1952 Goderich jailbreak overshadowed by Toronto’s Don Jail breakout

Seventy years ago, in the same year as the famous jailbreak from Toronto’s Don Jail, the Goderich Gaol had two inmates escape.

The escape from the Toronto jail in the fall of 1952 saw four incarcerated members of the Boyd Gang, notorious for robbing banks across the city, cut bars from their cell doors during the guard’s shift change. This was the second jailbreak by Boyd Gang members in under a year.

The events that followed, including mantraps throughout the city and a $26,000 reward issued by the Mayor of Toronto, was reported by many newspapers across the nation, the Wingham Advance Times included.

Ironically, CBC Toronto had just begun regular television programming the same night as the jailbreak. From my experience in the news industry, often newsrooms joke about orchestrating major events to create interesting content for the newspaper. To the best of my knowledge this has never actually happened. At least not in any newsroom that I have worked in, but this coincidence is too hard to ignore.

I can only imagine the jokes and comments from those behind the cameras. Talk about starting your career off with a bang.

Funny enough, this urban story has many similarities to the Goderich jailbreak, which happened four months before.

Monday, May 19, 1952 was a warm spring day, with a gentle breeze coming from Lake Huron through the Town of Goderich. It was a perfect day for James Palmer and Joseph Ferguson to escape from their cells at the Goderich Gaol.

The men were described as wearing white pullovers and blue dungarees. Palmer, 27, was five feet nine inches and weighed 145 lb., had reddish-brown hair and reddish complexion. Ferguson, 30, was five feet two inches and weighed 110 lb.

The two men, both originally from London, Ont., proceeded south once they exited the jail Monday afternoon.

The May 21, 1952 issue of the Wingham Advance Times reported that provincial police were checking all persons on foot along the highways in the region.

It was also reported that the day after the breakout, a 1947 Studebaker model pickup truck had been stolen in Goderich Township, and it was believed the pair of outlaws were responsible for the theft.

When I was researching these events I couldn’t deny the image in my mind of scenes from the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.

Similar to the Toronto jailbreak, the criminals were found hiding in the country.

After two days of searching for the Goderich runaways, police were informed that the duo was spotted at a vacant farmhouse located at the corner of Wonderland Sideroad and No. 2 Concession, Westminster Township, which is presently in the boundary of the City of London.

The two fugitives were spotted in their prison uniforms, however they changed into what was dubbed “civvies” by local journalists reporting on the events as they happened.

It was reported in the Clinton News-Record on May 22, 1952 that the provincial police enlisted a posse of 20 citizens to assist in the capturing of the two lawbreakers.

The manhunt lasted three hours, and it was said it resembled a ‘jackrabbit drive.’

The two men were trapped in six square miles of farmland that consisted of marsh and bush. The capture took place on the Ivan Bilyea farm, two miles north of Lambeth.

The Windsor Daily Star reported on May 30, 1952 that the two Londoners were sentenced to six months reformatory for escaping lawful custody.

The men were serving terms of two years less one day definite, and 18 months indefinite for break and enter and theft at a service station.

In regards to how the two men escaped, my research has come up short. Did they cut the bars of their cell doors, like the Boyd gang members did? Or perhaps they used force to get past a guard while the cell door was open? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

My research into this story has consisted of reading archived newspapers, a pastime I have recently picked up. So my story, 70 years later, is only based off of what was public knowledge at that time.

As much as journalists try to tell the whole story, our stories are only as descriptive as our sources are. Or as descriptive as they are able to be.

With this in mind, it makes sense that the exact way these men managed to escape from a prison has not been documented. I imagine the police of this time didn’t want just anyone to know how to break out of prison.

In an article outlining the Goderich Gaol as a tourist attraction from the Sept. 21, 1977 issue of the Zurich Citizen News, the walls of the facility were described as two-feet thick with rock originally quarried from Maitland River.

“The octagonal building allowed the jailer to oversee at a glance all activity on one level in each of the wings by walking around the central portion.

“There were few escapades, but it is known that at least one prisoner managed to scale the walls with the aid of the table and several chairs stacked one on top of the other.”

At the time of the breakout, Mr. James Reynold was the jailer, but soon after in 1968 the Ministry of Correctional Services took over the administration of all prison institutions in the province.

The Goderich Gaol housed prisoners until 1972.


Kelsey Bent is a Midwestern Newspapers Corp. journalist and can be reached for comments by emailing kbent@midwesternnewspapers.com.