The Chatham Jail
The old Chatham Jail rests on an odd triangular piece of land approximately 200 meters (655 feet) from the banks of the Thames river. Built of stone, its front has a smooth three-story facade built in the unmistakable style of a government structure. The other three sides and various enclosed yards are constructed of rough-hewn limestone. These elements combine to give it the look of a small fortress which, in a sense, it is. The walls encompass jail cells, office space, and a law library. The original Kent County Courthouse takes a large portion of the second floor. The structure represents a time when the County of Kent, and the city of Chatham, were finally outgrowing their early beginnings and evolving into an important frontier town.
Provincial budgets eventually dictated that the use and maintenance of such an old structure were no longer cost-effective. A new facility was built outside of Windsor just a few years ago, and the Chatham Jail was shuttered in 2014. Eventually stripped of modern electronics, locking mechanisms, and other equipment, the building’s fate remained undecided until a local family with an interest in preserving local architectural history stepped in. Purchased by the Warrener family in 2018, the facility exists in a sort of suspended animation awaiting whichever direction its new owner will take it.
The term “jail” is a bit of a misnomer. When it was built in 1850, the Chatham Jail would have been the equivalent of a modern-day prison. All manner of convicts would be housed there and, if needs be, executions could be conducted at the facility. When first built, the jail would have been located near the edge of the small, but growing, town. Constructed of white limestone which could be shipped from Amherstburg, it was this decision that led to a distinct and unique appearance that may have contributed to the public desire to save the building later in its life.
Today, visitors must use their imagination to envision the old floor plan of the Chatham Jail. Over the decades, it has changed considerably. When built, the rectangular foundations were possibly without the curved walls and exercise yards visible today. In the 1850s, there were entrances on the north and south of the building with a western entrance that led directly to the courthouse on the 2nd floor. Sometime after 1858, an extension was added to the north side of the jail. The southern entrance still exists in the impressive facade of the building, but the northern doorway is now covered by later structures. Any evidence of that doorway from inside the building is no longer visible.
Fortunately, the historical record has passed down an eyewitness account of life inside of the jail from those early years. Sylvester Brown, a lumber merchant from the American East Coast, had traveled to Chatham in 1857 to conduct business. At this time, the town was composed of approximately 6000 people, 2000 of whom “were colored emigrants from the Southern State of the Union…” In his mind, the narrative of the area being a terminus for the Underground Railroad was already firmly established. While here, he ran afoul of a law that allowed people to be placed in jail for non-payment of debts. Thus began an 18-month ordeal which had a profound effect on Brown. Upon his release, he wrote and self-published a book –the title of which takes up nearly the entire title page– which provides a glimpse of life inside a jail 170 years ago.
In 1850 the north door would have opened to a hallway that ran through the middle of the jail for about a third of its length. On the right (west) side were rooms for the Jailor and his family, a large apartment for the holding of debtors, and a set of toilets. On the left (east) were found the jail kitchen, an office for the jailor, and another “apartment” where Mr. Brown was held for most of his time there. A door of iron bars kept those jailed for debts from getting to the kitchen and living areas. It would also provide the portal for debtors to speak with visitors.
At the southern end of the hall was the second door of iron bars set into a solid wall that crossed the floor from east to west. Behind that door was a small chamber with iron doors on either side which led to the confinement area for criminals. Brown describes the scene: “There were but two divisions in which criminals were kept; one of these was allotted to untried prisoners, and the other was for criminals who had been sentenced to hard labour for a certain period. These divisions each contained a room 60 ft long by 14 wide, into which opened eight cells or dormitories. In each of these Long Apartments was a pump, communicating with a well sunk immediately below; and a privy, which emptied into a sewer about 10 ft distance from the pump well.”
