Forensic Case Files: Skeletons Unearthed at Toronto’s Old Don Jail

The Don Jail, circa 1864.Today’s forensic case file hits close to home for me as it’s a local tale, centered in Toronto, Ontario. Originally named the Don Gaol, the Old Don Jail was built in the early 1860’s in what is now just east of modern downtown Toronto. Conditions inside the jail were so abysmal, time served was typically padded by doubling or sometimes tripling the official number of days for each actual day served within its walls.

Since capital punishment wasn’t abolished in Canada until 1976, the Old Don Jail was the site of a number of hangings. In fact, Canada’s most notorious hangman, Arthur Ellis (from whom the annual awards for the Crime Writers of Canada take their name), carried out some of his three hundred hangings at the Old Don Jail. Originally held on an outdoor scaffold as part of a public spectacle, hangings were moved to a more modern and private indoor gallows in 1908. Thirty-four men were hanged at the jail, with a double hanging on December 11, 1962 being the last of Canada’s executions.

The Old Don Jail closed in 1977 and prisoners were moved to the new section of the penitentiary built in 1958. Officially named the Toronto Jail, it is still known to locals as the Don Jail.

In 2007, as renovations to the Old Don Jail building were underway, human remains were discovered beneath a parking lot north of the original building. For decades, stories of a hangman’s graveyard on the premises had persisted; finally there was irrefutable proof. After a full excavation, the remains of fifteen men were uncovered. Over time, forensic experts have identified many of the remains based on grave goods and research into historical newspaper articles and jail records. Grave artifacts showed that the men had been buried in plain pine coffins, all now lost to the weathering of time. Many of the skulls showed signs of a cranial autopsy, typically performed during those times on executed convicts, and many showed vertebral fractures from the hangman’s noose. At least one of the men also showed the significant ravages of syphilis on his skull.

The men were buried between 1870 and 1930. With one exception (where one of the fathers of Confederation, George Brown, fell victim to a gunshot to the leg), all the men had committed murder—from infant drowning, to violent robberies, to hatchet and knife attacks, to the murder of a police officer or a prison guard.

The Toronto Jail itself will soon be closed and demolished, its prisoners moved to the newly constructed South Toronto Detention Center. Fortunately, the Old Don building has been purchased by Bridgepoint Health. Slated to re-open in 2013 as the new administrative offices to the adjacent Bridgepoint Hospital, refurbishment plans include a full external restoration, restoring the skylight and glass floor of the central rotunda and maintaining as much of the original 19th-century architecture as possible.

But the building’s original history will not be forgotten. Several cells and the gallows in the basement will be preserved as part of a historical display and Bridgepoint intends to make it a publically accessible site, returning this piece of history back to Torontonians.

Photo credit: Canadian Heritage Gallery and CTV News