The Peterborough County Jail is an institution which stood as a monument of authority for about one-hundred sixty years, and then sat dormant for fourteen. It was a structure that saw the execution of five men, and the incarceration of people dealing with poverty, addiction and mental illness. 

In 2016, Peterborough County partnered with the Trent Community Research Centre to learn more about this historic institution, the practices in place during its existence and the lives of those who lived, worked and died within these walls.  Students Laura Schindel and Logan Taylor completed the research and wrote the scripts/interpretations found on the narratives throughout the park and in the stories below. 

The Trent Community Research Centre facilitates community-based research throughout the Greater Peterborough area. They connect passionate students from Trent University with community groups.  We are very proud of the partnership we have with both the Trent Community Research Centre and with Trent University.

Trent Community Research Centre is a catalyst engaging our youth into the inner workings of municipal government and Trent Community Research Centre provide  the format where students get hands on educational experience and we get valuable research material that we are able to implement into our Community projects. We are more than just roads and bridges, we also build, preserve and empower our community through various projects.  

Thank you to Laura Schindel, Logan Taylor, the Trent Community Research Centre and Trent University for their hard work and dedication to telling these stories.

The Peterborough County jail opened in 1842 and was closed almost one hundred and sixty years later in 2001. The institution was located behind the County court house in the downtown core of Peterborough, constructed from stone quarried in Jackson Park. It was funded by local men in government including well-known local names like Thomas A. Stewart. The purpose was to create a smaller institution in contrast to the larger complex located in Toronto. They also needed a jail to serve the Douro region. Originally, the jail served the purpose of a place to hold those convicted of petty crimes, such as drunkenness, shoplifting, homelessness, and those who had defaulted on loans. The jail served this purpose for much of its lifetime, and later became a place to hold more serious criminals on route to larger correctional institutes. This truly was a local institution, as it was funded, run and inhabited by local individuals. It was eventually closed when the province moved towards larger jails like Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay.

The current site of the jail is no longer home to the building itself, but its history is still being honoured. The Heritage Jail Park has been created where the building once stood and this park will act as a monument to the old county jail. Students from Trent University conducted a research project about the history of the jail, and the information from their report has been used for this website, as well as plaques in the Heritage Jail Park. The Peterborough County Jail provides insights into the Peterborough community and society at different points throughout history, and so it is very important to local history.


                                              Court House

Architecture of the Peterborough County Jail
In the nineteenth century jails were created for one purpose, which was to ensure that those who committed a criminal offense were no longer a nuisance to society. The architecture of the jail was very interesting because while the design was simple, it was also visually pleasing.

The original construction of the jail was meant for the management board in Kingston, Ontario, as Peterborough County was being divided and there was no facility for inmates in the Douro area. The Peterborough County Jail was unique in that it was not your typical nineteenth century jail. At the time, it was common for inmates to find themselves imprisoned in old houses, farms, or within businesses and industries.  As a change, the Peterborough County Jail was a new build and an extension of the already existing court house.  The jail was located in the northern end of downtown (originally ward three), and could not be seen from the street. The positioning of the jail behind the courthouse was to keep the justice based facilities in one area, and to also have criminals hidden from view by the institution that determined their fate. By ensuring the actual jail could not be seen from the street, it meant that the public would not have to be faced with these 'societal menaces', as in the expression, "out of sight, out of mind".

The jail was positioned behind the court house so the Eastern side would overlook the Otonabee River, and the Western side would face the court house. The placement of the jail was calculated and played upon the mind of the individual in an effort to ensure order and discipline. By placing the jail behind the court house it also gave a sense of ease to the public, as it was the facility in which justice could be put into practice. It also seems as though the placement of the jail was a way to hide the realities of injustices in the county area.

