Manitoba History: Louts, Lunatics, and Loose Women at the Vaughan Street Jail

by Kristen Verin-Treusch

Number 53, October 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Standing at the corner of Winnipeg’s York Avenue and Memorial Boulevard is the former Vaughan Street Jail. It lays dormant as people pass by without giving it a second thought. Occasionally, a tour guide pauses to tell tales of its former days. As tourists gaze at this building with its rusty bars and peeling paint, images of inmates, punishment, and executions flood their imaginations. Indeed, if these walls could talk, they would reveal stories of how men, women, and children—many suffering from mental or physical disabilities—were treated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The story begins during Winnipeg’s first economic boom in 1881-82. Upper Fort Garry was purchased by the city and, in the following year, its demolition enabled the straightening of Main Street. The city’s old law courts and jail at the corner of Main Street and William Avenue were sold for $65,200. [1] The proceeds were earmarked for a new courthouse and jail, which were desperately needed. The Manitoba Free Press described the old facilities as “a damp, dark, dismal dungeon that smells to Heaven.” [2] The reporter described the women’s ward as being a “room about 15 feet long by 8 feet wide, tenanted by a dozen females, some of whom were crouching on the floor in squalid wretchedness, while others were moving about and indulging in the foulest language. The atmosphere was simply sickening, and tough as the scribe was he had to beat a hasty retreat.” [3]

The provincial government decided to construct new judicial buildings on land purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company near Colony Creek at the outskirts of the city. [4] The new jail was to be located behind the courthouse, facing north, on predominately open prairie. Behind it, toward the Assiniboine River, were the Fort Osborne Barracks and, on the west side of the creek, the McDonagh & Shea Brewery.

The new building—to be known formally as the Eastern Judicial District Gaol—was intended to be different from other jails of its time. Architect Walter Chesterton wanted to create an attractive building that avoided the bleak, heavy designs of traditional prison architecture. The goal was to design a building that would deliver an ominous message to potential criminals that prison life was not to be desired without resorting to a sombre appearance. [5] He achieved this goal by styling his building after churches of the Italian Renaissance. [6] With its mansard roof, yellow bricks, and limestone trim, the building reflected the wealth of a budding metropolis.

Plans called for a 147 feet long by 70 feet deep cuneiform building with long extensions going east and west from the center section. The east wing was to be 28 feet from the eastern corner of the courthouse, joined by a corridor to transfer criminals back and forth “so the prisoner is brought directly from the jail into the dock entirely separated from the public.” [7] In the end, this corridor was never realized and the two buildings were left separated. [8]

As construction began in 1881, wooden piles were driven into the ground with oak planks laid at right angles and attached with spikes. [9] Footing courses and masonry continued upward to the ground level. Any external sections of the masonry from below were coated in Portland cement and the aboveground masonry was covered with slabs of local limestone. This created a solid structure because it allowed the building to “float” on whatever it was resting. This flexibility has helped it survive for more than 125 years.

The jail’s interior was divided into four sections: the east and west wings, and two smaller south and north wings. The east wing was partially used to hold “criminals of the lighter stripe.” There were seven cells on the ground floor with a turnkey’s room, bathrooms, and mess ward. The second floor housed a workroom, seven women’s wards each five feet by ten feet, matron’s room, nurse’s room, bathrooms, and storage room. The attic was used as living quarters for turnkeys and guards. The south wing had laundry facilities in the basement, kitchen, pantry, and lift on the ground level; the second floor housed the hospital ward with washbasins, and the attic served as a dormitory. [10]

The Lawler family stands outside the entrance to Winnipeg’s Eastern Judicial District Gaol, circa 1884.
Source: McGill University, Notman Photographic Archives #1420.

