Tag Archives: prison

Why should the innocent suffer for the guilty: Prison Reform in Newfoundland?

HMP1June 19, 1890

Archival Moment

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, (H.M.P.) St. John’s is one of the oldest stone structures in the province, and is one of the oldest, stand-alone stone prisons in Newfoundland and Labrador. It has held countless inmates since the first prisoner took to his cell in 1859.

Since that first prisoner, H. M. Penitentiary has been fodder for reformers and critics.

In June 1890 the House of Assembly of Newfoundland passed a piece of Legislation known as “An Act to provide for the Commutation of Sentences for good behavior and industry of Prisoners confined to the Penitentiary.”  Essentially the legislation allowed for the release of prisoners for good behavior before they completed their full sentence.

The new legislation was the talk of the town. Some were quite critical other reformers suggested that more could be done.

On June 19, 1890 one such reformer in a letter to the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram wrote:

“One of the greatest difficulties in the punishment of convicted persons in this country, (Newfoundland) lies in the fact that it is often impossible to punish the guilty without making the innocent suffer far more severely.”

The writer (he wrote under the pen name Reformer) was suggesting that once convicted and imprisoned the man is “inflicting beggary upon his family.”

The writer proposed a remedy. He wrote:

 “The only remedy for this appears to be that a variety of industries should be established in the penitentiary; that every person imprisoned should be obliged to labor at some industry; and that his earnings should be applied to the support of his family, where such support is needed. In this way, all law-breakers would be gradually deprived of public pity, the respect for the law would grow stronger in the whole community; and the law, being backed up by public opinion, would gain a stronger hold upon the conscience of every individual in the community.”

Insisting that every person imprisoned should be obliged to labor at some industry had the advantage he wrote “to give the prisoner a chance to learn a trade.” He continued:

 “In this way, too, every person imprisoned would learn some trade (more or less perfectly, according to the length of his term, and the nature of the industry); every such person would probably acquire habits of industry; and thus there would be greater security against a relapse into evil ways after discharge from the prison.”

Since it was founded in 1859 until the early 1900’s prison work crews could be seen about the city working on public buildings and there grounds. One industry or trade that was developed at the penitentiary was the trade of ‘broom making’ most of the brooms found in Newfoundland households were  at one time made by the prisoners of the penitentiary.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives: Statistics Showing the Number of Persons in the Penitentiary   [Fonds GN 170] Newfoundland and Labrador court records collection.

Recommended Reading: 2008 “Judging the Prisons of Newfoundland and Labrador: the Perspectives of Inmates and Ex-inmates”, in Poirier, S., Brown, G. and Carlson, T., in Decades of Darkness: Moving towards the Light. A Review of the Prison System in Newfoundland and Labrador, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, pp. 139-202.



Prisoner Escapes Penitentiary, Reward Posted

Archival Moment

November 25, 1887

"Manslaughter Without Mercy"

“Manslaughter Without Mercy”

There was much excitement in St. John’ on November 25, 1887, the talk in town was all about the whereabouts of Michael Whelan, a convicted murderer who had escaped from the penitentiary at Quidi Vidi Lake. The local newspapers ran advertisements that stated:

“Whereas, Michael Whelan, a prisoner in the Penitentiary, under sentence of manslaughter, escaped recently from prison, and is now at large. Notice is hereby given, that reward of two hundred dollars will be paid to any person or persons who shall give the police authorities such information that shall lead to his arrest; and all persons are cautioned not in any way to harbour or aid the said Michael inn his escape.”

Michael Whelan, a fisherman of Horse Cove, (now St. Thomas) was charged with the willful murder of Livi King of Broad Cove, on the 6th of October 1883.

Witnesses swore that the tension between the two men was driven by alcohol and religion. According to the trial testimony it seems that the custom of those travelling from St. John’s to the Broad Cove – Portugal Cove area in those days on horse and cart was to make an occasional stop for a drink along the way. They stopped at M. Lundrigan’s to pick up a bottle to bring home, next they stopped at Walsh’s, near the pond, for a few drinks. It was here that the trouble started. It seems that Whelan “was cursing the Orangemen” and King threatening to “go down and haul down the chapel.” Nothing good was to come of this.

Michael Whelan pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Levi King when he was arraigned. The trial took place on November 28, 1883. It took the jury one hour to decide on a verdict of “manslaughter without mercy.” Whelan was sentenced to prison for life in H. M. Penitentiary.

On November 25, 1887, between seven and eight o’clock seven prisoners left to work on a drain which they were constructing from the General Hospital (Forest Road)  to Quidi Vidi Lake in the charge of two prison officials. Amongst the prisoners was Michael Whelan.

Whelan had been slowly plotting his escape gradually ingratiating himself into the good books of the prison officials. He was rewarded for his good behavior by being allowed to join the other prisoners in their work detail. While at work in the drain he asked to retire “for a natural purpose”. He was permitted to do so.

