The Don


An in-depth exploration of the Don Jail from its inception through jailbreaks and overcrowding to its eventual shuttering and rebirth.

Conceived as a “palace for prisoners,” the Don Jail never lived up to its promise. Although based on progressive nineteenth-century penal reform and architectural principles, the institution quickly deteriorated into a place of infamy where both inmates and staff were in constant danger of violence and death. Its mid-twentieth-century replacement, the New Don, soon became equally tainted.

Along with investigating the origins and evolution of Toronto’s infamous jail, The Don presents a kaleidoscope of memorable characters — inmates, guards, governors, murderous gangs, meddlesome politicians, harried architects, and even a pair of star-crossed lovers whose doomed romance unfolded in the shadow of the gallows.

This is the story of the Don’s tumultuous descent from palace to hellhole, its shuttering and lapse into decay, and its astonishing modern-day metamorphosis.


The Don is an impeccably researched, detailed account of the history of Toronto's infamous jail and its inhabitants - some of whom orchestrated the most famous escapes in Canadian history. Lorna Poplak has given us an immensely readable, engaging and entertaining look at a significant piece of Toronto's past. The book comes alive as it describes the good intentions that surrounded the building of the jail, such as the rehabilitation and redemption of the inmates, through to, and including, a candid description of the reality of its often inhumane, fetid and over-crowded conditions. This is a must read for those interested in Toronto's criminal justice history.

Sandra Kingston, former crown attorney

The Don is a breezily written book recommended for anyone interested in Toronto history, penology or criminology and a thoroughly well researched account of a jail which, in various states of repair and disrepair, housed tens of thousands of criminals and ne'er-do-wells in the Toronto area during its more than 150 years of existence. A must read for all true crime buffs!

James Dubro, author of Mob Rule and Dragons of Crime

Lorna Poplak has written a fascinating history about Toronto's most notorious jail. The Don is recommended reading for anyone interested in true-crime or the dark-side of Toronto history.

Nate Hendley, author of The Boy on the Bicycle: A Forgotten Case of Wrongful Conviction in Toronto

Lorna Poplak tells three stories in The Don: the history of Toronto's most famous/infamous prison; the evolving theories of incarceration and punishment through the jail's century-and-a-half life; and the shifting shape of the building and surrounding city. All well-told stories, populated by the extraordinary characters of jailors and jailed, hangmen and hanged, all confined within the long, grim history of the Don. A great read.

Joe Berridge, author of Perfect City

This book documents the history of the Don, but also the history of the city of Toronto and thinking around incarceration. An informative read.

Jennifer Hollett, Executive Director, The Walrus

Canadian history buffs will savor the arcane criminal lore gathered here.

Publishers Weekly

Poplak is right to dwell on the many indictments of jail conditions throughout this book.


Prodigiously researched.

Toronto Star

About the Author

Lorna Poplak

Posted by Dundurn Guest on June 28, 2016
Lorna Poplak photo

Lorna Poplak

Lorna Poplak is a writer, editor, and researcher, with a fascination for the stories behind the facts of Canadian history. She lives in Toronto.