“this seems to be a case where the recommendation of mercy…may appropriately be considered”: The Commutation of Lina Thibodeau’s Death Sentence, New Brunswick, 1955

By Michael Boudreau

On 23 April 1955, following an eleven-day trial, twenty-six-year-old Lina Thibodeau was sentenced to death for the murder of her husband, Joseph Claude Thibodeau, in Madawaska County, New Brunswick.  In announcing its guilty verdict, the jury also added a recommendation of mercy. The presiding judge then informed Thibodeau that her execution, by hanging, was scheduled for 28 June 1955.  According to the Telegraph Journal, Lina Thibodeau, an “attractive blond”, was the first “member of her sex to face the death penalty in this province in modern times.” Lina Thibodeau was fifteen when she married Joseph Thibodeau (who was twenty-five) and they had five children.  Lina claimed that her husband had verbally and physically abused her for years and that she could no longer take this abuse. Thibodeau appealed her murder conviction, but the New Brunswick Supreme Court dismissed her appeal.  Her fate was then in the hands of the federal Department of Justice (and the Cabinet) which reviewed all capital murder convictions to determine if a death sentence should be carried out or commuted.  Between 1869 and 1957, twenty-six New Brunswick residents were executed for the capital crime of murder, none of whom were women.  While it is tempting to conclude that this case underscores the mounting opposition in New Brunswick to capital punishment, given the fact that a national debate about the future of capital punishment had just taken place which had endorsed the death penalty, the commutation of Lina Thibodeau’s death sentence is instead an example of the criminal justice system treating some women with a measure of leniency (if not “mercy”) based on the gender stereotype of most women being incapable of committing a heinous crime.

Lina Thibodeau sentenced to death. From Telegraph Journal, 25 April 1955.

The death of Joseph Thibodeau was years in the making.  Judge J. E. Michaud, who presided over Lina Thibodeau’s trial, explained to the federal Minister of Justice in May of 1955 that Thibodeau’s marriage’s “was not a happy one, and there was considerable bickering between the spouses from the very beginning to the very last.”1 Lina Thibodeau’s statement to the RCMP collaborated Michaud’s observation.  “My husband started to quarrel with me the day after our marriage”, she declared.  This bickering often took the form of insults from Joseph.  According to Lina, Joseph constantly called her a “cow” and told her that she could not cook and that she wasted the food that he had worked hard to provide for his family.2 Eventually Joseph’s insults were accompanied by physical abuse.  Lina told the RCMP that on numerous occasions Joseph would become violent during their heated arguments.  One time he threw a bucket of water in her face, grabbed Lina by the hair and threw her to the floor.  In another instance, Joseph hurled a frying pan at Lina, striking her in the leg.  “It has been this way ever since we have been married”, Lina stated, “he even threw his plate in my face.”3

On the night of Joseph Thibodeau’s death, Lina had decided to attend mass.  But Joseph did not want Lina to leave the house, calling her a “Damn Christly whore.”  Lina responded by insisting that there was nothing wrong with going to church.  Joseph told Lina that if she left she could spend the night with the neighbours as he was going to lock her out of their house; “A damn slave like you”, Joseph yelled, “I don’t need [you] with me.”4 Upon returning from church Lina spent some time with her neighbours, the Desjarardins, with whom she had attended mass, and then she went home.  To her surprise, the back door was unlocked.  She entered and discovered that Joseph was asleep upstairs.  Shortly thereafter Lina decided to shoot her husband: “At about the time I started to put wood in the stove I thought of shooting Joseph with the shotgun.”  Lina retrieved the shotgun from the closet and loaded it in the kitchen.  She then climbed the stairs to their bedroom, entered, and then “I pointed the gun at Joseph’s back…the gun went off.  I hit Joseph in the left shoulder.”  Lina then gathered her children and fled to the Desjarardins’ house.  She initially claimed that Joseph had shot himself, but after a brief investigation the RCMP determined that it would have been impossible for Joseph to have committed suicide.  When confronted by the police, Lina confessed, but asserted that she had never thought about killing her husband prior to that fateful night.5

A jury of twelve “good men”, who were of “above average intelligence”, deliberated for forty-five minutes and found Lina Thibodeau guilty of the capital crime of murder.  The jury also recommended that “leniency” be shown to Lina, a conclusion that Judge Michaud strongly endorsed.  Moreover, in dismissing the appeal of her conviction, Chief Justice C. D. Richards of the New Brunswick Supreme Court, concluded “that this seems to be a case where the recommendation of mercy, as made by the Jury, may appropriately be considered.”6

