Built in 1833, the jail operated until 2002 when the Ministry of Correctional Services closed the facility in favour of newer, larger facilities in major cities. The cell blocks, common areas, exercise yard and visitation area have been maintained as they were when they were populated by inmates sentenced to jail time. Step right into a cell to experience life behind bars – at least for a few moments. There are stories of prison life from the point of view of the guards as well as the inmates. You’ll also learn about escapes, and we have many ghost stories to share.

For information, please contact the Historic Cornwall Jail by calling at 613-938-4748 or 1-800-937-4748 or by e-mailing info@cornwalltourism.com

The History of the CORNWALL GAOL

1833 – November 18, 2002 

Welcome to our gaol…

For those of you who are new to our site it is our intention to entice you to visit again.  We want you to read about our findings and learn what we have learnt about Jail life. 

All of the information on the history of the Jail is based on research and interviews with past inmates and guards and other prison personnel. 

MANY of you have requested that the history of the jail be included ON OUR SITE.  This is for you!

Let’s begin…

The judicial system of the 1800’s was very much different from today’s system.  It was a time when men, women, children, mentally and physically handicapped, the insane, basically anyone that society didn’t know what to do with were thrown in Jail and often times forgotten.  It was a time when a man could be hung for stealing a cow but could beat his wife senseless and would only pay a fine.  Stealing could be dealt with by cutting off a hand.  Stocks or pillories were used to belittle and embarrass people.  They would be humiliated by the community and often times would have rotten fruit or vegetables thrown at them.  In some instances, depending on the crime, they would even have rocks thrown at them.  A whipping post was also used in these early times.  A criminal would be sentenced to a predetermined number of lashes with a fine cord.  Much too often to the delight of the administrator, this would be carried out to the letter; even when a prisoner would pass out, the beating would continue, sometimes resulting in death.

It was during these times that the Cornwall Gaol was built.

On this very same spot once stood an army barracks used during the war of 1812, which was originally built as the courthouse and jail in 1808.  A fire in 1826 saw the total destruction of the barracks, killing soldiers and livestock.   

Built in 1833 and opened in 1834, it was this site that was chosen to build a new federal prison and courthouse.

The south cell block was built first, then the east and lastly the west.  In the yard would have been posts where prisoners would be chained to during the day.  They were allowed to move in any direction but no further than their chain allowed. 

It was a time of no indoor plumbing, running water or electricity.  Inmates would be taken to an outdoor latrine on a rope.   Guards would make their rounds with a lantern.  It should be noted that guards were not guards like today.  They would be anyone who wanted to earn a few dollars.  They would be hired to guard the prisoners so that the Jailer could have some time off.  They had no interest in what went on in the Jail or with the inmates.  they turned a blind eye to many occurrences. Often times they took advantage of their position to dole out their own kind of punishment and justice.

Inmates had no rights and no privileges.   Many died from lack of proper nutrition, from poor health, old age and still others died by their own hands or by the hands of another. 

As previously mentioned, the jail held all people of all ages and for any crime.  Petty thieves would be in with murderers, rapists, arsonists and if that wasn’t bad enough, women and children would be thrown into the mix.   Crimes within the walls of the prison happened all the time and went unnoticed or just over-looked.     

Starting in 1869, men and women were to be separated.  It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that hospitals were opened for the insane or handicapped and that children went to detention homes.  Even with these changes, inmates were seldom treated as people.  The whip was still used and administered for even minor infractions such as talking at the wrong time.  Most guards of the time were cruel and abused their power, no better than some inmates.  An inmate could be taken from his cell and return hours later or even days later bloodied and bruised.   Going against the rules would be punished by beatings behind closed doors or an inmate could be tossed into the “hole” (solitary confinement).  There were three of these cells down in the dungeon.  These “cells” were not cells at all but rather a hole in the ground where a prisoner would be lowered in, wearing only his underwear, sometimes even naked.  A cover would be put on and he would be in there for whatever amount of time the guards determined that he needed to straighten him out.   While in the hole, they would be fed stale bread and water only. 

Today, gone are the posts, the whipping frame and the “holes”.  These cells have been filled in and a building was erected over the top of them.

With the filling in of the “holes”, solitary confinement was moved to an actual cell in the south cell block.  (There is, to this day, one solitary cell that still remains untouched in the basement).

When prisoners died whether by hanging, suicide or mysterious causes, the family would be contacted.  In some cases, where there was no family or the family members didn’t want to claim the body, prisoners were buried in the court yard.  (The same yard where prisoners were shackled to posts, where gallows were built for hangings, where inmates years later got their daily exercise).   It is for this reason that there was an unwritten rule that inmates would walk around the perimeter of the yard only, never in the middle.  It was out of respect for the dead buried below them.  Today, there are few signs of what went on over a century ago.   It is believed, however, that there are more than two hundred bodies buried in the area under the asphalt parking lot and the 1958 addition.   

Hangings were a part of the history of the judicial system.  The first hanging at the jail was Clark Brown in 1879.  The last hanging was Peter Balcombe in 1954.  Five prisoners in total were hanged in the Jail courtyard.  Another five inmates were hanged just a few blocks away. 

The addition to the jail was built in 1958 and was used for offices of the united counties.  This section is built directly on top of the main section of the court yard.  During the excavation for this new section, seven coffins were discovered.  They were removed and reburied in local cemeteries.  One of the bodies found was that of Peter Balcombe.  

With Capital punishment abolished and the need for parking space, the courtyard/exercise yard was made much smaller.

Over-crowding was a huge problem in the jail as time went on.  Smaller sections were added in order to separate inmates based on their crimes.  It was in 1857 that the west addition at the front was built; it was the home of the superintendent and his family.  It later became the entrance for prisoners; rooms were made into holding cells and the upstairs became offices for jail personnel.

It has been said by visitors, whether they be believers  or non-believers of all things paranormal, that it is only once you know the history that you startto wonder “Haunted or Not?”.

The paranormal occurrences that you will read about are from my own personal experiences, those of my staff, those of co-workers as well as those of visitors. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many paranormal groups who have taken the time to investigate our Jail on more than one occasion who have chosen to return again and again.

  1. Lee Gove says:

    Great site, we investigated the jail for a second time. It is always a great experience. On behalf of Spirit Quest Paranormal Investigations, we say thank you for the opportunity. The staff at the jail have been very helpful, and friendly. We would love to return one day for another look.

  2. Thanks for the evening in the jail. The staff are great and so helpful. We will return soon for another investigation

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