You could be hanged for stealing turnips

York (Toronto) jail, where a legislative committee in 1830 found a debtor wit his wife and five children among the prisoners. Painting by John G. Howard, Archives of Ontario.

Law and order 1822-1967

In early nineteenth century Canada, you could be hanged for stealing turnips. If you fell into debt, you could be imprisoned for life—in possibly the world’s worst prisons, perhaps together with your wife and children. Women were not sentenced to debtors’ prison, but if they lived on poverty street without means of support, they would join you in jail.

Unless your debts were paid or forgiven, you were in for life. There was no hope of earning money while in jail. Release depended on help from family or friends, or the charity of your creditors—neither of which was invariably available.

The harsh conditions of family life in jail were portrayed by Charles Dickens (whose father served time in debtors’ jail) in his 1857 novel Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit was born in jail, grew up in jail where she cared for her father, married in jail, and spent her life in jail.

If life in British jails was harsh, in Canadian jails it was brutal. Canadian jails, especially those in Upper Canada, were said to be much worse than those in Britain. Debtors and their families crowded the jails almost as much as the criminals.

A debtor might be in jail for life, but that was not necessarily very long. Lack of sanitation and ventilation, overcrowding, near starvation rations of sometimes-rotten food, illnesses and diseases frequently shortened life in jail.

Editors courageous enough to defy the authorities assailed jail conditions, and the senseless imprisonment of debtors that helped neither debtors nor creditors.

Incubators of crime

Perhaps the first Canadian editor to tackle the issue was Henry Chubb, whose New Brunswick Courier on February 2, 1822 did so by reprinting On the Imprisonment of Debtors, by Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century lexicographer, author and critic. It dealt with the issue in England—where 20,000 debtors out of a population of six million lingered in jail—but drew attention to the issue in Britain’s North American colonies.


“When twenty thousand reasonable beings are heard all groaning in unnecessary misery by…. the mistake or negligence of policy, who can forbear to pity and lament, to wonder and abhor,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson estimated the public cost of imprisoned debtors at £300,000 pounds a year, “in ten years to more than a sixth part of our circulating coin.”

He saw the debtor-filled jails as incubators of spiralling crime and evil. “The misery of gaols is not half their evil: they are filled with every corruption which poverty and wickedness can generate between them; with all the shameless and profligate enormities that can be produced by the impudence of ignominy, the rage of want, and the malignity of despair.”

World’s most barbaric jails

Reform editor Francis Collins was in York jail barely starting a prison term for libel against the authorities and members of the notorious Family Compact when he wrote this account of Canada’s treatment of insolvent debtors, published in the Canadian Freeman, December 11, 1828.

Of all the countries on earth, we believe there is none in which insolvent debtors are so barbarously treated as in Canada—the laws respecting them are a disgrace to British Jurisprudence—sufficient to put humanity to the blush— and call aloud for wholesale amendment.

In Canada, an unfortunate man who incurs a debt of a few dollars, without the means of liquidating it, is liable to be incarcerated, at the discretion of a merciless creditor, during his natural life! At home [i.e., England], no ordinary debt (except a fraud be proved) can deprive a man of his liberty longer than two or three months—in the U. States the term is still shorter, and they are threatening to abolish the practice altogether. In Canada, they are cooped up in a filthy apartment, for life, without bed, bedding, victuals, or any other thing to support nature, save the bare walls that surround them.

Is this just? Is it honest? Is it Christian? Can Heathen persecution exceed it? We have at the moment above our heads twelve able-bodied stout men, committed to this gaol for paltry debts, endeavouring to pass away dull time in playing marbles, like children—without even the consoling ray of hope ourselves enjoy, that at a given period, however distant, an end will be put to their sufferings.”

Death by suffocation

York was not the only jail in Upper Canada where conditions were miserable. An inquest jury in Niagara in the summer of 1830 blamed conditions in the jail there on the death of one Isaac Hoff.


