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A Versatile Prison

For the week of Monday October 28, 2013

 

On October 29, 1805, the very first trial was heard in the newly constructed Argyle Township Court House and Jail in Nova Scotia. From that time on, all crimes committed in Argyle Township were tried in this courthouse. The Township, which had grown considerably as a result of the expansion of the shipbuilding and fishing industries, needed a courtroom where its most unscrupulous citizens could be brought to trial.

View of the main entrance
© Parks Canada / P. Muise / 1999
Orders for the construction of the Argyle Township Court House and Jail were issued in 1801 and construction was completed four years later. The building was unique in that it housed both a courtroom and a prison. While juries, judges and spectators considered the merits of the cases being heard in the courtroom on the heated upper floor, the accused sat in the cold jail cells on the lower level.

On the main floor there were two rooms for the jailers which were heated with a wood stove, along with a few individual jail cells and one cell for two prisoners. Since the latter had a wood floor, no candles or lanterns could be brought into the room, and its only source of light was a small hole in the door. Prisoners held in the individual cells were not much better off: their only heat source was a single pipe attached to the wood stoves, which provided little warmth during the bitterly cold days of winter!

View of the interior of the Court House                                                           © Parks Canada / Scott Muise / 2003

Most of the furniture on the upper level is original to the building; many different criminals (primarily persons accused of mutiny, piracy or theft) sat on these benches in the courtroom during its 200 years of operation. Perhaps the most notorious trial to be held here was that of Omar P. Roberts, who in 1922 was convicted of murdering his housekeeper, Flora Gray, and hanged. The jail in the building was closed two years later. The courtroom was used until 1944, when the municipal authorities established their offices there. The building was converted for use as a museum and community archive in 1983.

The Argyle Township Court House and Jail was designated a national historic site in 2005 in recognition of its status as the oldest well-preserved specimen of the restrained yet elegant architectural design characterizing the New England meeting houses of the late 18th century.

For more information about the administration of justice in Nova Scotia, please read The Slick Wit of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Saving a Past for the Future and Liverpool Privateers  in the This Week in History Archives.

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