MERCER, ANDREW, issuer of marriage licences and office-holder; b. possibly in Sussex, Eng., c. 1778–84; d. Toronto, Ont., 13 June 1871.
The first certain fact about Andrew Mercer’s early life is that he arrived at Quebec late in 1800, accompanying Thomas Scott*, the new attorney general of Upper Canada. Mercer once stated that his mother, Mary Mercer, was unmarried, and his intimacy with Scott led to gossip that he was Scott’s illegitimate son.
They arrived at York (Toronto) early in 1801 and Mercer became Scott’s secretary. He next held the junior clerkship in the Executive Council (1803–20), and the office of king’s printer (1816), probably through Scott’s influence. Mercer was paymaster for the Home District militia during the War of 1812 and was taken captive at the fall of York in April 1813, but was soon released. In 1833 he became a magistrate. Mercer also had business interests for some years after 1809, operating a general store in partnership with Samuel Smith Ridout*, and later developing an extensive mortgage and loan business.
Although much was later said about his philanthropy, it is known only that he made a gift of 1,000 acres of land, located in swampy townships, toward the endowment of the University of Trinity College in 1851. From 1827, although wealthy, he lived at Bay and Wellington streets in Toronto in a cottage later said to be “scarcely worth insuring,” and he was described as “almost parsimonious.”
Mercer was issuer of marriage licences in York by 1818 but never himself obtained one. In 1850 he acquired a violent-tempered, illiterate, and thieving housekeeper, Bridget O’Reilly, who seems to have terrorized him for the rest of his life. She gave birth in 1851 to a boy, christened Andrew Francis Mercer, and generally believed to be the son of septuagenarian Andrew, whom she threatened with seduction charges. He provided for the boy and gave him some land, but never made him his heir and on one occasion reportedly stated that he “would leave his money to the government.”
Mercer died suddenly in 1871, intestate. As the estate would pass to the crown unless legitimate heirs were found, the provincial government immediately took over on a commission of escheat, and in 1872 the attorney general, Adam Crooks*, was appointed administrator. Mercer’s household was allowed to remain in the cottage, a search for heirs was begun in Great Britain and Canada, and steps were taken to put the $180,000 estate in order, as the holdings, largely in the form of land, mortgages, loans, and stocks, were found to be in considerable disarray.
In 1875 Oliver Mowat*, appointed administrator the previous year, began arrangements for a hearing in the Court of Chancery to test the claims of the would-be heirs. At this point Bridget O’Reilly and her son suddenly produced a marriage certificate, dated a month before the latter’s birth, and a will leaving them the entire estate. The hearing of all claims took place in January 1876 with John Beverley Robinson* acting for the crown. Roman Catholic Archbishop John Joseph Lynch*, John Montgomery, and others supported young Mercer’s claim, but he himself refused to enter the witness box for examination. Vice-Chancellor Samuel Hume Blake* declared both documents forgeries and decided in favour of the province.
Still, Mercer refused to vacate the Bay Street property and a series of law suits resulted. These developed into a constitutional test case over whether a province or the federal government had the right to escheat estates under sections 102 and 109 of the British North America Act. The Ontario courts decided in favour of the province, the Supreme Court of Canada supported the dominion claim, and a decision in favour of Ontario was finally handed down by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain in 1884. The Bay Street property was then taken over and sold.
The rest of the estate had meanwhile been disposed of by the Ontario government. A sum of $10,000 was allocated for an Andrew Mercer Eye and Ear Infirmary for the Toronto General Hospital in 1878, and a total of $106,000 went toward the erection of the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females, opened in 1880 and used until 1969. Much of the money was swallowed up in legal costs, including a large portion of the $30,000 Mowat generously allowed young Mercer.
Andrew Mercer, albeit unwittingly, gained a certain immortality through the court cases and the institutions. To later generations, who knew the name but not the circumstances, he appeared a great benefactor of the cause of female reform.
PAC, RG 1, E1, 47, pp.283, 291; E14, 10, pp.158–59; L3, M6/332, 37; RG 5, A1, 26, pp.12067–69; 27, pp.12563–64, 12799–800, 26686–87; RG 7, G16, C, 9, p.48; RG 8, I, A1, 690, pp.166–66a; RG 68, 1. PAO, Alexander Campbell papers, 18 Nov. 1881, 31 May 1883; Chancery Court files, 1875, 55, “Mercer v. attorney-general”; 1878, 526, “Attorney-general v. O’Reilly”; Misc. 1934, John Robertson, “Memorandum re A. Mercer and Thomas Scott”; RG 8, I-7-b-2, 1878, no.34; 1879, no.33; 1882, no.51; 1888, no.30; Ridout papers, 1809, agreement of partnership. Trinity College Archives (Toronto), Minutes of the council, 20 Feb. 1851, 27. ... Attorney general of Ontario v. Mercer (1883), 8 App. Cas. 767 (P.C.) reversing (1881), 5 S.C.R. 583, which reversed (sub nom.) Attorney general of Ontario v. O’Reilly (1880), 6 O.A.R. 576, which affirmed (1878), 26 Gr. 126 (Ch.). Ontario, Sessional papers, IX (1877), pt.2, no.7; X (1878), pt.4, no.38; XII (1880), pt.4, no.34; XIII (1881), pt.4, no.48. Ontario, Statutes, 1878, c. 1; 1879, c. 38. ... Globe (Toronto), 14 June 1871, 15 Nov. 1875, 14–22 Jan. 1876. Scadding, Toronto of old, 55, 84, 269, 363, 366. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth), 140, 281. Hist. of Toronto and county of York, II, 109. J. E. Jones, Pioneer crimes and punishments in Toronto and the Home District . . . (Toronto, 1924), 46. Landmarks of Toronto (Robertson), I, 46–48, 433..