The Mercer

The Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females was erected in Toronto, Ontario in 1880. The Mercer Register contains the names and information on all inmates since that time until it closed in 1969.  Over 300 women passed through in 1939.  Hundreds of women were illegally incarcerated under Ontario’s Female Refuges Act with offense usually described as “Incorrigible.” This section of the Act existed from 1919 -1958 and any woman convicted under the Act is entitled to compensation.  The Act was repealed in 1964. The Act did not conform to the Criminal Code of Canada.  Under the Vagrancy Act women were indiscriminately arrested by male police officers and confined; under the Prevention of Venereal Diseases Act women were arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of spreading venereal disease.  Women who served time in the Mercer were stigmatized.

During the twenties and thirties to the forties the physician in charge was Dr. Edna Guest.  She held office in a eugenic organization and subscribed to racial purity.  She was a strong proponent of sterilization.  She diagnosed women as having venereal disease whose tests were negative.  Women were used for medical research–human papilloma virus (cancer) studies.  The humiliation and fear inflicted on women has succeeded in erasing this episode from history.  See:  CARNAL CRIMES, “Sexual Battery, Gynecological Treatment in the Mercer Reformatory, 1939-40” by Constance Backhouse, 2008.


A total of 31 inmates were punished as a result of the riot.  All were placed in detention, thirty for 13 days and one for 15 days.  Thirty of these women were given 10 strokes each with a strap.  Each lost 5 days remission of sentence.  Tear gas was used against 10 of the women “because of their continued disturbance .”  Of these ten, 5 were subjected to tear gas on June 28 and 5 on July 4.

Dr. Edna Guest, physician at the Mercer Reformatory 1921-1939 was an active member of the Canadian Social Hygiene Council later Health League of Canada.  The Hygiene Council published a journal called Social Health in which “The race is to the strong.”  Edna Guest strongly supported sterilization of the unfit.  She was also a cancer researcher.  In 1935 the George V Silver Jubilee Cancer Campaign became associated with the Hygiene Council and research centres were set up to investigate the “human papilloma virus.” There is good reason to believe that Dr. Guest instituted these painful studies on Mercer inma

In 1919 the federal government enacted the Department of Health. At the same time a grant was given to eugenicists: William Renwick Riddell, J.W.S. McCullough and Dr. Gordon Bates to set up purportedly a propaganda organization to fight venereal diseases. Initially it was called The National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases, name changed in 1922 to Canadian Social Hygiene Council, name changed in 1935 to Health League of Canada.  Riddell was president, McCullough was vice-president and Bates was director. Dr. Edna Guest also became a vice-president when name changed to Health League in 1935.

Dr. McCullough was Ontario chief medical officer; he was secretary of a Commission on Radium…in 1932.  Dr. Guest opened a cancer detection clinic at Women’s College Hospital in 1935.  The Health League was associated with the King George V. Silver Jubilee Cancer Fund in 1935–sponsored by the federal government.

Dr. Guest continued her work in cancer during the war years.  An incident occurred with an inmate at the Reformatory on December 11 and on December 15 she was no longer employed by Prisons and Reformatories .  Who paid Dr. Guest for her services in cancer research?

DOES ANYONE KNOW the name of the woman who died in the Mercer Reformatory Clinic on December 12 or 13, 1939?  Dr. Guest was removed from her position with the Prisons and Reformatories Department on December 15, 1939.

On the Mercer Register, Native women can be recognized by their description–dark complexion, black hair, black or brown eyes or Indian.



2 Responses to The Mercer

  1. View my mothers tragic story at the Mercer at this link…

  2. Robert Walker says:

    My mother was jailed in the Mercer in 1949 charged with ‘INCORRIGIBLE’. She was pregnant with me at the time of her sentence. I was born in there and at only 4 mths of age a matron in the Mercer became annoyed with my constant crying and struck me and broke my arm. I was rushed to Toronto General. My mother was an aspiring ballerina at the time of her arrest. She committed suicide in 1988 and my sister and brother followed suit in different years. Even after 63 yrs I still feel the pain of Mercer and what it did to our family. Thank god it no longer exists but the facts we all kicked under the governmental rug. I assume so will I.

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