A Look Inside the Chatham Jail Today
Compared to today, those who inhabited the jail had considerably more room to roam when not locked in their individual cells. This, however, might be the only benefit theses historic prisoners had over their modern counterparts. While each cell had its own toilet and water source, “the water was not only hard and unwholesome, but was sometimes rendered entirely unfit for use by the breaking of the sewer, or by rats cutting a passage through into the wells from the privy vaults.” The smell of the prison was ghastly. “In hot weather this effluvia would scent all that portion of the prison; and many gentlemen have told me that they perceived it even in Payne’s parlour…. As a strong current of air was constantly coming from the river through the sewer, and discharging at the opening, it may readily be imagined how much bad air was continually circulating in the hall and in other parts of the prison. “
Dark, dank, and unsanitary, the Chatham Jail took its toll on the health of the inhabitants. Brown tells us, “The criminals in the prison were frequently sick; though not with fevers, as they were rarely long enough within the walls for the poisonous atmosphere to produce an effect. They were greatly troubled with indigestion and costiveness, caused by being constantly supplied with the same description of food and by its inferior quality; gutta-percha bread [hard bread] and water being served up for breakfast and supper, and gravy water with miserably lean meat and unsound potatoes, forming the stereotyped dinner. The dry, top bread, and hard water so affected the bowels of some of the prisoners, that they could not procure a stool without the use of a large syringe, which was kept in the prison for emergencies.”
The area for holding criminals has taken on a very different look in modern times. In 1858 the exterior walls of the Chatham Jail defined the inmates’ world. Illustrations in Brown’s book depict shackles and iron rings on the walls, and these may be accurate depictions of life in the jail at that time. Today the area is divided up, roughly, into three distinct cell sections and other spaces containing specialized cells and various other rooms. Sylvester Brown, however, was being locked up for debt, and not crimes. He was to live in the northern portion of the jail, in an “apartment” which was in actuality just a large cell.
His cell seems to have been about 9×12 feet and came furnished with “…two old wooden chairs, a washstand and a little stand of about the same size, which serve for a table and from which the son of a poor widowed woman, the occupant of an adjoining cell, also ate his meals.” In his cell also “… stood a large tin tank which had once been used as a bathing apparatus, for the cleansing and scrubbing of dirty and lousy prisoners; but, as it was an unpleasant job, it was not attempted anymore, the prisoners being turned into the cells in the same condition as when they entered the prison. The bathtub had degenerated into a receptacle for ancient and filthy rag carpets, and other savory trash, gathered up around the prison– forming an excellent harbor for all descriptions of jail vermin, with which it was literally swarming. A potato hamper, half full of rotten vegetables, a broom, worn down to the stump, and a small box stove, completed the fixtures of my cell.”
As if rotting rags, rotten vegetables and rats were not enough, for sleeping he had “… a straw bed, six feet long by two feet wide, and about six inches thick, covered with two Indian blankets; and at one end of it was a pillow, composed of hen’s feathers…” Being poked at by old hen’s quills was just the start of the problem. The pillow itself looked as if it had been used “…for the heads of a hundred or more dirty, drunken, spewing vagrants. By the feeble light of my candle, it fairly glistened with the filth which had been deposited on it.”
His blankets were thin, ragged and old. Trying to sleep proved difficult at best. “In all my previous life, I never experienced such misery and torture as were inflicted upon Me by The Crawling and nimble-footed Vermin during that long and dreary night..” The next morning, when asking about fleas, the guard laughed at him and said that they had “… bushels; and in the summer they would eat you up.”
The sense of sight is outraged by the surrounding filth; the sense of taste by the nauseating and unwholesome food; the sense of smell by the fetid odours with which the air is always filled; the sense of hearing by the course and abusive language used by the officials to the prisoners under their charge, and the sense of feeling by the beastly beds on which prisoners are said –ironically, of course– to repose their aching limbs.