The Peterborough County Jail was designed in a Regency style of architecture, meaning it was based off of traditional British styles. This was important to the history of Peterborough because many of the buildings at the time came out of this style. Since Canada did not become an official country until 1867, and the jail construction began 1842, there was a sense of reliance on using the British style of building. By using this style of architecture it also demonstrated the loyalty of the people of Peterborough to the British. The project was made possible and led by Thomas A. Stewart, and the building committee of the jail committed itself to ensuring the construction of a large and elaborate building. In fact, the court house and jail were the two largest buildings to be built in the surrounding area. The construction budget was seven thousand pounds, and funds were generated from local taxpayers, rich or well off families, and the bank of Cobourg. 

It was very important for the construction to both stay within budget, and to create a structure that fit in with existing structures in Peterborough. Masons were hired for the construction of the jail, as well as a construction company to ensure that the structure fit into the surrounding environment. They were also responsible for stabilizing the concrete wall which made up the exercise yard.  There was only a small area of grass within the walls of the jail and it was quickly covered in concrete.  This was to reinforce the idea that jails were made to house criminals, so they were denied the 'creature comforts' most people take for granted. A concrete slab was also cheap to construct and was stable, so it suited the building committee who were heavily focused on keeping building costs as low as possible. The outside of the prison itself was constructed of stone quarried from Jackson Park, which was a cheap option. Visually, the stone also complimented the larger surrounding buildings, so it matched with others of importance in Peterborough County.

The layout within the jail was inspired by the Auburn State Prison in New York.  The approach was that prisoners should spend nights in a cell, but during the day they could mingle. Facilities were designed to be sanitary and secure and inmates were segregated depending on the seriousness of their crime committed. The jail was used as more of a holding spot for those with a short-term stay, and in its original construction, existing court rooms were also used towards facilities for the jail.


                            Picture of old jail cell

Wardens and Correctional Officers
The Peterborough County Jail was in operation for around 160 years and throughout that time there were a number of different wardens and correctional officers. It is difficult to determine a full history of all of these individuals, but we can be sure that throughout the history of the jail and its employees, there were a number of changes in technology and the attitudes towards offenders in society.

Over time, jails switched from being places that practiced punishment to places of rehabilitation. This means that the roles of correctional officers and warden's would have changed with the times.  This would also mean that the expectations and requirements for these position would have changed. Instead of having roles that mainly focused on punishment, wardens and correctional officers would have had to become educated in rehabilitation practices as well.

Little is known about specific individuals who worked at the Peterborough County Jail, but we do have one example of culture in the form of a song called Johnston's Hotel, which was found by Ed Arnold. The writer of the song is unknown. Within the song there are mentions of officers' names and there is also mention of Dalton Johnston, the jail's governor from 1920 until 1950, and Magistrate O.A. Langley, who was magistrate for the County for thirty years until the mid-1940's. This song gives us a small amount of insight into some of the individuals who worked at the Peterborough County Jail.


On the banks of the Otonabee

There's a nice little spot

There's a boarding house there where you get your meals hot

And across from the Quaker comes a corn flaky smell

To remind you that you're boarding at Johnston's Hotel.

If you want to get into Johnston's Hotel

Just drive down old George Street a raising blue hell

Dry bread and water won't cost you a cent

Your lights and your water go on your back rent.

Oh the rooms up at Johnston's are heated by steam,

The finest of rooms that I ever have seen

The rugs and the carpets are just simply swell

Don't you wish you were at Johnston's Hotel?

Now there's old Johnny Dainy not a bad scout you know

There's old Billy Wiggs he ain't bad also

There's Buffer and Moher, and Piercy as well

And they're looking for boarders at Johnston's Hotel.

There ain't much to do but clean up the park.

And doin' odd jobs from daylight to dark

And then after that I must simply tell

You go right to bed up at Johnston's Hotel.

The food up at Johnston's you get such a hoard,

If you want to cut steak and borrow a sword

There's pies and cake and goodies as well

Aren't you jealous of us up at Johnston's Hotel?

Oh you're up in front of Langley and be read your charge,

Oh my darling young boy you've been running at large

You're up in front of Langley and the truth you must tell.