The west wing—with the strongest cells—was the heart of the jail. Only male offenders convicted of serious crimes like robbery, rape, and murder were housed here. [11] Solitary confinement cells in the basement were for offenders who did not abide by prison rules. Constructed of stout oak planking bound with steel rods, the cell walls were incredibly dense. There were no windows or other means of natural light, no light fixtures, and no sleeping cot. In the smaller solitary confinement rooms where disobedient convicts spent a shorter period of time, usually one or two days, and the criminal was confined to the wall. Wrist and leg irons with one to two feet of slack chain bound the inmate, and then the chains were fed through iron rings attached to the cell. There, the inmate would hang in the dark until their time was completed. The solitary confinement room at the end of the corridor was large enough to walk around and had its own toilet. Subsequently, these cells gained the reputation of being the closest thing to a living grave. [12] The ground floor had seven metal cells that held four criminals each. They slept on hammocks instead of cots attached to the walls. There was a long barred hallway where inmates could walk but there were no windows to reduce the risk of escape. A bathroom was at the end of the corridor. The second floor had eighteen cells made of oak planks secured with iron tongues, bars, and bolts.

The north or front wing of the jail accommodated the jailor and his family. Patrick Lawler, with his wife and children, was the first and only jailor to reside there. The main entrance was originally the front door to this unusual home. A dining room on the west side, with a parlour across from it, were on the ground floor. A long hallway with Lawler’s office at the back just off the rotunda ran through the centre of the building. Four bedrooms were on the second floor, also known as the chamber floor, and the attic provided more dormitory and storage space for the Lawlers. [13] Extending north from the main entrance was the family’s personal garden and lawn that extended to where the sidewalk on the north side of York Avenue is located today. The Lawlers lived there until about 1900 when a house was built for them near the corner of York and Vaughan. In 1904, Patrick Lawler’s term as jailor was done and he and his family moved out. [14]

Outside the jail, above the entrance, a cement tablet over an ornamental balcony bore the name “Provincial Jail / Eastern Division.” The remainder of the façade and building was unadorned. Nestled in the corner of the east and south wings was a half-acre exercise yard, enclosed by a fourteen-foot fence, that also served as the site for executions. [15]

The city’s first jailhouse had been dirty and crowded with little regard for inmate comfort; the Province intended to make the new jail cleaner and more respectable. Colonel Samuel L. Bedson commented on its cleanliness and orderliness in his report of 1885. [16] By 1890, the jail was considered to be in a “good state of efficiency and is now being improved with electric lighting” [17] replacing earlier coal lamps. However, problems arose as early as 1883. The materials for the basement floor were of inferior quality and needed to be replaced. The boilers were not operating sufficiently in the winter and required rebuilding. To cut costs, prison labour was used for building construction and it was recommended by the jail doctor that this would also benefit the men by giving them more physical exercise. [18] The following year, similar problems such as the “pipes, boilers, etc. were all worn out and needed to be replaced or rebuilt” were described. Two chimneys were constructed to “remove a danger” of an unspecified nature. [19] In 1899, the safety of the heating system was again questioned as the furnace flues often got “absolutely red-hot” and caught on fire during the winter months. [20] The boilers had to be replaced at the end of the 1890s and the “once impenetrable condemned cell was now insecure” leaving the possibility of escape. [21]

The city hired provincial architect Samuel Hooper to oversee renovations in 1909 and 1910, and to extend the south wing by 100 feet. Hooper, who was not interested in preserving buildings in their original state, incorporated new architectural designs that were popular at the time. This is probably when some of the finer details from the façade were removed, including the balcony, the nameplate above the door, and the truncated third storey. In their place he added a plainer face to the north wing and had the title of the building changed to “Provincial Gaol” which now could be read more easily from the street. The rotunda received a “handsome three stage cupola with weathervane” to avoid an otherwise abrupt conjunction between this section and the new three storey south wing. [22] All the wooden cells were removed and replaced with steel and, with the change in jailor’s residence, the front of the building could now serve as a general entranceway. The residence was converted into the warden and turnkey’s offices. Eventually, this building was considered a “modern marvel” for its ingenuity and efficiency of space. [23]

Cupola added to the Jail during a 1909 renovation.
Source: Nicole Verin-Treusch.

