Crowds now go where few wanted to in days of yore
Touring the Huron County Historic Gaol, it’s hard to believe that when it was build in 1839 it was an example of a new, more humanitarian prison design.
From the moment you enter the long entrance hall, your footsteps echoing and the atmosphere chilly even on a hot summer day, you get a sense of what it must have felt like being a prisoner here between its 1841 opening and its final days in 1972. Some of the cells have been restored to their original construction of hand-hewn timbers and wooden benches for sleeping.
The Gaol housed some famous prisoners, from James Donnelly, father of the infamous Black Donnellys of Lucan in the 1860s to 14-year-old Stephen Truscott who was in this jail in 1959, facing a death sentence for the murder of schoolmate Lynn Harper. The death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and decades later, Truscott’s conviction was overturned.
There’s a break from the oppression of the gaol if you step into the open-air exercise yards, surrounded by 18-foot walls but even here, there’s a chill in the knowledge the yards were used for hangings, including Canada’s last public hanging of Nicholas Melady in 1869.
In the early days, it wasn’t only the prisoners who braved these grim conditions. On the top floor of the gaol you can see the room where court was held and Huron County Council met, before the stink from the latrines drove them to meet at a local hotel until the downtown courthouse was built.
The contrast of living in the Gaol compared to the restored home of the gaol’s governor next door is memorable. Here the gaolor’s family lived a relatively refined life by comparison.
To get an even more vivid idea of what life was like for inmates in the gaol you can attend one of the Behind the Bars performances, when live presenters represent some of the people involved with the prison between 1841 and 1911 in an interactive tour.
Local actors portray personalities such as Margaret Dickson, the gaol matron from 1876 until her death in 1895 or James Donnelly. There are special prices for these performances of $10 for adults, $5 for kids (children under 5 are free.) At press time dates and times had not yet been decided. Check the website at www.huroncountymuseum.ca for more up-to-date information.
Regular tours of the Gaol are available during regular hours from Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to
4:30 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 4:30 p.m. until August 31. Admission is $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $4 for students, $3.50 for children 6-11 and $18.00 for families.