Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Key to a Canadian Dungeon

Hi, friends!

Welcome back to the Key Room blog. I’m here once again to bring you the virtual key room experience, so get ready for an exciting historical journey.

Today’s key is one that I picked out of our International section which hosts keys from all around the world, but this one in particular only requires a short visit to our Northern neighbor. It comes from Newfoundland, the easternmost province of Canada, but since the key dates back to 1741 let’s just call it one obscure portion of the British Empire. Back when Britain’s American colonies were growing rapidly and nearing the door of independence, Newfoundland was barely a blip on the British radar. It was used only as a fishing port until it was organized into an official colony in 1825, and until then the British crown discouraged permanent settlement there. Still, settlers found ways of keeping order in their distant colony, and the key I’ll show you today is a relic of Newfoundland’s very early justice system.

It unlocked the door to a dungeon in the basement of the Court of Oyer and Terminer in the settlement of Harbour Grace. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was distinct from other courthouses in the province because it was specifically used to deal with capital crimes and the most serious offenses. Any crime apart from treason could be tried and decided there. The court officials and judges in charge of sentencing those convicted were often naval officers since during this time Newfoundland was governed primarily by the navy. As the 18th century progress, Newfoundland’s civil government grew and non-military governors were instituted, but in 1741 there were still few of those in place. Generally, this time period in Newfoundland is regarded as fairly lawless and marked by conflict, and maybe the presence of a dungeon in the basement of the courthouse for capital crimes is an indicator of how criminals were dealt with in the early days of the colony. There is plenty to be left to the imagination, but this key is a pretty exciting piece of history to have here in Estes Park and brings us back to a much less institutionalized world.

On your next visit to the Key Room, come see all our keys from around the world, and you’ll find even more stories from distant cultures and eras. It’s even more fun in person.

Goodbye for now,

Key Room Museum Curator