Don Jail : Toronto’s Torture Prison

Don Jail Address – – Toronto, Ontario | Addresses – 550 Gerrard Street East – MAP

The Don Jail in Toronto is strong, imposing, powerful… words given to architect William Thomas in the 1850’s.

 

Bust done by his brother John, only image of William
William Thomas

William was commissioned to build Toronto’s jail, to be known as The Don (after the river). Who better than a master of gothic style, responsible for Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Courthouse, Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall, Brock’s Monument and more.

In 1865, 5 years after his death, William’s vision was realized in The Don Gaol (Jail).

The Don Jail -- circa 1800s
The Don Jail — circa 1800s

Made to hold 276 prisoners, then as with many prisons of every generation, they’d break the rule by housing an over 600 in the same space. It was justified as a short-term stay. Prisoners only subjected to horror for a few days. Then more broken promises as most stayed up to 3 months.

“It’s inhumane!” Reported activists, politicians and even prison guards working in the Don. Conditions so bad, one day here was considered three days against their sentence.

The Toronto Star expose of 2003 saw reporter Linda Diebel setup a tour. She would write about the experience “like walking into a madhouse from another century”.

Dramatic Escape

What better criminal of the 1950’s than a “brash bank robber”?

Edwin Boyd met fellow inmate Lennie Jackson when locked together in the same small cell. Lennie was tough and freely shared why. How he came face-to-face with a train, losing his leg and living with a prosthetic. Lennie felt trust for Edwin and was completely honest, opening the fake leg and showing him the hacksaw hidden inside.

Soon Edwin and Lennie were joined by Willie Jackson (no relation to Lennie) and Steve Suchan to form the famous Boyd Gang.

Wanted Dead or Alive -- Boyd Gang
Wanted Dead or Alive — Boyd Gang

In 1951, they sawed through jail cell bars to escape. Hold on… take a moment to think about it. How did they do it? Noise of saw against iron, damage in plain sight, other inmates watching on. Either the story is incorrect, or a testament to how it was lawless and unsupervised.

They Boyd Gang escaped, following Edwin into numerous bank robberies lasting a few months.

In early 1952, Edwin and Willie were caught and returned to the jail. Not long after, Steve and Lennie were pulled over by a Toronto officer in a routine stop. Steve shot the officer who later died. They were later found and arrested, for murder.

All four men were returned to the Don Jail and put in the same cell. Shockingly (sarcasm), they escaped again only a couple months later. Toronto’s mayor, Allan Lamport publically stated, “the jail is being run by a bunch of morons”.

The police were smarter. Just a few days later and the gang were cornered inside an old barn nearby in the Don Valley.

Later that year, Steve and Lennie were hanged at the Don. Willie got 30 years and Edwin got eight life sentences for being the mastermind.

Didn’t matter, both men were released in 1966. Boyd lived till 2002 when dying at the age of 88.

One reason why Edwin Boyd became the famed escape artist… the conditions at the Don Jail. One of his quotes before returning to the Don in 1952, he told a reporter “I’ll saw my way out again, if I’m in there another month”.

The Hangings

26 men were hanged inside the jail’s gallows building.

The last men hanged in Canadian history, and at the Don, were Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas. Then capital punishment was outlawed in Canada.

 

Other men hanged at the Don Jail …

  • George Bennett in 1880 for murdering local historic figure George Brown
  • John Boyd in 1908 for murdering a man on York Street over jealousy for a woman
  • Fred Lee Rice in 1905 for murdering a constable while being transferred to the Don. The carriage seized from the side by an unknown rider who threw guns in. Rice got a gun and started firing, hitting the Constable before being held down. Two other prisoners, one killed trying to escape, other survived but committed suicide in his cell (of his own hand?)
  • Roy Hotrum and William McFadden in 1921 for shooting a drug store owner during a robbery
  • Lennie and Steve in 1952 of the Boyd Gang for murdering the officer
  • Ronald and Arthur in 1962 for murder and believed to be the final executions in Canada
Protesting the last hanging in Canada -- Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin
Protesting the last hanging in Canada — Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin in 1962

The gallows were dismantled in 1977. The Minister showed concern that pieces would gain infamy on an underground market. Out of respect, he setup a ceremony. Only a few workers and activists invited to swing sledgehammers against the wall and scaffolding till the entire structure was destroyed.

The Skeletons of a Shady Past

In 2007, graves were accidental exposed during renovations. Asphalt torn up to reveal skeletal faces underneath; the remains of nine condemned men including George Bennett.

Unearthing the hanged --Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007 (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Unearthing the hanged –Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007 (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bennett worked in the engine room at Toronto’s Globe & Mail newspaper. He was fired for “intemperance”, usually referring to drunkenness.

Artist Henri Julien depicts the murder -- April 10, 1880
Artist Henri Julien depicts the murder (released April 10, 1880)

Out of anger, Bennett returned to the office in March of 1880 with a gun. He shot the Globe’s founder, and famous Canadian historical figure, George Brown in the thigh. The wound infected, Brown died and Bennett hanged for it.

Playful Ghost irritates Guards

In 2005, the general space of the Don Jail was a gathering place for male inmates. To release tension, one may work the punching bag.

One night, a guard heard an inmate yelling out from his cell. The prisoner pointed to the nearby punching bag and swore he heard a slap and chains rattling. The guard looked around the bag, found nothing and told the inmate, “forget about it and sleep”.

Soon other inmates started complaining of rattling chains. “Someone’s punching it!”

The fed up guards turned on the lights for a full search and prisoner count. Everyone was in their cells; no one missing. The lights shut down and guards returned to their post.

Later on, during a routine walk two guards heard a noise. Strong slap against leather and rattling chains.

They ran to the punching bag and watched it slowly swinging.

 

Lady of the Don

Walking the Don Jail can be stressful for any guard. Mostly it’s the fear of escaping inmates causing violence, however at the Don add ghosts to the list.

In the 1890’s, a female inmate fashioned a noose from her bed sheets inside of a tiny west wing cell. She hanged herself, took her life but never left.

Guards walking the second level at the entrance to the west wing will see her. The Lady of the Don would appear, angry, pacing side to side, her white gown swaying.

Journalist Tracey Tyler of The Toronto Star’s legal affairs section put it best, “apparently she’s violent due to being trapped in time”

Wandering inside Toronto’s Don Jail by Karlo Sun

A true lover of history! Here’s his vlog

Latest update as of 2016! :: The Don Jail will be incorporated into its neighbour, the new Bridgepoint Hospital