Old architecture and interesting history has always fascinated me. Kingston is filled with both. Working in Kingston a few years ago, a coworker and I went and toured the museum at the Wardens House of Kingston Penitentiary. It is so interesting and shows a part of prison life from the 1800’s to the present. At that time the prison was still a functioning prison that you could see from the lawn of Warden’s House Museum. With wonder and curiosity I looked at this massive building across the street and all the stories it could tell. When it opened for tours, it became a attraction on my to do list.
There are three tours Kingston Penitentiary offers.
- The Express Tour: A 45-minute tour highlighting places and events in the penitentiary. See where the 1971 riot took place, as well as visit the inmate’s cells and canteen.
- The Standard Tour: A 1.5 hour tour that explores the inner workings of the prison. Visit the working areas of the penitentiary while hearing of personal accounts by former guards regarding some of Kingston Penitentiary’s most notorious events and inmates.
- The Extended Tour: A 2.5-hour tour of the history and happenings of Kingston Penitentiary. The Extended Tour offers everything in the Standard tour and a little bit more. Explore more behind the scenes with the hospital and gymnasium in a smaller tour group.
I chose the Extended Tour and I’m so glad I did. What a fascinating and remarkable piece of Canadian history. Come along as I share my experience taking a tour of Kingston Penitentiary.
The Tour Begins as you Walk through the Gate
Parking in the lot beside the prison you follow the walkway alongside the massive stone walls that surround Kingston Penitentiary.
Entering into the front of the building through large iron gates gives you a sense of the immense size and formidability of Kingston Pen, as it is often referred to. As a visitor, it is intimidating. As an inmate, it would be downright scary. Our guide would be Clare. She would take us on a fascinating walk through history at Canada’s first federal penitentiary. Tales of riots, escape, murder, and mayhem await. I was excited.
A Few Facts and Figures.
Kingston Penitentiary first opened in 1835. The prison is strategically located on the St. Lawrence River for easy supply and inmate delivery. Horses and carts were used to transport goods and people in 1835. The thick forests and threat of ambush made using the river safer and more efficient. The large stone walls that you see now started as a 12-foot wooden picket fence in 1835. By 1845, stone walls replaced the wooden fence, along with the addition of the towers and the north gatehouse. Portions to the prison were added as the population grew.
Limestone quarries in and around Kingston supply the building materials for the prison. The inmates provide the manpower.
Kingston Penitentiary incarcerated men and women for its first 99 years of existence. In the early 1800’s Kingston Penitentiary imprisoned children as young as 8 for minor offences such as pickpocketing. I could not imagine being an adult, never mind a child and hearing those giant gates close behind you. There were a total of 6 prisoners, and by chance, 1/2 of them were named John at the opening of Kingston Penitentiary in 1835. The prison population would grow to a maximum of 564 prisoners by its closure in 2013.
Exploring the Courtyard
As you walk out into the courtyard you are met with stone buildings and large fences with rolling barbed wire. Surrounding the courtyard were the towering walls of stone.
The thick stone walls surrounding the premises with barbed wire fencing are certainly a deterrent to escape. There are guard towers on every corner, with the guard towers inside the courtyard to keep the inmates inside the prison.
Moving through the courtyard, Clare told us about the most expensive toilet in Canada. A small building sitting quietly among the large stone buildings held an interesting function and a job no one wanted. If an inmate was directed into this building, it was thought they were carrying contraband. While inside, they would have to go three times into a “special” toilet. After they have done their business, the toilet separates the liquid with centrifugal force and then some lucky guard would have to go through it. Making sure nothing was coming into the prison. I can bet that was the short straw job for the day. Lol. Eww!
Overnight visits are also allowed. There are a row of apartments that you could stay in with the inmates up to three days. Inmates could apply for these visits every two months.
The Main Cell Block
The main cell block is a large impressive building with a “dome” in the middle and four arms of cells. Here you find the canteen, gymnasium, work areas and the hospital. A maze of hallways all coming back to the dome.
Walking through the courtyard entering the first building, we entered the area where it all started. These old cells were used until 1895. Measuring 6 feet 7 inches tall, 8 feet deep and only 2.5 feet wide there was not much room in these tiny spaces. In the early years the inmates would only be let out to work on the local farms and limestone quarry in a work gang for 8 hours a day. The rest of the time they spent in their cells.
I also have to mention that it was a hot day. There was no air movement within those thick stone walls. As I stood and looked in, the sweat dripping from my forehead, I could not imagine living like that for 16 hours a day.
A small cover would be put up for some privacy but could be ordered removed by the guard at any time. As a retired guard explained, these people were some of the most dangerous people in Canada. They had nothing to lose.
