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If these walls could talk – Historic county jails offer an insight into the past of crime & punishment

October 2019

Have you ever wondered what it’s like is jail, but didn’t want to go through the bother of committing a crime?  Well, the good news is that there are many former jails and penitentiaries that are open for public tours.  Some, like the former Carleton County Jail in Ottawa, Ontario, also double as a hostel, allowing visitors to spend a night or more in a real jail cell.

Like many of the jails of the era, inmates were often subjected to conditions we now consider inhumane, with men, women, and children, being housed in cells as small as 3 feet by 6 feet or in solitary confinement cells that make it clear why inmates often refer to solitary cells as “The Hole.” 

Inmates included everyone from murderers, to the mentally ill, to those incarcerated for minor infractions such as drunk and disorderly conduct. County jails, like the modern provincial correctional institutions, were meant for prisoners serving short sentences.

While this is hardly a comprehensive list, some of the historic jails in North America still standing and open to the public include:

Huron County Gaol

The Huron County Gaol opened in 1842 in Goderich as the county jail for Upper Canada’s Huron district.  The octagonal shaped jail with four-cell-block design, a common design in Great Britain and North America, was designed by Thomas Young, who also designed the Barrie Gaol, and was built using stone from the Maitland River Valley and from Michigan. 

Until 1856, the third floor doubled as a courthouse until the county courthouse was completed. Three inmates were hanged at the jail: William Mahone on 18 December 1861, Nicholas Melady on 7 December 1869 (both of whom were hanged publicly outside the jail walls, and Edward Jardine on 16 June 1911, behind the stone walls.

The youngest inmate sentenced to death in Canada, 14-year-old Steven Truscott, was held in the Huron County Gaol awaiting execution from 30 September 1959 until his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment the following January.  Truscott had been quickly tried and sentenced for the death of his 12-year-old classmate Lynne Harper in June 1959, a controversial conviction that was overturned on appeal almost 50 years later and an acquittal issued.

The jail closed in 1972 after 130 years of operation, and inmates were transferred to jails in Walkerton and Stratford.

The Huron County Gaol was designated a National Historic Site of Canada the following year and has operated as a museum since 1974.  It’s located at 110 North Street.

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Carleton County Gaol

The Carleton County Gaol, also known as the Nicholas Street Gaol, opened in 1862 next to the courthouse.  The jail was where Patrick J. Whelan was hanged on 11 February 1869 for the assassination of Conservative Member of Parliament Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who was also a Father of Confederation.

The final execution and third one that was officially recorded was on 27 March 1946, when Eugene Larment was hanged for killing Ottawa Police Detective Thomas Stoneman.

The jail contained a total of 96 cells that housed up to 150 prisoners.

The outdated facility was finally closed in 1972. Hostelling International has operated part of the old jail as the Ottawa Jail Hostel since 1973, with the remaining portion open for public tours.  The original gallows are remain intact and fully functional.

A bar named Mugshots opened at the jail in 2009 and two years later, the courtyard was converted into an outdoor bar.  The jail and hostel can be found at 75 Nicholas Street in Ottawa, near the Byward Market.

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Barrie Gaol

The Barrie Gaol opened in the Town of Barrie, Ontario, in 1841 to serve Simcoe County.

The octagonal shaped jail, a common design in Great Britain and North America, was designed by Thomas Young, who also designed the Huron County Gaol, and was built using stone from the limestone quarry at Longford on the east shore of Lake Couchiching, north-east of Orillia, Ontario. 

The jail was originally designed to hold up to 32 men, but two additions allowed for the incarceration of 82 men. In the years prior to its closure, as many as 100 inmates would be held within the jail.

In the oldest part of the jail, there were no lights in the cells and only a pail under the beds for a toilet.

Five prisoners were hanged at the Barrie Gaol: James Carruthers on 11 June 1873; John Tryon on Dec 30, 1873; George O’Neil on Jan 4, 1929; Thomas Wesley Campbell on Jan 4, 1932; and 18 year-old Lloyd Wellington Simcoe in 1945 for murder. Other inmates died during incarceration and are believed to be buried in unmarked graves within the inner courtyard.

The Barrie Jail closed in December 2001, with the last inmate being transferred to the new Central North Correctional Centre, a new “super-jail” in Penetanguishene, Ontario on 7 December 2001. It remains vacant today and unfortunately, is not open for tours.

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Victoria County Gaol

The Victoria County Gaol opened in Lindsey, Ontario, in 1863 at the same time as the courthouse next door, necessitated when Victoria County separated from Peterborough County, whom had handled court and jail services for the area previoiusly.

