A prison of the past

The Frontenac County Court House was once home to a cellblock and the City’s gallows. Now, little indication of its history remains.

Images of the jail that was torn down in 1973 point to the historical roots of the Frontenac County Court House
Images of the jail that was torn down in 1973 point to the historical roots of the Frontenac County Court House

Within the span of 86 years, seven prisoners met their grisly fate just steps from campus.

Behind the Frontenac County Court House, located on the north edge of City Park, once stood the gallows of the City’s Court House and jail.

Any inmate sentenced to death in Kingston was taken to the Frontenac County Court House for their execution. Five bodies of those executed were buried on-site, below the jail yard.

Though the Court House still exists, there’s little indication of what once existed behind it. Decades ago, the prison complex was torn down. The site is now used as the Court House’s back parking lot.

Local historians, however, believe there’s a possibility that human remains still lie beneath the site. The exact location of where the remains were buried is unknown.

“We’re left to guess because the documentation is a little sketchy,” said Kingston historian Jennifer McKendry. “We don’t have written proof to say every corpse that was buried there was removed.” There’s documented evidence of only one of the bodies being disinterred, in 1972. The body was then reburied at the Cataraqui Cemetery.

The jail, which stood for 118 years, consisted of a single cellblock and a yard with a two-storey wall around the perimeter. The execution room in the jail had doors that would swing open during a hanging so the public could witness the convict’s expiration.

The site of the former prison and gallows has been a subject of study for local historians and archeological groups.

In June 2010, McKendry and several other collaborators were hired by the City to compile a Commemorative Integrity Statement (CIS) on the Court House and its lot.

The document, available online, outlines the historic, architectural and archaeological significance of the site.

The City’s Official Plan requires that a CIS be compiled for each National Historical Site in Kingston in order to identify its importance and potential for development. According to the City’s Real Estate and Construction Services, there are no current plans to construct on the land.

“They were looking at the potential for adding a rear wing to the building,” McKendry said. “I personally would not be pleased [if this happened] because it’s one of the few buildings in which the back elevation ... is very handsome, well designed. I don’t want it to be obscured by any old addition on it.”

This isn’t the first time the City has pondered the possibility of adding an addition to the back of the building. In 1999, Queen’s eyed the Court House for the site of its new School of Business facilities.

According to a proposal submitted by the School of Business to Kingston’s City Council, there was interest in adding a three-storey expansion behind the Court House in order to accommodate classroom facilities.

Concerns about this plan were raised from organizations such as the Frontenac Law Association that is housed in the Court House and the local Historical Society.

The City didn’t respond to the proposal, and the University opted to build the facilities on the grounds of Victoria School, which is now Goodes Hall.

Almost three decades earlier, similar concerns were raised when the jail and prison walls were taken down. In 1973, the County faced strong opposition from many students regarding its decision to tear down the facilities. At the time, the building was sitting unused.

“[The County was] not listening to any alternative at this point,” McKendry said. “There was no stopping them and the wall[s] went down.”

Now, the only indication of the existence of the complex is the jailer’s house that sits just behind the Court House within the parking lot. The building — home of the prison warden — was once attached to the jail and the two-storey high walls that surrounded its yard.

The local Red Cross was leasing the house for several years for use as its city headquarters, but it now stands vacant. Although there are no set plans, the City is now looking at the possibility of expanding the court services to this building.

McKendry said she believes it’s possible to preserve historical buildings without using them for their original purpose. The updates that were made to the interior of the Court House in the 1960s changed its historical design, she said.

“The interior has been completely modernized. It’s been ruined in my mind.”

The redesign in the 1960s is just one of many changes the building has undergone since it was first built in 1855. Both its exterior and interior differ from what it looked like at the time.

Fire ravaged much of the building in 1875. The dome and the wings of the building were completely decimated and then rebuilt. It was at this point that the look of the building changed.

The original design had a low dome, which gave the structure a horizontal look. After the fire, the dome was remade much taller to mirror the dome of City Hall, located downtown on Ontario Street.

In 1980, the Court House was designated a National Historic Site by the federal government. Today, it continues to stand as a fully functional court house.

It’s seen several high-profile cases come through during its history, including the infamous Shafia trial which was held last fall and winter.

“You had to be very aware of your surroundings. We had media everywhere. It was a very interesting few months,” said Chris Richard, a custodian at the Court House. He’s also a self-described history buff who often gives unofficial tours to visitors of the site.

During the Shafia trial, the three accused were held in holding cells in the Court House basement while they waited for their time in court.

It took one large gold, skeleton-style key for Richard to open the door to these cells, located in a restricted area of the basement.

Once open to the public, the basement is now closed off, a change that has been in place since the Shafia trial occured.

Past the door were three holding cells with sliding barred doors. Behind the sliding bars of each cell were one lone bench, a toilet and a sink.

Most days, these cells are used to hold prisoners who are in court, he said.

At the centre of the room is an office where guards keep watch of the prisoners. On one side sits two interview rooms divided by a glass window. It’s between the window that lawyers and the accused must converse. Two floors above this room is the main courtroom, where the Shafia trial took place. In it is a prisoner dock with three panels of bulletproof glass.

“We had a biker [gang] murder trial in the 80s and the glass was installed to keep them alive,” Richard said. “Didn’t want someone coming through the doors and blowing their head off.”

Adjacent to the courtroom is another holding cell, the judge’s quarters and a jury room.

The jury room is narrow with just one long boardroom table and 12 chairs. The room wasn’t designed for comfort so that juries can reach decisions as swiftly as possible, Richard said.

He noted the unique role the jury played in the Shafia trial.

“We had never had a trial of that kind in Canada ... the precedent was set for what is known as an honour killing,” he said. “History was made in this very room."

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