We’re so good, we’re bad.
South Eastern Ontario has some of the most quaint towns and vibrant cities with fascinating history. But did you know that some downright notorious crimes happened here, too? Read on to uncover some tidbits about the not-so-legal past in South Eastern Ontario.
The 1000 Islands is full of nooks and crannies hidden among the beauty of the lush islands and their rocks and caves. The natural landscape has lent itself to smuggling everything from animals to alcohol across the St. Lawrence River!
Networks of smugglers had hiding places along the river to pass goods between the United States and Canada – especially alcohol. Smuggling was particularly rampant in the 1920s, with prohibition and during the Depression when bootleggers made liquor deliveries to support their families. While bars, breweries and distilleries went out of the business in the States, the Canadian liquor industry blossomed. One such cove is rumoured to start near Virgin Island and ends at Smuggler’s Cave. The cave was known as a depot to house prohibition-era alcohol, pirate loot and other treasure.
Another fabled hiding spot still sits in plain view, in an unassuming church graveyard between Maitland and Prescott in the 1000 Islands. The Blue Church and a 300-year-old cemetery encircle a hollow gravestone taller than the others. It was here that smugglers used to hide money and liquor bottles behind removable plaques. The liquor would then be tied in nets under skiffs and rowed across the river under the water – this way they could also easily be cut free if the smugglers were approached by law enforcement. Later on, some pleasure craft even had secret compartments on board or hollow places under floorboards to hide liquor.
History also mingles with smuggling on Hill Island. According to the Frontenac Arch Biosphere, the Horse Thief Trail took horses south and beef north during the war of 1812 and remains of it can actually still be walked!
The Witch Of Plum Hollow
She wasn’t involved in a crime, but she helped solve them! Jane Elizabeth Barnes, otherwise known as Mother Barnes or the Witch of Plum Hollow, was a famed seer residing in a rural cabin near Athens in the mid-1800s. Born in Ireland as the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, Mother Barnes was famous for her divination and was much sought after for her gifts. John A. Macdonald consulted her on numerous occasions for political assurances; she helped police locate missing persons and animals, and she aided people in recovering lost or stolen items. Mother Barnes passed away in 1886. Newspaper articles published across the country at the time of her death, noted that she helped thousands of people who visited her home spanning 50 years. Her cabin has since been purchased by a history buff and meticulously renovated while keeping its original look.
Kingston Penitentiary Riots
It’s not a crime to be curious about the Kingston Penitentiary and its history – especially when there’s a milestone involved. The 50th anniversary of the famous riot at the Pen was in April, but it’s still top of mind for many in the city. Even though a half-century has passed, the bloody four-day riot is still burned into the collective consciousness as six guards were taken hostage, two prisoners died and dozens were injured while much of the prison suffered destruction. Afterward, security was increased and prison reforms were instituted. It’s the perfect opportunity to take a tour of the Penitentiary or even see it again and learn more about the riot. You know you’re intrigued!
Counting Coins On The Rideau
Treasure hunters take note! There are so many stories about a lost barrel of silver on Opinicon Lake in the Rideau Canal that there must be a nugget of truth hidden among the variations somewhere. Rideau Canal historian, Ken Watson, tells the story of a paymaster bringing payment in the form of a barrel of silver coins in a voyageur canoe to workers constructing the canal. The wind soon picked up and broadsided their canoe with a series of large waves. Despite being expert paddlers, it knocked the men and the barrel of coins into the water! The paddlers and overturned canoe floated to nearby Chaffey’s Mills – but the silver sank to the bottom of the lake off a rocky point. To this day, it has never been recovered.
Brockville Bank Heist
The largest bank robbery in North America happened right in our own backyard! On May 3, 1958, the Brockville Trust Bank, which is now known as the Keystorm Pub, was expertly robbed – from the bottom up. Three men gained access via the basement next door – they picked and drilled their way through three solid stone walls and the north wall of the steel vault. The robbers nabbed jewelry, cash and bonds and made off with about $10 million. They almost got away with it – until one of the robbers dropped a piece of paper with this name and address on it and was arrested in Montreal two days later. Seven million dollars in property was eventually recovered, but $3 million – and the other two robbers – never came to light.
Lady in Blue
A missing woman. A blue piece of satin and a ghost. It sounds like the plot for the perfect Halloween movie. But it’s history and legend intertwined at Burritt’s Rapids – and many people have lived through a chilling experience there because of it. In the 1860s, Kathleen McBride arrived in Burritt’s Rapids and rented a room there at the inn alongside the canal. She had long, flowing red hair and always wore a blue dress. She reportedly spent the majority of her time walking the trail from tip to tip and gazing out over the Rideau River. A Parks Canada publication notes that she appeared to be searching the water for something. During the night on Oct. 31, she went out for a walk and disappeared. The only thing that was recovered was a piece of blue satin from her dress. Although Kathleen was gone, she might still be wandering and searching – a ghostly presence with red hair and a blue dress still appears near the dam on moonlit nights, walking Burritt’s Rapids Tip-to-Tip trail and sometimes heard faintly crying.
Chiseling In A Longer Winter
Did you know that a tombstone in Picton has made headlines for over 150 years? A grave maker for Wm. Pierce at the churchyard of St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church definitely has an incorrect death date engraved. It states that Mr. Pierce died on Feb. 31, 1860. A story in a 1936 edition of the Toronto Telegram blamed an absent-minded stone cutter for the mishap. The gravestone is so well-known, it was reportedly featured on an episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Certainly more of a mistake rather than a crime, but it’s this kind of thing that leads to hauntings, so…
The Last Hanging In Cornwall
When thinking about executions at local jails, your mind may go to long ago. Not so in Cornwall. The final execution took place there in recent memory. It was May 25, 1954. An article in the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder documenting the event noted that a large crowd of about 500 people gathered in front of the courthouse to witness the hanging of a 24-year-old former Canadian Army officer, who had been charged with murdering a Canadian Women’s Army Corps reserve Sgt. Even though the crowd could only see about two feet of the canvas-covered gallows protruding above the 20-foot-wall, the group stayed until the bitter end in the wee hours of the morning. It was the last known execution in Cornwall, and possibly the last in South Eastern Ontario.
The majestic St. Lawrence River once had real pirates traversing its waters! One of those fabled pirates is Bill Johnston who plundered and torched the British steamer Sir Robert Peel on the St. Lawrence in 1838, after looting its valuables and removing its passengers to shore. Known as the Pirate of the 1000 Islands, Johnston was a renegade who was born in Quebec, but was made famous by this escapade in the heart of the 1000 Islands region.