So in addition to my full-time life as a first year MA student, as well as the teaching assistant position which is a part of my funding, I have also taken on a part-time job as a research assistant for a professor from the University of Trent. Apparently, on occasion, those doing research at more distant universities who don’t always have the funding to continually travel and stay in Ottawa instead hire existing students in the city – who thus live in close proximity to the Library and Archives Canada building – to do research for them at the LAC. Or at least the legwork.
This is how I found myself scrolling through microfilm reels of early records of the Kingston Penitentiary. How early is “early”? I started in the 1850s, made it to the 1860s, with many more years of records to go.
I’m unsure of how much I can say – is any of this confidential? – so I’ll just leave you with little snippets gleaned from these records. Most of them were explaining the “offence” of a female prisoner and the steps taken to punish her while in prison – a meal of bread and water is common, occasionally a day or two in a “dark cell” – apparently her own cell, just without a candle to read with at night.
Shenanigans perpetrated by female prisoners in the 1860s included (and these are all direct quotations):
- Beds not properly made
- Looking about the workroom at everybody and playing with the children (yes, apparently a number of the female convicts were imprisoned with their young children at this time).
- Talking a long while out at the closet [AKA the water closet AKA a euphemism for the bathroom?]
- Knitting instead of [illegible – working?]. When told to go to [same illegible word], got into a very bad temper, tossed her work about, and answering in a bold, loud voice, calling 53 a liar several times.
- Talking to each other in the workroom and laughing and having great fun.
- Getting into a great rage at no. 4, seemed to think it necessary that she should defend the matrons.
- Carelessly passing a pinafore to 20 Cell that ought to have been sent to the wash.
- Complaining without cause of the towel.
- Passing her molasses to the table behind her, at tea time.
- Having three dusters and a large piece of soap in her box.
- Coming into the workroom laughing when returning from leaving the doctor. When asked why they did so, “said that no. 5 had made some remark about them and laughed at them and that made them laugh.” The matron, on inquiring into it, found that Gage [one of the prisoners] had used vile disgusting language to Brookes, and they both laughed at it. [emphasis in the original]
- Writing on the table at dinnertime with a fork
- Rubbing soap over the new pinafore so as to prevent her from wearing it
- Receiving something thrown to her by 33, says it was snuff.
- Going about without her stockings after taking a bath. When asked why she did so, said “she had no yarn to mend them and they were full of holes” this was untrue she had plenty of yarn in her cell.
This makes me want to write some sort of historical novel set in a female prison. There’s definitely some interesting resistance going on here…