With the date of her execution looming, efforts to save Lina Thibodeau from the gallows began in earnest.  In her study of sex, violence, and the law in the Prairies, Lesley Erickson posits that each time a woman was sentenced to hang, a fierce debate surfaced about the morality and the utility of capital punishment.  Women who murdered their husbands, Erickson claims, symbolized a world in chaos, a world in which women had staked a claim to the male preserve of violence.  In so doing, these women helped to shatter the image of the docile, passive woman.  Women such as Lina Thibodeau forced some Canadians to confront the questions: Why did some members of the “weaker sex” kill? and How could a society beholden to the rule of law, which included capital punishment, justify their deaths at the hands of the state?7  Added to this debate was the fact, as Carolyn Strange has deftly noted, that the “most significant factor to shape the likelihood or unlikelihood of execution was gender.” Eighty percent of the women who were condemned to die between Confederation and 1976 were spared.  It was felt that women, similar to those men of “lesser races”, could not be held fully accountable for their actions.8 

A Joint Committee of the Senate and the House Commons, in an investigation into “all aspects of the question of capital punishment” in 1955 to 1956, reaffirmed the efficacy of the death penalty.  The Joint Committee concluded that “capital punishment does exercise a deterrent effect, which would not result from imprisonment or other forms of punishment.” The Joint Committee felt confident reaching this conclusion since its members believed that most Canadians supported the death penalty because of their “revulsion against murder, the ‘crime of crimes’.”  When the Joint Committee turned its attention to the question of women who were convicted of a capital crime, it noted that in most of these cases “there is usually a lesser degree of moral culpability.”  This belief, based on established gender norms (including the assumption that women were not inherently evil nor prone to acts of extreme violence), prompted the Joint Committee to assert that the “commission of murder by women is rare and usually occurs in circumstances which warrant the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.”  But in the same breath, the Joint Committee argued, revealing its abiding commitment to a criminal justice system that in theory treats all who come before it as equal, that “in the few cases where commutation of the death sentence was not warranted, the committee can see no justification for treating women any differently from men.”9

In deciding whether to commute Lina Thibodeau’s death sentence, the federal government considered several factors, notably cases that were similar to Thibodeau’s, petitions for clemency, and the views of the trial judge.  In a memorandum prepared for the Solicitor General, eleven cases “where circumstances existed similar to those present in the case of Lina Thibodeau” were examined.  Most of these cases, which included Angelina Napolitano, Mary Cowan, and Elizabeth Tilford, involved women who had murdered their husbands in order to bring an end to years of abuse.  Of the eleven cases, four ended in executions and the remainder had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.10 

Many of the petitions that were sent to the federal Minister of Justice on Lina’s behalf, echoed the sentiment in these cases that women who killed their abusive husbands should be, and deserved to be, spared.  Nora Pineo, a registered nurse in Kentville, Nova Scotia, sympathized with Lina since she was also abused by her husband.  “I do not uphold murder”, Pineo wrote, “but I do wish there was more protection for helpless women and children [from] drunken ignorant men.”  J. M. P. McCreary of Manitoba held similar views.  A mother of eight children, who described herself as an “ignorant farm woman”, McCreary implored the Minister of Justice not to execute Lina for the sake of her children and their future, who McCreary believed would be imperiled by the death of their mother.  She also felt that Lina’s actions, while deplorable on one level, were justified: “True, the woman may be guilty of murder in its worse form, yet still she may have been tormented by treatment beyond human endurance.”  Similarly, McCreary believed that capital punishment was a “wicked practice”: “Do you not really feel that Capital Punishment in Canada is as wicked, obsolete and futile as long ago, when methods of sadistic public hangings were the accepted law in England [and Canada], as well as other methods of torture?”  Ultimately, McCreary considered life in prison to be a suitable punishment for Lina who would have to live with the consequences of her actions.11

In her petition for mercy for Lina, Eva Keith of Havelock, New Brunswick, touched upon a theme that is evident in other capital cases in the province from 1869 to 1957, namely the perceived ignorance of rural residents who were trapped “on the fringe of civilization” and who engaged in an arduous struggle for survival.  An ignorance that could be used to explain, if not excuse, their seemingly irrational actions. Keith pleaded with the Minister of Justice not to send “this poor, ignorant, deluded person to the gallows.”  The fact that Thibodeau was illiterate, and thus apparently deprived of a life of happiness, should, Keith felt, have a direct bearing on the Minister’s decision.  It is a “horrible disgrace to our province”, Keith decried, “that a 26 year old person signs with a cross.”  Judge Michaud concurred with Keith’s assessment of Lina’s upbringing.  Michaud argued that since Lina had grown up in a “back settlement” with limited access to formal schooling, she had had no opportunity to learn how to read and write.  This, combined with the fact that the “atmosphere” in Madawaska County “was not of a kind to develop any moral sense of responsibility in that woman”, led Michaud to surmise that Lina had acted out of desperation.  Therefore, he concluded: “I would strongly recommend that mercy be exercised.”12 

