On a recent trip to Kingston, Ontario a family member and I decided to go to a different kind of museum – a Penitentiary museum. I’m not even sure I spelled that right! It’s certainly not a word in my normal vocabulary. We decided that it was something that might be interesting in a weird kind of way…. And we were not disappointed.
The museum seems to cover mostly the Victorian era to the 1970’s. I felt that the museum curators did a good job of showing the pros and cons (sorry – couldn’t help myself) of the correctional system. It was a very balanced approach to providing information on the history of the Kingston “Pen”. They also featured some of the barbaric tortures perpetuated on the convicts by the guards and the guards by the convicts.
A lot of the information also showed how the system’s attitude changed from one of punishing convicts to rehabilitating them – an attitude that one of my relatives would say has gone too far. She is a guard at a maximum security jail in Canada and has many stories to tell.
But now for some of the historical methods of subduing and punishing convicts.
The strapping bench was a nasty one. Anything that was done to the convict was hidden by their clothing. The person was positioned naked, and face down on the bench. Eyes were covered with a blindfold – I’m not sure why exactly. Perhaps so that the person could not see who was strapping them??
Their hands and legs were held in place at the top and bottom of the strapping bench so that they could not move. Based on what the convict had done, the guard would strike the buttocks of the victim with a long leather strap. The number of lashes would be determined by the seriousness of their crime.
The museum has a log of the kinds of transgressions (or crimes) and the corresponding punishments that were popular over a 100 years ago. To be fair, most of the punishments consisted of X number of days of only bread and water, or solitary confinement. I’m not sure what they had to do to merit this kind of punishment but it had to be bad. Or how bad was it?
Can you imagine the kind of person this kind of punishing would have attracted? No doubt there would be the type of person who inflicted the punishment simply because it was their job to do so – no more no less. But then there’s the other kind that would get off on this…
This is the last one I will show you because it really is quite horrible. Imagine sitting on that wooden seat. Your hands wou ld be placed in the horizontal board above and your legs in the bottom (see the holes). The small casket is hinged and opens up. The barrel is fitted around your head and closed up tight.You can barely breathe.
The larger barrel above contains water.
The guard or the person giving the punishment releases water from the larger upper cask onto the smaller one where your head is. The water comes pouring down through a hole that has been cut out of the top of your cask. It fills your barrel. You can’t breathe – you have to hold your breath for as long as the water fills the barrel around your head – until the guard opens up your barrel and let the water pour out…
Just thinking about it makes me feel claustrophobic!
On the other hand there were many devices that were created to kill guards too. It’s amazing how creative someone can be when you have time to think. I think what probably drove a person to madness back then was boredom.
Anyways I think I have said enough on this subject. I am always fascinated about social history and let’s face it – this certaiunly is part of our history whether we like it or not. Any comments or stories you want to share???