The old Sarnia Jail was declared “one of the strongest in the Province” very soon after it opened in 1852.
Clearly, the edifice Alexander Mackenzie built to hold Lambton County’s cons was imposing, with its iron-barred cells, a locked double-door system to the outside and a surrounding 16-foot (4.9-metre) stone wall.
Strong? No doubt. Escape-proof? Not a chance.
The first jailbreak occurred 12 years after its cells began receiving visitors. At that time, it wasn’t the practice to have a guard on duty overnight. Rather, at the end of the workday, the turnkey locked everyone in their cells, secured the rest of the building and headed home.
In the early hours of Feb. 5, 1864, no one was around to hear the no-doubt considerable noise generated by five prisoners prying open their cell locks.
Thus freed, they overwhelmed the turnkey when he arrived for work that morning. Stealing the keys to the outside doors, four of the men made it out. The fifth was apprehended before he could flee.
James Flintoft Sr., who was this area’s first sheriff, posted a reward for the fugitives.
One of the men, named Dyer, was caught downriver at Froomfield trying to steal a small boat to reach the United States.
The other three were spotted at Warwick but not apprehended. Prisoners Donnelly (assaults), Phoenix (embezzlement), and Himler (forgery) had headed east because it was their only option. All three were deserters from the U.S. Army.
No report on their capture could be found.
In 1901, a burglar named Robert Thompson also managed to escape the old jail, which was located at Christina and Durand streets.
He first tried to escape while being transported to court, but that ended suddenly when Police Chief Windred shot him in the arm.
On Oct. 2, 1901 Thompson returned to court and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While awaiting transfer to the penitentiary he was returned to the jail and locked up.
Incredibly, when a guard made the next routine cell check just ten minutes later Thompson had vanished.
An investigation revealed that while in pre-trial custody Thompson had somehow obtained a file and cut through the cell window bars. He was able to keep the bars upright for appearance sake until it was time to escape.
He had pulled out the bars, crawled through the window and proceeded to the wall. With the help of his cell bench, he apparently grabbed a rope thrown over the wall by an accomplice and made his escape.
No report of him being caught could be found.
The Inspector of Prisons suspended Jail Governor R.G. McArthur from his duties, although he was later re-instated.
Randy Evans is a Sarnia resident and regular contributor to The Journal