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Kingston on my mind

Kingston, Ontario, will always have a special place in my heart. I spent a year at teachers’ college at Queen’s University after finishing my bachelor’s degree in Montreal. The move to Kingston meant I had finally left my parents’ home. I was living on my own and loving it!

This past Friday, Ed and I headed east on the 401. About 50 kilometres before Kingston, east-bound traffic came to a stop. There had been a major accident on the road ahead of us, and we spent the next two-and-a-half hours wondering what had happened and worrying whether our bladders would hold out until we reached a service station. The traffic finally picked up and vehicles were allowed to exit at the town of Odessa. It was only later in the day that we learned that there had been a major accident with two fatalities on the road ahead of us.

Kingston Penitentiary’s front entrance.

After the washroom, our destination was the Kingston Penitentiary. The former maximum security prison was opened in 1835 and it closed in September 2013. And tours of the buildings and grounds are now given from May to October. I’d passed this fortress every day when I was at teachers’ college. I wanted to see what it was like inside!

Our young guide took us to various stations in the prison — cell blocks, the guardhouse under the main dome, the recreation yard, work areas — where former prison guards told us stories of what went on in these areas when they worked there. All the former  guards we met had worked in the prison for 30+ years and seemed to have enjoyed their work. I hadn’t realized that there had been a four-day riot, resulting in the death of two inmates and the destruction of much of the prison, only a few months before I arrived at teachers’ college. It’s a wonder my parents had allowed me to leave home!

Above: Ed in his cell in Kingston Pen.

Behind bars at Kingston Pen.

Over the years, Kingston Penitentiary has housed many notable and notorious inmates. James Donnelly, patriarch of the Black Donnellys, spent seven years in the Pen after his sentence to be hanged for the murder of Patrick Farrell was reduced to a jail term. Others of note are the infamous serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo; serial killer Clifford Olson; Russell Williams, former commander of CFB Trenton, who was convicted of killing two women in 2010 near the military base; and Grace Marks, the Irish-Canadian maid who was convicted of murdering her employer and whose story inspired Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. Wayne Boden, the Canadian “vampire rapist” (so called because he liked to bite his victims, which led to his conviction), died in Kingston Penitentiary in 2006.

Right across King Street from Kingston Pen in the former Warden’s residence is Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. It houses a fascinating collection of inmates’ ingenuity, such as shivs made from toothbrushes, a stack of dinner trays that was used in an attempted escape, and prisoners’ artwork.

At the Sisters in Crime table in the book room, from left to right: Madona Skaff, Terri Dixon and Marilyn Kay.

On Saturday and Sunday, Ed and I got down to the main purpose of our visit to Kingston: Limestone Genre Expo, the annual conference of the sci fi, fantasy, horror, romance and mystery genres. It was a chance to catch up with our mystery writer pals, and to learn more about other literary genres. I spoke on a panel on Why Do We Love a Good Whodunit?, read from my mystery novel Raven Lake, and hung out a lot in the book room.

Ed and I attended a terrific two-hour panel titled Genre 101 for Genre Writers to learn more about the conventions of horror and sci fi writing. A top project for the summer is to read some classic horror stories so I can learn what has been done before and how it works in the hands of the masters. I’m also keen to read The Physics of the Impossible to find out what theoretical physicist Michio Kaku thinks may be possible in the near and distant future. I’m not a scientist so I need a good explainer.

Author Madeleine Harris-Callway

Photos by Ed Piwowarczyk.

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