Canada·In Depth

Kingston Pen's children, child killers, murderers and monsters

With Kingston Penitentiary soon to shut down, here is a list and brief descriptions of some of its better-known inmates during its 177 years.

Canada's oldest penitentiary to close after nearly 180 years

Sometime in the next two years the cell doors will shut for good on the place that has held some of Canada's most notorious criminals.

On April 19, the federal government announced it will soon close Kingston Penitentiary, the oldest prison in Canada.

Behind KP's bars today are Paul BernardoMichael BriereRussell Williams and Mohammad Shafia and his son, Hamed.

They are part of an inmate population of about 350. Like those five, nearly half of KP's inmates are serving life sentences.

When the first five convicts arrived from Toronto in 1835 to serve their time at what would come to be known as the Big House, the penitentiary was not yet open for business and they had to be held at the county jail for five days.

Five months later, there were 62 inmates, including women. By 1850, there were 410 inmates, including 24 women and girls (a separate female section had been started in 1839).

Children flogged at Kingston Pen

A commission report from 1849 records the stories of some of the inmates. The head of the commission, George Brown, would be one of the Fathers of Confederation two decades later.

Antoine Beauche was given a three-year sentence at KP in 1845. He was eight years old. "This eight year old child received... 47 corporal punishments [the lash] in nine months, and all for offences of the most childish character," the commissioners wrote.

Kingston Penitentiary, Rules and Regulations for Inmates, 1836

Inmates "must not exchange a word with one another under any pretence whatever."

Inmates "must not exchange looks, wink, laugh, nod or gesticulate to each other."

Violators received corporal punishment.

Guards are to be on duty from 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., seven days a week, from April 1 to Sept. 30 (and daylight hours during the rest of the year).

Source: J. Alex Edmison, "The History of Kingston Penitentiary," 1954

Inmate Elizabeth Breen was flogged six times when she was only 12 years old.

After receiving over 1,200 lashes, prisoner James Brown was declared  insane by the prison surgeon.

Accounts like those led Alex Edmison, an academic historian of KP, to write  about "the harm these monsters did while in office," referring to prison administrators and guards.

If such stories conjure up memories of Charles Dickens novels, know that the great English writer visited KP during this period — though he inexplicably wrote in his book American Notes, "There is an admirable goal here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect." 

Beauche, Breen and Brown may be little remembered, but other KP inmates over the years have a larger place in Canada’s historical record.

Grace Marks

Margaret Atwood writes about Grace Marks in her novel, Alias Grace. This portrait of Marks is from 1843. Toronto Public Library

Irish immigrant Grace Marks was 16 in 1843 when she was convicted for the murders of her wealthy employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress.

Marks was first sent to an asylum but later transferred to KP. Thirty years later she was pardoned and released.

Two famous Canadians have written about Marks. Susanna Moodie told her story in a chapter in her 1853 book, Life in the Clearings.

Margaret Atwood's Giller Prize-winning 1996 novel, Alias Grace, is also about Marks, but Atwood questions Moodie's account of Marks as insane and guilty.

James Donnelly

James Donnelly, the patriarch of the Ontario family nicknamed the Black Donnellys, served seven years in KP after he killed a man in a drunken brawl in 1857.

The Donnellys were party to a long-running feud that began long before in Ireland. James, his wife, two sons and a niece were attacked and murdered at their farm by a mob in 1880. Despite strong evidence, the jury acquitted the accused.

Marie-Anne Houde

Houde and her husband were convicted in the death of his eleven-year-old daughter, Aurore Gagnon, in 1920. Houde was sentenced to hang but the sentence was commuted to life in prison and she was sent to KP.

Houde, ill with cancer, was released in 1935 and died less than a year later.

Aurore became a cultural icon in Quebec. A hugely successful play, Aurore, L’Enfant martyre (Aurore, the Martyred Child) was first performed in 1921. Four novels, a film and even a puppet show followed.

Tim Buck

An aerial view shows Kingston Penitentiary on Oct. 22, 1931. (Canadian Press )

Communist Party of Canada general secretary Tim Buck was jailed at KP from 1932 to 1934 after being convicted of sedition.

A prison riot broke out in 1932 and in its aftermath, guards were ordered to fire shots through the peep hole of cells where and when they detected a commotion. They fired seven shots into Buck's cell, which the government later admitted was just "to frighten him."

