The madmen of York County Gaol

york county jailFREDERICTON, N.B. — As anyone who read the previous entry (wherein I spent a few days taxiing a herd of children in a minivan) might suspect, I spent part of my time in Fredericton in jail.

Not just any jail. A bread-and-water jail.

But let me go back to the beginning. No, let me go an hour or so after the beginning, once bad weather had scuttled our plans and we broke up about 40 fights. We needed out of the house and we needed out fast.

We chose Science East because of its reputation, because our three borrowed children knew and loved it and because it was downtown, so I could reasonably expect to find a coffee shop nearby. All I had to do was get my crew there safely and ditch them. That was the plan right up to the moment we stepped onto the grounds and my eyes caught the small lettering on the museum’s front wall:

“Former Fredericton Provincial Jail. Built 1840-1842.”

Well, wasn’t that interesting. Science in a jailhouse? How delightfully unique (Stanford prison experiments aside).

york county jail doorway The granite walls are three feet thick. They are cool and imposing and arrested only for narrow windows, some of which are still barred. Stamped tin ceiling tiles remain in place, adding to the sharp acoustic quality of the open floors. Iron doors on the basement level are propped open as they never would have been when this was a working jail, right until 1996. These doors led to the yard, where many men were hanged. It’s a playground now, but the fence is still topped with barbed wire. Don’t want those science brats escaping, after all.

Upstairs, ornate iron doors are flung open. Children swing on them or pass through them as though they were never used to contain miscreants, murderers and madmen. And what a list of villains!

How about the Bannister boys, who were hanged in 1936 for the “beating, shooting and burning of a house to kidnap a baby”? Or Lina Thibodeau, the last woman sentenced to death in Canada, in 1954, for the slaying of her husband?

The Monster of the Miramichi, Allan Leger, was held at York County Jail in the late 1980s. The serial killer’s trial was the first time DNA evidence was used in Canada to secure a conviction. Leger is now housed in Ste. Anne des Plaines prison. His cell in the basement of York County jail teaches visitors about DNA and other forensic evidence.

york county jail execution doorEveryone’s favourite inmate is the Lunar Rogue, the dashing early 19th-century confidence man and thief who could barely be held to his cell and who created intricate marionettes out of straw and imagination. In a wonderful twist on the shoemaker’s elves, Henry Moon stole coats, then posed as a tailor who could fit and sew a coat overnight. He lived a charmed life till he was found out and then, incarcerated, lived a life nearly as charmed.

The Lunar Rogue simply could not be contained. As though he had some sort of prankster deal made with Loki, he was constantly slipping his bonds. His jailors chained him by the neck, wrists and ankles. He could barely feed himself, yet he was found unshackled and grinning most mornings. He faked a near-death and escaped, living for some time in a stolen house in the boondocks. He was incorrigible, of course, and was incarcerated again within months; when he tasted freedom the next time, he ought to have fled across a border, but the Lunar Rogue was some sort of mad.

The petty thief and con man was rearrested and sentenced to death. Chained, locked, almost certainly feared, the Lunar Rogue used nothing but his hands, straw from his mattress and maybe tools loaned by Loki to create lifelike marionettes to which he gave personalities, entertaining his jailors and eventually putting on performances for the public. Rather than the rope, miraculously he was granted a pardon. Did Loki whisper something in his ear? Finally, the Lunar Rogue appears to have gotten the point—he left New Brunswick, leaving nothing behind but the legend.

 

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