Dr. André Couture: The Impostor

In early 1964, controversy rocked not only Kilbride, but Burlington as well. A locum who had been looking after the villagers of Kilbride while Dr. Hugh McDonald went on his yearly 6 week vacation to Florida, who had been working in the Joseph Brant Hospital, was found to be an impostor with no medical credentials. An excellent article written for MacLean’s on October 3, 1964 by Barbara Moon with additional reporting by Dennis Foley was a comprehensive account of both the man, the circumstances leading to the impersonation and the impersonation itself. There was a tragic end.

The impersonator was in fact born Joseph Emile Adrien Couture on December 19, 1929. He was the son of Maurice Couture and Leonie Brindly. Maurice worked as a labourer. His mother looked after their very large family of 11 or 12 children. She was three parts French and one part Irish. When interviewed for the MacLeans article, following the discovery of the impersonation, the father could not remember if there were 11 or 12 children and if Adrien was the seventh or eighth child. In the 1930s, Mrs. Couture died of a heart attack and the family consequently broke up.

Adrien told a number of stories about that time including that he and a younger sister would scavenge in garbage pails for food. He also said that they ran away from home and eventually arrived at an orphanage in 1938. He would have been 9 years old if his birth date and details are correct. Two years later, in 1940, they supposedly returned home.

A younger brother Paul, was interviewed for the article. His recollection of his brother Adrien was that he enjoyed reading, classical music and camping. Paul also believed that Adrien reached grade twelve in his education and that he worked for the Unemployment Insurance Commission possibly in Hawkesbury. He also believed that Adien spent four years in a religion order in Levis.

Adrien himself told people that he spent a year in Italy where he was studying to become a priest. One other story that he told was that while in a seminary, he studied medicine. It was a fact that when he arrived in Burlington, he could indeed speak Italian.

During the early 1950s, Adrien met his cousin Joseph Eugène André Couture who was just starting his medical studies at Laval University. This cousin was the basis for Adrien’s impersonation as you will read later. The MacLean’s article reported that in 1955, a man by the name of Adrien Joseph Emile Couture was convicted of narcotics possession and sentenced to six months in jail. This took place in Montreal.

In 1956, Adrien worked for CNR possible as a first aid man, and did so under the name André. He told people he was a widower. Following a previous pattern of telling false stories, he explained that his wife and child had died in childbirth which was not uncommon at that time. He further explained that as a result and because of financial issues, he could no longer study medicine as he had been doing.

Adrien was introduced by a fellow work gang member at the CNR to his sister Edwina. They were married in 1957. Edwina had known him as André during their courtship and was surprised to see that he signed the marriage register as Adrien. The explanation that she was given was that he did not like his name and so used André instead. For a short period of time, it is believed that Adrien worked for the Hawkesbury Unemployment Insurance Office.

1959 found the Coutures living in Hamilton with André’s brother Paul. Paul assisted his brother in getting a job at a die casting company as a janitor. Just a short two years later, André began working a F. W. Fearman & Co. He was now working in the role of a first-aid attendant at that company.

While at Fearman’s, according to his coworkers, he kept to himself and spent any spare time studying for a correspondence course he told his fellow workers that was in medicine. André was adept at telling stories as is evidenced by that fact he told others that he was interning at the Hamilton General Hospital in the emergency ward every evening. It came to light that this was not the case. André was in fact taking a standard two month course with St. John’s Ambulance. He passed the course and did receive his certificate on November 22, 1960.

Couture was not a stranger to brushes with the law. On February 1961, Fearman’s set up a trap in the plant and caught André stealing frozen tenderloins. There is no record of any consequences. He then went on to work in the Hamilton Unemployment Insurance Office most likely aided in getting the job because of his previous experience. While there, his manager received a call from his friend who ran a rural ambulance service in the Town of Oakville. The friend was desperate for a first aid man. André took the job and started on May 23, 1961. The ambulance owner’s wife, Joy MacBeth, who helped run the business kept a daily log. In it she wrote “New man from Hamilton, André Couture. Fourth year medical student”.