And he gives you six months up at Johnston's Hotel.

Inmate Experience

The Peterborough County Jail began in 1842 with the formation of the district of Colborne and building of a court house and jail in Peterborough. The jail with which we are familiar, was built in 1865 and was in operation for about 160 years. From open to close, the world changed quite a lot, and with it so did the jail and its residents.

According to legislation, the Peterborough County Jail was meant to house prisoners serving sentences of approximately sixty days to two years (less a day).  However, early Ontario jails were more social institutions than penal ones. Peter Oliver states in Terror to Evil-doers that jails were not solely concerned with convicts but instead housed, "harmless citizens confined because they were old, sick, poor, or in debt. Imprisonment emerged in the late 1820's and the 1830's as the colony's principal secondary punishment..."  

When the Peterborough County Jail was built in 1856 it was created to be similar to the Auburn Prison System.  In the Auburn system prisoners participated in group work during the day and were in solitary confinement at night. There was also an enforced silence at all times to teach inmates discipline. The Auburn system also meant that the prison would show less public physical punishment, and instead they would move towards addressing mental health issues and punishment behind closed doors. Local Historian Elwood Jones claims that the jail took the place of a hospital, workhouse, and/or a House of Providence, almost like a hospice for some people. Local author Ed Arnold also explains that while working as past editor for the Peterborough Examiner one individual he had interviewed was an inmate, but was often found preparing meals in the kitchen, and eventually became the chef. This description brings thoughts of an institution of healing and support and so this was the environment of the jail at its creation.

When looking at the history of inmate experience within the Peterborough County Jail it is important to look at different types of offenders. Joan Sangster has done specific work on the Peterborough correctional system in the early to mid-twentieth century in regards to women. Her focus was on the lives of rural female offenders as opposed to law breaking women in urban centres.  Sangster's work provides information about the way that women came to be in jail, versus the experience of jail itself. By examining the Ontario Sessional Papers, she catalogued the women who came before the Peterborough court in the early to mid-twentieth century. She states that "women who found themselves before the [court] were predominantly poor and working-class," but men still outnumbered women in prisons nine to one.  Overall the focus on women and crime was on character weaknesses based on the external views of women, the opinions of lawmakers and the court. Women's roles and experiences were shaped entirely by the men in charge. The role of women is interesting to look at when compared to that of male inmates.

Towards the early to mid-twentieth century, there is slightly more information on who was in the jail and for what reasons. Ed Arnold mentions that at one point the jail held five men who were involved in a Tilco Plastics strike. One of these men, George Rutherford, wrote an article about his experience after the fact. He was an Executive Officer of the Peterborough and District Labour Council in 1966 and was jailed for contempt of a court order for demonstrating during the Tilco Plastics strike in 1966. Rutherford's article can be found in the 1973 edition of the Labour Review. Rutherford himself was transferred to the Millbrook Correctional Facility shortly after he got to Peterborough, but his story still rings true of experiences at the Peterborough County Jail at the time. He begins his article, "What's it like to spend two months in prison? This is a question I was asked in regards to my two month shot for contempt of court in the Tilco affair. As I had never been in jail before it was quite an experience but I would not want to take it up as a hobby." Rutherford spent the first five days in the Peterborough jail, but the "old [jail] building was never meant for [that] size of a crowd. They did not have enough blankets to go around and they had to send out for more beans and bread the day we landed." These reflections provide a sense of the size and ability of the Peterborough County Jail at this time. The full article seems to show that Rutherford deeply respected, if not admired the Peterborough County Jail. Although the jail was incapable of housing, even feeding, all the men, he acknowledged the beauty and the history of the institution. The jail was important in its time, it stood as a monument to the history of the county and the betterment of its peoples, and Rutherford realised this even when he only spent five days there.

