By Samantha Spencley-Vandenbrink
We all have our dark secrets. Mine is that I’m fascinated by true crime…there, I said it! Judge me! I don’t wish hardship or pain on anyone but I find it fascinating that human beings can turn on a dime or slowly become deviant. I am a registered homeopath here in Ontario, and homeopathy boosts remedies for psychosis and mania, murderous rage and the enjoyment of others suffering, yet the people with these mental symptoms never enter my office, nor would I want them too. I’ve read a true crime book almost monthly for the past few years, I know the intimate details of many cases and I have been watching true crime documentaries since the late 80’s starting with Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack. Favourite A&E shows were Investigative Reports and American Justice, and the host, Bill Kurtis, is who we named our son after. Yes, I actually did this! My fascination was the driving force behind my boyfriend being dragged around Australia in 2005 to every Gaol we could find, from the full fledge tour with death masks and nooses, to the rubbled remnants in deserted areas. So with the news of the Kingston Penitentiary coming to a close, I was so hopeful that they would do the same thing as the Australian’s have been doing for decades and give tours. When tickets were completely sold out last year and I was quietly heartbroken to miss out. My boyfriend-turned-husband decided to surprise me with an early birthday present this year…3 tickets for all of us to go and indulge my need to see the historic building.
The three of us packed up our Volkwagen Beetle for a 2 night weekend in downtown Kingston. We arrived at the Pen, parked for free in the lot beside the building and prepped for our visit. I told my 10yr son to leave his shiv and contraband in the car…he smirked at me as he ate his snack. The building it’s self was ominous even in at noon. We were checked in, our names on the guest list of course and escorted inside the main doors. Bill, one of the retired guards, was there at the main foyer and he pointed out the fantastically old bell in the tower above us, telling us we can take a turn at ringing it. The doors and knobs and knockers are exactly what you would expect going into a medieval castle and surprising to find in Ontario since our history isn’t as old.
Walking down the hall, the stale smell was it’s own entity. I joked with my husband, that it smelled like wasted dreams, and a tour guide walking past, laughed and high fived me, saying she hoped she had me on her tour. Once in the official waiting room it was hard to not notice the typed notices taped up on the walls, mainly pertaining to children. Things like “Please do not interact with other people’s children without their consent” and “this television is for the children only!”, reminds you that the incarcerated were Dads, Uncles, Papas, Opas and Nonnos. They were Mama, Mommy, Oma, Nonna, Taunte and Mom. Heartbreaking, with my son by my side, to think that the interaction the family members would have with the inmates would be limited to certain days of the week and to certain time frames of the day. I couldn’t imagine not having my son with me daily.
The waiting room had remnants of what it must have been like to be an actual visitor while it was open. There were big circles cut out of the carpeted floors where bolted tables once existed and the children’s corner had painted images of Simba, Nala, Mickey, Minnie and a juggling court jester, suggesting that there was an attempt to keep it friendly and comfortable for the visiting kids, but my own son mentioned that he felt it was creepy. Zero attempt had been made to clean the place, which I greatly appreciated as it was exactly as it would be if we were showing up to visit someone incarcerated. Furniture and metals no longer in use throughout the prison were sold off or shipped to other jails, yet the dirt outlines still existed, providing a glimpse into what it would have been like.
The room was buzzing with people showing up for their time slots. We start our 12pm Hot Pink tour with Tim. Tim seemed a quiet fellow, almost out of place and too gentle for the hard walls around him. He brings us to the first room and another retired guard shows us the individual talking cells, like the kind one sees in the movies with the phone behind glass. On to the next stop which was the first of many surprises for me…private cabins in the interior of the prison walls, which inmates and their family members could enjoy for weekends and holidays, with good behaviour of course. Tim even said that they could have BBQs and parties, conjugal visits and sleepovers…who knew!
We walked through the grounds and saw the original Women’s prison building, the exercise yard and the exit to the lake, to which there was a cute story about some ducks, but I’ll let the retired guards tell you when you go for your visit. Next we went into the Maximum Security building which was so like “Wentworth”, (The Australian Prison show). I asked Tim privately “Is this where Bernardo was kept” to which he looked me dead in the eye and said quietly, “I’m not at liberty to answer that”. To my surprise his eyes started to well up, and I think I actually upset him. The next thing I did was apologize for asking and I told him I was here to write up a Blog and I was just getting some info cus that’s what many visitors would be interested in. He began to explain that he was a family member of a victim of an inmate and that he has chosen to be a tour guide to make sure that the inmates are not glorified and that the tour respects the victims. Suddenly, I’m trying to switch gears from my jovial self who is excited to be touring the Pen, to my sensitive/professional/counsellor skilled self, almost stumbling over my words, trying to save the moment and not seem like a jerk. I thought to myself, Humm, so, yes, Tim, of course, yes…I’m all for supporting the victims and their families, but I imagine that with up to 20 tours a day, you’re going to get this question and probably ones about Williams, Olson and Shafia. I backed away quickly once I thought he accepted my attempt at being sensitive and he hung his head and turned away.
