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KELLUM (Killum, Killam), JOHN, labourer and criminal; b. c. 1840 in Halifax County, N.S., son of Charles Kellum; d. 26 Feb. 1905 in the Halifax poorhouse.

John Kellum was a black resident of underclass Halifax, where members of minority racial and ethnic groups struggled for survival and were largely denied the opportunity for a decent existence. Crime became a prominent feature of his life. As a teenager, in 1857 he served his first sentence, for assault, in the Halifax bridewell (workhouse), the institution that preceded the city prison of 1860. Between 1857 and 1903 he went to jail about a hundred times, usually for such offences as drunkenness, vagrancy, and larceny, and served sentences ranging from a few days to a year.

Kellum was only the most incorrigible of a group of closely related men and women that included his brothers Charles and Henry, his sisters Martha and Mary, and his kinsman George Deminas, all of whom spent more time in the prison and the poorhouse than at liberty. For the Kellums, access to the public carceral institutions was part of a strategy for survival. John Kellum first asked to be given a term in the new city prison, located at the Rockhead farm lands on the northern heights of the Halifax peninsula, in 1861. Such self-sentencing became a regular practice for the Kellum clan. In return for their bed and board during the difficult winter months, the male members of the family exercised their skills as whitewashers on city property. In the annals of the police court, the symbiotic relationship between the Kellums’ need for shelter and the city’s use of their services persisted during the last quarter of the 19th century.

Although incarceration seems singularly unattractive today, the Kellums did not see it as hardship or victimization. They and other repeat offenders of the period expected a certain minimum standard of accommodation and treatment behind bars. For example, in the winter of 1877–78, John Kellum and George Deminas found their quarters at Rockhead infested with rats. As a result, they decided to prepare for the next winter by “taking up a detachment of cats – about ten and deposited them in the yard of the prison.” On this occasion one reporter aped their dialect in stereotypical fashion: “They ’low dey isn’t gwine to be clawed up by no rats dis wintah.” That they preferred the primitive and restrictive conditions endured at Rockhead suggests the quality of their lives at large in the city must have been even worse. When one member of the family was visited by agents of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor in 1888, the hovel was described as filthy dirty, with holes in the ceiling and walls.

In such accommodations in the back lanes of Albemarle (Market), Grafton, City (Maynard), and Creighton streets, including the notorious “Shin-bone alley,” the Kellums, jailbirds included, banded together as best they could. Family relations were not always amicable however. In 1883 John Kellum described his sister-in-law’s hard-hearted demands for a contribution to his keep, and towards the end of the century he experienced frequent beatings by members of his family. On the other hand, there is ample evidence of loyalty and devotion at least among the members of John’s own generation. His brother Henry dissolved into tears and hysteria in 1895 over an unfounded rumour that John had been murdered in jail. The occasional rifts may have been generational, or they may have pitted the respectable Kellums against the rough ones. There is no way of knowing.

It is known that John Kellum commanded the respect of the police and prison authorities. Their opinion derived partly from his willingness to act as an informer, partly from the entertainment “with songs and jests” that he and his siblings provided in the police station lock-up, and partly from the responsible behaviour he exhibited at the prison. William Murray, the hard-nosed prison governor, eulogized Kellum at the end of his jail career in 1903 as “one of the most trustworthy men that has ever been at the prison. He never will attempt to escape and has frequently been given charge of one of the teams. He was a good worker, an artist with the white wash brush.”

In fact, for the last few years of his life, Kellum was unable to do much work. He performed a modicum of stone-breaking at the winter stone shed maintained by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. But when he collapsed on the prison farm in 1900, he was described as a sick man unable “to wield the white wash brush and man the plough.” Such occasional employments as acting as the target for hurled missiles at the Washburn circus in 1897 and such habits as intemperance aggravated his deteriorating condition. His poor health and frequent destitution had first gained him admission to the poorhouse in the 1880s, and for the last 20 years of his life he alternated between that institution and the prison, finally confirming the belief of the north-end city missionary that the benighted misfits of Halifax were “Raised in Rockhead” and “Died in the Poorhouse.”

Judith Fingard

John Kellum’s life is detailed in Judith Fingard, The dark side of life in Victorian Halifax (Halifax, 1989). Another source suggests that Kellum drowned in Halifax Harbour in March 1905 (Acadian Recorder, 7 March 1905). Given the difficulty of distinguishing between people of the same name, it is impossible to know which version of his death is the correct one.

PANS, RG 35-102, ser.33A, 20. Acadian Recorder, 1 July 1903. Evening Mail (Halifax), 20 Oct. 1900, 21 April 1903. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 16 Oct. 1878. Morning Herald (Halifax), 31 Jan. 1888. North End City Mission, Report (Halifax), 1896–97.

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Cite This Article

Judith Fingard, “KELLUM, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kellum_john_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kellum_john_13E.html
Author of Article:   Judith Fingard
Title of Article:   KELLUM, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 29, 2023