Friday 2 June 2017

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword: Letters from Kingston Penitentiary

On June 1, 1835, the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada opened in Kingston with just six inmates, who had been transferred from Toronto. The maximum security prison became known as Kingston Penitentiary after Confederation. This week's blog features records relating to Canada's first large prison.

The number of prisoners significantly increased by the time Rev. Wilfrid T. Kingsley, Catholic Chaplain at the Penitentiary, informed Archbishop McNeil that he would be receiving a copy of the official report of penitentiaries for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1929. Kingsley indicated the total number of prisoners per year for 1927 to 1929 and specifically noted the number of Catholics. On average, it appears that approximately 35 percent of the inmates at the Kingston Penitentiary at that time were Catholic.

Kingston Penitentiary
Feast of All Saints [November 1, 1930]

Your Grace,
Under an other cover in this mail you will find a copy of the official report of penitentiaries for the fiscal year ending March 31st, 1929, and over the name of Supt. Hughes. This is the latest report published. Of the 758 inmates shown as in the institution on that date, and who were registered with us, 12 were actually detained elsewhere. At the end of 1927 there were 708 prisoners of whom 260 were Catholics.
At the end of 1928 there were 746, of whom 253 were Catholics; whilst at the end of 1929 (not yet made public) there were 821 of whom 283 were Catholics.
Many of those Catholic prisoners never attended any school; many more of them got what little learning they have in the Public School.
I have the honor to be, of Your Grace, the
humble servant,
Wilfrid T. Kingsley
Catholic Chaplain
MN AH19.135
Archbishop McNeil fonds

Rev. John E. Burke of the Newman Club of Toronto made a Mission to the Kingston Penitentiary in 1923. Upon his return, he sent Archbishop McNeil copies of an address to Burke from the prisoners and copies of at least two of the letters that prisoners wrote to Burke, saying how much his Mission positively affected them.

Toronto, Ont., June 1st, 1923

Your Grace,

As you know I recently gave a Mission to the prisoners of Kingston Penententiary (sic). God was exceedingly kind in the dispensation of His grace during the week that I was there. It was the first season of the kind that the prisoners experienced and I venture to state that the retreat of a religious community was never entered into with more enthusiasm. I thought you would be interested in the mentality of the average convict. Consequently I am herewith enclosing a copy of an address which the inmates presented to me and also a copy of some of the letters which they sent to me.

I trust that Your Grace is well.

With kindest regards, I am,
John E. Burke, C.S.P.
MN AH12.65 (page 1)
Archbishop McNeil fonds

It is very clear that Burke deeply affected the prisoners. This is one of the letters:

Dear Father,
My intention was to see you before the termination [of] this very successful Mission, in order to personally thank you for the great good you have done me and the other Catholic inmates of this institution, but as I do not wish to take up a space of your very precious time that, perhaps, might benefit the soul of some other inmate, I will just let you know in a few words that I thank you from the bottom of my heart for building upon a foundation laid by Father McDonald, a strong and wonderful "Palace of Love", a Palace which contains an abundant store of love for all things noble and good, and a strong detestation of all things ignoble and bad. I thank Almight[y] God for sending you here and for placing in your hands the ability to drive "Truth" home.

This wonderful "Palace of Love", will never grow weak and decay -- which statement I will prove to you some day in the future, please God, by presenting myself to you and allowing you to look over the result, physically, financially and spiritually.

That God will bless you and give you an abundance of strength to enable you to carry on with your good work for years and years to come, is my fervent prayer, and I am sure, the prayer of every Catholic Guard and inmate in this institution.

Yours most sincerely,
"James J. Keeney",
MNAH12.65 (page 4)
Archbishop McNeil fonds

Individuals would write to the Archbishop to request assistance in releasing certain prisoners. In 1885, the inspector of penitentiaries, James G. Moylan, presented the case of Michael Finn to Archbishop Lynch to ask for help in freeing Finn. Finn was convicted for the attempted murder of his wife and had already spent 11 years in prison.

After some well wishes, Moylan's request starts on page three:

I crave Your Grace's permission to present the case of Michael Finn, a convict here, for your favourable consideration. If I be correctly informed you took an interest in him, some years ago. He was sentenced for life, for an alleged attempt to murder his wife, who received very trifling injury, as I am told, and who is now living, somewhere, in the States. Father Laboreau was Finn's P.P. and he refers to him for a character. His character, while here, is unexceptionable. He has spent nearly eleven years in the Penitentiary having been sentenced on 13. May '74. About a year since, the warden, supported by Father Towhey and myself, endeavoured to procure the poor man's pardon -- but, without success.
I think he has fully expiated his crime, coram lege. It is my opinion, if Your Grace would intercede for him, with Sir Alex. Campbell, the Minister of Justice, or with Sir John -- who expressed to me the delight he felt at Your Grace's reference to him, in the Banquet speech -- he would, most likely be liberated.
I hope Your Grace will kindly excuse my advancing of poor Finn's case, and that you will favour me with a reply here, where I shall be for a couple of weeks.
I have the honour to be,
Your Grace's most humble and obedient servant,
Jas. G. Moylan

P.S. [written in the top left corner of page 1]
I pray Your Grace to consider my interference in Finn's behalf as confidential, so far as Ottawa is concerned. J.G.M.

January 12, 1885
L AH30.02
Archbishop Lynch fonds

Sometimes the Archbishop received direct requests from prisoners to aid in their release. Philip S. Martin, Convict #F.417, entreated Archbishop McNeil to help him secure parole. Martin explained his situation quite eloquently (and in fascinating penmanship) and insisted that he would be a better person in the future should McNeil intercede.

May 1st, 1915

Reverend Sir:
Relying on the wide reputation Your Grace enjoys for Kindliness of heart, especially toward those in lowly situations in life, I am taking the liberty of addressing Your Grace in hopes that I may secure your intercession in my behalf.

I am a prisoner here in Kingston prison, serving a five year sentence, with about another year to serve, and I am addressing Your Grace to see if you can help me toward securing a parole for the remainder of my sentence.

I have not a very good record behind me, but I am most determined to do better in future, and if you would intercede for me, that fact alone would compel me to succeed, as I simply could not allow myself to fail after having made this appeal to Your Grace. Behind me are all the dark, mis-spent years of a prodigal son, and I feel sure that Your Grace is eminently and especially fitted for the divine office of helping another prodigal toward a new start in life.
My full name is Philip S. Martin; I was born in Toronto in the year Eighteen-eighty-seven, and am therefore only twenty-eight years old.

I still have, I hope, many years of usefulness before me to atone for the past, and in all sincerity I say to Your Grace that I am heartily sorry for all those mis-spent years, and if you will take a few moments of your time to write to the Minister of Justice for me, Your Grace will have the pleasant retrospect in years to come of having rescued one storm-tossed mariner drifting on a wild, uncharted sea of darkness and despair.

Very Respectfully yours,
Philip S. Martin
Convict #F.417
Kingston Penitentiary, Ont.
MN AH04.16
Archbishop McNeil fonds

Another part of the above letter that is interesting to note is the message from the Warden at the top of the page addressing those who wanted to send letters to convicts at the penitentiary:

"Letters to Convicts in this Penitentiary should contain nothing but family, personal or business matters.  General news, neighborhood gossip or reference to other Convicts will prevent delivery of the letter.  Enclosures, such as newspaper clippings, photographs–except small size of some near relative–toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, cards, pictures, fruits, cakes, Christmas boxes, etc., are prohibited."

Kingston Penitentiary was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. It officially closed as a federal prison on September 30, 2013, and is now open to the public for tours.

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