Darkness on the Edge of Town

Kingston City Hall – August 2019

If you are ever heading east on the 401 for a fun road trip to Ottawa, Montreal or beyond, you may stop in this little city to stretch your legs. Situated on the mouth of the St. Lawrence and Cataraqui River, this city was once the United Province of Canada’s first capital. Due to the proximity of it to the United States, they had to go with plan B, Ottawa. While the town’s time as a capital was short, there is no shortage of history. Kingston has been around for a long time and has seen Canada through some of it’s greatest and not-so greatest events and periods. As a result of its long history, the town is full of hundreds of old buildings. Combine that with Kingston’s importance as a military installation and you have yourself a historic little town.

But that’s not the only thing Kingston is known for, clearly our proudest achievement is music! Kingston is the birthplace of The Tragically Hip, The Glorious Sons, The Headstones and Bryan Adams (yes, he was born here!). The town holds countless music festivals and concerts throughout the year to showcase Kingstonians’ talent. Much of the time, the community is in support of it, who doesn’t enjoy a nice summer afternoon by the water listening to music?

Well a recent concert planned in partnership with the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington has sparked controversy and discussion in the community.

A City of Firsts

Remember that long history I mentioned? Kingston has a lot of firsts, besides being the first capital, Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald called Kingston home, we are home of the oldest market in Ontario, The Kingston Public Market and Kingston is also home to the first large prison. [1]

Kingston Penitentiary, or as Kingstonians affectionately call it, KP, opened in 1835 and was open until its decommission in 2013. What does a 184 year old prison have to do with a concert? Well since there are large courtyards within the walls, what better venue than this historic penitentiary? Titled “Rockin’ the Big House” (another nickname KP has adopted over time), this was to be the ever public concert that took place at the Penitentiary. [2] the concert featured acts such as: The Headstones, The Trews, The Pursuit of Happiness, Kasador, and Tom Cochrane. [3]

Picture of the North Gate taken by me, logo belongs to United Way of KFL&A.

The concert was an effort to raise funds for the United Way KFL&A’s various programs including their youth homelessness program (which proceeds from the regular pen tour tickets already go to support). Out of the $350,000 raised, $200,000 will go toward this program. [4]

But even with this incredible donation to charity, does it justify holding a concert in a place where people suffered? That’s one of the questions that Linda Mussell, a PhD student at Queen’s University wondered. Her article “A prison is no place for a party“, takes a look at the ethical questions that arise from holding the concert at Kingston Penitentiary and also hosting the tours. I had the opportunity to speak with Linda about her article in my podcast “Rockin’ the Big House!” as a part of my digital public history class’ History Bytes podcast.

Take a listen! I haven’t used audacity that many times, so I am super proud of how this turned out!

I won’t go into extreme detail about it here, you can take a listen to my podcast to hear more. All I will mention is that this article caused a stir in the community with people on both sides of the issue voicing their opinions. Many people supported Linda, recognizing the validity of the points she made, but, on the other hand many Kingstonians were defensive the penitentiary in general. The word dark tourism was used in Linda’s article, but it was also thrown around by Kingstonians, whom, I feel didn’t truly understand what dark tourism was or didn’t acknowledge the real world implication that arise from it. For those who don’t know, Dark tourism was coined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley (unfortunately not that John Lennon) in 1996. As they defined it dark tourism is defined as tourism that is directed towards or profits from sites that are associated with suffering, death, or tragedy. [5] Some more well known sites that fit this definition are: the Auschwitz camps in Poland, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia. [6]

Not Alone

But let’s not point a sole finger at the penitentiary, it is not alone in Kingston’s supposed “dark tourist” label. While Kingston’s main tourism season takes place in the summer. The onslaught of new tourists attractions over the past 20 odd years has extended the tourism season well into fall. With fall comes my favourite holiday, Halloween! What better way to celebrate Halloween and get a good spook then by traversing through Fort Henry’s dry ditch while trying to avoid masked figures attempting to scare you, or having a cloaked figure lead you through Kingston’s downtown core at dusk, or what about visiting Sir. John A. MacDonald’s grave site at the Cataraqui Cemetary and how people were saved by the bell, or how about visiting a haunted asylum?

Just as there is good, Kingston has a lot of dark history that is slowly being uncovered and acknowledged. Since many humans have an innate and morbid curiosity, attractions such as the penitentiary tours, Haunted Walk, Fort Fright, and Trolley Tours (and its new Ghost and Mystery Tour) attract hundreds if not thousands of tourists and Kingstonians alike to explore and take part in this darker side of history.

In the conversation about ethics, attractions such as the Haunted Walk and Fort Fright are not at the top of the discussion list. There are ethical questions that can arise from the attractions, but overall they are more centered on superstition, supposedly haunted buildings and having actors scare you. The other attractions have the darker history center stage, no actors, no urban legends, real stories, about real people, real trauma and real suffering.

Now don’t get me wrong! I thoroughly enjoyed taking a Pen Tour, going on the Trolley and taking part in the Ghost and Mystery Tour. I don’t inherently think that these attractions have to be shut down and to let the buildings decay or be redeveloped into giant condos. On the contrary, I see the value that the tourist attractions have not just for Kingston’s economy, but also for the upkeep and keeping of these historic buildings. I’d be scared that if penitentiary tours stopped altogether, then re developers would be given a go ahead to tear it down. But since the building is still generating profits and being used, there is no need to tear it down and sell the land off. Of course, the issue isn’t as black and white as I might have made it out to seem, but, the central message is that the profits are to some extent keeping these buildings from being torn down in one way or another, if not at the very least for now.

