October 19, 2012

Sepia Saturday 148: Jailhouse Mock

Wild Bill Davison, behind bars

When I selected the image for this week's Sepia Saturday challenge, I was immediately reminded of this old photo of my dad, who had this wacky tourist shot from back in the 1950s.

My father was discharged from the British Army in May, 1953, after having served for 11 years from the time he was 15 1/2.  According to a letter he wrote in 1996 to my half-sister, Lorna, he was assigned for the first three years to southern points in Berkshire, Hampshire and Kent, England.  "I saw all the goings-on for D-Day, but was not involved in that, as I was too young."

From 1947 until 1949 he was stationed in Germany, from 1949 to 1952 in Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong and then finally, back in Hampshire until his discharge on May 4th.

He never returned to his home town of Belfast, Northern Ireland, but did go to visit his mother who was then living in  Portsmouth with his invalid brother, Patrick.

On May 16th, he departed by ship for the shores of Canada, where he made his home in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, for 54 years.

The above photo must have been taken prior to 1958 because he is not wearing a wedding band, and once married, he never took it off, so I am placing this goofy photo around 1955 when he was 28 years old.



The original Don Gaol (Jail), was one of three or four prisons known as "The Toronto Jail".  It got its nickname because of its proximity to the Don River.  It was constructed on Gerrard Avenue East where it intersects with Broadview Avenue and the architect, William Thomas chose an Italianate style, though I doubt the inmates were appreciative of the details.  It was built between 1862 and 1865, pre-dating Canada's Confederation, and just think, this would also have been at the height of the American Civil War. It's no surprise that capital punishment was in effect.

Hangings took place on a scaffold in the jail-yard, but were moved indoors to a converted washroom because the outside location was visible somewhat to the public. Twenty-six men were hanged at this new indoor location.

Even the 1950s saw its share of the action; in 1952—just a few years prior to the photo with my dad—two men, Steve Suchan and Leonard Jackson were hanged. It seems strange to me then, that the jail would even have the set-up that features in this photo.  It looks like it was a tourist attraction where one could have his or her photo taken, (my dad didn't own a camera at that time, according to his letters) as a joke.

My dad was a big ham, so it doesn't faze me that he found this a great thing to do.  As for me, I don't think you could even get me near that building!

I still recall my dad's laugh whenever this photo was dug out of the family archives, and the exact same smile would light up his face.

A few things of interest:
  • The last execution ever performed in Canada took place at the Don Jail in December 1962.  At this time two men, Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin were hanged.
  • In 1988, the rotunda of the Don Jail was used for the setting of an upscale New York nightclub in the Tom Cruise/Bryan Brown movie, "Cocktail".
  • The original Don Jail is no longer in operation and is currently undergoing a transformation to become a new administration building for the Bridgepoint Health Centre.  An part of the jail still exists and is used as a detention centre.

Well! Thanks to the magic of YouTube (see below), I can not only tour the interior of the jail without ever having to set foot in the place, I can also share it with you!
How cool is that?

See you next week! 
P.S. Don't forget to visit the Sepia Saturday blog and check out all other interpretations of this image:






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41 comments:

  1. Very interesting history of the Don Gaol. It's amazing how buildings are recirculated and "come back" with new purposes. I always think when in this kind of place, "if the walls could talk".

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  2. My husband jumped behind a jailhouse door and gave that look of desperation for the camera when we were touring the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It wasn't set up that way for tourists, but plenty of men and kids saw it that way. Must be a guy thing.

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    1. Wendy, that sounds a highly plausible explanation!

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  3. Great post Kat. Love seeing old buildings getting a make over. The facade on that jail is amazing.

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    1. Thanks, Foxy! I love when they redo buildings rather than tearing them down, as well.

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  4. An interesting post mixing family and history. Your dad's photo looks like a charity event where people are thrown in "jail" until their friends can raise enough money to pay "bail". Clearly "Bring your own booze" too.

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    1. Hi Mike,

      Yes, that bottle is a mystery. I can't see them being allowed to carry beer around openly in Toronto in the 50s. I think it must have been on the "set".

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  5. Being an Ontario girl, I'm surprised I didn't know about Toronto's Don Jail. I found it quite interesting to read and to see that your father has a 'connection' to it, Kat ;)

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    1. Yvonne, I barely knew anything about it myself, and I was BORN in Toronto!

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  6. A happier inmate than those that wer interred for real. Prison conditions in the UK are much cushier these days.

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    1. Cushier, perhaps, but way over-crowded! (At least over here, they are.)

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  7. I think the place where the photo was taken probably was not in the actual jail.