Hoff had been convicted of assault. “A highly respectable and intelligent jury,” according to a local paper, Spirit of the Times, found that he “came by his death by suffocation, in consequence of being confined by the Magistrates in a cell not sufficiently ventilated.” Hoff had been confined to a jail “about 8 feet square, without the light of Heaven,” at a time when the ambient temperature in the shade rose to 105 Fahrenheit. In York, the Canadian Freeman claimed the jury would have been justified in charging the magistrates with murder. The reports were cited in Montreal’s Vindicator, July 7, 1830.

In Brockville, when convicted murderer Henry Hamilton died in his prison cell three weeks before he was due to be hanged, an inquest jury concluded that it was a case of “Death by the visitation of God,” the Upper Canada Gazette reported on September 9, 1825.

And the Bathurst Examiner, in October 1829, facetiously noted that “There is not one prisoner now confined to the Jail in the Bathurst District, and the mice are starving.”

Starvation, stink and squalor

A report of a committee of the Upper Canada House of Assembly, signed by William Lyon Mackenzie as chairman, describes a living hell in the jail at York. Excerpts from the Colonial Advocate, February 25, 1830.

In the cells below the ground floor, your committee found three female lunatics confined. They are lodged in locked up cribs, on straw, two in one crib, and the other by herself. A gentleman confined for debt complained that the smell from the dungeon in which these poor lunatics are confined, which below the room was almost insupportable, and that their incessant howlings and groans were annoying in the extreme. Their confinement is severe beyond that of the most hardened criminal.

Your committee found 25 persons in this prison; twelve criminals on the ground floor, one criminal sick upstairs, one vagrant, three lunatics above mentioned, and nine debtors.

Thomas McMahon, a criminal, complained that he had only a jail allowance of three half pence worth, one pound of bread, and water; that soap, sufficient to keep the prisoners clean, was not given; that some of the prisoners are several weeks together, without changes of linen; that he had enough bed clothes, but that they had not been washed, he believed, for six or eight months. The smell of his dungeon was very noisome.

All the other prisoners in this ward complain of the scantiness of the jail allowance, only three half pence worth of bread per diem. Your committee think that although a place of imprisonment is not intended to be a place of comfort, it should not be a place of starvation. This allowance is too small; it is less, your committee understands, than the allowance in other Districts, and is especially hard towards those who have not friends to help them. The request of the prisoners is six pence a day, or its value in bread.

The cell of James McMahon, and that of John Wilson, stink so as scarcely to be fit to breathe in. The jail itself is ill constructed; and the jail privy being stopped up adds to the unwholesomeness of the atmosphere, in a degree, that even in winter, is almost intolerable. The water closets ought to be taken away, and proper substitutes provided; the chloride of lime, or some other salt, ought to be used from time to time, to purify the apartments, and such other means used as would render a residence within these walls less grievous.

The debtors are, with one exception, all on the upper floor, apart from the other prisoners. These are allowed no support from their creditors, and some of them say they are entirely without the means of subsistence. James Colquhoun is in jail for a debt of three pounds; the creditor has forgiven the debt, but the lawyer has not thought proper to forgive his fees. Colquhoun subsists entirely on the humanity of the jailer and other debtors. One Murphy told your committee that he had nothing to eat and that both Colquhoun and himself had been for days together, without tasting a morsel.

One debtor is in jail, together with his wife, and a family of five children.


When debtors in Victoria faced the risk of prison, they sometimes had an irresistible compulsion to skedaddle to the safety of the United States. More lenient treatment of honest but unfortunate debtors was called for by the Vancouver Times, Victoria, September 8, 1864.


Under this headline, Victoria journals have sometimes to record the clandestine departure, by the California steamer, of some one who was either unable or unwilling to settle with his creditors. Without palliating the practice, or for one moment admitting that there is any serious laxity in the moral principle of the inhabitants of the colony, we may suggest that the severity of our laws regarding imprisonment for debt has possibly the effect of driving men who are more weak than dishonest, to take refuge in a foreign country rather than face an angry creditor, or be incarcerated in the common jail. It has been found that over severity in punishing criminals often defeats the intention of the Legislature, and it is quite possible that if we treated honest, but unfortunate debtors with more lenity, we would find that they would rarely become absconders.

Unfamiliar Canadian history stories

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