I Know Where the Bodies are Buried: Deaths at the Huron Jail

died in gaol

“Is this place haunted?”: it’s one of the most common questions fielded by front desk staff at the Huron Historic Gaol. I’ve never set eyes on a ghost myself, but at least fifty-eight prisoners at the Huron Gaol died during their imprisonment. The jail’s four-cell-block design was intended for short stays—prisoners with multi-year sentences received transfers to larger institutions like Kingston Penitentiary—but for some Huron County inmates, theirs was indeed a death sentence in practice. Whether or not prisoners choose to revisit the grounds as ghosts, the recently launched online repository of Huron County newspapers has made it a little easier to research and shed light on their lives and deaths inside the Huron jail.

Edward Jardine-Hanging

The Signal, 1911-6-15, pg 1

Infamously, three men—all under the age of thirty—hanged for murder at the Huron jail in Goderich: William Mahon in 1861, Nicholas Melady in 1869 (Canada’s final public hanging) and Edward Jardine in 1911. Although these are perhaps the best remembered demises at the jail, executions were rare and not representative of the fifty-eight known inmate deaths that took place here before 1913, the vast majority of which were the result of natural causes like old age and disease. The average age of deceased prisoners was sixty-three. The oldest inmate to die in the jail with a recorded age—often merely an estimate by the gaoler or gaol surgeon—was approximately ninety; the youngest fatality was a two-month old infant named Robert Vanhorn who had been committed with his young, unmarried mother in 1879.

List of Crimes

The Signal, 1884-2-29, pg 2

Most of the inmates who died in the jail were in fact not criminals at all, but elderly persons committed as ‘vagrants’ because they were homeless, or too frail and sick to provide for themselves.  Some were itinerants, but many were long-term Huron County residents without friends and family to support them in their old age. Unmarried, widowed or childless labourers and domestics were especially vulnerable, as well as early settlers whose closest relatives still remained in the old country. When Seaforth servant Margaret Ainley died in the jail of typhoid fever in 1883, The Huron Signal reported that “her relatives live in England.” Eighty-one-year-old Matthew Shepherd, a native of Scotland and a veteran non-commissioned officer of Her Majesty’s 93rd Foot, had seen service in the West Indies as well as British North America; the veteran soldier was a resident of Ashfield Township for three decades when he died in jail, but “had no direct relatives in this country” according to a June, 1891 obituary in The Signal. Both Ainley and Shepherd’s committals had been for vagrancy.

Other prisoners suffered from mental illness, dementia or serious health problems that their families could not cope with. Seventeen-year-old Patrick Kelleher, for example, had exhibited symptoms of mental illness or developmental issues since his childhood. His parents were newly arrived Irish emigrants in the summer of 1883, when the strain of caring for him evidently became too difficult and he was committed to the Huron jail for insanity. Patrick died there of a seizure in January, 1884 while still awaiting transfer to the Provincial Asylum.

Old Woman

The Exeter Times, 1875-12-30, pg 1

Without a safety net of organized social services, responsibility for Ontario’s rural poor fell to local municipalities in the nineteenth century. Sometimes the needy received assistance in their own communities and homes, but the gaol was one of the earliest municipal buildings with a full-time staff, and provided a convenient location for local governments to clothe, feed and supervise these ‘wards of the county.’

Starting in the late 1870s, Joseph “Big Joe” Williamson faced repeated committals to the Huron jail for vagrancy-a common pattern for homeless prisoners who had nowhere to go when their sentences ended. A Huron Tract ‘pioneer,’ seventy-four-year-old Williamson was a former contractor and once-prominent figure in local politics—so gifted at storytelling that he was called ‘Huron’s bard’. He petitioned County Council’s gaol & courthouse committee to transfer him to a hospital in December, 1883. The committee subsequently recommended that he be removed to the Middlesex County Poor House, but instead “Big Joe” died of heart disease at the Huron Jail on January 14th, 1884. The Huron Signal’s obituary deemed Williamson’s fate a “misspent life…after a tendency to drink and a liking for conviviality brought him down to penury.”