Considerable information about the jail’s population is contained in reports prepared by the provincial Attorney General in 1886 and 1900. Inmates were predominately male, with a small number of women, and even fewer children (defined as those under the age of 20). A large number of insane persons were confined there temporarily before being transferred to the Selkirk Asylum. In 1886, “164 prisoners and insane persons were received. Prisoners performed 797 days of work …” [24] The nature of their crimes was diverse; there were 56 convictions for larceny, ten assaults with intent to rob, eight robberies with violence, seven assaults with intent to do grievous harm, and five cases each for burglary, assaults causing bodily harm, housebreaking, larceny from prison, cattle stealing, and carrying a concealed weapon in a proclaimed district. There were two murder attempts and two cases of vagrancy, and single cases of murder, infanticide, rape, felonious escape, fraud, criminal libel, gaming, selling liquor without a license, opening post letters, and shooting with intent to murder. Interestingly, there were no convictions for prostitution. Police Chief John McRae and Minnie Woods, the “Queen of the Harlots,” agreed to move all brothels into Point Douglas and thereby created a more regulated atmosphere for this activity. In 1900, there were 91 convictions for theft, 55 for vagrancy, 55 certificates of insanity, and ten convictions each for forgery, assaults, and inmates of a disorderly house. Crimes that year which were different or new from previous years included five convictions for giving liquor to Indians, three men convicted of having sex with girls under fourteen years of age, and four were convicted of receiving stolen goods. [25] The increase in vagrancy convictions may be due, in part, to changes in the understanding of the charge. The vagrancy law covered a vast area where a man could be charged for exposing himself to a woman as a means to insult her, or more relevantly, to stifle men from looking for female prostitutes. In 1913, the Vagrancy Act was broadened to include homosexual men. [26] The definition of vagrancy also encompassed people who had no visible means of support. This charge could be used in combating begging, mugging, and loitering without the need to prove that such a crime was actually committed or planned. [27] It was a convenient way to get rid of undesirable people who were bothersome. Not suprisingly, the jail population was predominately working class. “Labourers” out-numbered all other occupations, with the unemployed or people without a trade assuming second place. Servants and farmers were third and fourth, with the fifth most common occupation being clerks in hotels or offices, and engineers. In 1886, there were two phrenologists, three artists, and two nurses charged. Four sailors were convicted in 1900—an interesting occupation to have in the middle of the prairies. The average age was between twenty to thirty years. In 1886, there were 46 illiterate inmates and 192 who had some elementary education; only three were considered to have superior education. In 1900, 249 criminals could read and write with only nine illiterate. Seventeen had high school education. In 1886, the vast majority of inmates were described as “Canadian,” not including aboriginals (none of whom were apparently incarcerated). The next most common nationality was English, with Irish and American tied for third place. The Scots came in at fourth place followed by small numbers of Scandinavians, Russians, Germans, French (European), Icelandic, and others. In 1900, adherents of the Church of England (Anglican) topped the inmate list with 87 convictions followed by Catholics at 84. The Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists were all represented. Mennonites, Greek Orthodox, and Jews trailed with nine, four, and five, respectively.

Manitoba Asylum for the Insane at Selkirk, circa 1887.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Dorothy Garbutt Collection 165.

When convicts arrived at the jail, they were assessed for temperance. If an individual could resist their impulses, passions, and abstain in matters of alcohol consumption, sexuality, and eating they were considered temperate. [28] In 1886, there were 101 claims of people being temperate and 140 non-temperate [29] compared to 127 and 146, respectively, in 1900. [30] Many of the inmates were expected to do physical labour on the premises. Male inmates were most likely put to use as cooks, orderlies, or gardeners. The property south of the jail—where the 1915 powerhouse stands now—was used for growing potatoes, turnips, carrots, lettuce, summer savoury, and cabbage. The prisoners consumed their own produce or, if there was a bumper crop, it was sold at market. Female prisoners were put to work in domestic tasks such as washing, making beds, and making and mending prisoner’s clothes. [31] When the inmates were not working they could engage themselves in spiritual matters.

