Secrets of Toronto’s Past

by J-Stacknik

This grave sits in the St. James Cemetery in Toronto, the city's oldest functional cemetery, established in 1844.

Canada abolished the death penalty on July 4, 1976. Before then, all executions were done by hanging. One prison that had carried out hangings was the Old Don Jail in Toronto, Ontario. There have been rumors that the Old Don Jail held a hangman’s cemetery housing the bodies of men executed in the 1800′s and into the 1900′s. These were just rumors but since the jail is being preserved as a heritage site the current owners, Bridgepoint Health is in charge of redeveloping the site.

They hired an archaeological firm to investigate. They started their search first by going through archives. They found a map along with newspaper stories that held clues of an abandoned cemetery on the jail grounds. Once this was accomplished they started searching for where to dig they were looking for signs on the grounds like color soil or stains in the soil about the size of a casket. When a casket is buried the different color of soils shows up decades later.

They hit pay dirt just below the gallows, next to a wall of what was once the exercise yard. They found three graves in that spot which had become a parking lot. In one, in the arms of an executed Don Jail inmate was a metal crucifix. The pine casket mostly decomposed and the skeletal remains was inside. The remains belonged to murderer Jan (John) Ziolko. Sitting on what would have been his chest was the clasp from the top of what remained of the casket.

In all they found 15 of 34 hanged. It took 2 years to find out who was who they did this by using accounts from newspapers describing such things as gold teeth to holding a crucifix to what they were wearing when they were hanged. In some cases they found initials carved into an old wall above where they laid. While this was happening there was a film crew filming everything which resulted in the documentary Hangman’s Graveyard. All of the remains were moved to St. James Cemetery, Toronto’s oldest cemetery and crematorium.

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