|“Try to Break Out of THIS Jail, Buster”
Louis and I had two purposes for heading to the pretty lakeside town of Goderich. The first was to witness the damage done to its downtown by the summer 2011 tornado . The second was to visit the National Historic Site Huron County Gaol and Courthouse.
From all media reports after that menacing weather event, I knew the sturdy gaol was holding up far better than many of Goderich’s businesses.
Construction began on The Huron County Gaol and Courthouse in 1839, almost 30 years before Canada’s nationhood. Designed by architect Thomas Young, this holding pen was something special–with security and a touch of humanitarianism in mind.
Stone quarried from the nearby Maitland River was laid two feet thick around the central cell blocks. And on the remote possibility that an ambitious inmate clawed his way out of his “bedroom” wall, he faced another another two foot wall around the outer exercise yard wall.
Try digging your way out of this fortress, Andy Dufresne of “The Shawshank Redemption!”
Young’s octagonal design was the real innovation. It was based on British social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s “Panoptican” model. With eight arms leading from a central hub, the prison’s gaolers could observe inmates without the bad guys knowing that “Big Brother” was watching.
Over its 130-year history, the Huron County Gaol hosted three hangings. Two were conducted publicly; the second in 1869 took place outside the gaol walls to accommodate the expected crowd. This was Canada’s last public hanging.
Two celebrity inmates resided the gaol’s eight-sided walls. James Donnelly a member of Lucan’s murderous Black Donnelly gang was housed here for a time before his transfer to Kingston Penitentiary.
And 14-year-old Steven Truscott awaited execution here from September 1959, to January 1960. At the 11th hour, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was transferred.
In 1972 the stately “old lady” was closed, with all inmates transferred to regional facilities. The Huron County Gaol and Courthouse was designated as a National Historic Site in 1973.
It now serves as a museum and is open in the summer season. The Huron County Historical Society conducts tours which include virtual “visits” with some long-departed inmates. They include Mary who was sent to jail for “vagrancy” and Sarah, committed for “insanity.”
Combine a trip to Goderich with a visit to another National Historic Site, the Point Clarke Lighthouse.