A continuing argument among professional historians concerns the value and place of statistical records and analysis. Most historians will use numbers in their work where they believe the figures aid explanation or analysis. There are some who try to base their studies to a major extent on numbers, using sophisticated statistical and mathematical analysis. At the other extreme are those historians who see history as a branch of literature, and eschew numbers altogether.
It is true that the eyes of many readers glaze over when they encounter numbers and dollar signs in a history article. Still, numbers can be useful both in raising questions and in explaining things in history. But it is always wise to remember that statistics can hide as much as they reveal.
Interesting sets of figures for Wellington County history are those contained in the reports of the county jail in Guelph, prepared each fall by Governor George Mercer for the provincial government. They give a snapshot of the jail population each year, and suggest many paths for further inquiry.
In the late 19th century, the provincial government required a report on the county jail population as of Sept. 30 each year, along with numbers for all those incarcerated during the previous year. County jails, in that period, housed prisoners that fell into several categories. Most were those convicted of minor crimes, and serving sentences of only a month or two. Smaller numbers of prisoners awaited transfer to provincial and federal jails. Another category consisted of those who were awaiting trial. And there were some prisoners who were not convicted of anything, but were in custody for mental problems because there was no other place to send them.
Mercer’s report for 1876 is a typical one for that decade. There were 16 prisoners in the jail at the start of that period, 11 men and five women. During the following year another 233 prisoners entered the jail – almost one per day. Of the new prisoners, 30 were women, or roughly one in eight.
That seems an exceptionally high number, since women are seldom the defendants in trials that received publicity. It is likely that most of the women were in jail simply because they could not, for whatever reason, support themselves. It is regrettable that the report does not provide information on those women. Their numbers are combined with those of the men in all categories.
By far the largest category of prisoners is that under the heading of “vagrancy.” Those account for 104 of the 249 prisoners in the county jail during the reporting period. Invariably, those vagrants were people found wandering about with no money or employment, or those found sleeping in an alley or barn.
It is hardly fair to class those people as criminals. More than a few undoubtedly had mental problems of some sort, and others were likely alcoholics incapable of retaining a job. Some were people who were simply down on their luck, with diminished prospects due to the economic depression in North America that began in 1872.
Second largest of the categories of convictions is that of disorderly conduct, accounting for 41 prisoners. A good portion of those people had been in fights in bar rooms. Others had lost their temper during drinking binges. Some of them had offered resistance when police constables tried to tell them to move on, or to arrest them for vagrancy.
Added together, those in jail for vagrancy and disorderly conduct account for 149 prisoners, close to 60% of those who passed through the jail door during the 1875-76 reporting year. Another eight prisoners were classed as “lunatics,” indicating that they had committed real crimes, but whose mental state was so obviously impaired that they were not convicted of their crimes. They were in jail simply because there was nowhere else to send them.
The figures for vagrancy would change significantly with the opening of the Wellington County House of Industry, between Elora and Fergus, a year after this report was filed. Vagrants, some of them quite elderly, tended to congregate in the larger centres, such as Guelph. Municipalities had to pay for the keep of the prisoners sent to jail from within their borders. Residents of the new House of Industry would be paid for by their home municipalities. Thus, the city of Guelph was much more enthusiastic about constructing the House of Industry than the rural townships. Politicians of that era had no shame in trying to pass those social responsibilities onto other jurisdictions in the name of lowering taxes for their municipalities.
The cost of the housing an inmate at the county jail amounted to 12 cents per day, plus the expenses of the building and the guards, of whom there appear to be four, in addition to governor Mercer. Defenders of the House of Industry promised that costs there would be less, because the institution would provide work for every resident capable of labour, the farming operations would provide much of the food, and there would be no need to employ guards.
The provincial government paid the costs of prisoners awaiting trial for serious offences, and of those who were convicted and awaited transfer to a reformatory or penitentiary. There were also four prisoners who were being held as witnesses for coming trials, apparently held because there were fears that they would flee the area.
Altogether, the province paid for roughly 20% of the prisoners, all of them men, and most awaiting trial. That suggests that women only rarely committed serious crimes in that period. Of the women, 26 of the total of 30 jailed during the year were serving their first term. Men were more likely to be returning guests of the county. There are no figures for the ages of the prisoners, other than the notation that five were under 16, four of them boys.
Larceny and theft convictions accounted for 23 of the prisoners, and assault for 15. Everything else numbered one or two prisoners, and the convictions covered a wide range of offenses: horse stealing, non-payment of taxes, selling without a licence, shooting to do bodily harm, threatening, obscene language, passing forged money, cruelty to animals, deserting employment, non-payment of debts, fraud, and forgery. There were also some morals convictions: three for attending a house of ill fame and two for operating such an establishment. It is an exceedingly short list, suggesting that Wellington County was extremely orderly and law abiding place in the 1870s.
But we must also remember that the rate of conviction was much lower then, due to the lack of a professional police officers other than the small, bumbling force in Guelph. And those convicted of very serious crimes were often moved directly to the penitentiary on conviction.
An interesting breakdown in the report shows the prison population by profession. Labourers, at 165, dominate the list, but there is a broad sprinkling of others, from a couple of doctors, to construction tradesmen, to farmers. The latter, at 14, are much under-represented, given that agriculture employed the majority of men in Wellington during the 1870s. The final breakdown divides the prisoners into temperate and intemperate categories. Prohibitionists always claimed that crime and drink invariably went together. The totals, though, show “supposed intemperates” at 122, and “temperate” at 111, close to an even split, and reflective of the general population as a whole.
Hours of time can be spent studying these reports and the numbers in them, comparing them from year to year, and contrasting Wellington with other counties. I will leave it on the table. Maybe a history student will pick it up for a research project.