Next we were taken into a quintessential cell block where one cell was set up with a bed and belongings and another was open so you could have an opportunity to go inside and take selfies behind bars. Whimsical writings from the brilliant minds of inmates was everywhere; the walls, etched into the stone and metals. Hand written notes about how to use certain electrical outlets were written in marker on the walls, drawings of ejaculating penises, crude wanted posters, threats to guards and inmates and someone even wrote Go Leafs Go. One writing was “Only goofs take whats not there’s off other inmates, fucking box thiefts!”, grammar and spelling as is. One tourist asked what “goof” meant. The retired guard showing us around started to discuss the meaning of box thief, saying that box meant cell, but that he didn’t know what goof meant. Not surprisingly, I knew and I told the group, so I’ll tell you too…it’s a Canadian only prison term for child molester and if you know anything about prison culture, child molesters are considered the lowest of the low, so being called a “goof” is the biggest insult. I learned this from a co-worker at Canada Post who had a family member incarcerated at the Pen years ago, and of course, I drilled him for info while we sorted mail. Now writing up this article, I googled it: Check it our here.
My trip to the Pen was full of surprises. Surprises I couldn’t have anticipated and I had to quickly change my behaviours for. Walking into the Pen that morning I knew I would see fragments of what the building once was, but I never expected that the pain and hurts would still be so fresh. Stories from the retired guards, victim’s family member tour guides and outlines of furniture and notices just left on the walls and floors still holds the energy of the inmates. The prison’s in Australia were open for tours for years, decades for some, and many had fresh coats of paint and were sterile, no original notices, graffiti or items lagging around. It’s a museum, a business, and there is nothing personal or emotional about it. The Pen was by contrast, raw and paused in time. After my conversation with Tim, my initial feeling was he was a bit of a downer and maybe he should find another summer job where he isn’t about to cry every time someone asks him a question, and this was to protect my own sensibilities and was my own ego talking. But that’s exactly his point. These were people who hurt other people, and the families are left to live with the hurt and thus him, Tim, being there makes sure that we don’t “goof” off, or make a mockery of it. Because many of the inmates are still alive, seeing the sun, breathing air, having visits with their family members and possibly BBQ’s, I can imagine it’s hard for someone like Tim who lost a loved one to these inmates.
I went in to the Pen thinking that I would leave feeling the same as I did in Australia…”where and when is the next one”, “Ned Kelly was a brutal son of a bitch”, “the death masks were so freaky”. It was like a consumption of the tourist attraction. But this time, there was a human element that I didn’t anticipate and I had guilt for having an interest in the tour at all. The truth is, The Pen is still holding it’s energy of the inmates and their victims. You can take the furniture and the inmates away, but the dirt outlines still remain.
While planning this trip I looked at hotels as one would. Lots of beautiful places to choose from, but I know that you have to look a little deeper when booking in Kingston, and that’s because it’s very easy to end up in a Haunted Hotel!
The Haunted Walk of Kingston
After the Pen tour we drove to our BnB and checked in. After changing into fresh clothes and packing for our night adventure, we walked downtown. We had dinner and did some window shopping before meeting up at 200 Ontario St for THE HAUNTED WALK OF KINGSTON…OOOOOOOO! Our tour guide, Rysha, was theatrical and animated, which at first seemed silly in broad daylight, but it set the tone for the spooky walk we were about to embark on. Rysha took about 25 of us, on a cross city foot tour, pointing out the most haunted spots in the city, which is plentiful, as the city is mainly made up of Limestone and it’s known to hold energy. We hit up about 10 spots and heard more than 15 stories, as well as members of the group shared many of their experiences in Kingston. I certainly don’t want to ruin the stories or spots for you, but I will say this, many stories were related to hotels and parks, and we even passed our own BnB, in which a small door was pointed out on the side of the building and freaked me out, personally. There was another spot that was actually terrifying even while we were standing outside it…and it was a church! Supposedly, the Chalmers United Church is one of the most haunted spots in Kingston and it didn’t disappoint, even while we stood outside.
We ended the tour back where we started and with getting more than half of our required steps per day while on the tour. To finish off our spooky experience, we went to the Tir Nan Og pub for dinner and it’s said to be super haunted too…but sadly, it was only the pot pie that was spooky tonight! We walked home along Ontario St back to our BnB (with the door) and stopped by Mio Gelato for a fantastic treat.
