powered status – that he somehow bribed the judges. By the end, his luck and influence may have run out. He finally serves two-months for using slugs in a highway tollbooth. But then there’s the whole granting-bail / not-granting-bail thing. Was Duhamel paying off the judge all through that? Finally, Duhamel was perfectly comfortable using aliases to slip detection, three by my count in this story. Did Armand Dehamel ultimately make some big payoffs in Bordeaux, then slip out one night, released into the wild never to be heard from again?
This is Who Killed Theresa?