In 1886, there were enough children in this jail, as a result of a perceived increase in juvenile crime, to warrant changes in how they were treated. To that time, children were tried as adults and young criminals were treated the same as adults. Children as young as five years old had been incarcerated, confined in the same cells as adults. In the hope of preventing corruption of the youthful criminal, jailor Lawler and Attorney General C. E. Hamilton agreed there should be a physical separation between “the hardened and callous criminal” and young offenders. A new building, which would house a reformatory or industrial school, was proposed and Colonel Bedson urged immediate action: “It is a matter of too serious importance to the community to brook delay.” [32] Bedson believed that an elementary education would benefit inmate children, and he proposed in an 1886 letter to Lawler to have a school constructed within the jail grounds. Inmate labour could be used to build it, providing exercise, training, and good cost efficiency for the institution. The rest of the new building, he added, could be used for management of the jail. [33] The school was never constructed. F. J. Billiarde was responsible for neglected and dependent children for the province, as well as acting as probation officer to juvenile delinquents, truants, and boys on parole. [34] He claimed that “idleness is the cause of most of the trouble amongst boys and girls” and recommended that playgrounds be constructed to provide diversionary recreation. Boys, especially those between the ages of twelve to fourteen, were incessantly mischievous. Bored children with time on their hands skipped school, were arrested for truancy, and brought before the court. Billiarde recommended that young people should be separated out of this system to avoid children “coming into contact with habitual criminals” and be treated under a new set of standards. [35] The first Juvenile Court System, under the guidance of Thomas Mayne Daly, was established in 1909 under the philosophy that wayward children had made a mistake but, with correct guidance, could be reformed. [36]

Thomas Mayne Daly (1852 - 1911), the first mayor of Brandon who became Manitoba’s first cabinet minister in the federal government. In 1909, he became Canada’s first juvenile court judge. His 1882 home in Brandon is preserved today as Daly House Museum.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Daly, T. Mayne 1.

In 1886, jail surgeon Dr. E. Benson reported to the Attorney General that thirty-one prisoners had been committed for insanity of which twenty-five were ultimately certified as such. [37] Insanity at that time was defined as “unhealthiness,” usually referring to mental illness. [38] But prison officials in Manitoba and elsewhere had difficulty finding a precise definition. In 1885, the inspector of Ontario’s penitentiary found that 25% of Kingston’s inmates were either “imbeciles” or “lunatics.” [39] The most common diagnosis for mental illness in Manitoba was acute or chronic mania, dementia, melancholia, general paresis, epilepsy, or imbecility. [40] Given this broad scope, the large numbers of insanity diagnoses are understandable. Construction of the Selkirk Asylum was greatly anticipated because many of the insane inmates at the jail were under restraints and in poor keeping. [41] Mentally ill persons were sometimes delivered to the jail in the belief that a couple nights stay would “cure” them. If they suffered violent episodes during a psychotic break, they were taken into special cells. There, they were laid on a one-inch thick mattress fit between two sets of iron staples sunk into the concrete floor. A leather strap was pulled over their shoulders, hips and ankles to restrain them until the episode passed. [42] Opportunities for exercise were few and usually consisted of walking in the corridors. Asylums were considered the last place for a sick person to go. “An actually maniacal person who cannot be restrained at home is taken before a magistrate and committed to gaol and there kept till this stage passes off when he may be discharged to be brought back again in a worse state from the first, or till he passes into a state of dementia” and thereby sent to live out his days at the asylum. These cases were often thought of as hopeless and incurable. The amount of time an insane person spent in a jail was limited by the Act of 1885, which prescribed that no insane person should remain for more than 48 hours unless under exceptional circumstances. [43]

Being located within city limits, the jail was a source of public curiosity. Members of the public were sometimes allowed to gawk at the inmates. Newspaper reporters would sneak in to “glean information from the subordinate officials, or from untried prisoners relative to particulars of their own or some other prisoner’s case.” [44] At least some prison officials did not like the practise. Bedson wrote in 1886 that it “irritates and annoys the well-disposed prisoner, distracting him from his work, and what is perhaps more, it hardens that callous prisoner (as) he enjoys parading his ignoble notoriety.” [45] He recommended that the practise be stopped.