Kingston Trolley Tours
In the morning we were up and at it for our next adventure. It was the Kingston Trolley Tours which was conveniently set up in Confederation Park right by the marina. Now, here is the best advice you will ever get. Don’t Stop for Coffee…Don’t think you can take pictures with the Train in Confederation Park before you go to the Kiosk…just don’t do it!!!! Get to the kiosk asap, cus it was banana’s. That said, the staff was lovely and helpful considering how busy it is.
The Trolley is this fantastic hop on hop off city tour car with nine stops in total, and it takes you to the 2 furthest points of the city and circles back. You can stay on the Trolley and treat it like a driving tour as there is an oral tour explaining each stop and attraction. Once on the Trolley, it was a fun ride with old fashioned wooden benches and a wise cracking driver. And be prepared to get your photo taken as every time the trolley stopped, we had other tourist taking photos of the car, so you might as well smile and wave. Due to limited time left in the day we choose 2 attractions to see, Fort Henry and (not surprisingly) the Pen Museum, which was across the street from the Pen.
Fort Henry was super cool and we could have spent all day there. Our 10 yr old son had a great time running around the place and touching everything, as was expected of him by the Fort. Everywhere you look there was a Queen’s student dressed in the soldiers garb and falling in line as a soldier would. There were demonstrations and games for the kids to engage in and twice they had “canon” launches. We had a private tour with Mrs. Fairington and it took me a while to get used to the idea of calling a girl of 20 Mrs, but she stayed in character throughout our tour. Mrs. Fairington was super knowledgeable and answered all of our questions about the Fort.
After enjoying a fantastic sandwich at The Earl of Sandwich Submarines at the Fort, my husband was treated to a musket shooting demonstration. The soldier, she suited him up in a British soldier jacket and taught him how to load and shoot the gun. A large crowd gathered to watch him and he didn’t disappoint in providing a show for us all. As much as I enjoyed watching my boys having a great time at the Fort, I have to admit it, the best part of the Fort for me was the Mascot David the Goat…I’m still laughing…who names a goat David!!! Gilbert, Glen and Billy I can see…but David? Ah, the joke that keeps on giving.
Once back on the Trolley, we made our way to the Penitentiary Museum. I wish that we had done it yesterday after the Pen tour, as it was small but mighty and across the street from the Pen. The museum is set up in the original Warden’s house which is a 2 story double wide detach and as a Torontonian I couldn’t help wondering how much the house would be worth if it was in Toronto. The museum its self was great. I loved the original details of the house and the decor. And of course, I loved the rooms dedicated to the prisoners and their lives. The craziest of the crazy was in those rooms. For instance there was a huge box of shivs collected by the guards from 2004-2008 from the male prison. The male prisoners were literal, using expected materials to replicate a knife. BUT THE FEMALES WERE CRA CRA-Creative in their shiv making…toothbrushes, dental floss, blocks of wood and tampons were used to make weapons in the Women’s prison. There was a stack of lunch trays in the centre of the room, and it’s not until you get to the back of it, do you realize why it’s there…I wont ruin it for you! Medieval punishment tools and apparatuses and the original Bell of the Pen were also in the museum, all with interesting stories and synopsis. All around an interesting look at our history and crime and punishment in our country.
Back on the Trolley, we went directly downtown and went for dinner at Woodenheads, which seems to be the place to be if you’re from Toronto. We walked around the hidden streets of downtown and slowly made it back to our BnB for the final hour of the Rio Olympics for the day. Next morning, we checked out and started on the last day of our adventure.
Skywood Eco Adventure
Fear of heights? Nah. Fear of small spaces? Nah. Fear of exercise? Sometimes! So was the beginning of our Skywood Eco Adventure Tour. It’s a tree trekking tour about an hour east of Kingston along the 401 or you can take the long way along the lake and it’s a beautiful drive. I wasn’t sure what to expect of myself today, but I’m so glad that I have 2 years of pole dancing experience under my panties, cus man, you better be ready to be high up and holding onto very little.
The three of us showed up for our timed tour ready to rock. There were different versions and skill level of the trekking, but you have to prove that you can master the first one to move up to the harder versions. They suited us up in our harnesses and helmets and took us out to the trees to practice on a low platform. It was exhilarating! Made me miss my pole! There was a zip line at the end of each tour which was a much appreciated break in the activity every time you got to one. There were some very creative lines including a hobby horse, wine barrels and zig zag steps. We did 3 tours, spent about 1.5 hours in the park, every inch of our hands and core was aching and since I hadn’t broken a nail, we decided that we rocked it and packed it in. It was a great time, the attendants were helpful and relaxed, and it was completely safe and super fun. And I can tell you now that it’s over and is weeks after the trip, take grip gloves and a tube of Arnica with you. You will thank me for that advice!
We started back to Toronto and stopped off in Prince Edward County to collect fresh fruits, veg and honey to bring home with us after our great time in Eastern Ontario!