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.


As the car turns into the driveway, I see the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females as a dark formidable fortress pencilled black against the white sky. the enormous structure with its jutting turrets appears to stretch an entire city block. It casts a shadow over the grassy exterior extending to a wide spiked iron fence and onto the street beyond. the tall steeple gives a church-like appearance but the numerous iron-barred windows embedded in the dark stone exterior frighten me.

The building is distant from the street but as we draw near I can see the women who were at the Belmont Home with me leave the other car and move toward, then up the stairs. They are partly hidden by the hulking figures of two men.

During the drive from the Home, we three girls squeezed into the back seat sat unmoving, still absorbing the shock of sudden removal from our restrictive but reasonably safe haven. Only Adelaide’s sniffling could be heard. Her tears weren’t allayed when Miss Pollack assured us of well-being in our new quarters. the foreboding appearance of the reformatory seems to justify Adelaide’s apprehension. She has stopped crying and is staring at the looming reformatory that awaits us.

The car stops and the two plainclothes guards sitting in the front seat get out. One of the men opens the door. As we emerge from the back seat, we’re aware that the two men are within arm’s length, watching us warily. the small pale-faced girl who had been sitting next to me is practically lifted off her feet by one overzealous guard. the other seizes my arm in a tight vise. Satisfied with having contained his prey, he reaches out with his other hand and fastens his grip onto Adelaide. Her eyes are still glued to the stark prison confronting . . .

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