Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Into the Void

The meaning of jumping from a bridge

The north section of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge is sometimes dubbed “the bridge’s cathedral,” which is an expression I find pretty. It is the point from which we propel ourselves into nothingness. It’s as if people are trying to achieve a finer death by climbing very high.

—Jacques Ferron, “La Beauté du Monde”

Lucien Gingras and his uncle Leopold, a farmer from a small village outside of Montreal, were driving along the Harbour Bridge on August 4, 1934. The overcast and otherwise unremarkable day was doubtless made a little less tedious for young Lucien by the trip over the bridge, which would be rechristened the Jacques Cartier in less than a month, in honour of the first European to reach Montreal (in 1534). Opened to traffic in 1930, the bridge was still a novelty to many in and around Montreal, a technological feat that put the city on the map, in the same league as bigger American cities.

As they approached the centre span, Lucien and his uncle saw a man sitting on the outside railing of the bridge, facing west. He had grey hair and was wearing a dark suit. His back was to traffic, and he would have had a perfect view of the Montreal skyline and the cross atop Mount Royal, dotted with white lights. He would have been able to watch the St. Lawrence’s twisting currents below, and he would have heard the rhythm of late Saturday afternoon traffic just beyond the bridge’s walkway.

The man didn’t seem to notice when Lucien and his uncle yelled out, however. In all likelihood, the two watched in slow-motion agony as the man disappeared from the railing in a blurry flash. However you describe it, one moment he was there, the next he was gone. Leopold Gingras drove straight to the police pavilion near the bridge’s southern entrance to report what he and his nephew had seen.

Hertel Bachard and a friend were walking north along the footbridge, toward Montreal, and saw the man slip from the railing. Instead of falling, as the Gingras had thought, Bachard saw the man grab the outer edge with both hands as he tumbled, leaving his legs dangling in the abyss between the underside of the bridge and the St. Lawrence below. Bachard bolted toward the man, screaming. “He looked at me with a blank stare,” Bachard would report later. When Bachard was but a few feet away, the man let go. He left behind three newspapers, a straw hat and a note.

Mon nom est Pierre Mitchell, it read.

Scrawled in pencil on a piece of paper stuffed into the brim of the hat, these are the last words of the first documented case of a troubled soul taking his own life at what would become one of the top suicide spots in North America. The event received only a few lines in La Presse, the city’s biggest newspaper. Headlined “Dramatic Suicide of an Unknown,” the story was tucked away on page three, the place where murders, violent crimes, suicides and other assorted day-to-day miseries were reported at the time.

“Police think he’s a foreigner, or a homeless person,” the article read, noting that the body had yet to be recovered, so identity could not be positively established. “The mystery will probably be solved when they fish out the unhappy man’s cadaver.”

The question of the man’s identity was answered soon after, when the body of Pierre Mitchell was recovered from the waters of the St. Lawrence. He was seventy-one years old and had a son named Hugh living on St. Catherine Street and an address in Montreal North. He was the 1,314th person to die in the city that year. An autopsy showed no signs of violence, apart from a fractured right femur, an injury that likely occurred after death, according to Jean Roussel, the attending coroner.

“He wasn’t working, and he was very discouraged and distraught. I have every reason to think that my father must have lost his mental faculties,” Hugh Mitchell told Roussel.

What remains unanswered, in this case and thousands of others, is why Pierre Mitchell chose to end his life at the Jacques Cartier Bridge. He probably wasn’t the first. Boaters, picnickers, police and others who frequented the river’s edge often discovered bodies downstream from the bridge, and still do today. With no witnesses, there’s no way of knowing exactly how those people met their end.

But with Mitchell’s leap, and those few inches of type in the newspaper, the bridge changed. It was no longer just a grand conduit between island and mainland. In the following years, the bridge would help claim the lives of roughly seven hundred people, and gain the dubious honour of being the second most frequented suicide bridge in the world (after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco). No longer would it be known solely for those long, sweeping, symmetrical arcs of steel spanning between finialed towers that reach for the sky like exclamation points.

From that point on, the Jacques Cartier had a dual role: as a gateway to a city and as a means to an end.

Bridges are built for a variety of reasons, but they have become, literally and figuratively, pillars of the modern commuting society. They serve as de facto status symbols, signs—rooted deep in bedrock and strung majestically over a previously impassable body of water—that a city has made it. Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge, for example, is a “Symbol of Empire, memorial to the men of faith and foresight who made its construction possible,”according to the promotional material of the time.

The Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto, better known as the Bloor Street Viaduct, claimed to be the longest and tallest viaduct in the British Empire when it opened in 1918. Toronto historian Dennis Duffy notes, “We were using the bridge on war loan posters to symbolize Canada’s industrial prowess.” Though it didn’t span a formidable waterway—the Don Valley River is a trickle to the St. Lawrence’s roar—it did help Toronto expand, by allowing the incorporation of previously isolated towns on the other side of the valley.

One of the selling points of the Jacques Cartier, apart from connecting Montreal with the wondrous suburb of Longueuil, was the footpath running along the west side of the bridge. It was the first of its kind in Montreal, and the toll was waived for pedestrians. “This concession will have real merit if it leads more people in the health-giving exercise of walking, from which so many have been weaned by other methods of modern locomotion,” pontificated the Montreal Gazette in 1929.

It also meant easy access to a great height. At no other point in the city is it possible (or legal) to walk nearly fifty metres out over the St. Lawrence, climb either over a railing less than 1.5 metres high or high up into the bridge’s steel superstructure and let go.

The bridge is all the more dangerous because it has become an icon in the minds of Montrealers. Unlike San Francisco’s Golden Gate, which tends to attract all sorts, locals are far and away the largest group that uses the Jacques Cartier to commit suicide. It has even spawned an expression, nebulous in origin but used regularly in the everyday slang of French Montreal. If you’re having a bad day, you say, “Je vais me pitcher du Pont Jacques Cartier.” I’m going to throw myself off the Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Sixteen-year-old Rolland Daignault did just this a month after Pierre Mitchell’s leap. A bridge painter saw Daignault high in “the cathedral,” as the complex of wire and steel in the north section is sometimes called. The boy wore a kerchief that covered his head and obscured his face. The painter watched as Daignault uncovered his eyes and threw himself headfirst into the water. A port patrolman managed to pull the boy out, but Daignault died later  in hospital.

Until the mid-1950s, suicides were given short shrift in the city’s media. Like Pierre Mitchell’s 1934 obituary in La Presse, the articles were brief, and (unless the death was particularly morbid or the victim well known) the reporting remained detached. “A cadaver was taken out of the St. Lawrence this morning, and identified as Margaret Armistead, a young woman of 25,” reads a typical report, noting that Margaret’s brother said she had been acting strangely shortly before she died, and that she had driven to the St. Lawrence and disappeared. Rarely did any pictures of the subject appear, and almost never was the event reported on the front page.

Part of the reason was cultural. The Catholic Church had an enormous influence on Quebec society, and suicide was regarded not as a sickness but as a crime. More often than not, unsuccessful suicide attempts ended in arrest, not a trip to the hospital (the act was a criminal offence in Canada until 1972).

Things changed dramatically as the 1960s approached. Partly because of souped-up newspaper competition, partly because of the advent of television, but largely thanks to Catholicism’s slackening hold on the province, suicide became a matter of fascination.

Many of the decade’s headlines were particularly pungent: “Teenager Leaves Hospital, Jumps to His Death”; “Man Vanishes on the Bridge”; “Former Nazi Paratrooper Held After Bridge ‘Stunt’”; “A Deadly Fall from the Jacques Cartier”; “Crushed At the Foot of the Jacques Cartier Bridge”; “$100 Found in Desperate Man’s Pockets”; “Her Baby in Her Arms, She Throws Herself Into the Void”; and so, depressingly, on.

The newspaper Dimanche-Matin (Sunday Morning) hit a low in its April 15, 1962, edition, when it published a diagram tracing one man’s descent with dotted lines. “He Causes a Spectacular Short Circuit After Throwing Himself from the Jacques Cartier,” read the headline. “The human meteorite hit high-tension electrical wires, causing a shower of sparks visible to practically the entire city,” the accompanying story reported breathlessly.

Coincidentally or not, the enhanced coverage of suicide went hand in hand with another disturbing phenomenon: an increase in suicide rates in most occidental countries in the late 1960s. Today, Quebec has one of the highest suicide rates in North America. With a few exceptions, suicides aren’t reported any longer, yet a steady trickle of the sick and unfortunate look to the bridge as a solution to their overwhelming problems: last year, fifty-seven attempts were made on the bridge; thirteen of those people, unfortunately, succeeded. Twelve had already jumped by the time the police got there.

Suicide researcher Dr. Brian Mishara believes the early sensational media coverage helped galvanize the bridge’s morbid reputation—if not making suicide acceptable, at least making it a viable possibility.

