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Convict deaths at the Kingston Penitentiary 1835-1915

By Hugh Armstrong

  • Index sorted by first letter: A-D E-K L-Q R-Z

  • The Sessional Papers of the Parliament of Canada provide a wide range of genealogical records hidden among all the government reports that ministries produced yearly. While modern reports do not often contain personal names, older reports particularly pre World War One, may be a genealogical goldmine. Military records may include promotions, routine postings or medal lists. Civil service lists were published regularly giving postings, often included a date of birth, and results from civil service exams. For a multitude of reasons petitions may have from one to hundreds of names.

    The Penitentiary or Justice Departments produced a yearly report that up to the 1916 Sessional Papers contained many names of the convicts and staff in penitentiaries and asylums run by the Government of Canada. Convicts who were received, pardoned, paroled or who died may be among the lists included. The information available on convicts varied considerably from year to year. To supplement the data death registrations indexes, censuses and newspapers were consulted. Only one death on the list was an execution.

    Searching these reports the names of 605 convicts who died in the Kingston Penitentiary from 1835 to 1915 were found. In the 1850s and 1860s only statistics were reported (another 155 dead) for some years. The years that the names of dead convicts were not listed in table form were 1859 (21 deaths), 1860 (24), 1863 (26), 1864 (34), 1865 (42) and 1866 (10). However one convict death and his name were mentioned in each of the warden's reports of 1860 (accident) and 1863 (choked to death on a large piece of food).

    During the 1860's the convict population was usually in the 700 to 800 range. (On the 31 Dec 1864 there were 729.) The surgeon's reports indicate that the high rates of deaths resulted from poor drainage of sewage, an impure water supply, overcrowding, harsh treatment and extremely small, damp cells. The Penitentiary had been built near the water level of Lake Ontario and was provided with deep foundations and basements that left little downward slope for the sewers to drain. Regular flushing and cleansing helped ease some of the problem.

    In 1867 the cells were described as being six and two-third feet long, two and a half wide, and six high. The convict's bed filled the width of the cell leaving no room unless the mattress was hung on the wall.

    In the early years of the Penitentiary convicts were treated rather harshly. They were required to be silent from the time they left their cells in the morning to the evening lock-up, including meals and at work. Breaking any rule could result in lashings, being given only bread and water or confinement to a darkened cell.

    One regulation in 1836 explains the difficulty in obtaining burial information on convicts. "If a dead convict is not claimed within 24 hours by family then the body will be turned over to the Medical Society of the Midland District."

    The warden's reports usually contain the convict's name, crime and place of conviction. The surgeon's report included name, age, cause of death, date of death, country or province of birth. Often there would be a difference in the spelling of names. Where this occurred the name used by the surgeon is listed in brackets. Three convicts had used aliases (aka).

    Originally printed in the November 1999 Issue of Families, published by the Ontario Genealogical Society > Hugh Armstrong's Genealogy Site Index