Lorna Poplak's New Book The Don: The Story of Toronto's Infamous Jail
Welcome to Canadian non-fiction author, Lorna Poplak!
I had the pleasure of meeting Lorna through Crime Writers of Canada and hearing all about her great books. If you're a history buff or just have a love for the macabre, be sure to check them out!
Lorna Poplak is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and researcher drawn to the people and stories behind historical facts. Lorna’s background is in law, literature, information technology, and technical communications. Her written work includes medical and scientific articles, travel pieces, children’s literature, blog posts, and a radio play. Lorna is a member of Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters in Crime. She has had two non-fiction books published by Dundurn Press: Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada in July 2017, and The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail in January 2021.
What sort of research do you do for your work?
Research is the lifeblood of any nonfiction writer. As I work, I comb through the more traditional sources, which in my case include government documents, books, articles, and audio and visual materials. With my first book, Drop Dead, which was purely historical, I found another very rich vein of material: archival newspapers. Before the advent of newer media such as radio and television, people relied on print media for reports of local and global events. Good news for the modern researcher is that many of these papers are now available online, and I have on so many occasions burned the midnight oil looking for that last critical piece of the jigsaw puzzle! With The Don, I came across another equally fascinating source of info and local colour: interviews with architects, former jail officials and city authorities, and even inmates who did their time in Toronto’s notorious jail.
I read nonfiction for research purposes — and for pleasure! At the moment, I’m dipping into two recent Canadian books. The first is Nate Hendley’s The Boy on the Bicycle, which unearths the largely forgotten case in the 1950s of Ron Moffatt, a Toronto boy wrongfully convicted of murder. The second is Bush Runner, which follows the rollicking adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson. Author Mark Bourrie describes the 17th century pioneer as “an eager hustler with no known scruples.” I also consume loads of fiction. One of my particular favourites is News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it describes the tortuous journey of a grizzled war veteran turned ambulant news reader to reunite a young hostage with her family. The book is a wonderful combination of meticulous research, engaging characters, and a gripping plot — all woven together with brilliant and evocative prose.
I have always read broadly — classic and modern fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, and even children’s literature. I am constantly coming across inspired and inspiring authors. I would be hard pressed to limit the list to a single name.
Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
My reply to this question is entirely predictable! I remember with great fondness a language teacher in my last year of high school. She told me I had potential and encouraged me to write with honesty and passion.
THE DON: THE STORY OF TORONTO’S INFAMOUS JAIL
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 ill-fated 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.
DROP DEAD: A HORRIBLE HISTORY OF HANGING IN CANADA
Take a journey through notable cases in Canada’s criminal justice history, featuring well-known and some lesser-known figures from the past. You'll meet Arthur Ellis, Canada’s most famous hangman, whose work outfit was a frock coat and striped trousers, often with a flower pinned to his lapel. Other memorable characters include the man who was hanged twice and the gun-toting bootlegger who was the only woman every executed in Alberta.
Drop Dead illustrates how trial, sentencing, and punishment operated in Canada’s first century, and examines the relevance of capital punishment today. Along the way, the book presents the mathematics and physics behind hangings, as well as disturbing stories of bungled executions and wrongful convictions.