The Hidden History of 1800s Prisons in Liberty Village

Looking at it today, you might not think of Liberty Village as a centerpiece to Toronto’s prison history. Yet, over a hundred years ago, the neighborhood was synonymous for being a very dark part of the city.

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The Toronto Central Prison was a maximum security 336-bed prison opened in 1873 near the intersection of King and Strachan. There, workers routinely engaged in a range of various industrial work to raise money for the prison.

The Toronto Central Prison was well known for being a very brutal place, overseen initially by then-popular Toronto figure William Stratton Prince. He was an alcoholic ex-military officer and former chief of the Toronto Police who resigned to take the position as warden.

There are reports of this warden specifically refusing medical treatment for the prisoners, conducting extreme beatings, ordering guards to brutalize inmates, and supporting secretive, nighttime burials.

Much of the later history of The Toronto Central Prison was focused on establishing a new reputation for being a humane prison. For example, in 1911, one of the reformist wardens at Toronto Central Prison opted to establish a new outdoor works program, one where inmates were allowed to work without armed guards. Despite the effort, Toronto Central Prison would be abandoned in 1915 in part because of its violent reputation and as public attitudes towards crime were changing.

For the next five years, the Toronto Central Prison building would be used as an army base and as a processing centre for new immigrants before being demolished in 1920. The only thing remaining from the Toronto Central Prison building is a Roman Catholic prison chapel which was built as an addition in 1877 and which still stands today. There’s not much acknowledgment of Toronto Central Prison’s history and perhaps rightfully so. It was one of the most brutal places in all of Toronto throughout its operations.

Going beyond the violent history of Toronto Central Prison, an equally disturbing part of the neighborhood was the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, initially opened in 1872 and which remained in operation until 1969. In its time, under the ‘Ontario Female Refuge Act’, women under the age of 21 could be brought before the courts either by a parent or guardian, tried before a judge, and essentially sent here for ‘being difficult’.

The Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women held everyone from unwed mothers to dissidents. The ultimate purpose of this women’s prison was to reform women according to ‘proper Victorian ideals’. Sometime around the 1950s, there began to be information leaks from the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women that there was mistreatment and medical experimentation going on. There were even rumours of eugenics research being conducted here. Upon a government investigation into the conditions at the prison, brutal and inhumane conditions were found. Following conclusion of the investigation, the institution was immediately shut down. Today, Lamport Stadium sits where the women’s institution used to sit.

The lands on which the neighborhood was built comes with a history of both violence and second chances. For as much bad behaviour occupied these institutions, it’s perhaps a vain and idyllic hope to think that just as many good people were bound to have come through here. Liberty Village gets its name from Liberty Street which was the first street men or women would walk down following release from one of these institutions. So much of Liberty Village’s early history belongs to what went on in these prisons. The violence, mistreatment, and deaths experienced here has caused some to call the neighborhood potentially one of the most haunted in Toronto.

Thankfully, so much good has been ushered in across Liberty Village in the last few decades and in the time since these institutions faded, hopefully a century from now, we look back on Liberty Village much more fondly than how its reputation in the late nineteenth century.

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