Children in the Huron Jail

May 18th is International Museum Day! Museums and historic sites across the world are opening their doors for free today. For those whom cannot visit the Huron Historic Gaol in person, Student Museum Assistant Jacob Smith delves into the building’s past to reveal how some of Huron’s youngest prisoners ended up behind bars. 

During its operation [1841-1972], hundreds of children were arrested and sent to the Huron Jail. Their crimes ranged from arson and theft to drunkenness and vagrancy. The most common crime that children committed was theft. In total, thefts made up over half of all youth charges between 1841 and 1911. In total, children under the age of 18 made up 7% of the gaol population during that time.*

 
Occasionally, young people were sent to gaol for serious crimes. In 1870, William Mercer, age 17, was brought to the Huron Gaol and charged with murder. He was sentenced to die and was to be hanged on December 29, 1870. Thankfully for Mercer, his sentence was reduced to life in prison and was sent to a penitentiary. This is an example of an extreme crime for a young offender.

On many occasions, children were sent to gaol because they were petty thieves. Many young people who were committed for these types of crimes would only spend a few days in gaol. If the crime was more severe, children would be transferred from the gaol to a reformatory, usually for three to five years.

The youngest inmates that were charged with a crime were both seven years old. The first, Thomas McGinn, was charged in 1888 for larceny. He was discharged five days later and was sentenced to five years in a reformatory. The second, John Scott, was charged in 1900 for truancy; he was discharged the next day.

First floor cell block at the Huron Historic Gaol.

Unfortunately, some children were brought into gaol with their families because they were homeless or destitute. An example of this was in 1858, when Margaret Bird, age 8, Marion Bird, 6, and Jane Bird, 2, spent 25 days in gaol with a woman committed for ‘destitution’ (presumably their mother). Some children were also brought to the Huron Jail because their parents committed a crime and they had nowhere else to go while their parents were incarcerated. Samuel Worms, age 7, was sent to gaol with his parents because they were charged with fraud in 1865. He spent one day in the Gaol.

When reading through the Gaol’s registry, it is clear that times have certainly changed for young offenders. Most of the crimes committed by the young prisoners of the past would not receive as serious punishments today.

Here are some examples of their crimes in newspapers from around Huron County:

Richard Cain, 16, spent two days in jail.
The Huron Signal, 1896-09-17, pg 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Butler, 15, spent eleven days in the Huron Jail.
The Exeter Advocate, 1901-08-29, pg 4.

Sources came from the Gaol’s 1841-1911 registry and Huron County’s digitized newspapers.

*Dates for which the gaol registry is available & transcribed. There were young people in the Huron jail throughout its history, into the twentieth century. 

The Gathering Place Part 3: Interviews with Museum Staff

Over the course of the past several months that I’ve spent photographing artifacts at the museum, I’ve been lucky to get the perspectives of several different Huron County Museum staff members to see how they encounter objects and their narratives. Below are a selection of responses from interviews with Curator Elizabeth French-Gibson, Archivist Jenna Leifso, Registrar Patti Lamb, and Museum Technician Heidi Zoethout.

Do you have a favourite artifact/archival document at the museum (either on display or in storage)? If so, could you describe why?

Jenna Leifso (Archivist): I really enjoy the photograph collection and couldn’t pick just one photo because every time I catalogue a new collection or look through the photos I find something that delights me. The facial expressions, the clothes, and the hair are all really incredible.

Elizabeth French-Gibson (Curator): My favourite artifacts are the textiles, primarily the clothing. I look at each piece and wonder about the person who wore it – why did they have it & why did they save it? I am curious to know what other clothes they had and wore out, had and ruined or simply had and didn’t think were significant enough to save. We have many pieces in the collection that are the fancy dress, wedding attire, baby clothing, etc. that are beautiful and special but what about the everyday? What did they chose to simply wear and what to wear out?

Patti Lamb (Registrar): So many of our artifacts tell really cool stories, it’s hard to pick out just one. But my favourite artifact has to be Tiger Dunlop’s silver cup with the gold sovereign in it. We just received it a few months ago. It is so incredible to me to be able to hold in my hands the same silver cup that Tiger Dunlop drank from…someone that was so significant politically to Goderich, the county, our county and the world. The cup was willed to his sister in his quirky will.

Beaded necklace: 1957.10.3. Photo from Huron County Museum’s catalogue.