paupers die off

The Huron Signal, 1884-3-21, pg 4

In the absence of a House of Refuge in Huron County, the jail became a de facto poorhouse, hospital, lying-in-hospital for unwed mothers and long-term care home.  The jail staff*—consisting in the nineteenth-century of the gaoler, the matron (his wife or eldest daughter), the turnkey, gaol surgeon, and any servants or family members who lived on site—provided frontline care to the old and sick in addition to their duties of managing the gaol and guarding actual criminals. In 1884, when William Burgess, an inmate from Brussels with cancer in his leg, lay slowly dying in his jail cell, Jailor William Dickson and turnkey Robert Henderson took turns keeping a nightly vigil on the ward he occupied with another sick inmate. This cell-mate, Johnny Moosehead, had actually helped to nurse Burgess himself before he became too ill with erysipelas. Fellow inmates quite often helped the gaol staff provide the constant care needed for elderly or dying prisoners. In the case of George Whittaker, a seventy-year-old Brussels ‘lunatic’ who died in July 1881 of self-inflicted injuries, the gaoler also charged the man’s ward-mates to help provide vigilance against self-harm—unfortunately to little avail.

A formal coroner’s inquest with a jury of prisoners and citizens was mandatory for every inmate death.  After the death of ninety-year-old ‘indigent’ Hugh Hall in April 1887, friends of his from the Clinton area sent a hearse to Goderich to claim the body for a proper funeral, but a holiday delayed the inquest and the hearse had to return to Clinton empty until the coroner and jury could be assembled. The ‘usual verdict’ of these inquests was ‘natural causes’; over a dozen inmates had their cause of death simply recorded as some variation of ‘old age’ or ‘senile decay’. Testimony at these inquests, however, afforded the gaol staff, including the gaoler, matron and gaol surgeon, an opportunity to decry the gaol’s tragic inadequacy as a home for the insane or terminally ill.

John Morrow

The Signal, 1891-10-16, pg 1

Mary BradyJohn McCann

The plight of the jail’s long-term residents did not go completely unnoticed or forgotten by the rest of the county, as gaol staff, inquest juries, newspaper editors, and successive jail and courthouse committees demanded better care for Huron’s poor. Public reports of the Gaol and Court House Committee had recommended transferring both Matthew Shepherd and William Burgess to a poor house before their deaths. An 1884 editorial in the Huron Signal called for County Council to be ‘indicted for murder’ for neglecting to build a House of Refuge to shelter the poor in Huron County after decades of discussion. In October, 1891 the same newspaper ran an exposé on the lives of the old and sick inside the jail, describing the circumstances of each individual inmate, and lamenting the injustice that these individuals would soon perish in jail. For at least three of the prisoners profiled in that piece, this sad prophecy swiftly came to pass: octogenarian Mary Brady would die after being bedridden with a broken arm only a few months later, the blind and ill John McCann would pass away in less than a year, and John Morrow—committed 25 times for vagrancy before his death—died of heart failure exacerbated by choking in 1893.

The Signal article pronounced that the vagrants of the Huron County Jail were doomed to a ‘criminal’s funeral’-but what this entailed varied case by case. Although their fates may have been sadly predictable, the final resting place of the jail’s dead is sometimes unclear. Some, like Hugh Hall, had friends, neighbours or family members who claimed their loved ones’ bodies and paid funeral expenses. This appears to be the case for all three executed men. Despite reported rumours that victim Lizzie Anderson’s mother had asked for his body to inter beside her daughter’s, hanged murderer Edward Jardine, for example, received burial at Colborne Cemetery per his request. If no claimants came forward for a deceased ‘vagrant’, however, interment became more uncertain. The Exeter Times reported at least one prisoner, James Stinson of Hay Township, as being buried in a ‘Potter’s field’ in 1878-referring to an unmarked grave or ‘pauper’ section of a cemetery.

Inspector of Anatomy

The Huron Signal, 1887-06-03, pg 4

By the 1880s regional Anatomy Inspectors were responsible for ensuring that unclaimed bodies were not buried at all, but instead sent to medical colleges for dissection and research. In 1895, Colborne Township’s Elizabeth Sheppard perished at the jail of ‘senile decay’; according to the Wingham Times, Goderich undertaker and county Anatomy Inspector William Brophey was preparing Sheppard’s body for conveyance “to Toronto for some use in the colleges,” when at the last moment a brother materialised to retrieve her for burial in Goderich.

