20th Century, Institutions

The Faces of Kingston Penitentiary

A young inmate from Gananoque. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349019. (click image to go to source)

A young inmate from Gananoque. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349019. (click image to go to source)

There is an interesting collection of pages from old Kingston Penitentiary inmate description ledgers available on the Library and Archives Canada website. Ranging from the early 1900s to about 1919, these pages provide information such as the convict’s name, age, birthplace, crime committed, distinctive marks, and for men only, two mugshots. I’m not sure why they didn’t photograph women – or if they did, why they kept the photos elsewhere.

I don’t know much about the history of the Penitentiary and it’s never been a real interest of mine (I’m bored to tears by virtually all crime/prison books, movies, etc.) but it’s hard to deny the fascination that these pages contain. Despite the lack of information on these people, I feel a tinge of sympathy for some of them, like the boy above convicted of “Buggery,” which was, in 1919, a vague and yet very specific offence (read more about it here – scroll down to “Background”). Here are a few interesting pages from the Archives’ collection:

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349308 (click image to go to source)

The circa 1916 newspaper article above is about a woman, Louise Cull, convicted of manslaughter after a woman she performed an abortion on died. Cull “protested her innocence of any criminal intent” but there was much evidence that she regularly performed abortions and was paid for it. A widowed former nurse, originally from England, Cull’s sentence was decreased to five years’ imprisonment due to her age, fifty-seven.

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349168 (click image to go to source)

The above ledger page shows a dignified-looking man at the top. He was sentenced to five years in the Penitentiary for “theft and misappropriation of funds entrusted to his care.” He had apparently been a prominent lawyer in London, Ontario. Also interesting on this page (and others) is the description of tattoos on prisoners. For example, Sidney Tooley had “Sidney and Mabel,” among many other things (including what seems to be Queen Victoria?) tattooed on his forearms. I remember reading of another young man who had “I love Gladys Knight” tattooed on him. I guess it would take many decades of regrettable relationship tattoos to put that trend to rest…

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349460 (click image to go to source)

Deserters from the army, probably trying to evade conscription, are common around 1917 and 1918. It seems harsh in my opinion to imprison people for 1-2 years for deserting.

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349507 (click image to go to source)

Before we get to the rather tragic story on this page, let me first call your attention to the odd man with the Dr. Strangelove glasses at the top – kind of creepy! Sadly, he’s upstaged by Grapina Shulman, an Austrian woman from Saskatchewan, who was sentenced to twelve years for murder. This sentence was commuted from a death sentence only because it was found that her husband, whom she killed, was excessively cruel to her. She was only twenty-seven, and had to leave four children behind in an orphanage in Saskatchewan.

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349450 (click image to go to source)

These men were all imprisoned for either “being members of unlawful society” or “having literature in an enemy language.” I wonder what the backstory was?

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349282 (click image to go to source)

Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4349282 (click image to go to source)

Finally, I’m including this man because he had a strange tattoo listed in his distinctive marks: “Woman’s figure with hand over eyes, looking over lake or sea.” He also, inexplicably because he was from Quebec City, had the Stars and Stripes tattooed on his other arm. What could these things have meant to him? I recently tried finding research on the history of prison and soldier tattooing but came up mostly dry, so if anyone has any suggestions I’d be interested to know.

There are many, many more prison ledger pages out there, some more gruesome than others. I hope you found this selection interesting! If you want to look at more, simply go to the Library and Archives Canada image search page, enter “kingston penitentiary inmates,” and you’re good to go!

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4 thoughts on “The Faces of Kingston Penitentiary

  1. Hi Fran. This is timely for me because I am just reading The Convict Lover by Merilyn Simonds. I hear they are doing tours again. I’d love to go on one. I recommend the Penitentiary Museum. It’s very interesting.

    • I’d love to go on a tour too, unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to! I hope you’re enjoying The Convict Lover, it sounds like a really interesting story 🙂

  2. cadeauca says:

    Even though I’m side eye-ing a lot of these cases, these ledgers are really interesting to look at. Thanks for sharing! I don’t know why I haven’t looked into it before. I mention the Kingston Penitentiary quite often to visitors given the museum I work in is based out of an old jail.

    As for the “having literature in an enemy language” group, LAC says it’s from 1918 so they probably got caught with German literature or something along those lines. If that’s the case, what a silly crime to charge someone with!

    • Yeah, some of the cases are really awful, they’re hard to read about sometimes! Kingston is still trying to figure out what to do with our now-empty old jail, it’ll be a hard decision because it’s so old, huge, and has so much history. Come to think of it I should check out the Penitentiary Museum again some day. As for the enemy literature, people back then seemed so excessively paranoid! I suppose the war seemed so destructive that no one wanted to take any chances though.

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