Norman (Red) Ryan

Red Ryan has been called Canada's most notorious criminal.

Until 1923, KP had been a revolving door for Ryan, who specialized in bank robbery. But that year, he fled by going over the wall, leading four other inmates in a rare successful escape.

Ryan went back to robbing banks, first in Ontario, then in the United States. After three months, he was captured in Minneapolis and was soon back in KP, serving a life sentence.

Ryan became a model prisoner and, with the backing of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and other influential Canadians, he won parole in 1935.

Ryan became the poster boy of prison reform and the darling of the Toronto Star, hosted a Toronto radio program, sold cars and received an advance for a book he titled Crime Does Not Pay.

But he was hoaxing "a whole city renowned for its smugness," Frank Rasky wrote in 1958, for in his leisure hours Ryan had returned to robbery.

The masquerade came to an end when he botched an attempt to rob a liquor store in Sarnia, Ont., in 1936. Ryan killed one policeman before other officers shot him "as full of holes as a soup strainer," in Rasky's words.

Edwin Alonzo Boyd

Prison guards gather inmates into a corner at Kingston Penitentiary after a two-hour riot on Aug. 16, 1954. Edwin Alonzo Boyd was then KP's most famous inmate. (Canadian Press)

After escaping from Toronto's Don Jail in 1951, the bank-robbing Boyd Gang achieved folk-hero status. That ended when two gang members, Steve Suchan and Lennie Jackson, shot police detective Edmund Tong, for which they would later hang.

Those two were soon captured. Edwin Alonzo Boyd, who wasn’t involved in the shooting,  was later tracked down and arrested in bed.

The Boyd Gang escaped from the Don again in 1952, leading to the biggest manhunt in Canadian history. It was also the subject of the first news report on CBC TV.

Boyd served 10 years at KP and then returned to Toronto and something of media frenzy. He was soon back in KP for another four years, for parole violations.

Roger Caron

Roger Caron, known for talents as an escape artist and a writer, spent much of his time behind bars in KP, beginning in the 1950s.

The cell block at Kingston Penitentiary on Sept. 10, 1969. Roger Caron, a former inmate, wrote about KP of this era. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

Caron died on April 12, a day shy of his 74th birthday.

He described life inside KP in the 1950s in his book Go Boy! In Bingo!, he gives an eyewitness account of the 1971 riot at KP.

Caron had broken out of other prisons more than a dozen times.

Clifford Olson

Olson, the self-described "beast of B.C.," went on a sexual abuse and killing spree that started in 1980. He pleaded guilty in 1982 for killing 11 children and was sent to KP.

He was held in a special "administrative segregation unit" for two years and then moved to a reinforced cell with plexiglas covering the bars.

He was transferred from KP after an escape attempt in 1992. Olson died in 2011.

Helmuth Buxbaum

One of the most sensational trials of the 1980s saw millionaire businessman Helmuth Buxbaum convicted for the murder of his wife, Hanna, in 1984. The court found that he had hired Gary Forshay to be the hit man, and Buxbaum was given a life sentence.

The government will close Kingston Penitentiary, the country's oldest penal institution, as part of a cost-cutting effort. Two guards at the Kingston Penitentiary walk by the parking lot on April 19. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press )

Buxbaum died in 2007, while still serving his sentence at KP.

Ty Conn

Tyrone William Conn robbed his first bank when he was 16 years old and would face charges for more than 30 other offences over his life.

He had already escaped from three other prisons when he was transferred to KP in 1998. In 1999, he escaped from there, too. He got over the 10-metre perimeter fence at night by using a hand-made ladder and grappling hook he constructed in the prison shop. Thanks to a dummy he made by stuffing clothing with paper, his escape was not discovered until the morning.

Two weeks later, police tracked him to a basement apartment in Toronto. He shot himself during the standoff.

CBC's The Fifth Estate told his story in the 2000 documentary Ty Conn: A Life Imprisoned.


Steven Truscott waves in celebration of the quashing of his conviction as his lawyer James Lockyer looks on in Toronto on Aug. 28, 2007. Truscott had been wrongfully convicted of the 1959 murder of Lynne Harper and spent time at KP. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press )

Not only criminals did time at KP. Some of the better-known wrongfully convicted Canadians also were held there, including Steven Truscott, Romeo Phillion and Guy-Paul Morin.

For more about them, see our in-depth feature, Canada's wrongful convictions.