A piece of Toronto's history was uncovered Tuesday morning at the site of the old Don Jail in Riverdale.
At about 11:30 a.m., work crews from Archaeological Services Inc. discovered five burial shafts and three skeletons five to six feet below a parking lot near Gerrard Street and Broadview Avenue.
Bridgepoint Health, the site's current owner, is having the archaeological assessment conducted as a part of the facility for chronic disease and disability's site redevelopment plans. The week-long excavation is part of a heritage agreement that Bridgepoint Health entered into when it purchased the property in 2002.
The Toronto Historic Don Jail, which is located next to the former Riverdale Hospital, will be preserved and reused as part of the new health-care facility. The old Don was operational from 1864 to 1977. The newer Don Jail adjacent to the historic building will be closed.
Bridgepoint Health has vowed to follow all protocols and procedures in dealing with this situation. Police, the coroner, the Ministry of Culture and the Registrar of Cemeteries Branch are all working on the investigation.
Not surprised by the findings, Bridgepoint Health CEO Marian Walsh noted that archival records indicated that a cemetery could be located near the old jail. The site of the discoveries is, in fact, a former cemetery for prisoners.
"It's not a major shock. We knew from historical records and information that it was quite possible there was a cemetery," she said.
Ron Williamson, the project's chief archaeologist, said that prior to starting the assessment, his crews already had an idea that graves could be in that vicinity.
"We identified the potential for human remains to be associated with the Don Jail," he said.
Regardless, Williamson said the discovery is still fascinating.
"It's a piece of history of society. Every society has criminals and in the 19th century, capital punishment is how they handled things," he said. "It's a very interesting story but certainly of that time. It's a piece of the story of the Don Jail."
Williamson, who estimates up to 11 bodies could be buried at that location, said the next step is to define the extent of the cemetery. "We have more investigation to do now."
Early estimates are that the remains are from the late 1800s or early 1900s when the jail's gallows were located slightly northeast of the building's wall. They were relocated inside in 1905.
The identities of the remains, which appear to have been buried in wooden caskets, and what crimes the deceased may have committed, is also being investigated. The only identification marker was that one skeleton had a crucifix around its neck. The skulls also had deep incisions from what appears to be cranial autopsies.
About two dozen people, including some of the city's most storied criminals, were hanged to death at the old Don Jail. The last two people executed in Canada, Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas, died there in December of 1962. The death penalty was formally abolished in Canada in 1976.
The hilltop site is home to two of Toronto's major public institutions; the former Riverdale hospital, which opened in 1860, and the old Don Jail, which opened in 1864.
"There is a lot of very significant history here," Walsh said, noting that a new road into the site would be located north of the cemetery location. "It's going from a place of incarceration to a place of innovation and health. Our goal is to disturb as little as possible."
Brigepoint Health will submit its final site plan for its redevelopment to the city at the end of October.
A film crew was also on site Wednesday capturing the findings for a documentary about Toronto's history titled The Dark Side of the Don.
The site of the discovery was filled in on Wednesday. A final resting place for the remains has yet to be determined, Walsh said.