The Exeter Advocate, 1894-06-07, pg 8

The Exeter Advocate, 1894-06-07, pg 8

Instances of cadavers from the Huron County Jail successfully reaching Toronto medical students are unconfirmed, but this would have followed the law. Huron County finally successfully constructed a House of Refuge in Tuckersmith Township in the 1890s, which has since evolved into the Huronview home for the aged. Today there is a monument to the residents buried there, but at the turn-of-the-century these interments at the House’s farm property were actually in conflict with legislation. By 1903, Keeper Daniel French had to be publicly reminded of the laws respecting the disposal of bodies at government institutions—all cadavers were supposed to be transferred to the regional Inspector of Anatomy within twenty-four hours if no ‘bona fide friends’ appeared to claim a corpse. French was liable for a $20 fine, but the current Huron County Warden advised him to continue burials. Local jailers, however, may have been more law-abiding.

Knowing that most deaths at the Huron Historic Gaol were due to long and lonely incarcerations caused by old age and infirmity, it’s hard to imagine many of these men and women returning to haunt the narrow corridors.  They served virtual life sentences as an unfortunate consequence of poverty and isolation, and any added time in the afterlife seems undeserved. I don’t know if you can find the ghosts of the likes of Mary Brady or William Burgess stalking the courtyards after dark, but the reports of inmate interments we do have indicate that you can find the jail’s dead in cemeteries across Huron County, including those located in Hensall, Clinton, Seaforth, Brucefield, St. Columban, Goderich, Blyth, Dungannon, and Colborne. At the very least, the jail provides another place to remember and reflect upon the lives of the others, whose graves are unmarked and unknown.


*Living onsite meant that gaoler, matron and family members also sometimes breathed their last on site, including former matron Ann Robertson, Gaoler Edward Campaigne, and two young daughters of Jailer Joseph Griffin


Research for this blog post used historical newspapers made available via Huron County’s Newspaper Digitization project, as well as the gaol registry 1841-1911 and transcribed coroner’s reports available at the Huron County Archives Reading Room, Huron County Museum.

Start searching through online historical newspapers today to learn more secrets of Huron’s past!

‘Poisoning our population’: Huron County’s Undesirable Young Immigrants


Not every new neighbor throughout Huron County’s history has been welcomed universally by the community; some have faced prejudice and discrimination. Education and Programming Assistant Sinead Cox, who led research for the current Stories of Immigration and Migration Exhibit, writes about the hostility and misconceptions faced by one of these migrant groups.

In 1895, an anonymous East Wawanosh farmer called for an end to the immigration of a despised immigrant group to Canada. Suspected of being untrustworthy and even violent, the farmer lamented to the Daily Mail & Empire that these migrants were “a curse to the country, as a rule.” The dangerous group he was referring to were young, poor, British children.


Article from the Daily Mail and Empire, July 23, 1895.

002003 Between the 1860s and 1930s, U.K. charity homes sent thousands of urban boys and girls commonly known as ‘home children’ to Australia, South Africa and Canada as farm labourers or domestic servants. These young migrants feared as a threat to the  moral character of Canadian society had little say in leaving the country of their birth, or their estrangement from any family they might have still had there. In 2010 the U.K. government officially apologized for the forced emigration of these children, which often involved what charity home founder Dr. Thomas Barnardo termed ‘philanthropic abduction’: sending poor children across the ocean without the knowledge of their still-living parents, siblings or guardians. Without knowing the children might be sent half a world away, caretakers had often placed them in the homes because of a sudden lack of funds to properly care for them, sometimes due to unemployment, insufficient wages, or the death or illness of a parent.

Child Migration was intended to ease urban poverty in the British Isles and agricultural labour shortages in the colonies.Once in Canada, the children were expected to work and attend school, and received infrequent inspection visits to monitor their welfare. Canadian employers tended to treat the young immigrants as hired hands, rather than adopted family members, and many changed homes frequently. Although rural Canada might have provided more employment opportunities than urban England, living among strangers often left the children vulnerable to abuse, neglect or overwork with tragic results. In 1923, Huron County farmer John Benson Cox was convicted of abusing Charles Bulpitt, the sixteen-year-old ‘home boy’ working for him, after Charles committed suicide in his care.

The Montreal Gazette-Feb 8 1924

Excerpt from The Montreal Gazette, Feb. 8, 1924

At the time, some Canadians welcomed the cheap farm labour provided by the child migrants, while others feared that these lower class ‘waifs and strays’ must be ‘the offspring of criminals and tramps,’  and therefore inherently bad and dangerous to God-fearing citizens of the Dominion. In Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s beloved classic, Anne of Green Gables, character Marilla Cuthbert famously dismissed the possibility of welcoming a child from the U.K. charity homes to Green Gables:

At first Matthew suggested getting a Barnardo boy.  But I said ‘no’ flat to that. They may be all right—I’m not saying they’re not—but no London Street Arabs for me…I’ll feel easier in my mind and sleep sounder at nights if we get a born Canadian.