Considering the stories from local historians and discussions of few real stories from the jail, it is easy to see that experiences at the Peterborough County Jail changed greatly between the time periods, genders, and ages. The jail was open for 150 years and capturing the experiences it saw through the ages is a large task.


               marriage at the County Jail newspaper article             jail cell                                                                              


 Mental Health
Over time, jails became overcrowded and institutional, instead of being places of recovery. They became places to warehouse people with mental illness. The Peterborough County jail housed countless women who were deemed 'unfit' mentally, or homeless people so that the streets of Peterborough could look better maintained. It is also interesting that in the case of almost all of the executions that took place at the Peterborough County Jail, the accused pled insanity. Although some would have done this in an attempt to avoid execution, a great number would have not received the help they needed to get well or survive life's challenges.  Inmates were tasked with maintenance work or other chores and responsibilities instead of having proper therapy sessions. Over-population in the jail was also common and often overlooked.

It seems that the focus of the Peterborough County Jail was about keeping streets clean and welcoming, rather than caring for those who needed help. There was also a lack of understanding in what was required when dealing with populations struggling with mental illness in prison environments.


                                            end of line inmate cell drawing

 Capital Punishment

Capital and corporal punishment were practiced throughout Canada from Confederation onward. Capital punishment is the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime, while corporal punishment is legal physical punishment. The last two executions took place in Canada in 1962 and in 1967, a sentence of mandatory life imprisonment was applied in all murder cases. In 1976, hanging was formally put to an end, except for those convicted under the National Defence Act and this practice was also ended in 1998. In comparison, the Peterborough County Jail practiced capital punishment until 1920.

Capital punishment meant to punish those who had committed crimes with the idea that the punishment matched the crime ('an eye for an eye'). It also had the important purpose of trying to control the public. It was typical for executions to be public events, so the purpose was to create fear in society, which would hopefully discourage others from committing crimes. For a period of time, those charged of crimes were not even tried, instead it was up to the Crown or the mayor to determine if a person would be hanged or not.

Over the course of its history, there were five hangings at the Peterborough County Jail. All of inmates who were hung were all men, and all were of different ages, ethnicity and social origins. All of the hangings occurred in the jail yard which still remains today, though, at the time of the hangings the walls were sixteen feet high and almost two feet thick. The walls were made of thick stone from the local Jackson Park.  The walls were meant to look fortress like, to have the hangings remain in public view, but also to follow Canadian laws of having it within prison walls. Even though only certain viewers were admitted in to executions, the event could be heard. As mentioned before, capital punishment was viewed as having more than one purpose. Those who watched the hangings were mostly inmates, who saw the heavy impact of a former inmate take his last breath. Of all these hangings, there were many questions surrounding the mental health of those who died.

The first execution was of William Brenton (also known as James Foxx), hanged on December 26th, 1873.  Brenton was said to be roughly fifty years old, archeologists were unable to determine if he were born in 1820 or 1822. He was a single  individual, without a family, or children and was found guilty for the murder of a woman and a young boy. This was confirmed by fingerprints and witness accounts. Although there is no real information about why he had two names, it is probably because the false or assumed identity could have been associated to other crimes committed in his lifetime. During his trial, Brenton claimed insanity, saying he was not aware of his actions or the murder he had committed. However, after several evaluations from several different physicians, he was deemed sane and was found guilty of the two murders.

