Whitby’s Centennial Building still courts ghostly legends

JaneAnn Fraser Tillson couldn’t tell you how many times her father, Al Fraser, would walk up to the Centennial Building in Whitby, Ont. to make sure there wasn’t anything unlawful going on.

But it was a regular occurrence. 

Back then, the lights of the classical revival courthouse, constructed from 1852 to 1854, would turn on by themselves from room to room, and they were so brilliant that many thought the building was on fire.

“It got to the point that people in our neighbourhood wouldn’t report it anymore because they knew it was the spirits walking around doing whatever,” she recalled.

Doors would slam “really loud” and at 10 p.m., when everyone was winding down for sleep, residents would hear a woman crying.

“My dad would run out, thinking someone was in trouble,” she said. “That was just the guy he was.”

Back when Fraser Tillson was born, Whitby’s Centennial Building, located at the southeast corner of Centre Street South and Ontario Street West was still the county courthouse. It wouldn’t get its modern name, and community centre role, until Canada’s centennial year, 1967.

But it was a constant source of intrigue for children in the neighbourhood, as they would often play fear-factor games on the grounds. One included attempting to open the doors that would often unlock and lock unpredictably.

“You could open the door and then literally, the door wouldn’t open,” she recalled. “We could hear the lock turn.”

Before the two-storey apartment building at 409 Centre Street South was built, there was a wooded area that children called “The Forest”.

Fraser Tillson and her friends would hang out there and try to listen to the crying lady.

In the back of the building though, there used to be a mudroom which connected the Ontario County Jail, demolished in 1960, to the courthouse.

This area was verboten according to Fraser Tillson’s father.

Naturally, the kids skirted the warnings of the parents and gravitated to the vestibule. And like any ghost story featuring kids, a Stephen King trope, someone got hurt.

“I can’t remember his name, but one of the boys in the neighbourhood, he went and he opened the door,” Fraser Tillson said. “He was laughing while doing it, saying, ‘It’s okay, I don’t know why they tell us we can’t do it.”

Slam. The door ended up closing on its own over the taunting child’s hand. 

“He was crying and we had to take him home to mom,” she recalled.

Fraser Tillson moved away from the neighhourhood when she was 20. She now calls Orono, Ont. Home, and hadn’t thought about her experiences at the Centennial Building until asked.

“I grew up with it, so to us it was normal,” she said.

Being a Part of History

Frederic Cumberland and William Storm
designed the classical revival building
that resides on Whitby’s Centre Street.

Brian Winter is a fixture in Whitby history. He’s loved history since he was 13, collecting stories about the area around him.

That passion led him to become the Town of Whitby’s archivist from 1968 to 2012.

The 71-year-old was summering in Florida but shared his knowledge about Whitby’s most well-known haunt during a phone conversation.

Winter shared a few stories that come from the theatre portion of the Centennial Building. It’s also been noted that in 1988, psychics visited the building and uncovered a few more details that weren’t known about the building.

But in the annals that Winter has compiled through close to five decades of work, he has not uncovered any proof that the following has happened.

Through word-of-mouth, the story goes that a man was on trial for a serious crime. Assumptions point to rape or something on a level with that charge. When the judge announced a guilty verdict, it was either his father or uncle, who had been pacing on the women’s balcony at the back, who came to the edge and shouted, “You must right the wrong”.

He fell off the balcony and was killed.

“There are stories of people seeing a figure in Victorian costume walking out the sidewall of the building of the courtroom,” Winter said.

Winter added one of the caretakers back in 1971 said that his dog used to sniff around the door to the balcony, wagging its tail.

“I was very interested in what was on the other side of the door,” Winter shared. “(The caretaker) figured that it was the ghost that was stimulating the dog.”

At one point in Winter’s career, his office was located in the Centennial Building, but he did not have access to the courtroom to investigate any alleged incidents.

And he never did have any inexplicable experiences within the building.

There are plenty of dark moments from the Durham Region’s past, especially during the days of the Ontario County Jail.

That building was right behind the Centennial Building, and off to the north side, closer to Gilbert Street West. After its demolition in 1960, it became part of the Centennial Building’s parking lot. A replacement jail on Victoria Street was built in 1958. The Ontario County Registry building, which also resides on the same parcel of land, remains, although it has had a few additions over the years.

Back to the jail, there were two hangings on the property from 1853 to 1960.

The first was for murder in Uxbridge. Archibald McLaughlin was hanged outside on July 13, 1910. He had a “lady friend on the side” and wanted to run away with her.

Married, the 27-year-old decided to poison his wife and two children and then set fire to the house. His arson skills were lacking and the coroner was able to determine that the family had been fed strychnine.

The sentencing came down on May 20, 1910, according to a Feb. 10, 1972, Whitby Free Press article.

“Archibald McLaughlin, the sentence of this court is that you shall be taken from here to the common jail, whence you came, there to remain until the 13th day of July, when you will be hanged by the neck until dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul,” Judge Teetzel said.

The second hanging occurred during the winter, Dec. 10, 1946, and it involved another love triangle. George Bilton of Ajax took his lover and her four-year-old daughter out into a field and struck them both with a stone.

Judge J. Keiller Mackay sentenced the 26-year-old to death by hanging on Sept. 24, 1946.

“I remember when they tore down the jail, I saw the trap door for where they would do the hanging,” Winter recalled.

Though there are no ghostly tales associated with the two men of dubious distinction, legends abound from locals.

All the World’s a Stage

“You must right the wrong” is a line
uttered by an alleged spirit in the
courtroom of Whitby’s Centennial

The Whitby Courthouse Theatre has called the old courtroom home since its transformation into a community centre in 1967.

A visit to their website will yield a few little nuggets about the renovations to the courtroom, including the construction of a stage, but no seating.

The Town of Whitby agreed to use the boxwood chairs that were in the rooms throughout the building. Five-pound jam tins were used as makeshift lamp sockets until the group “could afford proper equipment”.

Office manager Deb Smith was aware of the stories associated with the building but admitted she has never experienced anything uncanny, save for the creature creeps the building has to offer. 

“I’ve worked here multiple nights and it does have the creepy factor to the atmosphere,” she said, in a phone interview. “Most people don’t like to work here late at night on their own because it’s an old building.”

Outside of the usual conjuring up characters on stage, the Centennial Building plays host to nuptials, banquets, conferences, and sports league meetings.

So, it’s alive with some activity, but perhaps not of the spectral variety.

Editor’s note: Anyone with further stories to share about this haunting, or others, please feel to contact us. We want to hear from you.

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