Adrien was apparently of small stature, standing only 5ft. 6” tall. He was so small in size that none of the ambulance uniforms fit him. As a result, Mrs. MacBeth made his uniforms for him. He shoe size was 5 ½ and when he was working as a doctor, he bought his suits in the boys’ department.

The MacBeth’s said that he tried to always be busy when there were no calls for an ambulance. He would make coffee, listen to classical music. study, put the ambulance in ready condition and he would ensure the first aid kits were complete. His own family doctor believed that André had been a medical student and so lent him his medical texts. The MacBeth’s told the story of André bringing in a frog to dissect. He also acquired a skeleton and would instruct the other ambulance staff in anatomy.

When there were long evenings of no calls for an ambulance, André would spend that time talking to Mrs. MacBeth. He considered her his first true friend. Both Mr. and Mrs. MacBeth felt that he was very talented in the medical field and that he should return to medical school.

He took their comments to heart and one day told them that he hitchhiked from Hamilton to Toronto to attend classes at the U of T School of Medicine. To corroborate his story, he came to the office with some tokens from the University such as a receipt or University pencil.

Couture, with full confidence, went to the Hamilton General Hospital to apply for an internship. His explanation to the Hospital was that he had been a medical student at Laval but had suffered a nervous breakdown before finishing. He told them that he was currently working as a milkman in Oakville. The hospital had a very stringent set of requirements for applicants. Couture was required to fill out an application, produce a personal history and two photographs which were to be sent to the applicant’s university. He took the application but as expected, did not return to the hospital.

Shortly afterwards, Couture had found a champion in Oakville who he met during his ambulance service. This man was told that Couture had completed his medical studies short of his internship. Through this man he was introduced to the Oakville Trafalgar Hospital Board. In order to confirm Couture’s claims, this gentleman conducted his own verification of Couture’s credentials. He contacted Couture’s family physician and his current employers. Mrs. MacBeth called the medical school at the University of Toronto only to find that Couture was not enrolled in any classes. The family physician wired Laval Medical School to confirm that Couture was a graduate as he claimed. As expected, the University verified that Dr. André Couture was indeed a graduate. We know that the real Dr. Couture did in fact graduate as a physician from Laval.

In 1962, a Dr. Joseph Eugène André Couture presented himself to Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington as a 1956 graduate of Laval University in Quebec. Just the previous year, on February 1st, the hospital opened its doors. It was in dire need of interns and so he was hired.

André explained to the hospital board that he had a certificate to practice as an intern in Ontario. He explained further that it was his intention to return to Quebec and write his medical examination. Doing their due diligence, Joseph Brant Hospital contacted the Laval Medical School for a reference. They were told that Dr. André Couture did indeed graduate from their school and they were very positive in their praise of him. The Laval Medical School was not aware once again that they were confirming an impostor.

The now Dr. Couture explained his medical “rustiness” was the result of illness. He told them that he had polio at age 12 and at age twenty he was very ill with tubercular meningitis. This disease causes acute inflammation in both the brain and spinal cord and one consequence can be memory gaps. This apparently accounted for his lapses in medical knowledge.

As an intern, he earned $285 a month. He moved his wife and two young sons, Stefan and Kent to a duplex on Dynes Road. His rent was $85 a month. Finances were tight. Often Couture only had a coffee for breakfast which may have been the cause for him to black out in the mornings. The staff at that time recounted that he was a very hard worker often making coffee for staff, taking food down to the switchboard and taking some of the overflow of donated toys for the children’s ward to needy people.

André’s frailty and ‘faulty’ English because of his French upbringing, made the staff go out of their way to help him. An example was when he did not seem to understand what drugs to prescribe for a condition, it was reported that the chief pharmacist blamed both his illness for the long gap from medicine as well as the language barrier. He was very adept at covering his lack of medical knowledge by drawing pictures when he couldn’t provide medical descriptions or avoiding leading case histories during meetings and rounds.

The Hospital went out of its way to provide much needed training in surgery, cardiac issues and obstetrics. Adrien worked on staff for about two years. During his last year, he began making murmurings about going to the Congo to serve humanity. At that time, there were no openings.