Public fears about these ‘street Arabs’ were no doubt influenced by the widespread popularity of the pseudoscientific practice of eugenics at the turn of the twentieth century. Eugenicists erroneously believed that some people were genetically superior to others, and these good traits would be diluted and society damaged by mixing with groups having supposedly inferior genes, including the mentally ill or developmentally challenged. Eugenicist policies were widely touted by many prominent Canadians, including philanthropists and legislators.

At an 1894 federal Select Standing Committee on Agriculture and Colonisation, East Huron Member of Parliament Dr. Peter Macdonald spoke against government subsidies for the immigration of ‘home children.’ His concerns were not based on the welfare and safety of the young immigrants, but on the potential ill effect their introduction would have on Canadian society, particularly because of their eventual intermarriage with existing Canadian settler families:

Barnardo Boys Arrive Cropped

August 13, 1906 Globe and Mail article describing the arrival of 200 Barnardo Home boys, which included Bernard Brown.

Those children are dumped on Canadian soil, who, in my opinion, should not be allowed to come here at all. It is just the same as if garbage were thrown into your backyard and allowed to remain there. We find from the testimony of disinterested parties in this country, that a large number of these children have turned out bad, and are poisoning our population by intermarrying with them…I think myself this committee should unite in an expression of opinion that no such $2 a head should be paid by this government to bring such a refuse of the old country civilization, and pour it in here among our people. We take more means to purify our cattle than to purify our population?

Despite objectors like Macdonald, charity homes sent more than 100,000 British children to Canada, and today likely millions of Canadians are the descendants of these children who, despite the hardships of forced migration and separation from loved ones in childhood, often survived and persevered to earn a living and raise a family of their own. Although they had essentially been exiled by the British Empire, a huge proportion of ‘home boys’ also later volunteered to serve in the first and second world wars as young men.


Bernard Brown in his military uniform. He enlisted with the 161st Regiment of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in January 1916. Photo courtesy of Brown Family.

One such child migrant, Bernard Brown (1896-1918), came to Huron County at ten years old. Bernard’s journey from a poor, struggling family in Northern Ireland that could not afford to feed all of their children, to an English charity home, to a Tuckersmith Township farm, and finally to the battlefields of France, is featured in the Huron County Museum’s Stories of Immigration and Migration, a temporary exhibit that tracks the narratives of seven families who came to our county between 1840 and 2007.

Similarly to many refugee families today, child migrants like Bernard Brown did not choose Huron County as their ultimate destination, but were matched there. When Bernard was placed with a couple in Tuckersmith, he was separated from his younger brother Edward whom Barnardo’s sent to Ripley, Bruce County.  In hindsight, cases of mistreatment and neglect indicate that these young people an ocean away from loved ones, unable to return home and at the mercy of strangers, ultimately had much more to fear from Canadians than Canadians had to fear from them. The eventual success and resilience of those who survived childhood and the millions among us who can today claim a ‘home child’ as an ancestor are a testament to the fact that although the U.K and Canadian governments may have tragically failed them, the ‘home children’ contributed immeasurably to our communities rather than ‘poisoned’ them.

To find out more about the experience of one home child in Huron County, see Bernard’s story when you visit Stories of Immigration and Migration, on display in the Temporary Gallery at the Huron County Museum until October 15th. Are you descended from a home child? Share your family’s story with us tagged  #homeinhuron or add it to the visitor-submitted stories in the exhibit. Untitled

Huron’s Unheard Histories: Searching for Grey Township’s Black Pioneers

James 003

What’s your journey to Huron County? This spring, visitors to the Huron County Museum can follow the journeys of seven families across the globe and through time in Stories of Immigration and Migration, a temporary exhibit dedicated to tales of settling in Huron County. The exhibit traces the circumstances that caused individuals within Canada and across the world to leave their former homes, as well as the migrants’ experiences building new lives in Huron. With Stories set to open on April 5th, researcher Sinead Cox shares why the journeys of some Huron County families are more difficult to research than others: 

Museum staff are looking forward to shedding light on local histories that have never been featured in our galleries before with Stories of Immigration and Migration, an exhibit which spans a period from 1840 to the present day. When research started several months ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking or corresponding directly with the more recent ‘migrants’ featured in the exhibit, and the opportunity to include their own words, insights and chosen artefacts. For those individuals who arrived more than a century ago, however, our research relied on archival records that often uncovered as many questions as answers.

