I found a surprising cache of documents this week: historic prisoner records for Kingston Penitentiary. In this post, I’ll share two finding techniques for prisoner records at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and at sister site Héritage Canadiana (Héritage). As noted in previous posts, the two sites share information, but I’m still working out their exact relationship to one another, and have concluded it’s safer to always check both.
Kingston Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario
Kingston Penitentiary, sometimes shortened to “Kingston Pen,” in Kingston, Ontario, was Canada’s first maximum security prison, located on the shore of Lake Ontario. It opened on 1 Jun 1835 and housed prisoners guilty of offences of two years and longer, mainly from the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It closed officially on 13 Sep 2013.
Note that “mainly” is a loose term and it would be worth looking for missing ancestors from anywhere in Canada for the time period.
Kingston Penitentiary Prisoners Record Book, 1843-1890
In this section I’ll discuss two ways for finding prisoner records.
Technique #1 – Use the Collection Search, LAC
Search for the names at Library and Archives Canada using the Collection Search. You may wish to add “Kingston” to your search. Note the time search limits: you will be unable to find more recent prisoners. Here is a search for James Donnelly (1816-1880), head of the Black Donnellys. You can see the first result is his conviction, among others.
Use the information at LAC to find the record at Heritage. Note that James wasn’t the only member of his family convicted. His niece Bridget Donnelly is listed as well, plus the date of conviction.
Use the above to find Bridget Donnelly on the Prisoner’s list (see below).
Technique #2 – Searching at Héritage
What if you don’t know if your person spent time in prison, or you’re not sure of the spelling, or you would like to discover a new cache of records unavailable anywhere else? Go to Héritage and page through the original documents.
How to use the search at Héritage
Go to the main page and search for “Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962.”
You will see the digitized reels, and the About page. (I always like to read the About page first to get a sense of what I’m looking at.)
To navigate, use the Image dropdown button (or the forward/back buttons). In the following section, I’ll provide the image numbers so you can easily navigate these two reels.
Index of reels: Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962
I’ll provide the names of the records, reel numbers (beginning with “T”), and images numbers in case the links break at some point in the future. There are two reels, T-2044 and T-2045. This is an index of what you’ll find and where. The reels begin with prisoner lists 1843-1890; then the Warden Daily Journals; then the Minutes of the Board of Commissioners which include the Returns of Convicts for each of 1836, 1837, and 1838.
NOTE: The prisoner lists run 1843-1890, but the minute books also have lists of prisoners for the years 1836, 1837, and 1838.
- Cover page, Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2044, image 29 here. Begins with the 1843 entry for Grace Marks.
- 11 Jun 1890 – Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2044, image 204 here. Ends with the 1890 entry for Ernest Bishop.
- Warden Daily Journals (1859-1861) beginning 9 Jul 1859, Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2044, image 205, here.
- Minutes of the Board of Commissioners (Inspectors Minute Book), 1843-1852, image 500 here. The last minutes in this reel are from 27 Aug 1836 and continue on reel T-2045 at image 6 here.
- Return of convicts received into the penitentiary for the year ending 1 Oct 1936, Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2045, image 10 here.
- Return of convicts received into the penitentiary for the year ending 1 Oct 1937, Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2045, image 66 here.
- Return of convicts received into the penitentiary for the year ending 1 Oct 1838, Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2045, image 99 here.
- There does not appear to be lists of prisoners between 1839-1843 in this reel.
- Wardens Letterbook, 1848-1856, Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2045, image 115 here. See the Finding Aid 13-19 here.
Grace Marks (1828-1873)
As a family historian, I can get overly caught up in reading documents. Last year, I asked my favourite local book store, McNally Robinson, for fiction based in Canada circa 1850. They suggested Alias Grace, the bestselling novel by Margaret Atwood. If you’re not familiar with the story, Alias Grace imagines the life of Grace Marks, who was convicted along with James McDermott in the murders of James Kinnear and housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1843. Grace, 16 years old, was a maid in Kinnear’s house.
Did she do it? Was she an accessory? Her story remains controversial. She was sentenced to life imprisonment on Monday, November 13, 1843. She served 28 years, 8 months, 18 days before being pardoned.
Find her file: Operational records of the Penitentiary Branch, 1834-1962 : T-2044, image 30, here.
Find more records by searching for “Grace Marks” in the Collections search at Library and Archives Canada: Convictions, Kingston Penitentiary – Marks, Grace; McDermot, James, FileDate:1843/11/13, Reference:RG13-D-1, Volume number: 1040, File number: 255File no. (creator):255 at link. NOTE: I did not see this result through the Collection Search at LAC, which again shows that both sites should be used independently.
Many more fonds at Héritage
There are 61 reels of fonds available for Kingston Pen. There wasn’t time to look at them in time for this post, but here is the description:
This collection consists of records created and accumulated at the Kingston Penitentiary. These records include: inmate history description ledgers (1886-1954); inmate personal effects ledgers; the Warden’s letter books and daily journals; Inspector’s minute books and letter book; liberation books; punishment books; duty rosters; daily reports of Keepers and Guards; and various medical registers.About, Kingston Penitentiary, Héritage Canadiana
I have been working on a theory – that I’ve been overlooking the regulatory and legal branches when it comes to finding my missing ancestor stories. For the marginalized in Canada, there have been a bewildering array of laws on the books, and while I would much prefer to find my people celebrating golden wedding anniversaries, in the absence of records, I’m turning my attention to police arrest sheets, convictions, legal cases, and the Department of Justice. It’s a fascinating journey, and it was while I was hunting for Chinese case files that I happened to find Grace. I’m like a bloodhound on the scent now, chasing files from coast to coast, and I will write soon about finding legal files.
While I was checking for other places these records might be, I stumbled on the Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, Jail Registers, 1876-1896 at Ancestry.com. This collection and the Kingston Pen records here are the only prisoner records I know in Canada. If you have more, please let me know.
As ever, thank you for reading me. It’s an honour to be on your list.
6 thoughts on “The prisoners of Kingston Pen, 1843-1890”
Adding this post to my genealogy toolbox…very helpful on both a personal and professional level. I went to Queen’s, so am very familiar with the Pen (my first university boyfriend’s family lived basically next door), and a friend of mine, a fellow historian, is curator at the Pen Museum.
Re: Black Donnellys – are those the same ones featured on Murdoch Mysteries (earlier seasons)?
Finally – thanks for the reminder about Héritage!
We are fans of Murdoch Mysteries too – working our way through from Series 1 to the end. Yesterday featured Mark Twain, played by William Shatner. I am loving the portrait of Canada circa 1900, which helps fill my imagination when thinking about family history.
Kingston Pen’s prisoner list takes us back much further: Ontario and Quebec prisoners circa 1843. I mentioned reading Alias Grace, a fictional account of the real life Grace Marks. It fascinates me to know she was the same era as James Donnelly and the so-called “Black Donnellys.” Thousands of pages and this website focus on the Donnelly story.
Thank you for the lovely chat!
Hey been pretty interested in Kingston and how that for in just recently due to the American Top 40 show and a former inmate in 1986 that had a long distance dedication request. As was wondering over in former inmates.
As would really not be doing this but that man interested me over his tough childhood and did like ten years in prison. Was wondering how I can find that over in if this person was alive or not.
Would never do anything like this at all but that man request just got me thinking as it is on youtube there.
Thank you for asking such an intriguing question. I would consider checking newspaper articles first. Assuming a prisoner has died and that he died during incarceration, the event would be managed by Corrections Canada: https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/publications/005007-2309-en.shtml.