Regardless, the ethics need to be addressed. Is it really appropriate to have an abandoned asylum that was still operational until 2000 on a ghost tour? [7] Rather than focusing on the suffering and trauma inflicted on patients that drove them to jump out of windows or down stairwells, should we be focusing on the lost souls who still wander the premise because they did such acts without acknowledging what led to these fateful decisions? Is it really a complete narrative of a penitentiary if we don’t include the voices and stories of those who were incarcerated there?

Even in just proposing these ethical questions, more ethical questions are brought up! Tour guides and those working with the penitentiary and Correctional Services Canada legally cannot talk about inmates who are still currently alive. [8] There are mentions of inmates throughout the penitentiary’s history, but there is also mention of past guards, wardens, workers and officers. There is an inherent difference in hearing someone’s personal story and experience just as the former guards and workers do currently and hearing about a person from long ago. The privacy acts bars guides from talking about still living former inmates without consent and that’s the key. If a former inmate consented, then guides would be allowed to speak about former inmates, which also means if former inmates consented they would be allowed to share their stories too. [9]

I understand that perhaps some former inmates would wish not to speak about their time in the penitentiary, it surely wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience, but there are some who would be willing. After talking with Linda, there do seem to be former inmates who are willing to speak or at the very least sit down with those that run the tour and provide insight, feedback and stories to create a more comprehensive narrative.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the end, that’s all we can really ask these tourist attractions to do. Just create a more comprehensive narrative so that all sides of the story can be heard, understood and enjoyed. I mean, its not as if the public don’t care about former inmates. When I went on the tour, a majority of the questions were about inmates, their routines, their struggles, their treatment, their living conditions etc. While there may have been some morbid curiosity about certain infamous inmates, many were general questions that a former inmate could easily provide answers too. The guides are knowledgeable, there is no denial there. But there is something more powerful about hearing these answers from someone who actually experienced the daily routine of KP life.

What about Rockwood Asylum then? Its a different case as no one is allowed to go in it like you do at the penitentiary, rather the asylum is featured on a ghost and mystery tour. While there is acknowledgement about the harsh treatment patients faced, it is sensationalized to some extent as just a haunted building where lonely souls walk the corridors trying to scare onlookers.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, I don’t think anyone does. There are pros and cons to both sides of these dark tourist sites and no single answer is correct. That is whats tricky about these situations, everyone has an opinion. In my opinion, the best way to navigate these issues is to first, recognize that Kingston is profiting/advertising/pushing (honestly substitute whichever word you see fit here) off of these sites and by definition that’s dark tourism. Secondly, understand that dark tourism as a label isn’t inherently negative, sure it can be problematic, but let’s call it what it is, its dark tourism. Lastly we need to start having open discussions about these sites, listening to all sides. I am not saying we have to lock ourselves in a room until we agree, but just talking openly, without harsh judgement from any one side, will help in the long run.

Places like the KP and Rockwood can be educational, just as Auschwitz is. We just need to ensure that we aren’t sensationalizing the trauma that occurred there and the suffering of real people (some of whom are still alive). As complicated as it can be to create a comprehensive narrative, we need to try. Discussion is the first step to understanding, to healing and to success.

I hope those who I have had the honour and pleasure to meet that work at and with these sites know that I am not coming from a place of judgment or critique, I am coming from a place of love. Its because I love the people working there, love the sites and the history that I want it to continuously improve, become better and stronger and more comprehensive. I care about these sites, the people who were affected by them, and the people who work at them and I just wanted to make that clear.

Some of Kingston’s Haunted Spaces & Tourist Attractions

Catch you on the dark side,

Picture of me getting ready for a shift at Fort Fright. October 2018.

~ Kat

P.S I have to give credit where credit is due and while I do pride myself on catchy titles this song inspired the title. It has nothing to do with dark tourism, but I couldn’t help myself. I thought it was a pretty catchy title.

Bibliography & Resources


“Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane Kingston Ontario Urban Exploring.” FREAKTOGRAPHY, n.d. https://www.freaktography.com/rockwood-asylum-for-the-criminally-insane-kingston-ontario-urban-exploring/.

“Rockin the Big House.” United Way of KFL&A, n.d. https://www.unitedwaykfla.ca/rockin-the-big-house/.

“Our History.” VisitKingston, n.d. https://www.visitkingston.ca/see-do/our-history/.

Correctional Service of Canada, Communications. “Frequently Asked Questions – Correctional Service Canada.” Government of Canada, Correctional Service of Canada, Communications and Citizen Engagement Sector, Media Relations, Director, November 13, 2018. https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/media-room/009-0002-eng.shtml.

Dark Tourism in Macmillan Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/dark-tourism

Mazur, Alexandra. “Rockin’ the Big House Concert at Kingston Penitentiary Raises $365K.” Global News, September 26, 2019. https://globalnews.ca/news/5954723/rockin-the-big-house-kingston-penitentiary/?fbclid=IwAR306ZjetJupkHAW55EDRIXSupEutJWSFb2Ettj7pehjwVAmnf8rlvFgBsA.

Tolentino, Christian. “Dark Tourism: The Destinations We Don’t Talk About.” Travel Daily, September 4, 2018. https://www.traveldailymedia.com/dark-tourism/.


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