There are two levels of cells in the original section. It was daunting standing in the hallway and looking along the rows of cells. You almost felt you were in an old prison movie, but this was all too real.
Messages from Inmates
Within the cells, inmates had drawn pictures on the walls. Some of those pictures were still there. With time on their hands and limited resources, it was a way to express themselves for some and pass the way the time for others.
All through the prison you could see messages written on the walls by the inmates. Some a warning and some an affirmation.
As the old cells began to be used for short-term uses, other wings and buildings were built. The cells were slightly larger but still had little space. I think I have more room in my Roadtrek. Lol. Some cells are built for specific applications, such as suicide watches. Equipped with cameras, these inmates would be monitored 24 hours a day.
From the old cells to the dome. An impressive building with four stories of cells. Up above a large glass dome. This was “The Dome.” A bell would ring at breakfast, lunch and dinner and when the prisoners had to go back into their cells. Clare told us the prisoners grew to hate that bell. The bell was one of the first things destroyed in the 1954 Riots.
The bell was replaced with a guardhouse. Here, doors could be controlled, weapons stored, and a tunnel leading to a larger armoury if needed. We were told the guards never carried guns throughout the prison. It would be too easy to be overpowered, thus giving convicted felons weapons.
In the early days, solitary confinement was literally a hole in the ground. You could be sent there for any number of reasons, including talking, winking or giggling. Corporal punishment was also used as a deterrent to bad behaviour. It must have been brutal in those days, with lashes used to whip your back or lock you in “the box,” a coffin-sized box that could be locked for days on end. It is interesting to note that corporate punishment was used until 1969 when the criminal code was amended.
As we wove through the building, it was like a maze. Each hallway has a large barred door to keep everyone separated. We asked where the inmates ate? Was there a large cafeteria or area they all sat in, like in the movies? In 1840, the inmates outnumbered the guards 10 to 1. The guards found it was too hard to keep control of the inmates in such a large gathering, so in-cell meals were started and continued until closing.
Rehabilitate Prisoners with Hard Work
When the prison opened, the idea of properly rehabilitating the prisoners back into society required hard work, work gangs, reflection, and isolation. As the city of Kingston’s population grew, there were fewer farms for work crews, and manufacturing was introduced inside the prison. A lot of the Penitentiary itself was built by prisoners. The prisoners were also contracted to do cabinet making, shoe manufacturing, and other trades. In 1849, it seemed to be the perfect solution. The manufacturers got cheap labour, the prisoners were kept hard at work, and the Penitentiary made money.
There was a problem. The other manufacturers employing outside labour could not compete on the open market. By 1880, the practice was banned, and only manufacturing for government use was allowed. Introducing the production and repair of mail carrier bags in 1882 until 2009. I found that really interesting because I worked for Canada Post. Within my time at Canada Post, I may have handed out a few mailbags that I now know were made in the same room I was standing in. The ceilings in this room were incredibly beautiful. It is a very large room where millions of mailbags were made.
A quick note. Inmates from a nearby prison are still used today to tend to the grounds.
A Ghost Tale
As you walked the hallways of the cells, knowing such criminals as Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olsen had stayed in, it gave me a shiver. We were told that some stories of ghosts walked the halls. In this particular hallway, we were told ghosts had been reported, seen and heard. Apparitions would appear and disappear at will. Do you think murderers are scared of ghosts? After all, the worst people in Canada were held within these cells. The thought they would be scared gave me a giggle. Now, it was them that could not sleep at night!
The Hospital Wing and Canteen
Walking into the hospital wing, there would be a different sound as you walked in a spot along the hallway. A hollow sound. We were told that just under the floor was the morgue. Now, I would have thought that’s where the ghosts would have hung out. I guess the trauma of what happened in those cells was worse than actually dying. That thought is scary.
There was a canteen for snacks as well as hygiene products. You could spend the money you would earn working in the prison, making mailbags, for instance.
Visiting at Kingston Penitentiary
Visitors were always encouraged at Kingston Penitentiary. Having loved ones and friends come and support the inmates was an important part of the rehabilitation process. There are three ways to visit people in the jail. For more aggressive inmates and those who behaved poorly, booths with thick glass and iron doors were set up, and you would speak to them over the phone.
There is also a room filled with tables where families could visit. Walking out of that room, there was a notice on the wall as a reminder for inmates to not interact with other inmates’ children unless given permission from the parents.
Escapes and Riots
Throughout the history of Kingston Penitentiary, there have been 26 prison escape attempts. It seemed incredible to me as I looked around how anyone could scale a wall that size. Grappling hooks were made and used to scale the walls. Of the 26 attempts, only 1 was successful. Unfortunately, it resulted in him taking his own life when finally caught.
