Huron Historic Gaol
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What is the Huron Historic Gaol?
The building originally housed the County Courts and Council Chambers, as well as serving as Gaol and House of Refuge. The Gaol's architect was Thomas Young. In 1841, the building was viewed as a model of humanitarian prison design.
Construction on the Gaol began in 1839 on land donated by the Canada Company. Built in an octagonal shape, the central cell blocks are surrounded by exercise yards with walls that are two feet thick. Most of the building is constructed of stone quarried from the nearby Maitland River. The Gaol was designed by architect Thomas Young and was viewed as a model of humanitarian prison design.
When the Gaol first opened in 1841, the cramped austere cells were constructed of hand-hewn timbers about 30 cm (one foot) square. By 1851 some of the cells were lathed and plastered to prevent fire. Originally the cells had double-oak bolted doors; these were replaced by the iron-barred doors that remained in use until the Gaol closed in 1972. Among the criminals and drunkards who served time in these cells is James Donnelly, father of the infamous Black Donnellys of Lucan.
Originally intended for use as a chapel, the Gaol’s top floor was used as a court room and meeting place for the County’s first council. First warden for the district of Huron was William “Tiger” Dunlop. These rooms were later used for prisoner overflow when the courts relocated to a new courthouse built downtown in the centre of the market square. It is now a national historic site.
The Governor’s house was built on the south-east side of the Gaol in 1901. With its dark ash woodwork, ornate oak furnishings, velvet drapes and lace curtains the Governor’s House reflects the important status of this position within a rural Ontario community in the early part of the 20th century.
The relative luxury of this home, built for the gaoler and his family, is a stark contrast to the conditions endured by the prisoners only a few steps away
Last Man Hanged
Last Man Hanged is a collective work inspired by the writings of John Melady and based on the last public hanging in Canada. The play was performed outdoors in August 2007 by Gairbraid Theatre Company on the very site of the last hanging in the Huron Historic Gaol.
A dozen years before the Black Donnellys were butchered at Lucan, Ontario, another murderous rampage took place a few miles away. On June 6, 1868, three men robbed and killed a rich farmer, his wife, and her unborn child. They concocted an alibi, stuck to it, and almost got off. In fact, two of them did. The third, Nicholas Melady, went to prison and fell in love with a beautiful woman in a nearby cell. There to entrap him, she listened, learned, and led him to the gallows. When he was hanged in Goderich, hundreds watched, but thousands were late for the spectacle. They were bitterly disappointed because they had missed the last public hanging in Canada.
Open to the Public
May 12 to Labour Day, daily, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Labour Day to Oct. 28, daily, 1-4 p.m.
Contact the Huron Historic Gaol
181 Victoria Street North,
Goderich, Ontario Canada N7A 2S7