Cornwall Gaol Ghost Story

by Ronald Wolf

Prisons themselves are an extremely depressing place to be in. I'm not talking from experience, but prisons of yesteryear, were filled with agony, both the physical and mental types.

Anyone that they didnt know what to do with or children who were hard to handle were put in jail. There were no hospitals or facilities for the aged or for those with special needs. Some hired-guards would have a field day of immoral activates when it came to the inmates. At times it really was up to the guard to inflict the punishment. Remember, this was more than 140 years ago. There were no cries of the prisoners who could reach the sympathetic ears of the government.

It wasnt until the early 1900s that prisons began separating men from women. Children were sent to work houses and the insane were sent to hospitals. When the new regulations came into effect, then they hired guards. Guards were still untrained and certainly had no training in psychology. The prisoners were considered lucky to survive another day only to live in almost inhuman conditions.

For most inmates, they would die in prisons only to be buried nearby in unmarked graves. Their mental state might not have been the greatest upon entering prisons; but one thing is for sure, if they did in fact leave with their lives, their mental state diminished only to have their anger fueled like a raging bonfire.

The District Courthouse and Gaol in Cornwall is one of the oldest public structures in Ontario and the fourth oldest in Canada. The gaol is a landmark and has been in use as a courthouse since 1833.

The District Courthouse and Gaol situated on the corner of Water and Pitt Streets has been a landmark in Cornwall since it was constructed in 1833. The main block of the present courthouse complex has been in continuous use since 1833, and is now one of the oldest remaining public structures in all of Ontario.

The courthouse and gaol have an interesting history dating back to 1802 when the first building was erected. That two-storey building was small measuring only 30 by 24 feet. The lower floor was comprised of three rooms; one for the jailer and two for the prisoners. Solid 12 inch hand-hewn timbers made up the floor below and above the cells with 24 inch, eight foot high walls and partitions to keep the prisoners in their place.A fireplace at one end was linked to another above providing heat during the winter months. The upstairs consisted of one large room and two smaller rooms for use by the Court and Petit Jury.

The following was excerpted in accordance to the official Cornwall Jail website:

During the war of 1812 the Court House was actually given over for use as barracks and the courts were moved to St. John's Church and local taverns. In the winter of 1826, the building burned to the ground and the court was moved once again to a building on the corner of Pitt and Second Streets (later the King George Hotel). A house on Fourth Street was rented and fitted for use as a Gaol.

Plans for the new Court House and Gaol were begun at once with the main block being completed in the summer of 1833 at a total cost of 5,500 pounds, (about $15 million at the time this article was written).

Over the years several additions and changes have been made to the original building. The small stone building on the west side was erected in 1836 to serve as a barracks for a company of the 15th Regiment which had been called in to keep the peace during construction of the Cornwall Canal.

In 1858 to 1859 an addition was made to the west side for a jailer's residence, while the cells were reconfigured to provide separate quarters for men and women prisoners. In 1868 to 1869 an internal reorganization of the two floors was completed, especially the jail, and outdoor washrooms were constructed. In 1885 the building was expanded for a county office annex. In 1958 and 1959 the Pitt Street section of the jail wall was replaced by an office building.

Finally during the mid 1970s, following the transfer of the jail to the management of the provincial government, the interior of the jail was again reorganized and the former jailer's residence was converted to office use.

The jail was closed in the fall of 2002 in favour of newer, larger facilities in Ottawa. The former jailer's residence is currently the office of Cornwall & Seaway Valley Tourism, while the jail has been kept as it was when closed in 2002. Tours of the jail portion of the building will be offered to the general public, beginning in mid May 2005.

Barbara Matthews is the visitor’s services manager and general curator, for the past six years, who had experienced paranormal activity in the building.

“The first thing that happened to me was when I was walking down the hall to put the lights on and heard something like metal wheels on a trolley behind me. It kept getting louder and louder and closer and closer; and when I turned around to look, there was nothing there." 

Unseen bodies could be heard whistling when no one was there; radios that would play music for 30 seconds and mysteriously turn off are just some of the experiences she had over the years.

“There are more and more things happening all the time.”

Although she does admit that she hasn’t actually seen a spirit, she did hear cell doors slamming. Her desk is situated near the entrance and not in the jail itself. When the jail was visited by paranormal groups in the past and they did investigate the cell doors finding no evidence as to why the cell doors would slam. Although the grounds are close to 200 years old, there were only five known hangings there.

But who or what souls could be trapped in this prison of afterlife? Could their crimes really be so hideous that a simple hanging not be adequate and their souls can’t be send to the afterlife before their punishment really be served? These are the following three out of the five who were hanged at the jail. You decide if these could be those who bump in the night.

Clark Brown was hanged Oct. 31, 1879 after he was convicted of murdering his sister Adeline and their father Robert Brown.

