LOOKING BACK – JOHN COLEMAN’S JAIL (August 21/98)

In her book, The Devil’s Half Acre, Mabel Nichols, noted that my great uncle, John Coleman, was the Kings County jailer from 1896 to 1928, a period of 32 years.

While there is a contradiction in his obituary, which said he was the jailer for 30 years, there is little doubt that John Coleman served in this capacity for at least three decades. Before he became the jailer, Coleman worked as a Kings County constable for 25 years; he was employed in law enforcement or some aspect of it in the County for over half a century.

Imagine the tales John Coleman could have told about his half century of observing the lower levels of Kings County society. The drunks, rabble-rousers, tramps, layabouts, cheats, swindlers, murderers and miscreants of all types would at one time or another have passed through his jail. Coleman ran the jail during the last execution in Kings County, the Robinson murder case in 1904.

Over his long term, when he associated with people who for the most part were unwilling tenants of his establishment, it’s natural that John Coleman would be unpopular and perhaps even hated. I expected to unearth a few tales about an iron man with an iron, oft-used fist when I decided to look for details of his employment at the jail.

I found nothing of the sort. In his day, John Coleman was known for his hospitality and kindness. No one was turned away if they need a meal or a place to sleep overnight. His wife’s cooking was famous throughout the county, testimony perhaps that more than the criminal element sat at his table.

John Coleman’s obituary spoke of him being “one of the best police officers this municipality ever had.” Born in Hall’s Harbor and only one generation removed from Ireland, Coleman served as jailer under five different Sheriffs – John Coldwell, Stephen Belcher, Charles Rockwell, Fred Porter and J. D. Dewolfe; he retired three years before he died at age 93. His longevity and the fact that he served as jailer several decades after normal retirement age, speaks volumes about the service he gave.

Over the years I’ve heard many stories about John Coleman’s jail and most spoke of him being compassionate and humane. There was even a ballad written about the jail as it was in Coleman’s time but all that’s remembered of it today are a few lines.

Retired Kentville school teacher, Gordon Hansford, is a descendant of John Coleman through his mother. He recalls one of the stories his mother told him about visiting her Uncle John at the jail. Hansford’s father and mother walked from Wolfville on a Sunday afternoon in 1922 and were met with open arms.

“John was overjoyed to see my mother and father and Aunt Jenny (John’s wife) soon had the tea kettle on and a fine spread of goodies. Jenny was renowned as one of the finest cooks in Kentville. The inmates of the jail ate well and it was said that John Coleman’s jail was ‘the best restaurant in Kentville.’

“John had a great sense of humor and despite his official position as jailer, was very kindly to all. When asked why he was so kind to prisoners, he used to say, ‘I’ve got to be; half of them are relatives of mine’.”

After a brief illness, John Coleman passed away at his home on Brooklyn Street on Christmas morning, 1931. He was survived by Jenny, three sons, and six daughters. One of his daughters was the late Jenny Skaling, the wife of Elmer, who for many years operated one of Kentville’s best-known eateries, Elmer’s Lunch.

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