One compelling story that remains incomplete is that of Samuel and Mary Catherine James, a black farming couple born in Nova Scotia who were some of the earliest settlers in Grey Township circa the 1850s. Many former slaves from the colonial United States, including loyalists who had served the British crown during the American Revolution, settled in Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. The family also lived in Peel, Wellington County, before settling in Grey–which was part of the “Queen’s Bush” territory, rather than the Huron Tract lands managed by the Canada Company. Since the Jameses were farmers, they probably came to Huron County to achieve the same objective as most other pioneers: to own land. The James clan, including children Freeman, Coleman, Magdalene and Colin, farmed in a row on Lots 24 of Concessions 9, 10 and 12, Grey Township. according to 1861 census records, the whole family lived together in the same log house when they first moved to Huron.


Tragedy struck the James family when, in a matter of only three months–between November 1866 and January 1867–Colin (aged 23), Freeman (aged 39), and Mary Catherine (aged 77) all died.  Whether their passings were related or coincidental, this unimaginable loss must have been a devastating blow to a pioneer family that relied on family members to share the burden of work. Mother and sons are buried at Knox Presbyterian Cemetery, Cranbrook.

According to land registry records, Freeman’s farm at Lot 24, Concession 12, still not purchased from the crown at the time of his death, was taken over by his sister Magdalene “Laney” James’ husband, Charles Done. Charles was also a black farmer from Nova Scotia, and living in Howick when he married Laney at Ainleyville (now Brussels) on November 4th, 1867.

Laney and Coleman, the two surviving James siblings, each raised large families in Grey Township. In the 1871 census, Coleman and his wife, Lucy Scipio, already had eight children, five of them attending school. According to the same census, both Coleman and Laney could read and write, but their spouses could not. The family was struck by tragedy once again in April, 1873 when Coleman’s nine-year-old son, also named Coleman, died of “inflammation of [the] liver” after an illness of nine months.

Coleman sold his farms in 1875, and by the 1881 Canadian census, both he and Laney had left Huron County and relocated to Raleigh, Kent County with their families. This move to Raleigh would have enabled the James siblings to join a larger black community at Buxton: a settlement founded by refugees that came to Canada through the Underground Railway.

The James family had relocated many times: according to tombstone transcriptions, Mary Catherine was born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and Colin in Digby, before the family moved to Ontario and lived in Wellington County, Huron County, and Kent. Census, birth and death records indicate that Coleman’s children ultimately settled in Michigan. Most farm families in nineteenth-century Ontario moved in search of the same benefits: a supportive community life, the ability to make a living, and good agricultural land. Black farmers, however, faced barriers of discrimination and exclusion that white settlers did not, and this sometimes necessitated leaving years of hard work behind to repeatedly seek a better life elsewhere.

It’s that moving on that can make traces of the Huron County’s early black settlers difficult to find in history books or public commemorations. The collections at the Huron County Museum, for example,  are entirely acquired through donations from the community, which tends to emphasize the experiences of families that stayed here, found success, and had descendants who retain ties to the county to this day. We know less about the settlers who moved out of the county-even those who lived in Huron for decades, like the Jameses– and thus we also lack clarity about the opportunities they sought elsewhere, or the specific challenges they may have faced here.

The details I could glean from a few days’ of research did not provide enough information to interpret why the James family came to Huron County–or why they left–for Migration Stories. But I hope future research opportunities will add to this initial knowledge, and to a better understanding of the contributions and experiences of the individuals who have moved in and out of Huron County, including black pioneers likes the James family.  


Special thanks to Reg Thompson, research librarian at the Huron County Library, for starting and contributing to the research used for this piece. If you have information about the James family and would like to share, contact Sinead, exhibit researcher: sicox@huroncounty.ca

You can see Stories of Immigration and MIgration at the Huron County Museum (110 North Street) from April 5th until October 15th, 2016.

This post was originally published in February and republished in March after technical difficulties with the server. 

