This is a collection of articles, theses, books, podcasts, and chapters that explore the history of the Mercer Reformatory and other similar confined institutions. Most of these materials are available for free. There are instructions below on how to sign up for a free J-Stor account to access some articles that may be behind a paywall. The J-Stor account allows you to search a large database of academic publications.
“On a May morning in 1939, eighteen-year-old Velma Demerson and her lover were having breakfast when two police officers arrived to take her away. Her crime was loving a Chinese man, a “crime” that was compounded by her pregnancy and subsequent mixed-race child.
Sentenced to a home for wayward girls, Demerson was then transferred (along with forty-six other girls) to Torontos Mercer Reformatory for Females. The girls were locked in their cells for twelve hours a day and required to work in the on-site laundry and factory. They also endured suspect medical examinations. When Demerson was finally released after ten months’ incarceration weeks of solitary confinement, abusive medical treatments, and the state’s apprehension of her child, her marriage to her lover resulted in the loss of her citizenship status.
This is the story of how Demerson, and so many other girls, were treated as criminals or mentally defective individuals, even though their worst crime might have been only their choice of lover. Incorrigible is a survivor’s narrative. In a period that saw the rise of psychiatry, legislation against interracial marriage, and a populist movement that believed in eradicating disease and sin by improving the purity of Anglo-Saxon stock, Velma Demerson, like many young women, found herself confronted by powerful social forces. This is a history of some of those who fell through the cracks of the criminal code, told in a powerful first-person voice.” – description from Wilfred Laurier Press on the book
Books and Articles
- Professor Constance Backhouse’s book Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975 explores Velma Demerson’s case in Chapter 5. The book is available for free on her website www.constancebackhouse.ca
- Donald G. Wetherell, 1979, “To Discipline and Train: Adult Rehabilitation Programmes in Ontario Prisons, 1874-1900” available through York University Histoire sociale/Social history.
Backhouse, C. (2005). “Pleasing Appearance. . . Only Adds to the Danger”: The 1930 Insanity Hearing of Violet Hypatia Bowyer. Canadian Journal of Women and the Law17(1), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1353/jwl.2006.0002.
- To read more on case of the insanity hearing of Violet Bowyer, see page 378 in The Ontario Law Reports : Cases Determined in the Supreme Court of Ontario (Appellate and High Court Decisions), 1930-1931
Theses and Dissertations
- Carolyn Strange, M.A. thesis 1983 “The Velvet Glove: Maternalistic Reform at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females, 1874-1927” available through the UOttawa Library.
- Theresa L. Raymond, M.A. thesis 2018, “Sex Cells: Women’s Paths to Institutionalization in the Hospital for the Insane, Cobourg, 1902-1935” available through York University.
- Jennifer Lorraine Fraser, M.F.A. thesis exhibition 2016, “Awards: Acknowledging Absence and Situating Toronto’s Incarcerated Women – 1919-1940” available through OCAD University.
- Joseph A.G. Berkovits, PhD Dissertation 2000, “”Us Poor Devils:” Prison Life and Culture in Ontario: 1874-1914″ available through University of Toronto.
Kelly Hannah-Moffat, PhD Dissertation 1997, “From Christian Maternalism to Risk Technologies: Penal Powers and Women’s Knowledges in the Governance of Female Prisons” available through University of Toronto
Brown, M. Jennifer, M.A. thesis 1975, “Influences Affecting the Treatment of Women Prisoners in Toronto, 1880 to 1890” available
through University of Wilfred Laurier
Lykke de la Cour, PhD Dissertation 2013, “From “Moron” to Maladjusted”: Eugenics, Psychiatry and the Regulation of Women, Ontario, 1930s-1960s” available through University of Toronto
John Bullen PhD Dissertation 1989, “Children of the Industrial Age: Children, work, and welfare in late nineteenths-century Ontario”
available through University of Ottawa
Joanne Cheryl Minaker, PhD Dissertation 2003, “‘Censuring the Erring Female:’ Governing Female Sexuality at the Toronto Industrial Refuge, 1853-1939” available through Library and Archives Canada
Media, Documentaries, and more
TVO interview with Constance Backhouse from 2013.
Mr. Glenn Thompson, the last superintendent of the Andrew Mercer Reformatory before they disposed of the institution provides a vignette on how the women and girls incarcerated reacted to their surroundings.
Transcript: “Here’s a vignette for you. Back in 1966, I was the superintendent of the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women. Can you imagine a guy doing that? They couldn’t find a lady to do it, ladies. I was there for three or four years. We disposed of that institution and built the Vanier Centre for Women in Brampton. At the Mercer Reformatory for Women, people were carving their bodies in all sorts of grotesque ways. They were mostly teenage women cutting themselves as though to cut their wrists. They weren’t really trying to kill themselves, but they were damaging their bodies and disturbing things terribly.”
Full transcript, click here: SECU-43 (December 10, 2009)
Ontario Training Schools
Many of the criminalized and incarcerated women and girls at Mercer were previous, or current wards of Industrial Schools. By the 1930s these institutions were called Ontario Training School (OTS). In fact, at one point a wing was designated at Mercer and operated as an OTS. This wing was referred to as the Ontario Training School for Girls, Toronto. The OTS wing at Mercer opened on December 17, 1952 and closed on February 10, 1958 when a secured wing was built at the OTS in Galt. To learn more about all Ontario Training Schools watch the trailer below and visit the following website by clicking on this link called ‘Unmanageable’.
Podcast assignment from Queen’s University undergraduate student, Annie Dowd, on the history of the Female Refuges Act.
To read the full Act click on the image to the right.
Listen to the podcast hosted on the Queen’s University Department of History website: podcast link. Or you can choose the option below to listen.
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