The first executions at the jail, on 27 May 1899, drew a lot of public attention because they involved a double hanging—for murderers Wazyl Guszczak and Simeon Czubej—and because there had not been an execution in Manitoba in twenty-three years. “The curiosity of the people who wish to see the execution cannot be satisfied by looking through or over the fence, as the scaffold is completely enclosed at the top and bottom and no view of the men after they reach the platform will be obtainable...” [46] Despite the visual obstacle, two to three hundred people lingered in the vicinity all day. [47] Subsequent executions continued to draw crowds. In the early 1900s, professors at the University of Manitoba, who had rented rooms in the law courts building due to overcrowding in their main building west of the jail, discovered that their students were congregating there to watch the executions that could be seen easily from the second floor windows into the jail yard behind the east wing. [48]

In 1912, the federal government hired an experienced hangman, Arthur English, a former British army officer, as the official executioner for all of Canada. English came from a long line of executioners, with over 300 years of family tradition preceding him. At the time he was hired, his uncle was the official headsman in England, working under the name of John Ellis. English took up his new position in Montreal under the name of Arthur Ellis. His first hanging in Winnipeg was of the notorious John Krafchenko, on 9 July 1914. Krafchenko’s case was sensational. While stealing $4,000 from a bank in Plum Coulee, Krafchensko killed the bank manager during his escape. Shortly after being apprehended, Krafchenko escaped from Winnipeg’s Rupert Avenue police station with the help of a lawyer and police officer. [49] His freedom was short-lived and he ultimately faced the noose on Vaughan Street. Another of Ellis’ highprofile hangings was of American serial killer Earl Leonard Nelson. Nelson murdered two females in Winnipeg, a fourteen-year-old girl and a pregnant mother of two, following an eight-month spree between October 1926 and June 1927 during which he killed twenty-three women in the USA. Nelson was eventually arrested, escaped, rearrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was housed at the jail for about a year. In the days before his death, women were seen lingering outside the jail hoping to catch a glimpse of the killer. [50] Nelson was the thirteenth and last person to be hanged at the jail. All future executions were held at the new provincial correctional facility, Headingley Gaol, which opened in 1930. One reason for the change of venue was that section 1071 of the Criminal Code prescribed that “the body of every offender executed shall be buried within the walls of the prison within which judgment of death is executed on him.” Prior to this, the jail transported their unclaimed bodies to Brookside Cemetery where they were interred in various locations. The government paid for the burials but not for a headstone. Consequently, the bodies lie in unmarked plots.

Over the years, the once important Vaughan Street Jail nestled into the background of an expanding middle class neighbourhood, with the University of Manitoba’s science building kitty corner away. Houses were built across from it, a church was down the street, and schools were located nearby. Its original function now long since forgotten, the building stands unnoticed by most Winnipeggers as they walk past it during their daily lives. The cold rusted iron bars and crumbling walls are all that are left of this once intimidating place. Ghosts of its former inmates are said to wander the halls. Its faded but foreboding exterior collects pigeons and curious onlookers from an occasional tour group try to imagine the looks of despair on the faces of the convicted and condemned.

Currently, only the jail’s first floor is used by the provincial government. Cells in the upper floors have been removed, along with all insulation and light fixtures but rows of cells remain in the basement. The building warrants restoration and preservation on a number of grounds. The significance of its architecture has been recognized but its role in the evolution of a major Canadian city has not been fully explored. The jail reveals a slice of our humanity, culture and attitudes towards disadvantaged members of our society. Noteworthy people passed through its doors, among them Margaret Scott, Winnipeg’s first public health nurse who tended to sick and dying female inmates; Thomas Mayne Daly, a judge whose compassion for children in the correctional system led to Canada’s first juvenile court system; Helen Armstrong, [51] who was jailed for four days for inciting women to violence during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919; and Winnipeg mayor John Queen, who served twelve months for his role in the Strike. [52] The Friends of the Vaughan Street Jail was incorporated in 2004 with a mandate to research, promote, and preserve the jail’s history. The group arranged for the building to be featured in Doors Open Winnipeg 2005, a two-day event during which several thousand visitors waited in long lines to learn about the jail and the colorful characters from its history. As a result of this and other initiatives, the Friends hope in time to see the old jail given provincial heritage designation, and development as a novel tourist destination.

