Behind The Bars
Huron County Museum And Historic Gaol
The Huron Historic Gaol is a unique octagonal building that served as the County Gaol from its opening in 1841 until its closure in 1972. At the time of construction, it was viewed as a model of humanitarian prison design. Originally the building served as Gaol for the United Counties of Huron, Bruce & Perth, but eventually each county separated and the building served only the County of Huron for the majority of its history. Today, the Huron Historic Gaol is a popular National Historic Site welcoming thousands of visitors each year.
Step up to the imposing front entrance of the Huron Historic Gaol and look into the gloom. Your eyes will slowly become accustomed to the low light as you walk along the stone walled corridor. It is 2018 and you are just a visitor here, however, your heart may still skip a beat, your knees may tremble and a lump may swell in your throat if you think of the others whose footsteps you are following in – some would be walking to the gallows while many others were approaching sanctuary.
In the absence of a House of Refuge in Huron County prior to the turn of the century, the Gaol became a de facto poorhouse, hospital, a home for unwed mothers and a long-term care facility. In the nineteenth-century, the Gaol staff consisted of the Gaoler, Matron, Turnkey, Gaol Surgeon, and any servants or family members who lived on site. These individuals provided front line care to the old and sick in addition to their duties of managing the Gaol and guarding actual criminals.
Inmates were usually separated by age, gender, and severity of crime. The design of the separate cell blocks and courtyards was intended to keep men, women, children and serious offenders segregated. There were 12 cells and four holding cells in the Gaol, but the prisoner population would occasionally spike to over 20
The youngest inmates that were charged with a crime were both seven years old. The first, Thomas McGinn, was charged in 1888 for larceny. He was discharged five days later and was sentenced to five years in a reformatory. The second, John Scott, was charged in 1900 for truancy; he was discharged the next day. During its operation hundreds of children were arrested and spent time in the Gaol. Their crimes ranged from arson and theft to drunkenness and vagrancy. Thefts made up over half of all youth charges between 1841 and 1911.
During that same time period, women made up nine per cent of the Gaol’s population. Some of the crimes committed by women included public drunkenness, prostitution, vagrancy, theft, infanticide and murder.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the mentally ill, the destitute and those charged with drunkenness accounted for almost 60 per cent of those sheltered in the Huron Gaol. Murder only accounted for one per cent. Theft, larceny and assault rounded out the majority of the inmates’ crimes in that era. Some of the other charges prisoners faced included: using profane language, truancy, milking a cow, refusing to support wife and family and attracting the affections of another man’s wife.
Three hangings took place at the Huron Gaol including the last public hanging in Canada of Nicholas Melady on December 7, 1869. Melady was hanged for the murder of his father and stepmother. Nearly 300 onlookers made the trek to Goderich to witness this event in the early morning. Several others faced disappointment in missing the spectacle as they arrived too late.
Learn More about Huron’s unique past at the Huron County Museum and Historic Gaol
The Huron County Museum is open year round.
The Huron Historic Gaol is open seasonally.
110 North Street, Goderich ON
A CONVERSATION WITH THE PAST
Margaret Dickson was the wife of Gaoler, William Dickson and the Gaol’s Matron from 1876 until her death in 1895. At the Huron Historic Gaol’s Behind the Bars program you can meet Mrs. Dickson in person and learn about her life and events at the Gaol before the turn of the century. We had the chance to ask Mrs. Dickson a few questions; here’s what we learned:
What are your responsibilities as Matron here at the Huron Gaol?
I take care of the female prisoners and their children. I manage their work and make sure they are healthy and clean. I also frequently attend to our elderly and sick prisoners and act as a nurse to them.
What are some of the reasons that women would be sent to the Huron Gaol?
There are many reasons I see women in Gaol: from servant girls accused of stealing to drunks, but sadly lunacy and vagrancy seem the most common for female prisoners.
Tell me more about the children who are in your care.
We do sometimes see very young children here. There have been quite a few arrested for getting into mischief like theft or destroying property, and if they keep misbehaving they might end up at the reformatory or an industrial school. Other wee ones come in with their families because they have nowhere else to go. We’ve even had babies in this Gaol! On occasion I have even assisted with their delivery.