A Tale of Escape
Clare told us of two men who succeeded in creating a grappling hook but could not get the rope to attach it to. Instead, they used rubber. They used a second-floor opening and slung the grappling hook towards the wall. It caught and held. Securing the other end of a large metal post, the men climbed out onto the rubber. As they did, it began to stretch and sag, literally suspending them many feet above the ground. They had to call the guards for help. Well, that did not go as planned.
The story of John Kennedy was both tragic and intriguing. In 1948 John was a guard and messenger at Kingston Penitentiary, just like his father before him. In fact, he was actually born in the old West gatehouse apartments within the walls of the Penitentiary. Unfortunately, his life would end there too.
Unbeknown to John, he would play a deadly role in an escape plan hatched by two convicts, Austin Craft and Howard Urquhart. Driving towards the north gate, he spotted Craft walking across the courtyard, taking the garbage to be disposed of. Having met the inmate before, he offered him a lift. When they arrived at the North gate, Urquhart stepped out of the trunk where he was hidden while Craft held John at gunpoint, demanding the keys to open the gate. When John did not comply, he was shot and killed.
The prisoners did escape, but only for a short time before they were caught. For the murder of John, Craft received the death penalty. His hanging in 1949 was the last in Kingston.
Riots at Kingston Penitentiary
There were three riots in Kingston Penitentiary. Unrest to the prison would come in 1932, 1954, and 1971.
In 1932 a four-day uprising took place. Tim Buck led the uprising that would turn out to be all about cigarette papers. No one was hurt and damage was minimal during this riot. The same cannot be said for the next two riots.
The riot of 1954 started on a basketball court and ended with over 2 million in damage but would only last two hours. The inmates attacking a guard and setting fire to buildings in the yard would be quickly quelled by prison staff, army troops as well as RCMP.
The riot of 1971 would have many dire consequences. As prisoners were returning from the recreational hall on April 14, 1971, six guards were over powered at the dome and Kingston Penitentiary was in a riot situation. For four days inmates would hold their own court for the more ‘undesirable’ inmates which would result in two of the inmates being murdered. Damage to the building itself was considerable.The first to be demolished was the dreaded bell which would ring at each command for the inmates. The south wing damaged beyond repair, was never used as a cell block again.
The Famous and The Infamous
Over the 178 history of Kingston Penitentiary some of the worst criminals in Canada have seen the inside of these walls. Paul Bernardo (sex offender and murderer of two girls), Clifford Olsen (murdered 11 children), and Russel Williams (convicted of two murders and sexual assault). There was also one notable innocent man held at Kingston Penitentiary.
Steven Truscott was also held here. I remember hearing of his story growing up. As a 14 year old boy Steven Truscott was arrested and charged with rape and murder of 12 year old Lynn Harper. He was convicted and sentenced to hang in 1959. Later his sentence would be commuted to life in prison. Steven always protested his innocence.
He was granted parole in 1969. In 2007 a judge ruled that a miscarriage of justice had been done. The evidence that was presented was circumstantial and the conviction was overturned. Can you imagine being locked away for 10 years in one of those cells knowing that you did nothing wrong? Then for the next 38 years people believing you were a murderer. It is reported that Steven received a settlement from the government. Thank goodness the death penalty was commuted to life in prison. I hope he has found happiness.
This tour was everything I expected and a little more. I would like to thank our Tour Guide Clare for doing an excellent job of taking us on an adventure of the oldest penitentiary in Canada!
I had the extreme pleasure of attending a lighted pumpkin event at Kingston Penitentiary. Thousands of pumpkins carved and sculpted into beautiful pieces of art. I had never been to a show like this before. I love the sculpted pumpkins that sit on people’s porches and the creativity and artistic talent that it reflects. This show takes that to a whole new level.
As you walk through the large gates, your world is transformed into a magical world filled with artistic design. The courtyard lit with color as the towers glowed a menacing orange.
A path with lit pumpkons leads you through an amazing culmination of pumpkin artistry. As you stroll dinosaurs, come to life as jack-o-lanterns hang from the trees.
The displays were all shapes and sizes. From famous paintings to fairies, you can find your most delightful fairytale. I loved this display of the roaring twenties. Synchronized to music it was a fun display to watch.
It takes approximately 45 minutes to walk through the display. In the middle is a fun place to get pictures with the kids, play a game of corn hole, and rest before taking in the second half of this magnificent show.
Pumkinferno runs from September 29 to October 29 and tickets are reasonably priced at $21.00 for adults with children 4 and under free. Anyone with Military ID is $11.00. Check out their website for all the details.
Kingston is an amazing city that is rich in history, architecture and culture. Make sure to take in all the sights while visiting Kingston
Thanks for coming along on my Chipmunk Adventure. See you next time!
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