The Execution of Tommasina Teolis: Gender, Ethnicity, and Capital Punishment in Quebec in the Mid-1930s

Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:50 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Donald Fyson, Université Laval
In March 1935, Tommasina Teolis was executed in Montreal for her part in organizing the murder of her husband, along with two men convicted of carrying out the deed. All three were members of Montreal's Italian community. Teolis' death is relatively well-known, mainly because the hanging was botched, leading to her decapitation and ensuring her place in most popular histories of capital punishment in Canada. The case has also been briefly discussed by historians and criminologists studying spousal murder by women, as it raised the issue of criminal responsibility. Existing studies, however, have paid little or no attention to the ethnic dimension of the Teolis affair. This paper uses the case to discuss the interplay of gender and ethnicity in the history of capital punishment in early-twentieth-century Quebec and Canada. The fact that all three accused were tried and sentenced at the same time, and executed together, allows for comparison of the judicial and press treatment of women and men in capital convictions, including the differing reactions of the French- and English-language press. The involvement of both women and men of the Italian communities of Montreal and Toronto in campaigns to commute the death sentences of Teolis and one of her co-accused raises the issue of the activism of immigrant women in capital cases. Their appeals to the purity of their community contrasted with the gendered and religious arguments used by anti-death-penalty activists who intervened in the case in favour of clemency. The paper is based on ample primary documentation concerning the affair and other Quebec capital cases of the period. It also situates the Teolis case within the broader history of capital punishment in Quebec, Canada, the United States, and Britain.