The second and most controversial hanging took place on June 23, 1910 at seven in the morning.  This was the execution of Robert Henderson, who was seventeen years-old and was an immigrant to Canada from England. As described in the book by Ed Arnold, Henderson was a bit of an outsider who often found himself in trouble with the law. He was mostly in trouble because of petty crimes of stealing money. Seen as a con man, Henderson was able to ask for donations for a number of causes. For example, after immigrating to Toronto, Henderson took on the identity of a church representative and asked for donations, but did not share them with the church. People quickly caught on to his tricks, and that is what led to his arrival in Peterborough. Once here, he again took up his con act ways, which took a terrible turn. Henderson had heard that two older sisters, the McPhersons, living in Norwood were hoarding money. The police were looking for him in Peterborough, so he left the city and travelled to Norwood where he tried to convince the sisters into helping him search for his non-existent brother. His plan was to rob them, which eventually led to him getting an axe (they lived on a farm) and resulted in the murder of Margaret McPherson. Henderson was arrested, brought to Havelock and then to the county jail where he was tried and found guilty almost immediately. Described as a "man without anxiety," the crown's case against him was quite short, only two hours and forty minutes in length. The whole court process itself took less than 12 hours. For months following, Henderson's lawyer tried to fight the decision, escalating the case as high as the Prime Minister based on a contention that Henderson "seemed without moral sense."   At 7:13 a.m. on June 23rd, Henderson's rope was cut, and by 9 am, the casket was removed and the body was buried in a local cemetery.

There are few details, but it is know that the third and fourth hangings were of two men, Michael Barhi and Thomas Konek. They were considered 'Partners in crime', and so the two of them were convicted of the murder of Philip Yanoff in the course of a robbery in Havelock. They were hanged on January 14, 1920.  It is also interesting to note that there was a third individual involved in the crime - but as an accomplice, he was sent to the Kingston Penitentiary to receive rehabilitation. Barhi was twenty-three years old and Australian by birth and Konek was twenty-six years old of Russian decent. The last person to be hanged at the Peterborough County Jail was Edward Franklin who was 43 years old. He was hung on November 29th, 1933, for the murder of Eugene Lee.

What is interesting to note about all of these executions is that all of the people who were executed were male and immigrants to Canada. This is an interesting reflection on the time period, as it shows that the community had a number of different individuals who had many different personal circumstances.


                                          capital punishment gallows in yard

2001 Riot

After one-hundred fifty-nine years in operation, the Peterborough County Jail closed in December of 2001.  At the time, the Peterborough jail was only being used to house prisoners who had short sentences, court remands, and it was a holding area before court sentencing or transferring.  The decision to close the jail was the result of two main reasons. First, the province was planning to build two more centralized "super jails" to replace 20 smaller municipal jails, and Peterborough was included in this number. Then in June of 2001, 12 inmates rioted causing thousands of dollars in damages. Due to the provincial building plans these damages were never repaired, thus the jail older than Canada itself closed on December 11, 2001.

 The move to large super jails was mainly a financial one. When a Conservative government came into power in 1995, there was a clear focus on a transformation of the correctional system. The change was to make the system one that was much tougher on criminals, while also being more financially efficient. There was also discussion of transferring some of the running of jails to the private sector versus the government. Also, most, if not all, of the small municipal and provincial jails were old and needed repairs, and were far too expensive to maintain. In 1996, the government announced the large-scale Infrastructure Renewal Project, which included retrofitting and repairing some existing jails, and closing many municipal jails in order to open two "super jails." These new jails would house approximately 1200 inmates, have more high-tech surveillance and architecture, and employ fewer correctional officers. They would also have a more cost-efficient food service system.  This move to more centralized jails was estimated to save taxpayers between 75 and 80 million dollars a year in the long run.  Through a long proposal and selection process, the towns of Lindsay and Penetanguishene were chosen as the sites of the new super jails. Three jails in the Toronto area were also selected for renovation.  However, despite the expected profit for the province this move was widely criticized and opposed by inmate rights activists, as well as scholars and professionals within the correctional system. Critics claimed that prisoners at these new super jails would not have full access to the justice system and would be even further away from their families. For an inmate at the Peterborough Count Jail, moving to Lindsay is not a major geographical shift, however moving to Penetanguishene from Haileybury would undoubtedly disconnect an inmate from their family. In 2000, provincial Minister of Corrections Rob Sampson stated "we will never build glorified country clubs to house Ontario's inmates. We have, instead, instituted a tough no frills correctional institution that sends the message that crime does not pay." 

