Tales and tunes of Ontario’s old jails captures East York history buffs

From the big house in Kingston to the inside of Ontario’s local county lockups, members of the East York Historical Society were taken on an adventurous visual journey at their April meeting.

Ron Brown, author, geographer and chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, gave an animated talk at the society’s regular meeting, held at the East York Civic Centre. With the aid of colourful slides and old jailhouse tunes, Brown took members on a life-like tour of Ontario’s heritage jails.

In his lectures — as well as in his newly released book, Behind Bars: Inside Ontario’s Heritage Gaols — he discusses the historical importance of recognizing prison history and maintaining Ontario’s aged penitentiaries.

“I try to get people to look around in their own backyard,” he said. “I try to get people to appreciate the heritage that they may not know is even there.”

Indeed, Brown’s East York presentation was full of entertaining historical facts about Ontario’s local jails and large penitentiaries.

For instance, did you know that the original plan was to build Kingston Penitentiary in Hamilton, or that the trendy downtown community of Yorkville once had its own local lockup?

“To this day, the (Yorkville lockup) is commemorated with a plaque on the front of its building,” Brown said.

East York even had its own mini-jail. A house located on Laird Avenue served as the local Leaside clink.

The lecture covered other historical aspects of Ontario’s penitentiaries. Brown discussed the poor living conditions within jails, the wrongful incarceration of individuals, and the vulgarity of public executions by hanging.

Gord Hazlett, vice-president of the East York Historical Society, played his own unintentional part in prison history.

In the early 1950s, Hazlett witnessed the immediate aftermath of one of the Boyd Gang’s legendary escapes from the Toronto Jail — commonly known as the Don Jail.

The four members of the gang spent most of their time in and out of prison. Large-scale bank robberies and their two escapes from the Don made the Boyd crew one of Toronto’s most infamous gangs.

At the time of the escape, Hazlett worked as a mechanic, servicing delivery trucks for Coca-Cola. He routinely passed the Don Jail on his way to work, and early one morning he noticed a very different scene from the norm.

“There were sirens, a lot of police cars and a big ladder reaching to the (prison) roof,” he said.

“I thought the Don Jail was on fire.” It was only when he made it to work that his boss told him that the Boyd Gang had escaped. Luckily, Hazlett didn’t encounter the escapees, but he clearly remembers the day and enjoys retelling the story.

At the beginning of the lecture, Brown made a promise to his audience.

“The bad news is I’m going to take you to jail,” he said. “The good news is you will be able to get out.”

Brown kept his promise.