Lorna Poplak

Since the mid-1800s, the Don Jail has left its stamp on the skyline, and the psyche, of Toronto. Over the years it developed a fearsome reputation as a dehumanizing snake pit where tuberculosis and other diseases caused by overcrowding were rife. And between 1872 and 1962, thirty-four men were hanged there. But, as is shown in the following excerpt from Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada, it all started off with such great promise.

The Don Jail

Death cells in Don in 1987 photo.

1987 photo of Don Jail cells from The Toronto Star, 2010

The idea of the new Toronto Jail was put forward in the mid-1800s, as a replacement for the primitive and exhausted hell holes that had until then housed short-term prisoners — those awaiting trial or with sentences of less than two years. The building would be airy and bathed in natural light. There would be a hospice to care for Toronto’s “poor, needy and disabled,” and a working farm. And what better place to locate all these splendid structures than on a parcel of land overlooking the beautiful, meandering Don River? After all, as British penal reformer John Howard wrote in 1777: “A county gaol, and indeed every prison, should be built on a spot that is airy, and if possible near a river, or brook. I have commonly found prisons situated near a river, the cleanest and most healthy.”

The Auburn prison system, established in the United States in the 1820s, heavily influenced both the architecture of the new jail and the proposed treatment of its inmates. There would be a central administrative building with two wings containing long rows of small cells extending to the east and west. During the day, prisoners would toil together on the prison farm or in communal work areas inside the prison; at night, they would be segregated in individual cells. Strict discipline would be imposed and silence maintained at all times.

British immigrant William Thomas, the hotshot architect who had already designed some of Toronto’s finest buildings (such as St. Lawrence Hall), was chosen to draw up the plans in 1852. This grand palace for prisoners would have a central pavilion, an Italianate style facade, and columns embellished with wavy, wormlike lines. Construction began in 1858. From its very beginnings, however, the project was plagued with problems. Thomas died of diabetes in December 1860, leaving his sons to carry on. Construction was way over budget and massively delayed, not helped by a compromised foundation that had to be rebuilt and a fire that destroyed most of the building just before it was completed. Insurance, naturally, didn’t cover the costs of reconstruction.

Many Problems

The highly touted farm and airy, light-filled working areas where inmates would spend their days soon went the way of the dodo, and prisoners ended up spending both their waking and sleeping hours crammed into the poky cells. Small wonder there were numerous escape attempts over the years. These were mostly unsuccessful. In one creative effort, as mentioned in Bridgepoint Health’s brochure on the history of the Don Jail, James Bass and Melville Yeomans used kitchen utensils to dig a hole, which they concealed with cardboard and strawberry jam. Security guards, perhaps on the hunt for stolen spoons and jam, soon discovered the hole and put an end to their plan. However, Frank McCullough, a drifter awaiting execution for the murder of a police officer in 1918, managed to saw through the bars of his cell and escape, and in 1951 and 1952, members of the Boyd Gang, a flamboyant four-man group of bank robbers, broke out not once but twice.

The original building was officially shut down in 1977. Its replacement, the adjoining east wing completed in 1958, did nothing to improve the tarnished reputation of Toronto’s forbidding prison. This extension, in its turn, was closed in 2013 and then demolished to make way for Bridgepoint, a new rehabilitation and complex care hospital.

Excerpted with permission from Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada by Lorna Poplak

Copyright © 2017, Lorna Poplak. All rights reserved

Published by Dundurn Press

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