You Tell Us: Why Every Old Artefact has New Secrets to Reveal

Celebrations Exhibit, Huron County Museum Temporary Gallery.

Both on & off display, the Huron County Museum houses an incredible collection of objects donated by our community. Staff collect and research as much information as possible about artefacts and their significance to Huron County history when they arrive at our doors, but there’s always more to be added to these objects’ stories, and their significance to the people who made, owned, used or donated them. As wonderfully demonstrated by our recent Community Curators exhibit, fresh perspectives on interpreting artefacts enhance their context and value.  Sometimes only after having an artefact in our collection for years does special knowledge from the public allow staff to identify the people in a black & white photograph, or translate German postcards sent to a Dashwood family. A growing and changing understanding of these objects ensures that they remain dynamic and connected to the community, rather than accumulating dust.

Celebrations Exhibit, Temporary Gallery, Huron County Museum.

A recent revelation about artefacts came this fall when staff were planning Celebrations, the Temporary Gallery’s winter exhibit dedicated to favourite holidays from October to March: Diwali to St. Patrick’s Day. The displays are a combination of artefacts from the museum’s collection and objects on-loan from individuals and families who celebrate each holiday. Lynn Zhu of Toronto, whose husband is from Clinton, shared her memories of celebrating Lunar New Year both in China during her early childhood, and afterwards when she and her parents moved to Canada. Lynn also lent the exhibit a selection of decorations and “red pocket” cash envelopes from past Lunar New Year occasions, providing translations for the Mandarin words.

Ceremonial Chinese sword donated by E. Townsend Family, M970.20.10

While Lynn was translating the decorations, I asked her take a look at a couple of red silk hangings in the museum’s collection, guessing their lettering might also be Mandarin. The banners are part of a collection of objects from China donated by the E. Townsend family in 1970. Elisha Townsend, born near Londesborough, was a Methodist missionary to China in the first half of the twentieth century.

Very generously, Lynn agreed to view photos of the banners, and provide translations. She explained,

The hanging banners you found are in Chinese, and are an example of a

They should be hung on either side of a door…They usually describe some well wish
in a rhyming matching-syllables way. The particular ones you have are so interesting because they are about God…
There are many churches and Christians in China, but they’re not as obvious as here. So religious


are not common at all…[T]hey likely were used inside the home or a church. Also, likely they were displayed all year round. (People often leave the


up all year, so they get shabby looking, and get new ones before the New Year celebrations.[The first banner] says: “God is my herder.” [The second banner] (使我不至窮乏) says: “Let me not be poor and needy.” After some googling, it’s actually the translation of Psalm 23:1. “God is my shepherd, I shall not want/I lack nothing.”


Wall hanging donated by E. Townsend Family, M970.20.2

Red satin wall hanging donated by E. Townsend Family, M970.20.1

Thanks to Lynn’s translation more than forty-five years after the Townsend family’s original donation, museum staff can now understand the banners and better appreciate their significance to Elisha Townsend’s missionary work

Lunar New Year begins today, Monday February 8th! You can see the decorations loaned for #HCMCelebrations now through March Break in the Temporary Gallery. Admission next Monday, February 15th, 2016 is FREE for Family Day. 

Can you help with the museum’s current historical mysteries? We’re looking for any extant image of Goderich Township pioneer Agnes (Johnston) McIlwain for our upcoming Migration Stories exhibit in April.

Diamonds are Forever: the Legacy of the Koh-I-Noor

Bollywood Night Promo Pic

On November 12th, 2015, the Huron County Museum will be showing the 2014 Hindi action-adventure movie Bang Bang for its Bollywood Movie Night. A remake of Hollywood’s Knight and Day, the Bollywood film follows the adventures of an unassuming bank employee (played by Katrina Kaif) after she meets a mysterious secret agent (Hrithik Roshan). Education & Programming Assistant Sinead Cox discusses how the the film’s plot utilizes the history of the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond.


Commemorative postcard: Queen Victoria’s 1897 diamond jubilee. Donated to the collected by Nancy Park. 2010.0027.001c

After the DVD finally arrived from Mumbai and I sat down to preview the hit Hindi action-adventure film Bang Bang, I fully expected the fun, brash Bollywood action romp suggested by title. What I wasn’t anticipating was a little bit of history to intrude on the action: the movie’s hero, Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan, makes his screen entrance triumphantly tossing the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond in the air after stealing it from the Tower of London.

