JOHN EDWARD COLEMAN WAS 30 YEARS A JAILER (November 7/06)

I have an amusing story that involves John Edward Coleman the Kings County jailer through the early part of the last century.

One of my friends of many years is Gordon Hansford. Gordon and I played the bagpipes together socially and in various pipe bands for something like 30 years. Whenever I saw Gordon during those years I said to myself that he reminds me of my older brother. The resemblance was amazing, the mannerisms similar.

A few years ago Gordon mentioned that when his mother was a young woman, she occasionally visited her uncle John at the county jail. This stunned me for a moment. Then I realized that from what Gordon had said, his mother was a Coleman. My great uncle and her uncle, the jailer John Edward Coleman, were one and the same. This made Gordon and I cousins – or second cousins, I believe – and it explained why he reminded me so much of my brother.

Thanks to this pleasant discovery I was able to add to the lore I was collecting on the descendants of my great grandfather, Irish immigrant David Coleman. On one visit to her uncle at the jail, for example, Gordon’s mother asked him why he was so good to the men incarcerated there. “I have to be,” John the jailer replied. “So many of them are my relatives.”

I suppose this casts some of my Coleman ancestors in a rather dim light, but most of us have black sheep in the family anyway, so why should ours be different. Stories told in our family about my great grandfather and my grandfather indicate they both were typical Irishmen who carried large, precariously perched chips on their shoulders; undoubtedly a pugnacious attitude was passed on to their children and their children.

But back to Uncle John the jailer. He served as county jailer for at least 30 years at the jail in Kentville. Before he became jailer, John worked as a county constable for 25 years, a position reads his obituary “in which he was known as one of the best police officers (the) municipality ever had.” His 50 years as a county constable and jailer are a remarkable record.

Actually, he may have served longer than 50 years. Mabel Nichols writes in the Kentville history, The Devil’s Half Acre, that John was jailer from 1896 until 1928; more than 30 years, in other words. If his obituary is accurate, John was 93 on his death in 1931, indicating he served as a jailer until age 90. Something is undoubtedly wrong with this since I can’t see anyone performing the functions of a jailer at that advanced age.

When he was jailer, John would have seen a new jailhouse erected in 1907; he served under at least two Sheriffs, Stephen Belcher and Charles Frederick Rockwell. John was jailer when William Robinson was executed for murder in 1904, the last hanging in Kings County. John is almost forgotten today, but a derogatory song composed by some Gaspereau men called The Ballad of John Coleman’s Jail is still floating around out there in the countryside.

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