The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail
by Lorna Poplak
272 pages, $24.99
The Don is a comprehensive history of the eponymous Toronto jail in its various iterations. While Lorna Poplak’s book explores the history of the city itself and the evolution of its prison to stay current with penal reforms, the most fascinating aspect of The Don is its cast of characters, from prisoners to guards, architects to politicians.
Some of the inmates are known for their infamous crimes, others for their brazen escape attempts, yet there are many whose stories are lesser-known but just as intriguing. One condemned inmate, Frank McCullough, escaped from the prison less than three weeks before he was scheduled to be hanged. He left a note of apology to the guard on his watch, explaining that he had drugged the jailer’s coffee and stolen his clothes.
McCullough continued to send letters while on the lam but was soon recaptured and returned to the jail. His alleged accomplice was his lover, Vera de Lavelle. She was arrested and detained in the Don, from which she, too, managed to escape.
Toronto writer Poplak has provided a well-researched examination of the institution that housed tens of thousands of prisoners over its lifetime. While it was envisioned as a progressive example of prison architecture, the building quickly deteriorated, along with its reputation. The book contains few photographs, but Poplak has written an entertaining and engaging history of Toronto’s criminal justice system that any crime-history buff will enjoy.