The remarkably large Koh-I-Noor (“Mountain of Light”) was mined in India and belonged to a series of Indian rulers and conquerors, as well as nearby empires in Afghanistan and Persia, over several centuries. The British East India company seized the diamond with the rest of the Lahore treasury in 1849, after their annexation of Punjab; Governor-General Lord Dalhousie subsequently arranged for the gem’s owner, 10-year-old Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh*, to ceremonially surrender the priceless diamond to Queen Victoria.

In 1851 the Koh-I-Noor was a much ballyhooed attraction at the Great Exhibition–its notoriety magnified by claims in the English press that the gem carried a curse. After its exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Prince Albert had the diamond recut to suit current European tastes, significantly reducing its size. The Koh-I-Noor, and its supposed curse were inspirations to author Wilkie Collins for his classic 1868 mystery novel The Moonstone, which–spoiler alert–ends with the titular moonstone recovered by agents and returned to its rightful place in an Indian temple. In real life, the Koh-I-Noor remains part of the British crown jewels, displayed for tourists at the Tower of London and worn by queens or queen consorts on ceremonial occasions.


Elizabeth, consort to George VI and mother of Elizabeth II, wore the Koh-I-Noor in her crown during her husband’s coronation. The crown, including the Koh-I-Noor, rested on the Queen Mother’s coffin during her 2002 funeral. This picture of Elizabeth in her coronation robes was donated to the collection by Rev. Harrison (crown not pictured). A971.0016.014

After its theft from the tower in the film’s prologue, the Koh-I-Noor emerges as Bang Bang’s plot ‘MacGuffin’: an excuse for bad guys to chase the movie’s couple so action, international adventure and romance can ensue. But because our leading lady, Katrina Kaif, is unsure of Roshan’s allegiances and motives throughout the movie, the Koh-I-Noor also serves to make him a little more sympathetic than would the theft of any anonymous gem. In the film’s exposition cutaways to news coverage of the Koh-I-Noor’s theft, the Indian public expresses joy and a desire for the famous diamond’s return to its homeland.

Many artefacts in the institutions of former imperial powers–from the ‘Elgin marbles’ to totem poles–still hold sacred or cultural significance in their countries of origin. On a much smaller scale, the Huron County Museum has de-accessioned artefacts and repatriated them to neighbouring county museums if they were created in, or had a more meaningful value to those communities. In the context of international diplomacy though, repatriation can often be a fraught & controversial topic. There are actually multiple countries with a claim to the Koh-I-Noor, since Lahore is now located within the borders of modern Pakistan.

During a trade visit to India in 2013, English Prime Minister David Cameron refused to consider the Koh-I-Noor’s repatriation to Punjab, declaring that he didn’t believe in ‘returnism’: “if you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”  Cameron’s words succinctly capture why objects like the Koh-I-Noor remain potent symbols of deeper imperial legacies– of the exploitation of wealth and resources, and the collection of other cultures’ treasures for the edification of museum-goers.

I won’t spoil how the trajectory of the Koh-I-Noor’s theft ends in Bang Bang (you can see the finale for yourself in the museum theatre November 12th), but I ultimately found the twist resolution as strange and abrupt as was the diamond’s presence in this frivolous action film in the first place. The Koh-I-Noor’s starring role in the story speaks both to its continued notoriety, and the uneasy way it represents the colonial past and India’s present-day relationship with Britain. Of course, it’s also a pretty good excuse for shootouts and motorcycle chases.

*Duleep Singh, similarly to the diamond he owned, was exiled to England. The last Sikh Maharaja lived the life of an English gentleman with Queen Victoria’s favour, before unsuccessfully reviving his claims to his birthright later in life. Also like the Koh-I-Noor, there remains some contention  about his final resting place being England, rather than Punjab.


Further Reading

For  more about the Koh-I-Noor in the Great Exhibition see “Koh-i-Noor: Empire, Diamonds, and the Performance of British Material Culture,” by Danielle C. Kinsey, Journal of British Studies Vol. 48, No. 2, Special Issue on Material Culture (Apr., 2009), pp. 391-419 [available via Jstor].

The Huron County Museum’s first-ever Bollywood Movie Night happens Nov. 12th, 2015. Sweets, snacks and hot chai are available from 4 pm, with henna art offered by local artist David Godkine. The movie starts at 6:15 pm in the museum theatre.