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    1. I don't know about that, Postcardy. We had a number of strange historical exhibits with such photo opportunities. A bunch of cards running the show, over here.

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  8. Better to clink a bottle than be in clink, fun photo. Its an interesting building, from the outside, spooky inside, good its going to take on another use. How cool you could wander round and take photos before they started the work.

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    1. Joy, I love that pun!

      I'm just glad it was on film. I would not wander around, myself. Not a fan of such exhibits, or tourist attractions. I don't like wax figures much either.

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  9. I'm glad they're re-purposing the old prison instead of just letting it fall to pieces.

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  10. Absolutely he's having a fun time! What an amazing amount of information, I enjoyed it all. Yes, indeed imagine if those walls could speak....all the stories and possibly tears they would shed!

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    1. Like any prison in the world, I bet they have their horror stories, eh?

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  11. Isn't it funny that the place where they used to hang people is now going to serve the Bridgepoint Health Centre? Well, better late (sic) than never.

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    1. Yes, I thought that was rather ironic too, Peter.

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  12. Great post! I can't believe your dad was only 15-1/2 when he joined the British Army!

    And tours at a jail still in operation? I didn't know they would do that, and no I would not want to go either.

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    1. Yes, he was just a young lad from the core of Belfast when he joined up. He came from a large Catholic family and they were quite poor. I guess he just wanted to escape that.

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  13. What a stately old building - I like the architecture. Interesting tour of the jail - thanks for including the video. Before I read your post, I thought this was a "get out of jail" picture with money being raised for charity. By the way, your dad had a nice smile and was a handsome man.

    I noticed on the side bar of your blog you've taken the Jane Austen quiz. Wasn't it fun to see which character you're most like?

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    1. Thanks, QB! Yes, it was quite a gorgeous facade, wasn't it?

      As for the quiz, I had taken it a few years ago, and then saw it again on your blog, so I did it again. Amazingly, I turned out to be the same character!

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  14. Kat, very interesting post and fun photo to boot. We toured the Burlington Prison a few years back. It was fascinating. Thanks for the tour.

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    1. You're welcome, Liz. Burlington, Vermont?

      I have a Stratton in my family background; my Great-grandmother on my father's side, (after having had two illegitimate children by other men)married a Stratton. This was in Northern Ireland. Could we be related? Ha ha!

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  15. Kat, thanks so much for stepping in during Alan's absence. I'm thoroughly enjoying the Irish themes.

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    1. You're very welcome, and I do appreciate your grateful comment.

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  16. Kat, I have never been inside a prison; the tour was interesting but also in a way sad to see the place of the miserables. What pride they took to build a stately prison. The front so elegant and in the back the tiny cells. I hope the place is not haunted by the late occupiers.

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  17. Les Miserable, eh, Titania? I bet it IS haunted though.

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  18. Kat, I wonder if that was just something set up at a fair or something ... like the wild wild west ones? Your Dad looks as if he was having fun. I'm off to check out the video.

    Kathy M.

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    1. I don't know, Kathy. I just might have to see if I can find out exactly what it was!

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  19. What is it I wonder about old prisons? Wherever we are in the world we have to visit them and have our pictures taken. I suppose it's that feeling of 'Well thank God it wasn't me!' We have a selection in our family albums, including the one in Australia where Ned Kelly met his end. Your handome Dad looks far too charming and happy to be a prisoner.

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    1. Very true, Little Nell! This shot was always a big joke in our house; made my dad crack up, every time. It might have something more to do with the old westerns and gangster flicks. My dad was a big fan of them and in particular, WHITE HEAT with Jimmy Cagney. I think it was almost glamorized--being a prisoner.
      In any case, my dad could never resist a camera.

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  20. Interesting history, if at times shuddering to think hanging was still used that late...The photo of your dad reminded me of old time carnivals where they often had all sorts of booths. I did not make it to Sepia this week, but will soon. Anyway I am enjoying reading posts there.

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    1. We had those carnivals that travelled around to shopping malls as late as the 90s here. In fact, they may still do it. I remember an old boyfriend and I had an old west photo done of the pair of us. (Like father; like daughter!)

      I'm pretty sure I ripped that photo up when he ditched me!

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    2. The boyfriend, not my father!

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  21. An odd mix, such elegant details in the architecture, and the purpose of the building. From afar, it could almost pass up for a nice place...

    Love your dad's pic!!
    But you wouldn't find me in such a place myself...
    :)~
    HUGZ

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  22. I'm with you, TB, better viewed from the outside (at a distance) to appreciate those lovely architectural nuances-- from afar!

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