In 1858 the Chatham Jail had its share of people passing through. Some were visitors, but most were people either waiting for trial or serving sentences for anything from drunkenness, assault, or theft. Two constants at the jail would have been the Jailor, at the time a man named Payne, and John Hillman, a Turnkey who was the assistant and acted as a sort of guard. According to Brown, Mr. Payne, “…was an uncultivated and untaught Englishman; and, carrying with him into his family circle the animal nature which governed all his actions in public life, he maltreated his wife and abused his children.“
While the living quarters and jail workers were rough, the food was worse. Mr. Brown usually dined on a very tough cut of meat which would be beef or lamb, potatoes, and a very hard bread which came with a dab of butter, often close to turning rancid. “In order to make a large looking loaf, the bread was made so light and porous that it really had not substance enough in it to cast a shadow in the Noonday sun, and dried up like a cinder in half a day’s time. When it was fresh, I could put my foot on one end of the loaf, and with my hand stretch it out like an india-rubber belt. The meat, beef especially, was so tough that I could put it through the same process.“ Breakfast was no treat, either. “Breakfast was a counterpart of the supper butter and [hard bread], no vegetables, not even a cold potato. Our steak was a little of the meat left from the previous day’s dinner, served up with a saw with which to cut it.”
Since he was being jailed for debts, and not for a crime, he was not fully a charge of the government. He was required to pay $3 weekly for food and board. Debtors who didn’t pay would be left hungry, and only given food as a last resort if it seemed they were about to starve to death. Jailed debtors were expected to receive financial help from their families and friends until their debt was paid off or the ones who were owed money thought the person had suffered long enough.
Daily life was a struggle between boredom and bugs. Brown writes, “I was content to sit in my cell, and gaze out of my one window, covered with iron bars, at a high stone wall, which darkens my room very much, except when the sun shone brightly.” He goes on to talk about his daily routine. “By continually sprinkling and sweeping the floor, and frequently changing the straw in the beds, after the old rubbish was cleaned out of the room, I succeeded in ridding my bed and covering of the fleas, which previously gave it a peppery appearance. There were a few woodlice and earwigs, which occasionally annoyed us; but no care would banish them, as they harboured in the decaying Wainscott, where they were beyond reach.”
In general, “The cells and Furniture were cleansed only when they became so filthy as to exceed human endurance, and to excite loud and angry complaints. One individual was quartered in the criminal’s apartment who was literally swarming with lice; so thickly did they cover, that, when stripped and put into a tub of water, a negro in the same quarter, who acted as bather general, was obliged to take a stiff, half worn corn broom, and scrub the lice from the back and other parts of the prisoner.” The conditions of the cells were made even worse by the fact that those in charge of the occupants cared little about them. When a new person was brought into the jail, they were thrown in amongst the other men, not having been washed or given clean clothing. New arrivals would constantly bring in new infestations to trouble those who had been living there awhile already.Much has changed since those days. The Chatham Jail, as it sits today on Stanley Street, is a monument to the past. Within its walls played the story of how Canada has changed its treatment of criminals over the decades. There are no more shackles or iron rings. Gone are the water sources that mixed with the sewers. Food, while bland, has at least become edible and meets basic nutritional requirements. Jailors now come and go on shifts, instead of living in the facility surrounded by the bleak environment.
For 18 months, Sylvester Brown languished inside until debtor laws were amended and those whom he owed debts finally let him leave. He went back to the East Coast of the United States, never to return to this area. Because of his desire to warn other prospective business people about the dangers of doing business in Canada, we are left with a harrowing glimpse into life behind those walls in 1858.
Thank you to the Warrener family for access to the facility.
Thank you to Scott M. for the initial tour and for allowing the subsequent trips. Also, a huge thank you for sending me Mr. Brown’s book.
All photos courtesy of Tom Slager
Floor plan illustration and quotes from: Brown, Sylvester. An Appeal to the Inhabitants of Her Majesty’s Canadian Provinces, against the Law authorizing Imprisonment for Debt in Canada West; in which is embodied a history of the suffering and wrongs of Mr. Sylvester Brown … Illustrated with twenty-five beautiful engravings [including a portrait]. 1859.
Anyone wishing to dig deeper into this fine first-person history of life in the Chatham Jail may find the story reproduced at Google Books.