HANGING: Problems plagued Kamloops Gaol
It sounds like a scene from the pages of a Three Stooges script:
A 19th-century jail guard settles in for the night shift. He waits until he’s alone in the office, opens a closet and pulls out a deck chair.
Out of a drawer, he grabs an alarm clock and sets it on the desk.
He places a pillow on the chair, his feet on the desk and shuts his eyes.
But, he’s not alone. The warden — a man who twists the ends of his moustache into sharp points — is lurking in the shadows.
He’s been suspicious of his employee for some time and is now putting together his case.
After two hours of watching the guard sleep, the warden makes his move into the office to catch him red-handed.
The warden takes off his shoes, wearing only his socks so as not to alert the napping guard.
But, the office door is loud. It clangs. The guard wakes up. The cover is blown.
That allegation — a charge of “asleep on duty,” according to government documents — was one of a half-dozen counts levelled by Kamloops Provincial Gaol Warden John Vicars against guard William Norfolk more than a century ago.
(Vicars also accused Norfolk of failing to perform nightly prisoner counts, showing up late for work, leaving doors open, not performing searches of new inmates and stealing jail property.)
It was the summer of 1898 and the 75-prisoner facility — located on Fourth Avenue and what would become Columbia Street, where the Kamloops Law Courts building stands today — had only been open for a few months.
Vicars was named warden in November 1897, when Kamloops Provincial Gaol was still under construction.
At that time, the city’s jail was located in a building next to what was then the courthouse, on the northwest corner of First Avenue and Seymour Street — the current site of Kamloops City Hall.
Prior to Vicars’ appointment, Norfolk had been acting warden of the city jail. Whether it was due to the overlooked promotion — Norfolk had been promised the warden job — or something else, there was apparently bad blood between the two men.
On Aug. 17, 1898, Vicars sent a letter to B.C.’s top cop — Provincial Police Supt. Fred Hussey — asking for an inquiry to be held looking into Norfolk’s behaviour at the jail.
Hussey obliged, but Norfolk wasn’t happy.
In response, Norfolk requested — and was granted — another inquiry to look into Vicars’ performance as warden.
Norfolk’s main charge against his boss was one of “general laxity of discipline,” but other counts — there were six in all — included allegations of allowing prisoners to play checkers, turning a blind eye to “singing and whistling” among inmates and failing to keep prisoners from lighting up their pipes in non-smoking areas.
The hearings began on Sept. 20, 1898, and lasted three days, including a 90-minute tour of the prison on Day 2.
Hussey’s final report, dated Oct. 11, 1898, doesn’t name a clear winner.
Norfolk was convicted on just one count — the charge of sleeping on duty — while Vicars was not officially found guilty of anything.
However, Hussey had some harsh words for Vicars after hearing testimony from a dozen witnesses over the three days of inquiries.
Hussey had no problem with Vicars letting prisoners play checkers and read novels, citing similar allowances in Victoria’s jail.
However, the Kamloops Provincial Gaol warden was ordered to maintain a “diary showing the expiration of sentences” — something Vicars had not been doing.
“There is a possibility of a prisoner being confined longer than the duration of his sentence,” Hussey said.
Vicars was also ordered to change the way he operated a small farm and orchard on the jail property.
The matter was raised not by Norfolk, but by a resident of the nearby Provincial Home for Old Men.
Richard Copeland, a resident of the home, brought the charge forward, and testified Vicars “feeds his house” with what was raised on the property.
Hussey commended the warden for his agricultural work on the grounds of the start-up prison, but said the produce should go toward the two provincial facilities in the area — Kamloops Provincial Gaol and the Provincial Home for Old Men — before landing in Vicars’ kitchen.
While there was no clear winner in the inquiry, Norfolk was not long for Kamloops afterward.
There is no record of him working at the jail after August 1898, when he was suspended pending the inquiry’s findings.
In fact, by 1899, Norfolk had moved his family to Victoria, where he became a railway worker.
Norfolk contracted an illness in 1904 and, six years later, returned to his native England.
Vicars, meanwhile, carved out a significant spot in local history.
The founding captain of the Kamloops Rifle Company — which would later become the Rocky Mountain Rangers — in 1896, Vicars served as jail warden until 1914, when his military obligations escalated during the First World War.
Vicars worked his way up the local military ranks to become the Rangers’ lieutenant-colonel.
He died in 1929, but the Vicars family’s tradition lives on in Kamloops, thanks to a Valleyview street — Vicars Road — bearing their name.
This account of the 1898 inquiries into Kamloops Provincial Gaol was written by KTW reporter Tim Petruk based on the hand-written transcripts of testimony from the inquiry itself.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
Many of the issues raised at both inquiries were not all that different than some of the allegations made recently about the goings-on at Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre (KRCC).
In the last six months, KRCC has made headlines multiple times for all the wrong reasons — violent assaults, alleged overcrowding and even an escape.
Well, Kamloops Provincial Gaol had the same problems.
There were a number of reported escapes from the facility, most notably an incident in 1907 when a female prisoner burst free and wasn’t apprehended until days later, after she made it to the Shuswap.
Two men escaped the facility in 1906, followed by three more in 1913 — one of whom was never caught.
In October of 2011, prolific offender Steve Hodgins was on the lam for more than a week after fleeing a KRCC work gang.
He was eventually arrested after an observant shopper at a North Shore mall spotted him and called police.
According to testimony at the 1898 inquiries into Kamloops Provincial Gaol, a prisoner that year had been caught “spitting about in his cell and throwing burned matches.”
In February of this year, according to the union representing B.C.’s provincial jail staff, two KRCC correctional officers were spit on by inmates in a 24-hour span.
That followed a similar incident in June, in which another KRCC prisoner is alleged to have spit on an officer.
Overcrowding is another jailhouse issue dating back more than 100 years.
In 1898, inquiry testimony revealed the fact prisoners at Kamloops Provincial Gaol were being kept double-bunked in cells meant for one — even when it wasn’t necessary to do so.
That wasn’t a problem, according to the commissioner of the inquiry, because it meant less guards making less rounds.
But, today, overcrowding at KRCC is a big deal.
A spokesman for the union representing KRCC’s guards has told KTW recently the prison’s inmate-to-guard ratio is 40:1 — more than double the 18:1 the facility was built for in 1989.
KAMLOOPS PROVINCIAL GAOL AT A GLANCE
Built at a cost of $12,000, Kamloops Provincial Gaol opened in January 1898.
It would remain active as a prison for decades, playing host to 17 of the 19 executions carried out in the community and housing prisoners both on remand and while serving jail terms.
The 75-prisoner facility held such notorious inmates as Billy Miner, Casimir and Chun Kee Yow.
WEALTH OF INFO AT KAMLOOPS MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES
Much of what has been reported in this five-part series is based on information from one source — the Mary Balf Archives at the Kamloops Museum.
The Archives are home to countless photos of the Kamloops Provincial Gaol, images of people of the time and, most importantly, microfilm copies of old local newspapers.
Thanks is due to curator Elisabeth Duckworth for her patience and expertise in helping and putting up with KTW’s research.
Additional thanks goes out to all of the local historians — amateur and not — who have contacted KTW in the two-and-a-half weeks this series has been running. Their feedback is very much appreciated.
READ THE ENTIRE SERIES:
Part 5: Problems plagued the Kamloops Provincial Gaol
CONDEMNED IN KAMLOOPS: Summaries of the murderers executed here and the crimes they committed