In 1963, he told the hospital that he was going to take a leave and return to Quebec to write his formal medical exams. On his return he informed the hospital that he had indeed written them and passed.

It was about this time that the beloved Kilbride doctor, Dr. Hugh Reid McDonald was looking for a locum to cover for him while he went on his yearly 6 week vacation to Florida. Couture filled this position. Dr. McDonald asked that Couture provide his license from the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons. Couture agreed to provide it.

Couture moved his family to the village and rented a house. To cover for his lack of medical knowledge, he made few prescriptions other than for run of the mill complaints. If there were more serious issues, he referred the patients to an appropriate specialist or to the Joseph Brant Hospital. During his time in Kilbride, the residents had nothing but praise for his work.

Two local residents were interviewed about the care they received. Cliff Fretz, a highway maintenance man had complained of symptoms that another physician attributed to the flu. When the symptoms continued he went to see Dr. Couture who urged him to go to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart attack and he was told that he was bordering on a second one.

Owen Yemm, another local Kilbridean took a fall and complained of headaches. At Dr. Couture’s insistence he went to Joseph Brant Hospital where he was treated for two weeks for ‘vascular’ issues. The Yemm family became friends with the Coutures and the families would visit back and forth.

When Dr. McDonald returned he found that Dr. Couture had not provided his license. As a matter of course, he fired him and contacted the Ontario College to initiate an investigation.

About this same time, the Chairman of the Joseph Brant Hospital Advisory Committee contacted Dr. Couture to present his college certificate to the hospital. Dr. Couture agreed to do so and that he would contact the college for a copy.

It was not a surprise that Dr. Couture left the village in a hurry. He sold the household furniture that was not yet paid for, he gave Dr. McDonald a rent cheque that bounced and left with his family in a car that also was not paid for.

When Dr. Couture was tracked down in Hawkesbury, he was visiting his wife’s family. He explained that he was unable to keep his appointment at the hospital because he had made plans to travel to Hawkesbury that day.

It came to light that Dr. Couture, while in Hawkesbury, had made arrangements to work as a relief physician at a local clinic. He had also discussed plans to travel to the US and even had a hope of travelling to Africa.

Reporter Paul Gresco of the Spectator went to Hawkesby to interview the Coutures. There he found Mrs. Couture and her two sons living in her parents’ home. She was unsure of her husband’s previous history and could not confirm that he studied at Laval but that she thought he was going to school. She also felt it was a coincidence that there was a second doctor by the same name. Her mother, Mrs. J. G. Denis, in defense of the man she knew as André, felt that someone was making trouble for her son in law.

Mr. Gresco contacted the Hawksebury police who informed him they were investigating Dr. Couture’s visa application for the US. For that application, Dr. Couture was fingerprinted. He apparently asked if he could type the application himself and listed his profession as doctor. The application was handed over to the RCMP for further investigation.

On Sunday, May 17, 1964, a group of three men were out catching bait along the Little Rideau Creek. They spotted a black doctor’s bag on the bank of the creek. As they were leaving the area by car, they spotted something. It turned out to be the body of a man, face up on a grey car blanket. He was wearing a brown suit, white shirt and tie. Beside the body, there was a bottle of vermouth, sunglasses and a pack of cigarettes.

On further examination, a cigarette lighter, photographs, car keys and three letters were found. One letter was to Mrs. Couture, his wife. The second was a letter to Mrs. Joy Davis. This was in fact Mrs. Joy MacBeth who ran the ambulance service in Oakville with her husband. Davis was her maiden name. The last was an open letter. One sentence that was shared with the media read, “I hope to find peace because people make too much noise and are tied up so much with papers, licence, etc., and as time goes up you will need a licence to take a breath.” The post mortem found that he had been dead for approximately two weeks and that he died of secobarbital poisoning. A bottle of the barbiturate was found in the black medical bag. 25 capsules were missing.

When Adrien, a.k.a Dr. André Couture, faced disgrace and exposure for his multitude of lies, he chose to take his own life.

Contributing Author: Helen Callaway