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By Ryan Taylor

A criminal in the family. What a horrible thought.

Not really-criminals generate so many public records, they can be the source of a lot of family information, if you know where to search.

A relation who's a criminal may also make you look at the old county jail with a proprietary air. An old family home.

Ron Brown's Behind Bars: Inside Ontario's Heritage Gaols (Natural Heritage Books, $22.95) looks at the history of these old buildings, including those in Kitchener and Guelph.

Gaol is the traditional English word for jail. It is pronounced "jail." That's one of the joys of English.

Brown already has a long list of publications about ghost towns, railway stations and the back roads of Ontario, so old jails are right up his alley.

The smallest jail is at Berens River, north of Red Lake. It consists of one cell, two metres by two metres. Previous claimants for smallest jail were at Creemore and Tweed.

Bruce Mines' first jail was made of boards and replaced by something more substantial. Then it became a school. I am sure generations of students had fun with the fact their school had been a prison.

At the other end of the scale are the recently-closed Women's Penitentiary in Kingston and the old Carleton County jail in Ottawa, which is designed like an Italian villa. These are dignified, almost beautiful.

Brown's capsule histories do not allow him much elbow room for long stories. Kitchener's jail, which sat empty for years and was almost demolished two decades ago, is now part of the new courthouse. Brown describes the three executions which took place there. All three criminals were buried in the grounds of the jail, as was the custom. When it came time to renovate, the first two were re-interred elsewhere, but Reginald White, who died in 1940, could not be found.

Even the few surviving witnesses to his hanging were brought back to point to the place of burial, but White remained elusive. Was he secretly moved in 1940? Does his ghost still haunt the old building? No one knows, but as Brown rather indelicately puts it, "White's body still lies somewhere under the parking lot that now occupies the yard area."

The differences in many of the old jails is striking -- big and small, wood and stone, cosy and grim. The one in Beaverton, now part of a museum complex, has been restored to look as it did in its heyday, plain, simple, functional and uncomfortable. I expect most pioneer jails looked like this.

Brown's books read easily and make Ontario's history accessible to everyone. This new addition is very welcome. Behind Bars is available through all bookstores or direct from Natural Heritage Books .

As for those criminals in the family -- it's probably easier to contemplate an historical criminal than one who might drop in for Sunday lunch next week.

The Wellington County Museum is making its Tweedsmuir Histories available online.

Tweedsmuirs are local history compilations kept by chapters of the Women's Insitute in Ontario. Each covers a rural area and may include farm and family histories, materials about businesses, shops and churches. Their archival quality means they contain information that is not available in published form. They are little-used resources, especially by genealogists, so this enhanced public access is important.

Learn more about this exciting development at the museum's website.

Posted October 2, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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