The Sault-au-Cochon tragedy (9 September 1949) was the first attack against civil aviation in North America. A Canadian Pacific Airlines DC-3 exploded mid-flight 65 kilometres east of Québec, killing 23 people. The news of the disaster quickly spread all over the world. A suspect, Albert Guay, was soon identified. The crime and the motive behind it captured the imagination of Canadians both inside and outside Québec, particularly in the works of fiction they inspired.
The Sault-au-Cochon tragedy (9 September 1949) was the first attack against civil aviation in North America. A Canadian Pacific Airlines DC-3 exploded mid-flight (see Canadian Pacific Railway) 65 kilometres east of Québec, killing 23 people (including 19 passengers). The plane, bound for Baie-Comeau, crashed in the small municipality of St-Joachim (at a place called Sault-au-Cochon), near Cap Tourmente in Charlevoix. On board were three New York businessmen, one of whom was president of the Kennecott Copper Corporation. The news of the disaster quickly spread all over the world, and United States authorities called for an investigation into the incident. The Cold War was beginning, and some feared that the disaster was a Communist terrorist attack.
Police discovered traces of an explosive at the crash site. The criminal investigation revealed that the cause of the explosion was a bomb hidden in the baggage compartment. On 14 September 1949, Le Canada ran an article stating that the RCMP was looking for a woman dressed in black who left a package on board the aircraft prior to departure. Several days later, the woman was identified as Marguerite Ruest-Pitre. During the police interrogation, she confirmed that she had brought a package on board but thought that it contained a fragile statuette. An Albert Guay had asked her to do so in exchange for the cancellation of a $600 debt.
The anti-American attack theory was therefore dismissed. On 23 September 1949, two weeks after the tragedy, 31-year-old Québec resident Albert Guay was arrested. He was accused of the homicide of his wife, Rita Morel, and 22 others. The motive for the crime was simple: to kill his wife and pocket the $10,000 life insurance policy he had taken out on the morning of the flight.
Albert Guay’s Trial
Born in Québec on 23 September 1918, Albert Guay was a door-to-door watch and jewelry salesman. His marriage to Rita Morel began to falter in 1949 due to numerous extramarital affairs. Guay was very deeply in love with a 17-year-old girl he had met at a Saint-Roch rooming house owned by Marguerite Ruest-Pitre. However, because divorce was a complex process at the time and banned by the Catholic Church, he resorted to murder (see Marriage and divorce). When the criminal trial began, a friend testified that Guay had offered him $500 to poison Rita Morel’s drink, but he had refused to do so.
Several months before the Sault-au-Cochon tragedy, a civilian plane was the target of an attack in the Philippines. A forensic medicine laboratory expert who was called to testify at trial said that this event probably gave Guay the idea for his plan. To carry out the plan, Guay asked his maid, Marguerite Ruest-Pitre, to buy some dynamite so that he could clear land he had acquired on the North Shore. He then enlisted the help of her brother, Généreux Ruest, to make a time bomb with the dynamite. The bomb had to be set to detonate while the plane was over the St. Lawrence so as to leave no traces and conceal his wife’s death. However, take-off was delayed by five minutes and the plane crashed on land. As a result, investigators were able to examine the wreckage.
To execute his "perfect" crime, Guay convinced his wife to fly to Baie-Comeau to deliver some jewelry. The morning of the flight, he met Marguerite Ruest-Pitre and gave her a package to deliver to the plane for him. He then accompanied his wife to the airport.
The evidence against Guay was substantial, and on 14 March the jury found him guilty of premeditated murder. He was to be hanged (see Capital punishment) on 23 June 1950, but Guay confessed and turned in his alleged accomplices one month before his execution. He stated that both Ruests knew of his intentions. Marguerite and Généreux Ruest were arrested in early June.
Innocent or Complicit?
Généreux Ruest went to trial in November. He admitted to making the bomb but denied any knowledge of Guay’s true intentions. Despite a lack of evidence, he was found guilty of murder. Marguerite Pitre’s trial took place in March 1951 and lasted only 10 days. Public opinion was not in her favour and a number of rumours circulated about her. The press called her “Madame le Corbeau” (“Madame Raven”). She was found to be just as guilty as Guay.
In short, three people were arrested and sentenced to death. Albert Guay was hanged on 12 January 1951; Généreux Ruest on 25 July 1952; and Marguerite Pitre on 9 January 1953, making her the last woman to be executed in Canada. The involvement of the Ruests will always have an air of mystery — to what extent were they aware of Guay’s plan?
Media coverage of the Guay affair and the works of fiction that it inspired have largely contributed to legends surrounding the events. In 1982, Roger Lemelin, creator of the popular television series La Famille Plouffe (broadcast by Radio-Canada from 1953 to 1959) used the story for his novel Le crime d’Ovide Plouffe. Lemelin knew Albert Guay personally and even attended his wife’s funeral. He also covered the tragedy as a Time magazine correspondent.
In 1984, his novel was adapted to the big screen by Denys Arcand. Le crime d’Ovide Plouffe, starring Gabriel Arcand (for which he won a Genie Award for Best Actor), is the sequel to the film Les Plouffe, directed by Gilles Carle in 1981. The success of the subsequent six-episode miniseries meant that the story of the Guay affair was brought to an even wider audience. However, in Lemelin’s fictional version, Albert Guay (Ovide Plouffe) was presented as a man who was cheated on by his wife and victimized by the justice system and media.
Published in 2012, the novel Cape Torment by Canadian Richard Donovan was also inspired by the Guay affair. In the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the commemoration of those events, the media has often referred to the Sault-au-Cochon air tragedy as the first of a long series of terrorist attacks against civil aviation in North America.