Heidi Zoethout (Museum Technician): I have a few favourites, right now the top of the list is the carved beaded necklace. The detail in the larger beads is amazing. I did not realize that some beads are carved fruit pits. Something that is normally discarded that can be made into something so beautiful.

Close-up of carved bead.

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What is your perception of artifacts? What place and value do you think they have in society to-day?

Jenna Leifso (Archivist): I think I may have a different perception of artifacts than most people. Growing up, my family always went to museums and historical villages. I think it’s cool to see how we have evolved and how we are always trying to constantly improve.

Elizabeth French-Gibson (Curator): I think that artifacts provide us with a tangible connection with the past. It is necessary to have all types of artifacts available to the public in order to have a better view of the past. It would be easy to change the story, or overlook the mundane if the true pieces were not there. Each artifact has the ability to tell a story but the storyteller must be open to what it is truly saying.

Patti Lamb (Registrar): The artifacts create ties with the past and gives history a visual component. In such a disposable world in which we live, I think it’s important to be able to physically see and possibly touch items from the past.

Heidi Zoethout (Museum Technician): Some people look at an artifact and imagine who would have used it and create a scene in their mind. When I am working with an artifact, I think about the work and thought that went into its creation. Some designs have not changed much over time while others can be seen evolving through the collection we have.Through artifacts we are able to see how our thoughts and values have changed over time as a society and where they have not. It is a common refrain when staff are moving large objects that “they don’t make them like that anymore”. From the materials used, the amount of material used and the details that have gone into producing the product. An example of this is a bicycle that I was preparing for exhibit. It had many grease fittings which we no longer require on bicycles and the rims were made from wood. The wood had been lacquered and pin striping had been applied. When I finished working with the bicycle I came to appreciate it as work of art rather than a mode of transportation.

What would your dream project be? (e.g curating a certain type of exhibition, working with a certain set of artifacts, researching a particular area, etc.)

Jenna Leifso (Archivist): One of my dream projects would be exploring how Huron County residents acquired their clothes. I think there is a misconception that rural citizens were out of fashion and that everything was homemade, drab and boring. It would be interesting to have an exhibit that looks at the clothing factories that used to be here, mail order catalogues like Eatons and Simpsons, and how residents were influenced by fashions overseas. I would use photographs, newspaper advertisements, local directories, maps, correspondence, diary entries, and of course, clothes that are in the collection to research and create this exhibit.
Elizabeth French-Gibson (Curator): I would like to be able to spend more time on research for the Gaol. I think there are resources out there that we have not found yet and the resources that we have that have not been given the focus yet. It would be interesting for me to be able to learn more about the circumstances and lives of the people who spent time in our Gaol, as well as the functions and habits of the Gaol itself.

Patti Lamb (Registrar): My dream project would be anything related to glass or to be able to spend a greater amount of time on the Huron Pottery exhibit and the archeological collection.

Heidi Zoethout (Museum Technician): Currently my dream project would be organizing offsite storage so we could have tours available to the public. There are many details and much work required to make that possible.

Overall, throughout this project one of the most valuable experiences has been hearing the varying perspectives on museums, exhibit design, and artifacts, from such a knowledgeable and unique staff. The differing responses speak to how each of us experiences artifacts and their narratives differently according to our own lived experiences.

The artistic exhibition of photographs taken during this project will be on display in St. Catharines at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts from April 11th – May 5th with an opening reception to be held on April 13th from 5-7pm.

Diamonds are Forever: The Legacy of the Koh-I-Noor

On November 12th, 2015, the Huron County Museum will be showing the 2014 Hindi action-adventure movie Bang Bang for its Bollywood Movie Night. A remake of Hollywood’s Knight and Day, the Bollywood film follows the adventures of an unassuming bank employee (played by Katrina Kaif) after she meets a mysterious secret agent (Hrithik Roshan). Education & Programming Assistant Sinead Cox discusses how the the film’s plot utilizes the history of the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond.

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Commemorative postcard: Queen Victoria’s 1897 diamond jubilee. Donated to the collected by Nancy Park. 2010.0027.001c

After the DVD finally arrived from Mumbai and I sat down to preview the hit Hindi action-adventure film Bang Bang, I fully expected the fun, brash Bollywood action romp suggested by title. What I wasn’t anticipating was a little bit of history to intrude on the action: the movie’s hero, Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan, makes his screen entrance triumphantly tossing the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond in the air after stealing it from the Tower of London.

