At the outset, I would like to make it clear, that I have found no evidence of any kind that would lead me to believe that I am related to the Andrew Mercer who is the primary subject of this article. However, like a few other people I know who have the Mercer name, the story of the “Mercer millions” is certainly familiar to me.
As a child, whenever I asked my parents for an expensive toy I would be told that I would get it when they got the Mercer millions. The story seems to have become embroidered over the years and so different families seem to have somewhat different versions of it. This has led me to do a little research in order to try to separate fact from fiction.
Who was Andrew Mercer?
What I know, so far, is that a Mr. Andrew Mercer died in Toronto on 13th June 1871, aged about 87.
The 1871 Census of Ontario, County of York, Toronto-St. George’s Ward, shows:
Name: MERCER, ANDREW
Ethnic Origin: SCOTCH
It is said that he travelled to Canada in the year 1800 aboard a ship named the Brickwood. During the voyage he was accompanied by a Scottish born lawyer named Thomas Scott who became Attorney General for Upper Canada (Now Ontario). Andrew would have been a young man of about 16 when he came to Canada whereas Scott was apparently 54. Andrew worked for a time as Scott’s clerk and, because they had almost a father and son relationship, rumour had it that Andrew was Scott’s illegitimate son. This however, was never admitted to by either man.
Over the course of his life, Andrew Mercer amassed a small fortune, becoming one of the wealthiest men in Toronto. According to court papers, he left an estate worth $140,000 but died intestate and without heirs, although he was the father of an illegitimate son named Andrew F. Mercer who was born about 1851. Young Andrew’s mother, Bridgit O’Reilly, was Andrew Mercer senior’s housekeeper and she and her son lived with Andrew senior at his house on the corner of Bay and Wellington Streets in Toronto.
When Andrew senior died, both mother and son laid claim to the estate and a hearing was held in the Surrogate Court. The lawyers for the Province also took steps to try to find any heirs or next of kin by advertising in newspapers in England, Scotland and Canada. A number of claimants came forward but their claims were all ultimately dismissed for lack of proof.
At first young Andrew Mercer made no claim to being the legitimate son of the deceased. However, when it seemed that his illegitimacy would adversely affect his claim, he and his mother, in August 1875, set up the pretence that she had become married to the deceased a month before young Andrew was born. They then pretended that an unwitnessed will had been discovered, which stated that the estate was to be left to his wife and son. They also went to considerable pains to make a false entry in a Parish Register in order to give the impression that the marriage had actually taken place. They even got a few of young Andrew’s chums to testify that they addressed Bridget O’Reilly as “Mrs. Mercer” in the presence of Mr Mercer senior, who, they said, made no objection.
Suspicion that the will was a forgery led to the case being moved from the Surrogate Court to the Court of Chancery on 1st September 1875.
After an exhaustive trial the court decided on 21st January 1876 that Andrew was not the legitimate son of the deceased and that the will was not the will of the deceased. The court therefore decreed that Andrew Mercer died intestate. The estate was vested in her Majesty. The plaintiff was entitled to $1,000 under an order in council, less certain costs.
In addition, Andrew F. Mercer received a farm of 50 acres in Etobicoke which Mr. Mercer had bought for him a few months before his death at a cost of $2,780. (To his credit, young Andrew failed to appear when he was called to testify. Presumably he did not want to perjure himself by participating further in the attempted fraud.)
It was judged that Bridget O’Reilly had no moral claim to any part of the estate. She had treated Mr. Mercer badly during his latter years, as was reported in his diaries. She had also managed to acquire the sum of $12,000 which belonged to him. Her attempted conspiracy to establish a false will and a false marriage did nothing to endear her to the court. Nevertheless, she was allowed to keep the money so she did in fact do rather well, all things considered.
Regarding the remainder of the estate, the Attorney General recommended that $10,000 be used to build The Andrew Mercer Eye and Ear Infirmary as part of the Toronto General Hospital and that $90,000 be set aside to build The Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females.
For a more detailed account of the case see the Attorney General’s Report.
For interesting trial testimony see “Judgement of the Court as to his Claim of Heirship.”
From undated newspaper clippings, it appears that there was a revival of interest in the case around about the year 1934. Under the heading:
MILLIONS AT STAKE
ANDREW MERCER’S FORTUNE
Riddle of Rich Man’s Birth
the article describes how “following publicity, new claims had come from all parts of the world, and it seemed likely that the case would be opened in the Canadian Courts.” It also stated that by this time the value of the estate would have grown to £2,000,000. Hence the “Mercer Millions”. It was presumably at this period of revived interest that our families became aware of the story, and I am told that my grandfather was one of those who contacted the lawyer handling the claims. Like the others, they had no proof of relationship to the said Andrew Mercer. There therefore seems little doubt that nobody other than Andrew himself knew who his parents were.
Canadian Land Legend
The very few snippets that I heard were that an Andrew Mercer had gone to Canada as batman to an army bigwig, and it was suspected that the Andrew Mercer was illegitimate son of the army officer. The army officer had amassed “huge tracts of land” under what is now Toronto and when he died Andrew Mercer (the batman) had been unable to prove his family connection and so missed out on the inheritance.
You can see how the legend I heard grew from the true facts as described above by Jim.
California Gold Legend
The story I had passed on was that Andrew Mercer made his money at the Californian gold fields and was travelling back to England when the ship sank with his details etc. I have seen the newspaper report from Winnipeg when Aunty Janet was trying to prove relationship and still have the tattered pages torn from the family bible and sent over to her at the time (they were later returned.)