Castle on the Hill

Castle on the Hill

If you stand at the corner of Mulcaster and Worsley Streets in the waterfront district of Barrie, Ontario, and look to the east, you will see an imposing edifice built of white limestone crowning a long grassy hill, right between the court house to the immediate south, and the Tax Services Centre to the north. This is the Barrie Jail, a one-time maximum-security facility that housed offenders awaiting trial, sentencing, or transfer to other provincial or federal correctional centres. Today it is an empty shell, all but abandoned and forgotten, a sad reminder of a proud city’s past that has been gradually allowed to fade into oblivion.

The Barrie Jail, affectionately known as The Bucket, was designed by architect Thomas Young, who brought ideas drawn from investigations conducted by John Howard into the handling of English and Welsh prisoners to the construction of several new prisons to be built in Ontario. The newly-fashioned design of a Radial prison was intended to centralize control and observation of prisoners held within the walls, while promoting a controlled and peaceful environment for the reform of inmates under their care.

Construction on the ‘gaol’, as it was originally known, commenced on 1840. Walls measuring two feet thick were constructed of white limestone quarried from the Longford area to the east of Lake Couchiching, then ferried by steamboat down Lake Simcoe to Kempenfelt Bay. After two years of labour, the initial build was complete. Outer walls and an east wing, along with lantern roof over the central core, were added in 1862. A gaoler’s residence was incorporated in 1902.

The original design allowed for the housing of 32 inmates at one time. Renovations increased capacity to a maximum 82 residents, though a more typical complement usually included 100 persons, both men and women, and sometimes more. There were no lights in the cells, and no toilet facilities. Inmates were issued a bucket for their personal use, which was stored beneath the cots that served as their beds.

It has been stated that the Barrie Jail, as with other municipal facilities, was intended to promote “an emphasis on … the central role of the regular administration of justice and civic government, and, literally, the grandeur and magnificence of public governance, which is to be supported and displayed through majestic public buildings placed in prestigious and prominent locations.” With its imposing walls, its massive castle-like gated front entrance, and its copula roof, the Barrie Jail is an iconic structure even now, more than 16 years after its closure and abandonment by the Ministry of Correctional Services.


The Barrie Jail was initially intended to serve the purpose of a half-way house of sorts. It was intended to be mid-course stop-over for prisoners that had not yet been arraigned to trial, or whose sentences had not yet been handed down by the judges presiding over their cases. Those individuals who were convicted and sentenced to incarcerations of any term would be moved onward to larger holding facilities where they might serve their time under proper lock down and supervision.

For some, however, the Barrie Jail was to be the very last stop on the path of their criminal actions. From 1873 until 1945, five necks were embraced by the hangman’s noose within the walls of the Barrie Jail.


James Carruthers and his wife, Rebecca Abernathy, were residents of the village of Ivy, located southwest of Barrie, in Essa Township. Despite friends claiming Rebecca was an attentive wife to James, and a caring mother to their many children, Carruthers believed her to be a bad woman, and took great pains to tell her so.

Despite no evidence to suggest his fears were true, James came to believe Rebecca has been unfaithful to him. His delusions went so far as to allow him to claim that their eldest son, William, for whom James had a sincere dislike, was the product of Rebecca’s union with another man, and not his son at all. He claimed her position as housekeeper for a local doctor was nothing more than an opportunity for Rebecca to bask in the doctor’s attentions directed toward her.

On 3 December 1872, James returned home after spending the day and part of the evening between a local tavern and a blacksmith shop run by a close friend. After several threats directed toward his wife, James proceeded to beat Rebecca to death, despite intervention by neighbours from across the street.

James Carruthers was interred at the Barrie Jail while he awaited trial for the murder of his wife. The jury found Carruthers guilty on the count, but recommended mercy. The presiding judge, however, disagreed with this recommendation, and cast down a sentence of death upon the convicted man.

His execution scheduled for 11 June 1873, Carruthers languished in the Barrie Jail where he received frequent visits from ministers of both the local Methodist Church, and the nearby Trinity Anglican Church. Whether or not James Carruthers ever found redemption for his actions against his wife will never be known. What is remembered, however is that on the day of his execution, James Carruthers became the first man hanged at the Barrie Jail, a status that was to be followed by four others over the next 72 years.


That same year, in an isolated cabin on the shores of Lake Commanda near Parry Sound, John Tryon and his son, George, had partnered with German immigrant Francis Fisher to trade furs and provisions with local aboriginal groups in the area.

On a cold winter night, George Tryon appeared on the doorstep of neighbour Robert McKee, insisting that Fisher had been killed. When the two returned to the Tryon/Fisher cabin, the German was found beneath several hundred pounds of deer meat which appeared to have fallen from a collapsed scaffold. Together, George Tryon and Robert McKee buried the body of Francis Fisher, believing the matter concluded as death by misadventure.

It was not until April that authorities arrived at the Tryon cabin to investigate the passing of Francis Fisher. The cold had preserved the dead man’s body far better than was expected, allowing a forensic investigation to be conducted. Doctor John E White of Parry Sound determined that the wounds present upon Mr Fisher’s body had been caused by an axe, not by falling deer meat or tree limbs. His evidence resulted in the arrest of both John and George Tryon for the death of Francis Fisher.

Damned by evidence of hundreds of dollars in American and Canadian funds, as well as gold pieces, none of which the Tryons were known to have in abundance, both accused were convicted of murder. The penalty was death by hanging. The execution date was set for 16 December 1873.

On 22 September, only days after the double conviction, John Tyron confessed to Reverend Morgan of Trinity Anglican Church that the murder had been his act alone. George, he insisted, had known nothing of his actions. As motive, John claimed that George’s wife was due to give birth in Barrie, and it was John’s fear that George would leave him to be with his wife. The murder of Francis Fisher was intended to keep George by his side, as John believed the boy would not desert is father to be alone in the wilderness.

