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Canada's Big House: The Dark History of the Kingston Penitentiary [Paperback]

Peter H. Hennessy
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Oct. 1 1999 1550023306 978-1550023305 1st Printing

A report in 1833 by a committee of three respected Kingston colonials called for the construction of a limestone penitentiary on Hatter's Bay to the west of the town. Their report contained these words of advice for its future governors: "...[shall] be a place by every means not cruel and not affecting the health of the offender, [but] shall be rendered so irksome and so terrible that during his lifetime he may dread nothing so much as a repetition of the punishment..." The obvious contradiction within this historical mandate of Canada's Big House has bedevilled the entire history of the jail. Its original high moral purpose - penitence through silent reflection - drifted away into the foggy realm of official myth almost as soon as the first convicts arrived in 1835.

This semi-documentary study of the Kingston Penitentiary by a local writer and historian lays bare in cool prose the rapid descent from puritanical purpose to merely punitive management. For the first 75 years, repression was accepted as the norm, even applauded, by the local citizens, some of the inmates, and the political establishment. Over the last hundred years, repressive practices at Kingston Peneitentiary have been publicized, analyzed, and increasingly denounced. In the outcome, the Big House at Kingston has become almost unmanageable. What to do with it? The question still hangs in the air.


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A report in 1833 by a committee of three respected Kingston colonials called for the construction of a limestone penitentiary on Hatter's Bay to the west of the town. Their report contained these words of advice for its future governors: "...[shall] be a place by every means not cruel and not affecting the health of the offender, [but] shall be rendered so irksome and so terrible that during his lifetime he may dread nothing so much as a repetition of the punishment..." The obvious contradiction within this historical mandate of Canada's Big House has bedevilled the entire history of the jail. Its original high moral purpose - penitence through silent reflection - drifted away into the foggy realm of official myth almost as soon as the first convicts arrived in 1835.

This semi-documentary study of the Kingston Penitentiary by a local writer and historian lays bare in cool prose the rapid descent from puritanical purpose to merely punitive management. For the first 75 years, repression was accepted as the norm, even applauded, by the local citizens, some of the inmates, and the political establishment. Over the last hundred years, repressive practices at Kingston Peneitentiary have been publicized, analyzed, and increasingly denounced. In the outcome, the Big House at Kingston has become almost unmanageable. What to do with it? The question still hangs in the air.



"The author puts a human face to much of this when he relates the stories of four of the inmates." (Rev. Jim Miller Anglican Diocese of Huron Church News 2000-10-01)

"(Hennessey) expresses the hope that this book will be a useful contribution he has done an admirable job." (The Advocate 2002-07-01)

"A detailed and fascinating human history of one of Kingston's most imposing landmarks." (Kingston This Weekend)

From the Inside Flap

A report in 1833 by a committee of three respected Kingston colonials called for the construction of a limestone penitentiary on Hatter's Bay to the west of the town. Their report contained these words of advice for its future governors: "... [shall] be a place by every means not cruel and not affecting the health of the offender, [but] shall be rendered so irksome and so terrible that during his lifetime he may dread nothing so much as a repetition of the punishment..."

The obvious contradiction within this historical mandate of Canada's Big House has bedevilled the entire history of the jail. Its original high moral purpose - penitence through silent reflection - drifted away into the foggy realm of official myth almost as soon as the first convicts arrived in 1835.

Canada's Big House lays bare in cool prose the rapid descent from puritanical purpose to merely punitive management. For the first seventy-five years, repression was accepted as the norm, even applauded, by the local citizens, some of the inmates, and the political establishment. Over the last hundred years, repressive practices at Kingston Penitentiary have been publicized, analyzed, and increasingly denounced. In the outcome, the Big House at Kingston has become almost unmanageable. What to do with it? The question still hangs in the air.


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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ineffective look at a worthy topic March 18 2008
Format:Paperback
This book is a good concept, but poorly executed. The authour states early on that he will not recount stories of various escapes, which signals a sincere academic tone, but a bit of excitement would have helped greatly. Instead, there are several overlong passages devoted to the rules of the prison over time.

Most troublesome is that Hennessey can't seem to settle on whether he's looking at K.P. or the whole Canadian prison system, since he often uses events at the former as an indication of the endemic flaws of the latter. This will be good reading for someone writing a thesis on K.P., but it's deadly boring as a casual read.
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