George Brown’s (1818-1880) Story

Originally posted: August 15, 2017

Written by Patrick Cieslar

George Brown (1818-1880) was a parliamentarian, entrepreneur, founder of The Globe newspaper, and a father of Confederation. He was a champion of the fundamental democratic principles of representation by population and the separation of church and state. He was a leading figure in preventing the annexation of Canada by the United States. An ardent abolitionist, he enthusiastically supported the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada and the Elgin settlement, a large tract of land in Kent county established to provide sanctuary for those fleeing from slavery in the US. He advocated for extension of the suffrage. His insatiable longing for justice and his solidarity with the dispossessed fueled his trademark fiery editorials and catapulted The Globe to capture a massive readership.

In 1848, George Brown was called upon to lead a commission into alleged abuses at the Kingston penitentiary. He laboured unflaggingly in his investigations and produced a massive series of reports publicly chronicling conditions of far-reaching “oppressive inhumanity.” The reports described widespread gross negligence, corruption, constant starvation of inmates, and continuous, almost unimaginable brutality under the sadistically incompetent command of the Warden Henry Smith. Inmates were subject to lashings for days on end, with no chance for their wounds to heal. They were tortured by solitary confinement and “the box” – essentially a coffin for the living.

The Penitentiary logged its own arbitrarily administered cruelty in its “Book of Punishments” which was made public through George Brown’s commission. Some excerpts include:

  • “Laughing and talking – 6 lashes cat  [o’ nine tails].”
  • “Talking to Convict behind him at breakfast – 6 raw-hide [lashings], and bread and water.”
  • “Finding fault with rations when desired by Guard to sit down – 12 cats.”
  • “Shouting in his cell – box”
  • “Taking Convict’s spectacles off nose – putting them on – staring about and laughing – box and bread and water.”

George Brown meticulously catalogued the horrors inflicted on inmates and the crimes of the corrupt Warden Henry Smith. Brown’s report shows that the year 1847 saw 759 uses of the box at Kingston pen. In 1846, inmates received a total of 2032 raw-hide lashings.

In his report, George Brown wrote that: “As many as twenty, thirty, and even forty men, have been flogged in one morning, the majority of them for offences of the most trifling character; and the truth of complaint resting solely on the word of a Guard or Keeper. […] To see crowds of full grown men, day after day, and year after year, stripped and lashed in the presence of four or five hundred persons, because they whispered to their neighbour, or lifted their eyes to the face of a passer-by, or laughed at some passing occurrence, must have obliterated from the minds of the unhappy men all perception of moral guilt, and thoroughly brutalized all their feelings. […] Little good can be obtained by degrading a man in his own estimation or in that of others. Convicts have the same feelings as other men.”

Particularly horrifying were the brutal punishments meted out to child inmates. 8 year-old Antoine Beauché was subjected to 365 lashings during his three-year sentence, 10 year-old Peter Charbonneau to over 400 lashings, and 11 year-old Alexis Lafleur to more than 550 lashings. These boys were also subjected to a bread and water diet, solitary confinement, and locked inside the box. Their supposed high crimes ranged from “talking,” “talking at chapel,” “talking French,” “singing,” “talking and laughing,” “whistling,” “laughing, making faces,” “dancing,” “leaving his book in the rain,” “staring,” “turning round at table,” “winking,” and most egregious of all: “giving away ration.”

George Brown did not mince words: “It is horrifying to think of a child […] being lacerated with the lash before 500 grown men; to say nothing of the cruelty, the effect of such a scene, so often repeated, must have been to the last degree brutalizing. […] We can only regard this as a case of barbarity, disgraceful to humanity.”

But the medieval physical abuse of children was greeted by some particularly despicable types with a mixture of repugnant indifference, wilful blindness, and vile eagerness. Accordingly, Brown dutifully recorded the self-serving testimony of the spineless sycophants who flocked to Warden Smith’s (and the Penitentiary’s) defense:

“Convict Parker says, the Convicts generally think ‘the punishments moderate.’ Keeper Manuel says, ‘the Warden did not punish the Convicts severely enough, even at the time the punishments were most severe.’ […] Mrs. Martin says, the women flogged ‘were very good afterwards;’ and she heard one of them (Miron) say, ‘God bless the Warden, he has made me a good girl for flogging me. […] Sheriff Corbett ‘Thinks the Warden would not ill-treat the Convicts in any way whatever.’ ”

Of course, true to form, the Conservative old boys’ club led by Attorney General of Upper Canada John A. Macdonald, enraged for the perceived affront to their cherished friend Warden Smith, also rallied around the inept and malevolent administrator. In a classic victim-perpetrator inversion scheme, the Tories wholeheartedly defended Smith’s reputation while further jeopardizing the most basic safety and humanity of his powerless (and sometimes extremely young) victims.

