My father has been the source of much of my curiosity about local history. He is often the one who can cite our family history, and usually knows something interesting about most of Kingston. One evening when I was a kid waiting patiently as my brother’s baseball game ended at the Cricket Field, my dad walked me up to the Frontenac County Courthouse and the parking lot behind it. I suspect that I wasn’t being as patient as I thought I was, or maybe I needed to burn off some energy.
While the Frontenac County Courthouse is impressive, nine-year-old me thought the fountain was more impressive. I learned there was more to this place then a tall building and a unique fountain. Dad walked me past the front of the building situated at 5 Court Street to the rear parking lot.
My dad explained that, a long time ago, they used to execute murderers in this parking lot. He said that gallows was the method of execution, and the public was often invited to watch. I knew what gallows were; I had watched enough western movies in my short nine years. My dad walked me around the parking lot, showing me where he thought the executions would have taken place, and keeping the nine-year-old version of me hanging off his every word. This was a lot more fun then watching my brother’s baseball game.
Here in Kingston at 5 Court Street, justice was dispensed in the most lethal way. In this open parking lot there once stood a small jail and the city gallows. The 118-year-old jail only had a single cellblock with a yard, surrounded by a two-storey wall. The execution room in the jail had doors that would be opened at execution time to allow the public a view of the condemned prisoner’s last moments before their neck was broken from the force of the fall and the jerk of the noose around their neck.
The last criminal to die in this parking lot was Austin Craft. On April 26, 1948, Craft shot and killed Kingston Penitentiary official John Kennedy at the main gate of the Pen. Together with another inmate, Howard Urquhart, the two escaped in Kennedy’s car, but were ultimately captured. Since he pulled the trigger, Craft was sentenced to die, and on January 24, 1949, Austin Craft would be the last to swing from the gallows in Kingston. Capital Punishment wasn’t used past 1962 and eventually outlawed in 1976.
Seven prisoners would be put to death over an 80 year period in this parking lot. With the death penalty no longer practiced, the jail was torn down in the 1970s. If you walk around the parking lot today, all you see of the history of this site is the jailer’s house. The bars on the windows are the view of the past.
Of the seven prisoners that were executed on the site, five were buried on the site beneath the jail yard. Only one of the five bodies buried has been removed from the yard and interred at Cataraqui Cemetery.
Two decades after I first learned about the history of this parking lot, I found myself walking back to this spot with my wife on a Haunted Walk of Kingston tour. As we walked up to the court house parking lot, I whispered into my wife’s ear, “This is where people were executed in Kingston.”
We listened as our guide told intriguing and spooky tales of the condemned and the possibility that some of the executed prisoners may have never left the parking lot. According to multiple witnesses at the time, some of the executed have been sentenced to spend their afterlife on the spot they were executed.
The Frontenac County Courthouse was sought after by Queen’s University as a potential home for its future school of business. This new tenant of the historic courthouse would have sought to build an addition on the back, which would have filled the parking lot space, and built over the land where Kingston used to execute the condemned.
Today, if you walk by the parking lot at the back of 5 Court Street, you will find little sign of the life that used to be there. There is no plaque that marks the spot where the gallows stood. You will not find any grave markers for the buried prisoners. The jailer’s house is all that stands giving the passerby a sign that something out of the ordinary happened on this this spot here in Kingston.
Take a tour with the Haunted Walk this summer, and you will see more than a parking lot. You will walk the grounds, hear the stories and appreciate the history of this spot. Not all executions happened in Toronto or Ottawa. Some happened here in Kingston on the parking lot of 5 Court Street.
Bill Gowsell was born and raised in Kingston. With an interest in history, food, wine, and all things Disney, Bill has been writing for the last eight years on a variety of topics. During the summers he can be found at the family cottage north of Kingston, or at the bottom of Lake Ontario… scuba diving.