In the end, George Tryon was freed on his father’s revelation.

John Tryon met the hangman on 30 December 1873, the second man whose fate was ended at the Barrie Jail.


The details surrounding George O’Neil’s murder of 72-year-old Azor Robertson and his 35-year-old daughter Ruby Martin are not widely known. What is known, however, is that the jury who sat through a three-day trial that outlined the discovery of those two bodies in a burned-out barn near Tottenham on 4 February 1927, found the accused guilty of the crimes. The verdict carried an automatic penalty of death.

On 4 January 1929, after a hiatus of fifty-six years, the hangman’s noose snapped taut at the Barrie Jail once more, this time around the neck of George O’Neil.


As with George O’Neil, the details of Thomas Wesley Campbell’s murder of his father in August of 1931 are largely forgotten. The Barrie Examiner reveals that during his trial, Campbell was subjected to examinations from “several doctors, including two brain specialists”, each of whom were called upon to determine if Campbell was insane. None found any evidence to support that theory.

On 16 January 1932, Thomas Campbell was hanged at the Barrie Jail in penance for his crime. A highly sensationalized trial drew more than 25 requests from all over Ontario to bear witness to his execution. Those requests, along with permissions for media personnel to attend the death room, were flatly denied.

Thomas Wesley Campbell died as anonymously as he lived. The most lingering statistic to his life is his placement as the fourth person to be executed inside the Barrie Jail.


Even less is known about the murder of Freeman Walker by 18-year-old Lloyd Wellington Simcoe, only that on 20 December 1945, the convicted man swung from the gallows of the Barrie Jail, making him the fifth (and final) victim of the hangman at that facility.

It is rumoured that the bodies of these five individuals, as well as several other inmates whose passing during their time incarcerated at the Barrie Jail, but whose identities remain unknown, were interred inside the walls of that facility. To this date, there has been no confirmation of that claim from any official source.


The Ontario Ministry of Corrections took over control of the Barrie Jail in 1968.

In 1976, the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau removed the death penalty from the Criminal Code of Canada. Moving forward, the sentence of mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for 25 years was to be the ultimate punishment for first degree murder throughout the land.

In 1998, the Canadian National Defence Act was amended to remove the death penalty, and replaced that measure with live imprisonment without parole for 25 years, bringing military justice in line with the civilian courts.

The last prisoners held inside the walls of the Barrie Jail were transferred to the newly completed Central North Correctional Centre ‘super jail’ in Penetanguishene in the fall of 2001. This marked the end of service for the Barrie landmark after 159 years of operation.


During the summer of 2017, I had a chance to visit the Barrie Bucket — at least the outside of the facility. Even now, despite years of abandonment and neglect, that building stands as an impressive reminder of law and order and justice there on the hillside overlooking the city and the lake below. The balconies that used to look south toward the waters of Kempenfelt Bay are long gone, but the heavy steel door through which prisoners would have passed stands stark and black against those white limestone walls.

I was able to navigate the exterior of the Jail while I took photographs of the structure. Yet the towering walls with their chain link fencing barred any view of the courtyard within.

A conversation with several Barrie Police officers I encountered in the parking lot next to the Jail revealed that the building had been relegated to storage for files and documents used by the neighbouring court house, standing just down the hill toward Worsley Street. My inquiry as to the possibility of gaining access to the Jail for an investigative tour was met with scoff by those officers, who wished me luck, stating, “No one goes in there anymore.”

Well, perhaps not no one.

In 2007, urban explorers – those individuals who have taken an interest in visiting abandoned places, or those sites deemed off limits to society at large – infiltrated the Barrie Jail. Their website,, details a visit to the abandoned site, and includes numerous photographs which present the facility free from censorship by government hands.

My own investigation into the Barrie Jail led me to Mr Ian McConachie of Infrastructure Ontario, the department assigned to maintain and oversee the derelict building. Upon inquiry into the possibility of visiting the Barrie Jail for research purposes, I was offered the following response:

Thank you for your message and your interest in visiting the Barrie Jail. IO manages this property on behalf of the owner, the Ministry of Infrastructure.

We do not permit tours of our buildings, partly for health and safety reasons, but also because we do not have the resources to accommodate access for the public. If we allowed access for one individual into our buildings we would be obligated to treat other requests in the same manner. In order to treat all requests fairly and equally we cannot facilitate tours of this or other properties in the portfolio.

And so ended my venture to visit and learn more about the Barrie Jail. Instead of being granted access to a facility built with public funds, for a public purpose, my request to see how those funds were used, and what has become of that publicly funded building was met with flat-out refusal.

It has been said that Canada has the very worst record for preservation of its own history in the whole of the G20 group of nations. Examples of the casual abandonment and loss of our historical wealth range from the callous bulldozing and eradication of Camp X in Whitby, to the complete destruction of the Avro Arrow programme at the hands of the Diefenbaker government. For the moment, the Barrie Jail remains standing, a visual reminder of the past. But for how long? How long will the City and the Province allow that building to remain there, occupying prime real estate? How long before another fragment of history is traded for dollar signs, and another piece of our past vanishes forever?

For now, one need only look to the corner of Mulcaster and Worsley Streets to step back in time. The past is there, right in front of us all. Cherish it while we can.

Kevin Bell

Barrie, Ontario 





iii) From Ontario Historical Plaque on-site.

iv) Thomas Young’s Barrie Jail, by Dr Tony Hopkins



vii) Barrie Examiner – 18 October 1928

viii) Barrie Examiner – 14 January 1932