The Andrew Mercer Reformatory in Toronto, Library and Archives Canada




Stay tuned as this website updates and the Criminalized and Incarcerated Project (CIP) develops.

History - "House of Horrors"

Sourced from page 60 of the memoir Incorrigible by Velma Demerson who was incarcerated at the Mercer in 1939 for being in an inter-racial relationship. 

The Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women (1880-1969) and Industrial Refuge for Girls (1880-1905) was the first all women’s prison in Canada. For nearly a century, this house of horrors saw over 20,000 women walk through its doors. Philanthropic groups, religious representatives, social work organizations, and public health organizations colluded with provincial and federal legal systems to remove from society, through incarceration, women and girls deemed “morally and socially” unacceptable.


Over its 90 years in operation, Mercer was the center of numerous controversies, including, but not limited to, riots, escapes, experimental medical and drug procedures, torture, and unjust incarcerations under the Female Refuges Act. Many women and girls were mothers, or pregnant, when they were criminalized and confined within Mercer. Evidence shows that people born at the Mercer Reformatory (the Mercer babies), many later adopted, are not aware of their beginnings; nor are their descendants.   Children and infants were often permanently separated from their mothers, leaving a lasting legacy and enduring trauma.

Other confined institutions in Ontario


The main focus of this project is the Andrew Mercer Reformatory, which incarcerated more women and girls in Ontario than the other institutions.  However, women and girls incarcerated at Mercer were often transferred to or from these other institutions. Below is a partial list of historical carceral institutions and places of regulation for women and girls in Ontario.


1.     Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women

2.     Industrial Refuge for Girls (wing in Mercer)

3.      Industrial Refuge (Magdalen Asylums)

4.     Jail Farm for Women Concord

5.      Industrial Schools (Ontario Training Schools)

6.      Ontario Hospitals (Asylums)

7.      Local Gaols

8.      Prisoners’ Aid Association / Girls Homes

9.      Pregnant CAS Wards / Maternity Homes & Mercer

10.  House of Industry and Refuge (Work House)

11.  Home for Friendless Women


More on the Home for Friendless Women here: No Longer Forgotten or Friendless: A history of Ottawa’s Protestant Orphans Home, Protestant Home for the Aged, and Home for Friendless Women, October 19, 2021 by Thomas Ritchie


More details and institutions coming soon.


The Mercer opens
August 28, 1880

30 women were received into the new prison. Most of these women were transferred from county gaols and local lock-ups for petty offences. Pictured above are cell blocks photographed in 1902. 

More information to come

More information about the Mercer, other confined institutions, and key legislation to be added as the project develops.

The Mercer closes
April 3, 1969

The Mercer closed on April 3, 1969 with the remaining 80 incarcerated women transferred to Vanier Centre, a new prison near Brampton. The institution was unceremoniously demolished later in 1969 as the story above from the Toronto Star describes.

Annual Reports on the Mercer Reformatory 

The Mercer, and other institutions, reported to the Ontario Legislature annually with information regarding prisoners’ demographic information, daily activities, revenues, and anything else of note like riots or renovations. The Mercer reports are a must read if your ancestor was incarcerated there.  At a future date we will provide all annual reports for you to read.

Annual Report for 1880
Annual Report for 1881