The Legend.

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?

Andrew Mercer Cottage
Andrew Mercer's Cottage c.1880

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
Age:87
Birthplace: ENGLAND
Religion: CE
Ethnic Origin: SCOTCH
Occupation: AGENT.

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.

 

Andrew Mercer Monument
Andrew Mercers Grave, Toronto, Canada (Picture: JM)

Claimants

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.

Desperate Measures

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.

 

The Outcome

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.”

1930’s Revival

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.

(JM)

 

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.

(MH)

 

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.)

(JV)

4 thoughts on “The Mercer Millions

  • 9/January/2018 at 7:39 pm
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    Hi there,

    I wonder if I May be able to shed some light on your forebear. I have been researching the life of Benedict Arnold and chanced upon the Will made by his son, Edward Shippen Arnold, a Lieutenant who appears to have worked both for the crown and the East India Company. He was best friends with a man called George Mercer and the 2 lives ran concurrently. Shippen Arnold’s life was cut short in 1813, within 2 months of a new Fort Adjutant arriving who had fought Benedict Arnold years back at Saratoga – and lost. So Shippen Arnold died and shortly after, his sister’s husband, who was an executor, ‘disappeared off the radar’ as it were. A baby was on the way with a native girl for Shippen Arnold and he tried to make provision for her in the Will. I have tried to find the child(ren) born to her after the death, but it has come up: ‘Access Denied.’ Mercer and Shippen Arnold made what must have been millions in the Indigo trade, providing dyed fabric to the indian army. They did this through their links to the East India Company. The link to Canada May be that Shippen Arnold had a share in 20,000 acres in Upper Canada left to him by his father, and I wonder whether Mercer went to stake that out? East and West Gwillimbury are 2 place names I have found in this connection. Needless to say, as soon as Shippen Arnold died, his factories were seized by the crown and the monies distributed that way. If you send me an email address, I will forward a copy of the Will to you. All other mention of the Arnolds has been systematically removed from any documentation that is why it is so very hard to find out anything about them. Mercer, being linked to Shippen Arnold, may have slipped into the same category.
    Kind regards
    Jacqueline Godfrey

    Reply
    • 15/January/2018 at 11:39 pm
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      Dear Jacqueline Very interesting information. We met Jim Mercer in Scotland last summer, perhaps we might meet you one day. Do you also live in Canada? We live in London, Scotland and Italy Philip Mercer

      Reply
      • 9/February/2018 at 7:33 pm
        Permalink

        Hi there,

        We live in Chelmsford in Essex and Jim Mercer has the email address. Would be delighted to meet up with you in a local cafe one day, along with Mr G.

        Stay in touch,

        Jacqueline

        Reply
  • 14/January/2018 at 4:17 pm
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    George Dempster

    Footnote 1 on p. 48 (referring to a brief note to George Dempster, Skibo, (which is not an East India Company boat so is presumably Skibo Castle, Dornoch IV25 3RQ, Scotland), of 27th Nov 1795 from David Scott, cited in the book, ‘The correspondence of David Scott, Director & Chairman of the East India Company relating to Indian Affairs 1787-1805 Vol 1 1787-1799 (Ed. Philips), Offices of the Royal Historic Society, (1951) states:

    ‘Dempster, George, (1731-1818). A director of the East India Company in 1769 and 1772-3. See George Dempster’s letters to Sir Adam Ferguson, ed. J. Ferguson (London 1934)…’

    The next recorded one from David Scott after that (in the same book. P187), is of 22nd April 1799, the subject of which appears to be a request for Dempster’s underlings/associates Not to apply to Scotts ‘burghs for letters in their favour’ and mention of what was to be a China voyage, which the footnote states, ‘was said to be worth anything up to £10,000 to the ship’s captain’ [presumably Dempster himself].

    In Volume 2 of the above book series, for the years 1800-1805, there is a letter dated 20th June 1800 to a George Dempster Guthrie in Bengal who appears to have recently taken up a post in the Revenue & Judicial Departments and who aspires to be a late (in life) attendee of Marquis Wellesley’s College, which he still does not envisage attending, possibly, for another 3 years hence. Scott assures him that though he is past Regulation age to attend even now, he would support any future application to the College. Scott makes mention of having seen this George’s father who ‘has certainly not failed as to his faculties. .. in his looks or his strength.’

    Finally on 8th October 1802 Scott writes to George Dempster of Dunniken, near Forfar, Scotland.

    Jacqueline Elizabeth Godfrey

    Reply

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