With walls several feet thick, the jail was constructed with limestone and white brick and fashioned in the Italianate design which was common for jails of the era.

The very first jailbreak occured in November 1863, mere months after the jail became operational.

Over the years, many renovations and alterations were carried out on the original building, with extra masonry added to the foundations, altering brick work of cells, extra height of exterior prison walls, interior renovations, enlarging the original building with the addition of cell blocks on the north and south wings of the building in 1982.

A verandah was added in 1927 a verandah was added to the south side of the building, creating separated entrance to the Governor’s house. The verandah was demolished in a subsequent renovation in 1982.

The Victoria County Gaol ceased operations in February 2003, when the last of the inmates were transferred to the Central East Correctional Centre, north-east of Lindsay.

The Olde Gaol Museum now operates out of the building, run by the Victoria County Historical Society. It addition to providing guided and self-guided tours of the jail itself, visitors can view within the rooms and cells various displays relating to the history of Lindsey, including art work by local painter, the late William Alfred Goodwin, a display on war veterans from the Lindsey area, a display on The Gregory Drug Store, a local pharmacy owned by four generations of the Gregory family, and displays focussing on weaving, railroading in the Lindsey area.

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Carbon County Jail

The Carbon County Jail opened in 1870 in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Designed as a two-story, fortress-like rusticated stone building, the jail had 27 cells, plus dungeon cells in the basement that were used for solitary confinement.  A row of cells for women were found on the second floor until 1980.

The jail was constructed with thick walls and a square, one-story guard turret above the main entrance. It features arched windows on the main facade and on the turret.

The jail’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1877-79, it housed and later executed seven members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish Catholic clandestine society active in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, fighting for the rights of coal workers against the powerful mine owners. After several murders and violent conflicts, twenty suspected members of The Mollies were arrested by the Coal and Iron Police, following an investigation by detectives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The accused were convicted of murder and hanged between 1877 and 1879 at the Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe and the Schuylkill County Jail in Pottsville.

Executed at the Carbon County Jail were: Alexander Campbell, Edward Kelly, Michael Doyle and John Donohue on 21 June 1877; Thomas P. Fisher on 28 March 1878 and on January 14, 1879, James McDonnell and Charles Sharp were hanged on the jail gallows. These convictions and executions were very controversial, with many then and today believing the accused were falsely accused of murder.

The Carbon County Jail continued operations until 1995 and is now open to the public as the Old Jail Museum. In one cell, there is a handprint left by an alleged Molly Maguire who was hanged in 1877, to proclaim his innocence. Legend has it that despite many attempts to remove it, including building a new wall, the mark still remains today. Originally thought to be made by Alexander Campbell, research done by the Old Jail Museum staff revealed it’s likely Thomas Fisher’s handprint.

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Cobourg Gaol

Opened in 1906 in the Town of Cobourg to house prisoners from the United Counties of Northumberland and Durham.

The jail closed in 1998 and is now the King George Inn and Hotel, a luxury country inn & hotel, complete with a restaurant, banquet and conference facilities. Visitors can find the Inn at 77 Albert Street.

A museum in the basement focuses on the history of the former jail.

The individual cells are now individually themed guest rooms, each unique. What used to be one dungeon is now the Continental Breakfast room and a children’s play area.

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Bruce County Gaol

Opened the year Canada officially became a county, the gaol closed in 2011 after 144 years.

The jail is open for occasional tours, usually part of the “Doors Open” festivals across Ontario, along with occasional music festivals like the “Jailhouse Rock” concert series, that are held in the yard.

The former Governor’s residence is part of Bruce County Courthouse.

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Essex County Gaol

The Essex County Gaol was constructed by the Mackenzie brothers in 1855. According to archives, the first brick Jail stood on the same ground that the Windsor Jail currently occupies. It was a square red building surrounded by a palisade of cedar posts.

 All executions from 1909 until 1943 took place at the Essex County/Windsor Jail, the condemned men being hung by a rope from a scaffold. 

From 1925 until their doors closed, the jail housed up to 138 inmates at one time. 

 Today, the jail remains abandoned and the Mayor of the city has asked for the public’s help.  He wants to know what they think should become of the 92-year-old former Windsor jail in Sandwich Town.

The 93-year-old structure was shuttered in 2014 when the South West Detention Centre was opened.

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Frontenac County Court House and Gaol

Opened in 1858 as a judicial and administrative complex with a jail in the rear.

The jail, consisting of a single cellblock and a yard, large stone wall around the perimeter.

