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.”
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