In his confession, he said he woke up in the middle of the night on Sept. 2, 1879 and decided to kill his father. He climbed out a window and retrieved an ax from a shed. He knocked on the door and when his father answered, he bludgeoned him to death.

One of his sisters looked out her bedroom door to see what was happening, so he killed her too. There were 27 applicants from Ottawa alone for the job of hangman. The person appointed was

Brown wrote a final statement which was read by Dr. McNish to reporters after the execution: "I, Clark Brown, who am soon to appear before God my Maker, make this my last confession. I told the whole truth before of the murder of my poor father and sister. I kept nothing back, and I alone did the murder, and no one helped me to murder my father and sister.”

After this he denied a series of poisonings of which he had been accused. He thanked the jail staff and concluded with: "I hope God has forgiven me. I cling to the firm belief that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin, and even I hope to be forgiven, through the sacrifice of the Son of God."

Brown was hanged Oct. 31, 1879.

The next inductee of the maybe the lost souls is James Slavin who killed a policeman known only as Davey. On March 28, 1919 John (Ivan) Wegrynuck was excusted when he killed Worze Tomaszewski. Slavin went to meet his maker on Dec.16, 1892.

May 30, 1925, was the last day of Thomas Collison’s life. He was hanged at the Cornwall Gaol for the murder of Beatrice Thorpe, 18, on Nov. 23, 1924 in Boynton, Ont.

The last of the gruesome threesome is Peter Balcombe, 24, who on Oct. 15, 1953 stabbed Marie-Anne Carrier near Iroquois and was executed on May 25, 1954.

The last hanging was in 1954. One year a fire broke out. Since the building was built on top of an army barrack, soldiers and animals perished in the flames. One part of the building was in fact built on top of a hanging yard where at least 200 bodies are laying.

Renay Dixon, visitor services assistant and tour guide of four years also works in the building that bumps in the night.

“When I was giving a tour, two other gentlemen we came across some really strong cigar smoke.”

When she asked the men if they smelled the smoke “they looked at me as if I lost a couple of marbles.”

There is a replica of the gallows in the jail and people would be taking pictures of the structure. “When they stepped in to the yard their digital cameras would stop working. Either their screens would freeze or their batteries would die,” she stated.

Although she does believe the jail is haunted it doesn’t make a difference when she goes to work. At times she does get the feeling the spirits doesn’t want anyone in their jail.

James Kliiger is a case manager investigator for the Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society (CHAPS), who with eight other investigators visited the jail late in the Fall of 2009. In the jail’s hallway, something unexplained perhaps even paranormal happened to Kliiger. His head started to ache.

“My head’s killing me. I started to get this real bad headache and we got out of the area it went away,” he recalled.

Kliiger further explains: “It turned out where it happened, there was an inmate back in the day when men and women weren’t separated and a woman was murdered. She was hit over the head with a pipe or something and the guards were watching and she was murdered. Coincidence or not, it’s hard to say.”

He kept his pain from the rest of the tour and found out about the murdered woman later on. In the courthouse, CH.APS. got some electronic voice phenomena (spirit sounds) and the sounds of cell doors closing.

“We couldn’t figure out why they were closing but you could hear the bang.”

In the courtyard stands a replica gallows used to hang the criminals. There were no vents and it was winter. Two pictures were taken of the yard. Kliiger explains:

“We took a picture and everything was fine. We take another picture and you have this mist rising up into this picture.”

If you didn’t know the area you would say it was from vents or cigarette smoke but there are no vents in the yard and smoking is not permitted, he stated.

Electromagnetic Field Meters meter the amount of energy coming from a certain place or object. The energy is often the same power source as what spirits give.

We got really high spikes every time we asked a question such as if someone was present or if people were buried here, Kliiger stated.

Even though the meter proved to be effective, the result couldn’t find anyone on the grounds or near windows. Pictures were taken but proved to be in vain. No apparitions appeared from the experiment.

One spirit that could be roaming the jail could belong to a judge. One time a judge dropped dead from a heart attack right after he sentenced a prisoner. The judge’s chamber (the room behind where the judge sits) there was a little boy that people see.

“I got the name of Mickey but she (the tour guide) eventually told me the name was Mikey.”

In another room, he also got the feeling that a child was looking for a ball. He was told by the tour guide that there used to be a ball but it was taken away.

He admits that he doesn’t feel scared when going on paranormal investigations. One reason why is because he has been doing the investigations for a long time and the rush is diminishing. After awhile, the adrenalin starts to fade.

My dad has been involved in this (paranormal) down in Texas for years. I told him he was crazy but after I had a stroke I began to experience people or mist or shadows. After he talked to his father about these experiences into the unknown, Kliiger said he started to read books and attended seminars. Sometimes he could find logical reasons as to why these experiences were happening and at other times he couldn’t.

More information regarding this investigation and more can be found at the CHAPS website at

Historic prisons are a great place not only for their history, but also for the things that go bump in a Canadian night.