Just southwest of the Peterborough jail and also facing closure, was the much newer Millbrook Jail. Having opened in 1957, this institution's purpose was to house the more "hardened" prisoners who were pushing back against the correctional system. The Millbrook Jail was intended to be a "maximum security" jail in response to the violent and serious riots at the Guelph Reformatory in 1952. After only six months in operation, the Globe and Mail called it a success and predicted that due to its victory at the provincial level it would eventually be passed over to the federal government and turned into a penitentiary.  It was clear that this was a fruitful and profitable jail, yet with the move to a more centralized provincial correctional system, it closed in May 2003, just five years after a riot that made news even in Toronto. On the evening of May 6th 1998, two prisoners at the Millbrook jail broke out into a brawl in the jail yard. This brawl quickly escalated into an all-out riot, causing damage to recreational equipment, an out building and broken glass in the main building. Soon prisoners occupied the yard and refused to cooperate. Although no one was hurt, negotiators were in talks with the inmates late into the night. At the time, the Millbrook facility housed approximately 300 prisoners and was only seven months from a riot that had sent three people to hospital.  The 1998 riot resulted in charges being laid against those involved.  Unlike the 2001 riot at the Peterborough jail however, the Millbrook jail remained open for four more years after the newsworthy riot.

The above stories are important to help understand the riot in Peterborough as they provide examples of the environment in prisons around the time of the 2001 riot. One of the main sources of information on the Peterborough County Jail riot, was written fourteen years after the fact by former Peterborough Examiner editor Ed Arnold. Otherwise there is little to no information in regards to the riot that can be found. The 2015 Examiner article by Arnold states that the riot started when twelve of the fifty inmates in the jail on June 26th, 2001 were sitting down for supper in a common room when they learned that there had been cutbacks at the jail and educational programs. Supplies like new toothbrushes and soap were also being postponed in the budget. The lack of budget, and funding cuts can probably be attributed to the new provincial plan towards a centralized jail system; the smaller jails were losing funding for the newer jails' construction. This caused these general population offenders, men accused of property crimes, assaults, and one for attempted murder, to start throwing food. There were only three guards on duty and they were only armed with clubs. This meant that they had to back off and so things quickly escalated into a violent and destructive riot. According to Arnold, "the inmates used their bare hands to rip apart the area, tearing metal frames away from their beds, using them as hammers and chisels, punching through walls, destroying washroom facilities, furniture, and the television and tearing off wall radiators. Small fires were ignited." They caused so much damage that after the riot ended the guards and prisoners were relocated to Millbrook. Although police, fire, and negotiating services were called in, no one was hurt and the public would be told this was only a minor disturbance. One jail official called it the worst destruction he had ever seen, and it was the first and worst disturbance at the jail in its 150-year history. There is little information about the riot, and maybe because of the 1998 Millbrook riot the province was choosing to keep these older soon-to-be-closed jails out of the press.

Not much is clear about the 2001 Peterborough County Jail riot. What we do know is that twelve inmates rioted and caused such structural damage that the jail was no longer functional, and that this riot led to the official closure of the jail later that year.


                                              damage done during riot to walls

1864 Time Capsule

On August 19th, 2016 a time capsule that was buried in 1864 was found by S.A. Sutcliffe Excavating Ltd., during demolition of the Peterborough Jail at the Peterborough County Court House. Historical records had indicated the presence of the time capsule, and Peterborough County staff were able to work with local historians to determine the location. The time capsule was found under the cornerstone of the jail, and was housed in a Harkell air tight jar. The contents of the jar was very informative in regards to life in 1864 as it contained: three photographs, a proclamation (related to the time capsule), copies of the Peterborough Examiner for June 9th, 1864, and the Review for June 3rd, 1864. There was also the County Council minutes from 1863 and 1864, calling cards for the Jailor and his assistant, five coins and the Canadian Almanac for 1864. In order to commemorate this piece of Peterborough County history, a display has been created in the County Court House which displays the contents of the time capsule for the public to see.


                                               time capsule


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