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


Read an excerpt from the book and/or purchase a copy

Books and Articles

Theses and Dissertations

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)

Sean Kheraj interviews Kathryn McPherson and Jennifer Stephen on gender, sexuality, and the Criminal Code.

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, choose the option below to listen.


The End of the Road (1919)

This news article announces Dr. Edna Guest (a eugenics proponent) will be speaking at Massey Hall when the film called the End of the Road is shown.  Dr. Edna Guest was the staff surgeon at the Mercer Reformatory from approximately 1920-1940. To learn more about Dr. Edna Guest read the book above called Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975 by Professor Constance Backhouse, starting on page 117.


To view the film on the National Film Preservation Foundation website mentioned in the news article click here: The End of the Road

""End of the Road" Packs Massey Hall," The Toronto Star, January 5, 1932, 5.

Film Description

The End of the Road (1919)

Sponsor: American Social Hygiene Association. Production Co.: War Dept. Commission on Training Camp Activities. Director: Edward H. Griffith. Writers: Katharine Bement Davis, Edward H. Griffith. Cast: Claire Adams, Richard Bennet. Transfer Note: Scanned from a 35mm print preserved by George Eastman Museum with support from the NFPF. Running Time: 69 minutes (silent, no music).


Wartime venereal disease prevention film intended primarily for female audiences. Sponsored by a public health organization devoted to eradicating syphilis, The End of the Road tells the parallel stories of two women, one of whom receives instruction in sexual hygiene from her mother, while the other does not.


Note: The End of the Road was originally produced for use by the military. Sometimes referred to as The Story of Life, the popular film was also put in theatrical release but withdrawn in 1919.



Criminality explained as a key concept on the Eugenics Archives website:


“During the early twentieth-century, criminality emerged as a social problem that threatened North American children, families, women, motherhood and social purity, while increasing government expenditures. Mental hygienists and eugenicists constructed criminality as a symptom of feeblemindedness and mental deficiency. Those people categorized as “morons,” the highest grade of mental deficiency, were considered to be particularly susceptible to criminal influences. A variety of eugenicists across North America held that the majority of criminals were mentally defective. This was a claim that was supposedly supported by the scientific evidence collected through family studies, and often repeated in efforts to legislate sexual sterilization programs.”  Read more on criminality here


For further reading on eugenics visit the website called Eugenics Archives.

TV Shows

Lauren Robilliard, our resident genetic genealogist who often assists the descendants of criminalized and incarcerated women and girls, is a big fan of Murdoch Mysteries. Thanks to Lauren for assisting us and pointing out the latest episode regarding the Andrew Mercer Reformatory.


Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian mystery drama that debuted in 2008, unfolds its narrative against the backdrop of Toronto during the transitional era of the 20th century. Inspired by Maureen Jennings’ Detective Murdoch novels, the series revolves around the astute Detective William Murdoch, portrayed by Yannick Bisson, stationed at House Four. Murdoch employs pioneering scientific methods and cutting-edge inventions, such as fingerprinting, to unravel mysteries. His allies in this intellectual pursuit include the resourceful Constable George Crabtree, played by Jonny Harris, the adept city coroner Doctor Julia Ogden, portrayed by Hélène Joy, and the steadfast Inspector Thomas Brackenreid, embodied by Thomas Craig.


Each episode’s narrative skillfully captures the societal nuances, and often, the historical injustices, prevalent during that era. 


Murdoch Mysteries has created two episodes regarding the notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory.  Both these episodes can be viewed on demand by creating a free account on Gem at


Once you have created an account search for Season 15 | Episode 7, called The Incorrigible Dr. Ogden

Or, click on the image below S15 | 7. The Incorrigible Dr. Ogden

Another episode of Murdoch Mysteries about the Reformatory can be located in Season 16 | Episode 18, called Vice and Virtue

Or, click on the image below S16 | 18.  Vice and Virtue

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