Mishara—whose dulcet tones, long hair, and salt and pepper goatee suggest souled-out jazz musician more than expert on suicide and euthanasia—weaves not-so-subtle caveats into every interview he gives. He is in an unenviable position: as one of the country’s leading authorities on suicide, journalists often call on him for comments when suicide is in the news. Trouble is, he doesn’t particularly like talking to them. His reticence stems from a belief that any time the subject is discussed—in print, in celluloid or on TV—it is ammunition for the desperate. It helps normalize a terrible act.

“The reason, if there is a reason, that people jump off the Jacques Cartier is because it has become part of our belief system that if you are really desperate and suicidal, this is something you can do,” he said. “There is strong scientific evidence that sensational coverage means more suicides. It’s like a poster saying, ‘Do this, it’s possible.’”

“There are one hundred attempts for each successful suicide,” he added. “Most desperate people find other solutions to their problems. The vast majority of people don’t kill themselves. They have a crisis. Luckily, crises are temporary. They go away.”0

But for those who can’t see a way out of the crisis, the bridge can have a dangerous allure. In fact, Dr. Marie Julien says the bridge has become a “magnet for the vulnerable.”

Dr. Julien’s life is suicide—or, more precisely, its prevention. Her office, in a provincial health-care management centre, is difficult to navigate, as her life’s work tends to get in the way: research books, studies, unruly stacks of data, coroner’s reports and a computer desk crowded with a combination of all four. On the day we met, people in her office came up to her to offer hugs and congratulations. That morning, the federal corporation managing the Jacques Cartier Bridge had announced it would spend $1 million on suicide prevention barriers, after a long, public battle with Julien and her allies.

She happened on her particular obsession by accident. “A colleague of mine was studying road safety on the bridge. He found that, on average, four people a year die in car accidents on the 3.4-kilometre stretch of road. For this, it is deemed one of the more deadly pieces of Quebec road. For those four people, they changed the speed limit, brought in new signage, changed an approach to the bridge. I thought, ‘I have twelve people on that same stretch dying every year. What are we doing for them?’”

Dr. Julien’s study of suicides and suicide attempts from the bridge between 1986 and 1993 is considered one of the more persuasive arguments for suicide barriers ever produced. In addition to discovering the answer to her first question—there are, on average, about eight to ten times more deaths by suicide than by car accident on the Jacques Cartier every year—Julien, along with Dr. Bruce Brown, learned that the median age of jumpers is thirty-three and that five times as many men as women successfully commit suicide. Seventy percent of those who jump don’t do so over the water, but over the streets, the railway tracks or the concrete embankment below the bridge.

More importantly, it seems a disproportionate number of those who kill themselves on the Jacques Cartier have psychiatric problems: 42 percent, according to the study. The answer to why this is, Dr. Julien suggests, lies in the bridge’s location as much as its design.

The Jacques Cartier is practically bookended by psychiatric facilities: Notre Dame and St. Luc in Montreal, and the Charles Lemoyne on the South Shore, all within a twenty-minute walk of the bridge. “Doctors can control their patients’ access to firearms, so that they don’t shoot themselves in the head,” Dr. Julien said. “They can control their drug dosages so they don’t swallow their pills all at once. But they usually can’t prevent their patients from simply going for a walk.”

On the island of Montreal, the bridge rises from one of the poorest areas of the city. Countless homes were expropriated to make way for its construction. Papineau Street, once a bustling avenue dominated by small shops and pedestrians, became a throughway of rushing traffic and constant noise, effectively dividing the neighbourhood in two. The bridge might have been a boon for the city as a whole, but the surrounding area undoubtedly suffered because of it.

The Jacques Cartier’s 33,267 tons of steel are painted a green reminiscent of army surplus stores and hospital waiting rooms, giving the bridge a utilitarian appearance appropriate to its function: ferrying forty-three million vehicles a year to and from an island. Still, there is a unique grace to it. Walk over the bridge at dusk and you can feel the city come alive. The sun drops lazily behind the mountain, the skyline gradually lights up against the coming dark, and the distinct rush of wind, water and so many engines is practically trance-inducing.

It’s sad to think that Pierre Mitchell, Rolland Daignault and the hundreds of others who ventured out onto the bridge for the last time saw not this openness to the world but an end to it. They weren’t, as Jacques Ferron suggests, achieving a finer death by climbing higher into the bridge. They were only giving themselves, and us, that much more time to regret what was about to happen.