And indeed it was as Lina Thibodeau’s execution was commuted to life imprisonment in the Kingston Penitentiary.  Ultimately, the state has been unable to explain, nor rationalize, why certain people had their death sentences commuted, while others died.13 In Lina Thibodeau’s case, it was pity, based in part on judicial chivalry, for the abuse that she had endured and for her “primitive” upbringing that left her unable to escape her hostile marriage other than through violence, that led to her life being spared.  Moreover, Lina Thibodeau was saved by the post-war desire to return to prescribed gender roles.  Lina’s case, like others, also helped to reinforce “entrenched notions of hegemonic femininity” that afforded women such as Thibodeau some leeway in defending their feminine virtue and their children from a violent husband.14 But as Joan Sangster has concluded, “appeals to chivalry manipulate patriarchal ideas in some women’s favour but are far from equality”.[15]  This case also reveals that life in a “back settlement” in 1950s New Brunswick, which judicial officials, federal politicians, and other observers, deplored and romanticized, was a direct threat to Lina Thibodeau’s safety and to the stability of the idealized family.

Michael Boudreau is a Professor in the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at St. Thomas University and Editor/Éditeur of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies/Revue d’études sur le Nouveau-Brunswick. He is the author, with Bonnie Huskins, of Just the Usual Work: The Social Worlds of Ida Martin, Working-Class Diarist (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).


1 Telegraph Journal, 25 April 1955 andCapital Case File, RG 13, Volume 1741, cc803, Part 1.1, Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

2 Like many rural New Brunswickers, Joseph Thibodeau lived a “double life” in terms of his employment; he worked in the woods in the winter and farmed “in a limited way” in the summer.  Larry McCann, “Living a Double Life: Town and Country in the Industrialization of the Maritimes”, in Geographical Perspectives on the Maritime Provinces, ed. Douglas Day (Halifax: Saint Mary’s University, 1988), 93-113 and Capital Case File, RG 13, Volume 1741, cc803, Part 1.1, LAC.

3 Capital Case File, RG 13, Volume 1741, cc803, Part 1.1, LAC.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid and Supreme Court Crown Causes, RS 46, 1881-1979, The Queen v. Thibodeau, Lina (1955, #812), Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

7 Lesley Erickson, Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 202-03.

8 Carolyn Strange, “The Lottery of Death: Capital Punishment, 1867-1976”, Manitoba Law Journal 23 (1995), 605-07.

9 The Joint Committee noted that from 1920 to 1949, fourteen women were condemned to death and of those fourteen, nine (64.3%), had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.  In the same period, 456 men were sentenced to death and 148 (32.5%), were spared execution.  Reports of the Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on Capital Punishment, June 27, 1956 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1956), 3, 6, 14-15, and 18.

10 Capital Case File, RG 13, Volume 1741, cc803, Part 1.1, LAC.  For more on these cases, see F. Murray Greenwood and Beverley Boissery, Uncertain Justice: Canadian Women and Capital Punishment, 1754-1953 (Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2000), Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta, “Murder, Womanly Virtue, and Motherhood: The Case of Angelina Napolitano, 1911-1922”, Canadian Historical Review 72, 4 (December 1991): 505-31, and Carolyn Strange, “Wounded Womanhood and Dead Men: Chivalry and the Trials of Clara Ford and Carrie Davies”, in Gender Conflicts, ed. Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992): 149-88.  

11 Capital Case File, RG 13, Volume 1741, cc803, Part 1.1, LAC.

12 Ibid.  For more on the social construction of rural New Brunswickers as “beasts of the field” who resided in the “bad lands”, see Michael Boudreau, “The disgust of the community against hanging”: The Execution of Bennie Swim and the Debate over Capital Punishment in New Brunswick”, Acadiensis 51, no. 1 (Spring/printemps 2022): 66-89.

13 Strange, “The Lottery of Death”, 618.

14 Erickson, Westward Bound, 203.

[15] Joan Sangster, “The Meanings of Mercy: Wife Assault and Spousal Murder in Post-Second World War Canada”, Canadian Historical Review 97, 4 (December 2016), 544.

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The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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