Visitors line up to see the Vaughan Street Jail during the second annual Doors Open Winnipeg, May 2006.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough.


1. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1882.

2. Manitoba Free Press, 5 March 1883.

3. Hutchinson, Robert, A Century of Service: A History of the Winnipeg Police Force 1874 - 1974. Winnipeg Police Force, 1974, p. 13.

4. Rostecki, Randy, personal communication, 3 February 2003. Colony Creek was located where present day Osborne Street is situated.

5. Hutchison, A Century of Service, p. 6.

6. Ibid., p. 5.

7. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1882.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Rostecki, Randy, Eastern Judicial District Gaol. Historic Resources Branch, Winnipeg, 1981, p. 9.

15. Ibid., p. 7.

16. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1885, p. 60.

17. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1890, p. 110.

18. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1882, p. 27.

19. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1900, p. 30.

20. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1899, page 33; letter from P. Lawler to J. W. Sifton, 10 January 1900.

21. Ibid.

22. Rostecki, Eastern Judicial District Gaol, p. 11.

23. Ibid., p. 12.

24. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1886, p. 109.

25. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1900, p. 65.

26. Hood, Roger, Crime, Criminology and Public Policy: Essays in Honour of Sir Leon Radzinowicz. London, G. B. Heineman Educational Books Ltd., 1974, p. 483.

27. Williman, Daniel. Legal Terminology: An Historical Guide to the Technical language of Law. Peterborough, Broadway Press, 1986, p. 304.

28. Ibid., p. 290.

29. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Reports for 1886, p. 79.

30. Manitoba Department of Public Works, Annual Report for 1900, p. 66.

31. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1886, p. 65.

32. Ibid, p. 61.

33. Ibid., File No. D. 138.

34. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1908, p. 745.

35. Ibid., p. 748.

36. St. George Stubbs, Roy, “The First Juvenile Court Judge: The Honourable Thomas Mayne Daly K.C.” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, No. 34 - 35, 1977 - 78 & 1978 – 79, pp. 49 - 66.

37. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1886.

38. Williman.

39. Blanchfield, Cecilia. Crime and Punishment: A Pictorial History. Correctional Service Canada, vol. 10, no. 14, 1985, p. 5.

40. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1885, p. 44.

41. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1889, p. 30.

42. Butterfield, David and Maureen, If Walls Could Talk: Manitoba’s Best Buildings Explored and Explained. Winnipeg, Great Plains Publications, 2000, p. 43.

43. Ibid.

44. Manitoba Department of Attorney General, Annual Report for 1886, p. 60.

45. Ibid., p. 61.

46. Manitoba Free Press, “They Will Die This Morning”, 27 May 1899, p. 8.

47. Winnipeg Tribune, “Galicians Hanged”, 27 May 1899.

48. Rostecki, R., personal communication, 3 February 2003.

49. Dafoe, Christopher, Winnipeg: The Heart of the Continent. Winnipeg, Great Plains Publishing, 1998, p. 121.

50. Manitoba Free Press, “Reconciled to Fate: Nelson Awaits End”, 13 January 1928.

51. Kelly, Paula, “Looking for Mrs. Armstrong.” The Beaver June/July 2002, vol. 82. p. 3.

52. McKillop, A. B., “The Socialist as Citizen: John Queen and the mayoralty of Winnipeg, 1935.” MHS Transactions, series 3, no. 30, 1973 - 74. This article’s claim that Queen, with his co-conspirators, served their sentences at Headingley Gaol seems unlikely given that Headingley opened ten years after their incarceration.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Vaughan Street Gaol (444 York Avenue, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 10 August 2014