Ottawa Jail (Carleton) | Ontario | Canada

Ottawa Jail – – 75 Nicholas Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – MAP

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History of Ottawa Jail

The Ottawa Jail (once called Carleton) was opened in 1862.  At the time, Canada’s most modern facility.  But modern didn’t mean luxurious. 

Criminals suffering was their business and business was good. Sad point, it wasn’t just criminals.  Prisoners included men, women and children.  Some only there due to family debts.  Or wives and kids needing to live with their husband for support. 

Some entire families called the Ottawa Jail home.

Ottawa Jail (Carleton), Ottawa, Ontario
Historic image from Nicholas Street, Ottawa

They weren’t treated so bad.  Other than being in a desolate and disgusting place of course. 

The worst offenders were punished.  The jail took on a personality of dread.  Would-be criminals could now see it, the imposing structure hanging over the newly founded city of Ottawa.

Fear worked!  The year this jail opened saw a 50% decrease in inmates, from 416 at the old jail and now 232 in the new one. Long-serving inmates confirmed this, being quoted,

“We liked the old [jail] better”.

Life in the Ottawa Jail – –

Life in this prison was a test of patience.  All day and night you lived in a tiny cell measuring 3 by 9 feet.  Barely wide enough to fit a small cot.  Inmates allowed times to walk confined halls in each cell block.  No heat, lighting, ventilation, or toilets.

For decades officials and the public looked down on the jail.  Including Ottawa’s mayor in 1945, Stanley Lewis.  Publicly stating,

“The jail is a relic of the dark ages.  The day has passed when offenders of the law are merely shut up and left to moulder away.  Steps should be taken to help such people.”

Didn’t help though.  The Ottawa Jail surprisingly remained a prison until 1972.  Closed for being considerably cruel.  One year later it was converted into a Hostel.

A hostel is overnight accommodations for cost-weary travelers.  And before you think the same standards were kept … note they eventually knocked out walls to expand the cells, adding comfortable and clean bunk beds.  No worse than any camp sleepover.

“The Hole” – –

Solitary Confinement, or “The Hole” was, and is, a place to avoid.  Punished men were stripped naked and chained face-down to the cold stone floor.  Left alone for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day.  Allowed only 15 minutes to get up and stretch.

The cell is still there in the basement and is open to visitors.  Psychic or not, you can stand inside and easily feel the dread.  Iron loops still come out of the floor.  That’s where they attached chains to hold the prisoner down.

Also in the basement was Quarantine, used to house Canadian immigrants suspected of being “diseased”. 

This definitely feels different than your average hotel. 

Patrick J. Whelan – –

Now I’ll tell you about Patrick Whelan.  As young as 14 years old he travelled all over, until arriving in Canada

It’s 1865, and Whelan served in the military fighting the Fenian’s.  Irish patriots fighting British rule in Ireland.  Irish men living in the United States after the Civil War were called to action.

What better way to hurt the British than attack their colony of Canada?  However, it was more of a nuisance than a war.  A couple of battles and the destruction of the first Brock’s Monument in Queenston (near Niagara Falls). 

Funny thing with Patrick.  Many believed him to be sympathetic to the enemy.  Whelan is a traditionally Irish name.  Questions on his loyalty come into play after he murders McGee.  But I’ll come back to that.

He’d lived in Buffalo, Hamilton and Montreal before the then 27-year-old settled down with a 57-year-old upper-class woman named Bridget Boyle.  They lived in Ottawa.  Patrick worked as a merchant tailor.

Patrick J. Whelan - - Only known image
Patrick J. Whelan – – Only known image

Then it’s April in 1868.  Thomas D’Arcy McGee walked up to his boarding house on Sparks Street in Downtown Ottawa.   

Once an Irish nationalist and advisory to the British.  McGee later changed his mind.  Speaking out against the Fenian raids of Canada.  This didn’t sit well with the Irish.  Including, as legend has it, Patrick Whelan.

