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Samuel Jarvis in Jail

Samuel Jarvis awaited trial in this jail, Toronto's first,
on a charge of manslaughter from early August until October of 1817.
Soon after Samuel was imprisoned, his father, William, died.

Toronto's First Jail

Jail: A Top Priority

What could be more important for a new town than a jail? For Governor Simcoe and his Executive Council, apparently nothing was more important. Setting aside blocks of land in 1796 for the essential components of the new town—a market, a church, a courthouse, a jail—they began work first on the jail, postponing the other projects for several years. (There may also have been some idea of using the building as a fort, in case of trouble with the local Mississaugas.)

More Patronage

Simcoe kept up the fine tradition of patronage for veterans of the Queen's Rangers which had given William Jarvis his eminent position. To construct the new jail, Simcoe chose an ex-Queen's Ranger, Hugh Carfrae. After the jail was built, Carfrae continued to find government work of one sort or another--door-keeper and fire-fighter in the parliament buildings, High Constable and, finally, Jailer.

The First Hanging

Two trials were held in the first session of court at York in the year 1800. In the first, John Small, Clerk of the Executive Council, was charged with murder after killing John White, the Attorney General. The duel occurred after a few slights and insults between their wives. Small was found not guilty. In the second trial, one Humphrey Sullivan was charged with a crime involving less than a dollar. Someone had forged a bank note for three shillings and ninepence, it had come into Sullivan's hands, and he had tried to spend it. He was sentenced to death. After he was found guilty, the judge addressed him as follows:

Sullivan, may all who behold you, and who shall hear of your crime, and of your unhappy fate, take warning from your example. But, although your crime is great, it does not exceed the boundless mercy of God! to pardon through the all-sufficient atonement of His Son. I therefore recommend you to the mercy of God for pardon and salvation, through the merits of His Son; and do recommend to you to employ the few days that shall be allowed, of a life spent in wickedness, in humble and fervent prayer to almighty God, that He would give you a realizing sense of your sins, and misery, true contrition of heart for, and a genuine repentance of them; and that He would enable you, by His grace, to be wise in His Son the Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal salvation.

      Sullivan thus became the first person to be hanged in York (Toronto). The authorities found it extremely difficult to find someone to agree to take the job of hanging Sullivan. Eventually they hired a prisoner, serving time for robbery, granting him a full pardon and paying him twenty guineas.

A Series of Fine Jails

Toronto's first jail (still called York in 1817) was located south-east of King and Yonge Streets, where the King Edward Hotel sits today.
      The prison was primitive, made of squared logs covered with clapboard. Surrounding the prison building was a 14-foot palisade of spiked cedar logs. Two iron doors opened onto King Street.
      Ever striving to improve itself, the town built a larger jail a few years later, much more substantial and, only 13 years after that, a third jail, marking even greater progess.


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More stories about the history of Jarvis Collegiate, early Toronto and William and Samuel Jarvis.