By Devonna Edwards, Columnist
The Provincial Penitentiary was located one-half mile from the city of Halifax on fourteen acres of land overlooking the eastern shore of the Northwest Arm, close to Point Pleasant Park. Today that site would be on Inglewood Drive, directly across the Arm from the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron on Purcell’s Cove Road.
The Penitentiary’s cornerstone was laid on June 24, 1841, and the facility opened on October 15, 1844. The prison was 148 feet long, forty-two feet wide and built of granite. It was u-shaped, with the front block being much thicker and longer than the two wings. Each wing was ninety-six feet long and twenty-four feet wide. There were three floors in the middle section with two on the wings. The middle section measured forty-eight feet at its highest point. Each floor had a long room in the center of the building composed of thirty cells which were very small.
In the lower part of the prison yard was a two-story framed house which had a passageway; on one side was a wash house and a carpentry shop and on the other side was a blacksmith’s shop. On the outside of the wall was a stable and pigsty, with a driving shed in front. The Penitentiary had a wharf on the Arm which gave them travelling access to the sea. Water was obtained from a well on the property, but when the water became inadequate in the 1860s, water had to be brought over in barrels from Williams Lake.
When the Penitentiary first opened it admitted twenty-one convicts, eighteen males and three females. Some of the crimes committed by the inmates were larceny, attempted rape, arson, forgery, using counterfeit money, concealing birth, horse stealing, and highway robbery.
The Governor ruled over the prison making sure it ran efficiently. It was his responsibility to admit prisoners and to see that discipline was maintained. The Keeper, the Under-Keeper and the Deputy Keeper were all required to follow the Governors orders. While on the job, the guards could not read, write, talk, sleep, relax, smoke, drink, sing or whistle and there were strict rules that forbid intermingling between them and the convicts.
The prisoners maintained a garden, which provided turnips, carrots, and other vegetables for the inmate’s meals. Male prisoners also had to clear and level the ground in front of the prison, make roads, build the wharf, and prepare foundations for the workshops. They made brooms and furniture to be sold and were trained in trades such as blacksmithing, tailoring and stonecutting. Female prisoners did laundry for the convicts, knitted socks, spun yarn, and did other domestic duties under the direction of the Matron, which was usually the Governor’s wife.
Six crew members of the ship SS Saladin were imprisoned in the Penitentiary at the Arm for their role in the mutiny aboard the ship. Two of the crew were found not guilty, but the other four were charged with piracy and murder, found guilty and were sentenced to die by hanging. On July 30, 1844, the four murderers, George Jones, John Hazleton, Charles Anderson, and William Johnston, left the Penitentiary in two closed carriages and travelled up Tower Road. They were accompanied by one Anglican and three Roman Catholic priests inside the carriages. Outside, on each side of the carriages, marched a robust guard of the 1st Royal Regiment with fixed bayonets. The carriages arrived at a small knoll on the South Common (today the site would be in front of the Victoria General Hospital on University Avenue) where a scaffold was built for the execution. The young prisoners were described as no more than 23 years of age, dressed in black with white shirts and each man had a coil or rope around his arm, the other end of the rope was knotted around his neck. After the hanging, a company of the 52nd Regiment of Foot formed a circle around the scaffold and kept the large audience at a distance following the deaths.
In 1880 when the prison was inspected it was found to be in chaos, the building was grimy, the beds were dirty, the guards were unkempt and were not doing their job and the inmates were disorderly. On July 16 that same year the convicts were removed from the Penitentiary to the new Maritime Penitentiary at Dorchester, NB.
In 1895 the former Penitentiary became a powerhouse for the People’s Heat and Light Company owned by Henry Whitney of Boston. In 1902 the company was bought by the Halifax Electric Tramway Company Limited. After World War Two the property was bought by F.B. McCurdy. The Penitentiary was demolished in 1948 and some of the granite from the prison was used to build St. Mary’s University on Robie Street. The rest of the granite was used for a retaining wall at the head of Purcell’s Cove and for a retaining wall on Inglewood Drive. The site of the old Penitentiary was flattened, and the area known as Franklyn Park was divided into residential lots.