22. The warden and the doctor: Kingston penetentiary in the 1840s

R. Jacques


Canada’s first prison, Kingston penitentiary, opened its doors to six male inmates in 1835. This institution rested on a religious model, which postulated a dichotomy between good and evil people. Hence, suffering was justifiably inflicted to restore the convict to a state of grace.
This research will explore the life of prisoners and the awkward responsibilities of the physician, using as its principle sources the annual reports of the prison and the remarkable infirmary registry kept by Dr. James Sampson. While Warden Henry Smith prescribed the punishment, Dr. Sampson was obliged to verify that the inmate was fit to be punished. The physical and mental consequences of punishments were recorded in the prison’s hospital registry.
The prison population tripled to approximately 500 from 1842-1845. Ten percent of the prison population was female, with the rest being adult male offenders, the criminally insane and boys, some as young as 8 years old. A single standard of punishment was impossible since it was permissible to hit children but not women. This paper will show the nature and frequency of punishments meted out by the Warden. It will demonstrate that there was a concomitant increase in the number of overall injuries. Morbidity was directly linked to punishment, but mortality was not.
Warden Smith was dismissed from office in 1848 on charges of starving the convicts and cruel, excessive punishment. Prior to his dismissal Dr. Sampson took a leave of absence as a statement of his inability to properly treat his patients and upon the warden’s removal returned to his duties as the prison physician. Evidence from this study demonstrates that the prison physician was in a position of divided allegiance between his duty to the prisoner-patients and his duty to the moral code of his society as interpreted by the warden.
St. Onge D. Curator, Correctional Services Canada Museum. Kingston, Ontario, 2007.
Hennessy PH. Canada’s Big House: The dark history of the Kingston Penitentiary. Toronto: Dundern Press, 1999.
Hospital Records, 1842-1848. The Archives of Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.25011/cim.v30i4.2782


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