Huron Historic Gaol
By Emily Manns
The law did not always show as much leniency with criminals as it does today. Those darker times in Canada’s history can be explored at the Huron Historic Gaol.
From petty theft to murder, the Gaol saw thousands of criminals, guilty of every manner of crime imaginable, make the journey down the long and echoing corridor to one of several locked cells since it opened in 1841.
Built in 1839 on land donated to the county by the Canada Company, the Gaol was designed by Toronto architect Thomas Young with the intent of moving away from the smaller, overcrowded building designs that were commonplace at the time, and towards a more humanitarian prison design.
The Gaol features a number of larger cells on the third floor to hold criminals while they awaited a verdict from the judge. The courtroom, for a time, was also on the third floor, which continued to be used for 20 years before a new courthouse was erected in the downtown square.
The Gaol also included kitchen and laundry facilities on the lower floors, and several courtyards for the inmates to use for work and exercise – not exactly a luxury hotel, but arguably more comfortable than what passed for a jail previously.
Although it was intended as a temporary holding facility for criminals, it was also used to house the homeless, vagrants and the insane, as they couldn’t afford to build separate homes for them.
Surrounded on all sides by 18 feet high stone walls, two feet thick and topped with loose stone, inmates were hard pressed to attempt an escape, but that didn’t stop some from trying. However, most who did were either incapacitated by the 18 foot drop on the other side of the wall, or if it was during the winter months, they were driven back to the jail by hunger and the harsh elements.
Originally, the governor, who was the head guard at the jail, lived on the second floor of the Gaol with his family, with only a locked steel door between them and the inmates. A wall of one of the courtyards was eventually knocked down and the area converted into the governor’s new living quarters, connecting them directly to the jail but with a bit more privacy and security.
The Gaol was shut down in 1972 and declared as a national historic site, and has become a popular tourist stop, operating in conjunction with the Huron County Museum.
The last of Canada’s public hangings is said to have taken place in the Gaol with the execution of Nicholas Melady Jr. in 1869. He was found guilty of murdering his father and step-mother, and although records show that others were involved in the crime, Nicholas was the only one who received a sentence.
Then there was the infamous case of 14-year-old Steven Truscott, who spent time in the Gaol in 1959 after being sentenced to hang for murder. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker commuted the sentence to life in prison and Truscott was released after 10 years. Fifty years later, he was found to have been wrongly convicted.
Tours of the Gaol are available by appointment, or during their regular hours Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Also, until August 31, you have the opportunity to experience a prisoner’s life in the Gaol’s “Behind the Bars” summer program. Walk to different areas of the jail and meet the different personalities representing historical figures from the Gaol, based on the history that has been pieced together from various sources.
Madeleine Higgins, resident of Goderich and member of the summer staff at the jail and museum, will provide information on the various characters and where they can be found, after which visitors are welcome to wander around the jail at their leisure.
Behind the Bars will be held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., with bookings in advance to ensure that everyone has a chance to take the tour.
On Mondays, join staff member Jack Gibbings from 2 to 4 p.m. as he explores different topics, from designs of the jail to famous escapes, which will also include activities for the kids.
The Huron Historic Gaol is located at the corner of Victoria Street North and Gloucester Terrace in Goderich. For more information about Behind the Bars, admission prices and other summer activities at the Huron Historic Gaol and Huron County Museum, call 519-524-6971 or visit www.huroncounty.ca/museum .