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In New Westminster, there’s a ‘forgotten’ cemetery where rest the souls of some ‘evil’ inmates

Click to play video: 'Metro Vancouver’s hidden cemetery' Metro Vancouver’s hidden cemetery
The cemetery where prisoners from New Westminster's notorious B.C. Penitentiary is still around, although most people don't know it exists. Paul Johnson reports – Jun 21, 2018

Many people who live in and around Glenbrook Ravine Park in New Westminster likely have no idea there’s a graveyard in their midst, where rest the bodies of more than 40 B.C. Penitentiary inmates.

Today, it’s a mostly residential area with houses built right up to the site of the former prison, with only a line of large hedges separating them from the graveyard area.

A file photo of the B.C. Penitentiary on Columbia Street in New Westminster being demolished, after more than 100 years as a prison.

The cemetery is small and it should be preserved in some way, said B.C. historian John Mitchell.

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“I’m quite conflicted. They are not good people, they are in some cases evil people so you can’t really commemorate it,” he said.

Mitchell researched the cemetery in the creation of an online video for his website, which profiles the history of various B.C. communities.

“I think it should be preserved in a state of arrested decay and what I mean by that is no monuments, just a fence, the grounds kept and the grave markers, which you can’t really say are headstones, but the grave markers could be stabilized,” he said.

There’s very little written information available about the graveyard, according to Mitchell, but it’s believed that one of the last guards who worked at B.C. Penitentiary witnessed his colleagues destroying a paper trail of records in a fire.

It’s possible that the guard decided to save a couple of the boxes, which would provide some insight into the people buried in the “forgotten” cemetery, Mitchell said.

“I doubt very much any of the family members have ever come there… it seems… most, even well-accepted family members, often do not get visitors past 10 years… and most of these would have been an embarrassment to the family and something to live down or hush up,” he added.

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Even though this box of information was preserved, it still doesn’t provide much detail about the inmates — like prison numbers, what they did, or who they were, and it’s only a very small portion of the overall record that once existed, according to Mitchell.

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“These people were not requested by their families so now you’re stuck with having to inter them,” he said.

“And you can’t inter them on hallowed ground because it may be the case now but it certainly wasn’t back then so they had to find a place to inter them so they went to the far reaches of the grounds they controlled and that was this little parcel of land up on Glenbrook Ravine Park.”

But some details about a few of the inmates still exist, he said.

“It’s kind of sad but the gentleman who was in for several charges for molestation of minors, I found it kind of odd that he fell off the back of a truck in the yard and died,” Mitchell said.

“You’ve got the bank robber types, you’ve got the people in for drug offences and stuff like that so they’re all in the upper echelon,” he added.

“The people who didn’t prey on the innocents and the people who did… nasty things happened to them from other inmates… from the little bit that we know, you have to read between the lines.”

Mitchell said one of the bodies buried there was a Vancouver Island First Nation man but others were sent from elsewhere in Canada.

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“There was a 19-year-old murder of a prison guard back in Ontario and just so that there wasn’t ongoing problems with him they sent him out to the B.C. pen to serve out his life sentence but of course he only did a couple years and then he decided to end his sentence himself and he was interred up there… and no members of their family claimed the body,” Mitchell said.

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There are 43 documented bodies in the cemetery but Mitchell said that number is likely much higher.

“Some people die in incarceration… some of them maybe were helped along with bad records, some maybe fell off the backs of trucks, some people were burnt… and they succumbed to that as well as natural causes,” Mitchell said.

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“So they just waited a little while and nobody comes to get the bodies then the inmates would make the coffins and put them together.”

The province’s penitentiary was built in 1878 in New Westminster, then B.C.’s capital, and this cemetery full of unmarked graves could just be one of many throughout B.C.

  • Video report by Paul Johnson 

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