The building was heavily damaged by a fire in 1875, destroying the dome and the wings of the building. They were rebuilt, completely changing the look of the building.

The gallows were inside the jail building, but had doors that would swing open during a hanging so the public could witness the execution.

Local historians, however, believe there’s a possibility that human remains still lie beneath the site. The exact location of where the remains were buried is unknown.

A redesign of the building in the 1960s saw another change in the appearance of the building, but in 1971, the jail closed.

The courthouse remains in use and was the site of a high profile murder trial, that of Shafia trial which was held last fall and winter. The building was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980.

Most of the prisoner remains once buried in the jail’s cemetery were exhumed and re-interred in Cataraqui Cemetery in 1972. The former cemetery is now a parking lot behind the courthouse.

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Peterborough Gaol

The Peterborough County Gaol opened in 1842, situated behind the County Courthouse, and built using stone quarried from nearby Jackson Park. The gaol was enclosed by a stone wall that was sixteen feet high and two feet thick.

In the course of its 159 year life, there were give hangings at the Peterborough Gaol: William Brenton (also known as James Foxx), hanged on 26 December 1873; Robert Henderson on 23 June 1910, a controversial hanging as he was a seventeen year-old immigrant who was convicted in a court process that took less than 12 hours; Michael Barhi and Thomas Konek, “partners in crime”, who were both hanged on 14 January 1920; and the last one being Edward Franklin, hanged on 29 November 1933.

A riot in June 2001 by 12 inmates caused thousands of dollars in damages, but the building was not repaired as it was already slated for closure.

The jail closed on 11 December 2001, as part of the Ontario government’s plan to centralize incarceration in “super jails,” that would replace 20 smaller county jails.

The historic jail building was torn down in 2016, with a section of the jail wall left intact. The remainder of the property was transformed into he Peterborough County Jail Park, which will serve as a monument to the old county jail and its century and a half of history.

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Cornwall Gaol and Courthouse

The current gaol and court building was opened in the summer of 1833, replacing the original 1802 building.

Several additions were made to the building over the years, including in 1836, 1859 and 1885.

In 1959, portion of the jail wall backing onto Pitt Street was demolished for construction of an office building.

In the mid 1970s, the jail interior was altered, including converting the former Governor’s residence into office space.

The aging jail was closed in the fall of 2002 and the inmates were transferred to the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

In its 200 years of operation, a total of five inmates were executed at the Cornwall Gaol:

Clark Brown, hanged on 31 October 1879 for the murder of his sister Adeline and their father Robert Brown.

James Slavin, hanged on 16 December 1892 for the murder of a policeman.

John (Ivan) Wegrynuck, hanged on 28 March 1919 for the murder of Worze Tomaszewski.

Thomas Collison, hanged on 30 May 1925 the murder of 18 year old Beatrice Thorpe.

The last execution was on 25 May 1954, hanged for the murder of Marie-Anne Carrier.

Like many old buildings, especially one where deaths occurred, the Cornwal Gaol is believed to be haunted, and there may be good reason for that belief. A part of the building sits atop the part of the prison yard where the bodies of up to 200 prisoners who died in the gaol lay buried in unmarked graves, now all lost to time.

The Cornwall Gaol is now open for tours, including the old courtroom portion on the upper floor, which is now the council chambers for the City of Cornwall.

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Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huron_Historic_Gaol, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Jail_Hostel, http://urbexbarrie.blogspot.com/2007/02/barrie-jail.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrie_Jail, http://www.theoldjailmuseum.com, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_County_Jail, https://www.oldegaolmuseum.ca, http://www.gyst4fun.ca/portfolio_only/cobourgjail/About_Jail.html, https://www.ptbocounty.ca/en/exploring/peterborough-county-jail.aspx, https://windsorstar.com/news/local-news/jail-site-must-be-preserved-for-benefit-of-local-community-gretzky-says, http://cdigs.uwindsor.ca/neighborhood-history/exhibits/show/sandwich-town/the-windsor-jail, http://vitacollections.ca/ogscollections/2723749/data, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontenac_County_Court_House, https://www.queensjournal.ca/story/2012-10-12/features/prison-past, http://www.brucecountyhistory.on.ca/contacts/contacts.html, https://www.ptbocounty.ca/en/exploring/peterborough-county-jail.aspx#, https://www.mykawartha.com/news-story/6504015-demolition-of-old-peterborough-jail-continues/

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/if-these-walls-could-talk-historic-county-jails-offer-an-insight-into-the-past-of-crime-punishment/

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