Volume 37, Issue 2 (March 1992)
Religion, Political Leadership, Charisma, and Mental Illness: The Strange Story of Louis Riel
Louis Riel, a French Canadian half-breed, was hanged for high treason in 1885 in perhaps the most famous criminal case in Canadian history, with ramifications still felt today. Depending on one's ethnic orientation, he has been viewed as a madman, a saint, or a martyr. Despite evidence of mental illness, a defense of insanity was rejected. The Riel phenomenon illustrates the interaction of charisma, religiosity, political leadership, and mental illness and exemplifies a circumstance under which a mentally ill individual can be accepted as a political leader and prophet. This paper (1) reviews the history of the case (excluding the trial itself), analyses from psychiatrists published as early as 1887, and succeeding historical commentary; (2) documents the nature of Riel's mental illness; and (3) discusses the issue of the charismatic mentally ill leader.