The prison wall


Her Majesty’s Penitentiary

Apparently, it’s much easier to escape from the big house than most prison movies would have you think—at least it was in St. John’s in 1878.

But not many people would object to this particular prison break, when a master mariner serving a year’s hard labour in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary convinced a guard to let him “scramble over the prison fence” to save a young boy from drowning in nearby Quidi Vidi lake.

“He was out in the prison yard and he heard the calls for help,” said Terry Carlson, a part time political science professor who specializes in the Newfoundland penal system. “He rushed to the water, and dove in, and swam out, and pulled the young boy back to safety—although the child died shortly after.”

Public outcry in response to the tragedy spurred an early release for the mariner, who had served less than half his sentence at the time.

Carlson dug up this anecdote in old newspapers and prison archives while researching the Penitentiary’s history. He’s not sure if the fence the mariner climbed is the same prison wall overlooking Quidi Vidi lake today.

“The prison dates back to 1859, so I would think that it’s been rebuilt and re-enforced. But I would say that the same basic boundary is there,” said Carlson.

But he is sure of the story’s historical significance at a time when so-called reformers called for a harsher, more disciplined penal system.

“It shows that the rigid rules of the time could be altered to some discretionary type of power, and ultimately the outcome for the offender, was one of mercy,” said Carlson. “It shows the basic humanity and the treatment of people with dignity which would put a high priority on human life.”

—Sheena Goodyear
Suggestion for a nook? nooks@thescope.ca

3 comments

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18 December 2008

  1. Jessie Thorne · December 18, 2008

    I am looking for information involving an escape of four prisoners from the st johns penitentiary 1963-1964. One of the four men was melvin peter young who after the escape shot and killed policeman Robert Amey.

  2. james Robert haughn · December 18, 2008

    was speaking with Mr young’s arresting officer…this was his second escape in a year….and during the first escape he said to the officer….i like you….but if i had you’re gun i’d shoot you….so it wasn’t the accidental spur off the moment panicked attack….it was cold blooded murder. Robert was a relative of my mother and the source of my middle name.

  3. ernie brydon Reg. No. 22262 · December 18, 2008

    E Troop Depot Division, l962, RCMP, was the Troop of 32 memebrs to which Bob Amey belonged. He was well knows to all of us. We just held our 50 year grad reunion in Penticton B.C. this spring. Bob is remembered at each reunion. When he was murdered, we bought a bronze plaque to his memory and it is located inside the Chapel at Depot Div. Regina. Two memories: Bob was a pretty good boxer, he was wirey and long arms. Second, he was one of the only ones with a car in training and thus was a very popular guy to hitch a ride with to town !! He was a great asset to our troop and the RCMP and lost his life tragically too young, but always remembered. There is a street at Depot named after him and also he is named on the Memorial Cenotaph at Depot, Regina. You can be very pround you carrry his name forward. His Troop Mates. ( ernie Brydon, S/Sgt retired, B.C.)