The remarkably large Koh-I-Noor (“Mountain of Light”) was mined in India and belonged to a series of Indian rulers and conquerors, as well as nearby empires in Afghanistan and Persia, over several centuries. The British East India company seized the diamond with the rest of the Lahore treasury in 1849, after their annexation of Punjab; Governor-General Lord Dalhousie subsequently arranged for the gem’s owner, 10-year-old Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh*, to ceremonially surrender the priceless diamond to Queen Victoria.

In 1851 the Koh-I-Noor was a much ballyhooed attraction at the Great Exhibition–its notoriety magnified by claims in the English press that the gem carried a curse. After its exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Prince Albert had the diamond recut to suit current European tastes, significantly reducing its size. The Koh-I-Noor, and its supposed curse were inspirations to author Wilkie Collins for his classic 1868 mystery novel The Moonstone, which–spoiler alert–ends with the titular moonstone recovered by agents and returned to its rightful place in an Indian temple. In real life, the Koh-I-Noor remains part of the British crown jewels, displayed for tourists at the Tower of London and worn by queens or queen consorts on ceremonial occasions.

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Elizabeth, consort to George VI and mother of Elizabeth II, wore the Koh-I-Noor in her crown during her husband’s coronation. The crown, including the Koh-I-Noor, rested on the Queen Mother’s coffin during her 2002 funeral. This picture of Elizabeth in her coronation robes was donated to the collection by Rev. Harrison (crown not pictured). A971.0016.014

After its theft from the tower in the film’s prologue, the Koh-I-Noor emerges as Bang Bang’s plot ‘MacGuffin’: an excuse for bad guys to chase the movie’s couple so action, international adventure and romance can ensue. But because our leading lady, Katrina Kaif, is unsure of Roshan’s allegiances and motives throughout the movie, the Koh-I-Noor also serves to make him a little more sympathetic than would the theft of any anonymous gem. In the film’s exposition cutaways to news coverage of the Koh-I-Noor’s theft, the Indian public expresses joy and a desire for the famous diamond’s return to its homeland.

Many artefacts in the institutions of former imperial powers–from the ‘Elgin marbles’ to totem poles–still hold sacred or cultural significance in their countries of origin. On a much smaller scale, the Huron County Museum has de-accessioned artefacts and repatriated them to neighbouring county museums if they were created in, or had a more meaningful value to those communities. In the context of international diplomacy though, repatriation can often be a fraught & controversial topic. There are actually multiple countries with a claim to the Koh-I-Noor, since Lahore is now located within the borders of modern Pakistan.

During a trade visit to India in 2013, English Prime Minister David Cameron refused to consider the Koh-I-Noor’s repatriation to Punjab, declaring that he didn’t believe in ‘returnism’: “if you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”  Cameron’s words succinctly capture why objects like the Koh-I-Noor remain potent symbols of deeper imperial legacies– of the exploitation of wealth and resources, and the collection of other cultures’ treasures for the edification of museum-goers.

I won’t spoil how the trajectory of the Koh-I-Noor’s theft ends in Bang Bang (you can see the finale for yourself in the museum theatre November 12th), but I ultimately found the twist resolution as strange and abrupt as was the diamond’s presence in this frivolous action film in the first place. The Koh-I-Noor’s starring role in the story speaks both to its continued notoriety, and the uneasy way it represents the colonial past and India’s present-day relationship with Britain. Of course, it’s also a pretty good excuse for shootouts and motorcycle chases.

*Duleep Singh, similarly to the diamond he owned, was exiled to England. The last Sikh Maharaja lived the life of an English gentleman with Queen Victoria’s favour, before unsuccessfully reviving his claims to his birthright later in life. Also like the Koh-I-Noor, there remains some contention  about his final resting place being England, rather than Punjab.

 

Further Reading

For  more about the Koh-I-Noor in the Great Exhibition see “Koh-i-Noor: Empire, Diamonds, and the Performance of British Material Culture,” by Danielle C. Kinsey, Journal of British Studies Vol. 48, No. 2, Special Issue on Material Culture (Apr., 2009), pp. 391-419 [available via Jstor].

The Huron County Museum’s first-ever Bollywood Movie Night happens Nov. 12th, 2015. Sweets, snacks and hot chai are available from 4 pm, with henna art offered by local artist David Godkine. The movie starts at 6:15 pm in the museum theatre.