On Saturday I got a look inside the Vaughn Street Jail on a tour that was part of Winnipeg’s annual Doors Open event. The jail housed its first inmates in 1881.As we waited for our turn to enter the building an actor playing the role of serial killer Earle Nelson told us his shocking and violent life story. Nelson was hung at the Vaughn Street Jail in 1928.
We were greeted at the front door by Margaret Scott a social reformer who dedicated forty-five years of her life to helping the poor and marginalized people of Winnipeg, including nursing sick and dying female inmates of the Vaughn Street Jail. At the first stop on our tour journalist Cora Hind told us that women, children and men were all housed together at Vaughn Street in the early years. Abuse and assault were everyday occurrences for the women and children incarcerated there. Nurses Amelia and Lillian Yeomans who served the people in jail in the last years of the 1800s invited Cora to visit and she wrote a newspaper story about the deplorable conditions in the prison. Cora invited a couple of the children in the audience to try their hand at potato peeling and laundry two of the tasks assigned the kids in the Vaughn Street Jail. Manitoba was the first province to implement the Juvenile Delinquents Act passed in 1908 and Thomas Daly the first Juvenile Court Judge in the province told us all about it. “I don’t bite unless you want me to and then it’s two dollars,” said the young actress portraying a Winnipeg prostitute who worked for Winnipeg’s notorious Madame Minnie at the turn of the century. Prostitutes seldom spent much time in the Vaughn Street Jail as long as they confined their trade to the special Point Douglas area of the city set aside for brothels. At one time some 250 women did business in 50 brothels in the Red Light District near the CPR railway station.
Since there was little understanding of mental illness at the turn of the century, people who suffered from it were called lunatics and housed in the basement of the Vaughn Street Jail. Guards taunted them by shackling them to the floor and placing bread crumbs around their faces and hands to entice the rats to nibble on the lunatics’ skin. The actress playing a lunatic said the unfortunate people’s screams could be heard throughout the prison as the rats attacked. We walked by the solitary confinement cells in the basement where those who broke the prison rules were housed in darkness for one or two days without a sleeping cot or toilet. Wrist and leg irons attached them to the wall.Executioner Arthur English was hired to carry out some of the hangings that happened in the courtyard of the Vaughn Street Jail. The first man he executed was John Krafchenko who stole $4000 from the bank in Plum Coulee, Manitoba and killed the bank manager there. The Vaughn Street Jail is 133 years old and a group incorporated in 2004 is attempting to have it designated a provincial heritage destination. The interesting and informative presentation they gave visitors during the Doors Open event is sure to help them in that quest.
Past Doors Open visits……