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Vaughan Street Jail at 444 York Avenue (Part 1 of 2)

Guest post by Kristen Verin-Treusch
Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Verin-Treusch
The former Vaughan Street Detention Centre was originally called the Eastern Provincial District Gaol and opened its foreboding doors in 1881. Over the next 50 years it would serve as a prison for inmates serving 2 years or less that arrived from Western Ontario, the territories of Alberta and Saskatchewan and all of what later became Manitoba. 

Men, women, and children served sentences here, sharing cells with each other and also people suffering from mental illness were housed here. This building, unlike any other in Winnipeg, serves as a marker for many different aspects of Winnipeg's history, not just criminal history but also history of corrections in Manitoba, working class and women's history, medical and psychiatric history, and children's history too. 

Above all, this old and under-used structure offers a unique aspect to our province's history, shedding light on events and people that not only altered local history but also the nation's. This intriguing building is the oldest provincially owned building still standing in Western Canada, has important Canadian historical figures from both sides of the law connected to it, and surprisingly still has no historic designation.

Built in 1880 to replace the earlier jail locate on Main Street, this once attractive building was designed to be different than the standard jail of the era. Chesterton wanted to create an attractive building that avoided the standard bleak heavy designs of prison architecture that had traditionally been used. The objective was to design a building that would deliver an ominous message to other potential criminals that prison life was not to be desired without using a somber appearance. He did this by formatting his building after churches of the Italian Renaissance. With its mansard roof, yellow bricks and limestone trim, this building also reflected the wealth of this budding metropolis. 

Photo courtesy of Nicole Verin-Treusch

The interior of the jail was originally divided into four sections, the east and west wings and two smaller dwarf-like wings known as the south and north wings. The east wing was partially used to hold 'criminals of the lighter stripe' or 'less serious offenders'. On the ground floor there were seven cells with a turnkey's room, bathrooms and a mess ward. 

The second floor housed a workroom; seven women's wards each 5' by 10' in size, a matron's room, nurse's room, bathrooms and a storage room. It has been suggested that the attic space may have been used as a dormitory for guards, but due to the lack of windows, this may not be true.

The west wing was the heart of the jail as it had the strongest cells and arrangements. This section of the prison housed only male offenders convicted of serious crimes such as those serving time for robbery, rape and murder. In the basement there were solitary confinement cells for the very worst offenders who didn't want to abide by the jail rules. These cells were constructed of stout oak planking that was bound together with steel rods, making the walls incredibly dense. There were no windows or other means of natural light, no cot to sleep on or light fixtures.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Verin-Treusch

 In the smaller solitary confinement rooms where disobedient convicts spent a shorter period of time, approximately 1-2 days, the criminal would have been confined to the wall. Their wrists and ankles would have been chained together with about one to two feet of slack chain between. This chain would then have been fed through an iron ring that was sunken into the floor and wall. There the inmate would 'hang' in the dark until their time was completed. The room at the end of the corridor was large enough to walk around in and it had its own toilet, an amenity the other solitary confinement cells lacked. As a result, these cells gained the reputation of being the closest thing to a living grave.

Patrick Lawler, First Jailor at Vaughan Street Jail - Photo courtesy of the Manitoba Historical Society Website
The south and north wings were similar in size to each other but were not nearly the length of the other two, as they served very different purposes. The entire building was designed to have these four winfs attached to a round central rotunda with a large "square skylight on the roof" allowing ample light in. The south wing had laundry facilities in the basement; a kitchen, pantry and lift on the ground level; the second floor housed the hospital ward with washbasins and the attic served as a dormitory. The north wing or front section of the jail was for the jailor and his family. The first and only jailor to reside here was Patrick Lawler and his wife and children. 
This article is in part taken from the article:
Louts, Lunatics, and Loose Women at the Vaughan Street Jail
by Kristen Verin-Treusch
Manitoba History, Number 53, October 2006


Article to be continued December 31, 2014!

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