Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beauty and the beast

Vaughan Street Jail's lovely exterior cloaks a reminder of a grimmer time in crime and punishment

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Kristen Verin-Treusch has researched the old Vaughan Street Jail and hosts the event dressed as a police officer in the 1880s.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Kristen Verin-Treusch has researched the old Vaughan Street Jail and hosts the event dressed as a police officer in the 1880s. Photo Store

From the outside, it looks more cathedral than correctional facility.

Indeed, when Winnipeg architect Walter Chesterton designed the Eastern Judicial District Gaol, he was determined to avoid the bleak, sombre designs of traditional prison architecture. So he styled his jail after churches of the Italian Renaissance.

When it opened at the corner of York Avenue and Memorial Boulevard in 1881, the building, with its mansard roof, yellow bricks and limestone trim, reflected the wealth and prosperity of a budding metropolis. The cost of construction was just over $61,000.

Meanwhile, its basement housed windowless solitary-confinement cells that became known as "living graves." Iron rings sunk into the concrete floor and wall remain 132 years after they were used to restrain unruly inmates.

"This is where a foot or two of chain would've gone," says Kristen Verin-Treusch, demonstrating how said chain would have attached to a set of wrist and leg irons. "It would've basically tied the inmate to the spot."

Down a different dank and narrow corridor, behind another set of rusted iron bars, she points to the floor of a "lunatic cell" where iron staples were used to constrain mentally ill people in the event of a violent "episode."

The Vaughan Street Jail, Winnipeg's oldest and last remaining public building, once held children as young as five.

If these crumbling, peeling walls could talk, they would tell macabre tales of how heinous criminals and perceived wrongdoers alike -- "louts, lunatics and loose women" as Verin-Treusch once put it -- were treated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The walls will talk this Saturday and Sunday, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when Vaughan Street Jail rejoins the Doors Open Winnipeg tour after a seven-year hiatus. Or at least costumed characters will talk, including "turnkey" Verin-Treusch, as they re-enact key moments of the building's colourful history.

The 10th annual event, organized by Heritage Winnipeg, is a free open house where the public can explore 80 of the city's most beautiful and historically significant buildings, museums and historic sites.

Vaughan Street Jail has consistently been one of the most popular attractions on the tour, attracting around 3,000 visitors the first few years, says Verin-Treusch, who is credited with digging up a wealth of information on the its storied past.

"Not only is the architecture of value, there are people from all segments of history who intersect on this site. Not just hardened criminals, but political prisoners and strike leaders," says the former day-care operator, who researched the building for her master's degree in Canadian history. Her research covers the era between 1881 and 1930, when it was a provincial facility.

Verin-Treusch also runs a "dark tourism" company called Muddy Water Tours, which includes Vaughan Street Jail on both its Haunted Winnipeg and Murder, Mystery & Mayhem tours -- but they don't go inside.

This weekend, Winnipeggers who line up for the 75-minute Doors Open tour will have the rare opportunity to get a first-hand look at how they did crime and punishment at a time when skipping school could get a truant kid thrown into a cell, maybe with a prostitute and a bar brawler.

"In the east wing, men, women and children would share cells," Verin Treusch explains. The first jailer, a soldier named Patrick Lawler, lived in the north wing with his wife and children. "His daughters would wander the halls and interact with the inmates."

Basement cells were reserved for the very worst offenders, many of whom -- including Manitoba's first known serial killer -- met their demise at 444 York Ave., at the end of a hangman's noose. Public executions were held in the jail's exercise or "airing" yard. The gallows stood in what is now a parking lot.

The executions drew hundreds of spectators, says Verin-Treusch, especially the first -- a double hanging in May 1899 -- because there hadn't been one in Manitoba for 23 years.

One of the characters visitors may encounter this weekend is Arthur English (a.k.a. Ellis), the former British army officer hired as the official hangman for all of Canada in 1912. He oversaw 21 executions in Manitoba, including one in which he miscalculated the condemned person's weight, resulting in an accidental public decapitation.

Vaughan Street Jail closed as a provincial jail in 1930, with the opening of a new correctional facility in Headingley. It shut its doors for good in 1984, but the province still owns the building. Government trades and work crews occupy part of the main floor. The building still has no historical designation.

In addition to learning about a dark chapter of Winnipeg's history and maybe seeing an actual ball and chain, visitors on this year's Doors Open tour will also be able to purchase a souvenir "I Hung Out at the Vaughan Street Jail" T-shirt.

For more information, go to www.doorsopenwinnipeg.ca.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 G1

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