The prison doctor at Kingston pen had tried in vain many times before to alert authorities to the vicious abuse of prisoners occurring under Warden Smith’s enthusiastically complicit watch. But layer after layer of callous bureaucrats and high-ranking officials had chosen to simply bury their heads in the sand and deliberately ignore the problem.

In an act of revenge, Smith launched a reckless attack on Dr. Sampson with horrifically slanderous (and entirely concocted) allegations. Those allegations would be later exposed as the baseless fabrications of a Machiavellian petty tyrant. The vindicated – albeit deeply shaken – Dr. Sampson would go on to become the first Dean of Queen’s Medical School and the founder of Kingston General Hospital.

Those who provided George Brown’s commission with testimony against Henry Smith quickly found themselves on the receiving end of the warden’s unscrupulous retributions. Guards who spoke out against Smith were tormented and fired.

With mountains of widely corroborating evidence pointing against Henry Smith, carefully compiled with painstaking precision by Secretary of the Commission George Brown, the corrupt and disgraced warden was at long last terminated from his position for his flagrant, far-reaching, disastrous incompetence and misconduct.

A tireless advocate of human rights a full century before the United Nations would emerge and set forth its Universal Declaration, George Brown produced a comprehensive list of recommendations for prison reform that proved well ahead of its time.

In retribution, a shrill and rabid John A. Macdonald would years later let loose a volley of malicious and violent personal attacks against Brown much to the aghast horror of Parliament. In the words of the February 27, 1856 edition of The Globe: “Description would fail us to convey an idea of the ferocious language employed by the learned gentleman. He absolutely raved.” Macdonald railed in a frenzy against George Brown, accusing him of falsifying testimony and suborning witnesses. The Solicitor General (also the son of Warden Smith) then “rose in a violent rage and roared across the table the most insulting language at Mr. Brown. The Speaker peremptorily called Mr. Smith to order and compelled him to apologise for his brutal language.”

Unshaken in his convictions, Brown stated that the accusations had not “a vestige of truth in them” and called for an inquiry on the spot. Over the course of several months, the inquiry exposed every one of Macdonald’s attacks to be utterly without merit. One of Macdonald’s defamatory accusations even turned out to be a complete physical impossibility, given that Brown was touring foreign penitentiaries hundreds of miles away at the time Macdonald’s unfounded charges were alleged to have occurred. Brown was exonerated, but Macdonald never did have the decency to retract his vicious and meritless tirade against Brown.

Brown’s staggeringly exhaustive and important work, in the face of powerful and underhanded adversaries, dismantled an incompetent, corrupt and malevolently cruel administration at the Kingston Penitentiary in the mid-1800s. His voluminous recommendations would help to lift the Canadian prison system out of a barbarity reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

A prolific journalist and celebrated father of Confederation, George Brown’s courageous and visionary struggles laid the foundation for many of the more enlightened aspects of the Canada we know today. At both Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill, his statue stands tall as a reminder of the power of the written word in the struggle for a compassionate, inclusive nation and in the advancement of peaceful, humane reform.

Were he alive today, I believe George Brown would carry a tremendously fond admiration for the many students who have bravely come forward to share their stories over the years. They are the true torch-bearers of his legacy.

I can only imagine what choice words would roar from his mighty printing press against the college and the theatre school that now so incongruously and undeservingly bear his name.




Careless, James Maurice S. Brown of the Globe, Volume One. Toronto: Macmillan, 1959.

Careless, James Maurice S. Brown of the Globe, Volume Two. Toronto: Macmillan, 1963.

“The House Last Night.” The Globe. February 27, 1856.

Reports of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Conduct, Discipline, & Management of the Provincial Penitentiary. Montreal: Rollo Campbell, 1849.