In the meantime the prison wardens were distracted by the other prisoners, when Whelan saw this he made a dash for liberty; he was a powerful man and a fast runner; he followed the margin of Quidi Vidi Lake to the East end. The officer gave chase; Whelan outdistanced the prison officials and disappeared into the White Hills.

Despite an intense search using all of the police resources and the large reward offered for Whelan’s capture, he was never caught. Police watched his home and questioned his friends but to no avail, he was not to be found.

An inquiry into the escape established that this was a planned escape, not some spontaneous act by the prisoner. Whelan’s prison guard told the inquiry that he should have known that something was up because Whelan had taken his Rosary beads that had always hung on his bed post. Typically,  when he went with the prison work crews  the beads were left in his prison cell.

There were lots of rumors about what happened to Michael Whelan, some said that he made his escape to Placentia, a town where the Whelan family were well established, and from there he got away to America in a fishing schooner.

It is known that his wife left Newfoundland some years after his escape for America, fueling rumors that he had established a home somewhere in the Boston States. Twenty years following his escape in November 1906 the Evening Telegram speculated that she was living with him in Boston.

The Whelan’s were among the first settlers of Horse Cove; the town changed its name to St. Thomas in 1922 and was amalgamated with Paradise in 1992. St. Thomas with the amalgamation is now the oldest settled part of the town of Paradise and the Whelan’s remain among the residents.

It is not likely that Michael Whelan came home but did any of his kin visit with him? Did he keep his connections to friends and family in Horse Cove?

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives see GN2.2 Evidence taken at the Magisterial Inquiry, The Queen vs Michael Whelan for the felony of Prison Breach, November 29, 1887. A transcript of the trial can be found in the Evening Telegram (St. John’s, N.L.), 29 November 1883.

That ‘chaw’ trying to make a big fellow of himself … in the lock up ”

Archival Moments

September 19, 1882

A prison cell is no place for  a 'chaw'.

A prison cell is no place for a ‘chaw’.

St. John’s, NL is known internationally as a “party” city. The iconic George Street is on the itinerary of every tourist.  Unfortunately, however, when large numbers gather and alcohol is involved trouble follows.  But did you know that night life in St. John’s is tame today compared to what it was in the 1880’s.

In the 1880’s the court reporters for the city newspapers were busy reporting on multiple arrests for drunkenness and fighting, typically  there would be  seven to thirteen individuals thrown into the “Lock up”  on any given weekend night, this pales  in comparison to the one or two that we get today.

With so many people being arrested for disorderly conduct and other related alcohol charges in September 1882 the condition of the “Lock up” became such a concern that the Editor of the Evening Telegram penned an editorial about the deplorable conditions.  The editorialist wrote:

“Attention has been frequently called to the condition and insufficient accommodation of our Lock up. This place, that is proved by the government for the temporary detention of prisoners, has time after time been found most injurious of the health of its occupants.  Deaths have occurred there. In consequence of which a want of proper attention has been attributed to the police authorities; but no blame could attach to them, as it was not through their fault that such sad events have taken place.”

The “Lock Up” the newspaper reporter suggested because of its size was a breathing ground for “fighting and disorderly conduct.”  The editorial stated:

“As the Lock up is at present situated, it contains four small and dark cells, and as many as eighteen prisoners have been confined to them, at one and the same time. It no wonder then, we find huddled together in a small space, the greater number who are doubtless excited through the influence of strong drink. Last night seven prisoners confined to those four cells, on Sunday morning last here were thirteen having been arrested for the usual offences of drunkenness and disorderly conduct.”

It appears that some of the men who were arrested liked their peace and quiet in the ‘lock up.’  One night In September 1882  a man named Neagle of Riverhead  (west end of St. John’s) who was found fighting on the street was taken into custody and was placed in a cell  with the “indomitable Andrew Kearney” who had been arrested for being incapable of taking proper care of himself.

Kearney was not amused with his very talkative roommate and his pleas for him to be quite fell on deaf ears.  About 2 o’clock in the morning Kearney had had enough and gave Neagle a black eye and a bloody nose.  Asked by the constable why he had  beaten his cell mate Kearney stated:

“that that  “chaw”  whoever he was, was trying  to make  a big fellow of himself.”

His Worship (Judge Prowse) was most displeased with the two men.  Andy Kearney was given twenty days imprisonment for his assault in the cells, and Neagle got fifty days for striking the constable earlier in the evening. In imposing the sentence Judge Prowse stated “that any person who would raise his hand against policemen would be punished by him with the utmost severity.”

The calls for reform to improve the “lock up” with its “four small dark cells” also fell on deaf ears.  The “lock up” remained home to all those who broke the law until the Great Fire 1892.

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Evening Telegram and other newspapers give very detailed accounts of all citizens that were arrested. It might be interesting to explore to see if you will find an ancestor in the “lock up.”

Lost Word Meaning:  Chaw:  a talkative person.  Example: Terry is a fine young man, / But he has a lot of ‘chaw,’ /

Newfoundland Expression: “More chaw than a sheep’s head” refers to one who talks too much.

Chaw Bag – Newfoundland and Labrador Language Lessons.  Watch This:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBOgkY02Q-c