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Students dig up Kingston's criminal past

A class of Queen’s history students is shedding new light on the men, women and children that passed through the 150 year-old jail cells located below Kingston City Hall. The cells were used as a temporary lockup for all types of citizens awaiting trial.

Combing through hundreds of handwritten police reports from the late 19th and early-20th-centuries stored at the Queen’s archives, as well as old newspapers, students from Steven Maynard’s Canadian social history seminar uncovered the stories of the people incarcerated for crimes ranging from fishing or playing in a park on a Sunday to allowing cows to roam about the streets and petty theft. The research was developed into posters which the City of Kingston will use for a historical display.

“One of my favourite parts of the project is that it put real faces to the history of Kingston,” says history student Jonathon Reed, whose project focused on boy culture and juvenile discipline in early 20th century Kingston. “So often history is made up of distant events and major figures – this was the exact opposite. We were dealing with the ordinary people that contributed to Kingston’s heritage.”

Mr. Reed read reports of flogging as a way to teach young boys the error of their ways – with the permission – and sometimes at the demands of – the boys’ parents. “They were trying to impose a moral structure on the wayward influences of boy culture through the whip but then there was the other side,” he says. “Boy culture was a place of competition, daring, loyalty and physical endurance, which is why they continued to challenge authority. It was the culture of the time.”

The focus for student Mariah Horner was the jail and women. She examined where they stayed, how they were treated and how they interacted with their cell mates. “Until 1916 there was no female supervisor at the jail so the women sometime had to stay in the cells with the men and the space was small,” she says. “Sometimes a woman was in there with a man she had just accused of a crime.”

Through her research, she uncovered Mary Brunsten, incarcerated in September of 1882. Ms Brunsten was arrested for public drunkenness but all the local paper mentioned was how she was dressed and her demeanor. There was another report of a 105 year-old woman arrested on the same charge of drunkenness. Despite her age, she too was held in the cells below City Hall until her transfer.

“What made it real for me and what made it original is we were able to stand right in the space where these stories had taken place,” says Ms Horner. “Our research is able to animate the history of Kingston.”

Queen’s archivist Heather Home connected Kingston City Curator Paul Robertson and Mr. Maynard to work on this project. “This was an excellent project to explore important social history themes connected with Kingston City Hall, and in particular, the stories that narrate the original cells in the historic police department lockup in the building’s basement,” says Mr. Robertson.

A selection of the posters will be on public display in the Department of History, Watson Hall, second floor, beginning in mid-April. After that, the posters will hang in Kingston City Hall.