Back on Sparks Street, McGee fumbled to find his keys as owner Mary Ann Trotter opened the door from the other side.  A .32 pistol went off in the darkness.  Hit McGee hard on the neck, knocking the dentures right from his mouth. 

He died on that spot.

Whelan’s a Criminal

Whelan was a top suspect.  Found with a .32 pistol in his pocket.  At trial, evidence was presented showing how Whelan stalked McGee.  Even threatened the man.  Before forensic evidence presented that the gun was recently fired. 

A verdict of guilty and he was sentenced to hang.  As Patrick walked out, he said to the jury,

“I am held to be a murderer.  I am here standing on the brink of my grave, and I wish to declare to you and to my God that I am innocent, that I never committed this deed.”

Do you question the verdict?  Before you do, please note a modern forensic test was done in 1972.  According to historian David Wilson,

“Probability suggests Whelan either shot McGee, or was part of a hit-squad.  There’s still room for doubt if he pulled the trigger”. 

Still, in the end he most likely had guilt.

On February 11, 1869 he stood in front of 5,000 witnesses.  Patrick Whelan publicly displayed on an external facing gallows inside the Ottawa Jail.  It’s there they hanged him until dead. This was the last public hanging in Canadian history. 

A view of the Ottawa Jail gallows - - same view 5,000 people had at Whelan's execution
A view of the Ottawa Jail gallows – – same view 5,000 people had at Whelan’s execution

Note the word “public”.  Private hangings continued in Canada up to, get this, 1962.  The last being at the Don Jail in Toronto.


Maybe most haven’t read the updated evidence through David Wilson.  The guilt of Patrick Whelan is still questioned.  No folks more than Whelan’s family.  They believe his innocence to this day. 

If he were innocent… imagine the pain and anger Whelan must have felt.  Locked inside that tiny cell on the upper floor death row.  No doubt it’s a hot spot today.  The condemned man a leading ghost.

Daniel’s Experience in Whelan’s Cell – –

I believe it.  A couple times, years ago, I stayed overnight in the jail.  It really is a unique experience.  See Hi-Hostels website for details.

For me it happened while hosting a bus trip to Ottawa.  Close to midnight and I was wandering death row with a few others.  Inside Whelan’s cell we setup what I like to call “the dreaded divination tool”’, also known as the Ouija Board

It was active.  The spirit identified itself as Patrick Whelan. 

We started with light questions such as “how was it like living in the jail?”.  Also asking about his experiences.  Then moving to the subject of Darcy McGee.  The Ouija stopped moving.

Then the room shifted.  Once light and comfortable, the space turned heavy.  Everyone felt it, psychic or not.  We weren’t welcome. 

The feeling was dreadful.  So palpable we left, ending our investigation.

Whelan’s cell on death row remains one of the most haunted spaces in Canada.  Noises are heard at all hours.  And Whelan himself seen walking the cell and hallways in death row.

Outside the cells in the Ottawa Jail (Carleton), Ottawa, Ontario
Standing outside the larger cells of Ottawa Jail

The “Vampire” – –

Also, there’s the “Vampire”.  Sort of.

Derived from a mysterious note left in a secret staircase reading,

“I am a non-veridical Vampire who will vanquish you all.  One by one I will ornate your odorous flesh with famished fangs.  But Who?  Are there 94 or 95 steps to the 9th floor?  A book on the top shelf will lead you on the right path.”

And below in a circle is an inverted code, “S3a”. 

A mystery with a legend.  As scared up by author Mark Leslie in his book Creepy Capital

It states the 8-year-old son of a former Warden was possessed by a “vampire ghost”.  Make the boy sick, changed his personality.  The once tough boy acted different and had a deathly fear of the dark.  That’s it.  Usually lack of detail ensures stories like this remain legends forever. 

Was it a vampire ghost?  Or maybe a deep-thinking fellow attempting poetry.

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