Queer Places:
Bryn Mawr College, 101 N Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
Saint James Cemetery Toronto, Toronto Municipality, Ontario, Canada

Vera Lillian Parsons (July 22, 1889 – February 18, 1973) became a groundbreaking criminal defense lawyer in Toronto. Vera made her mark as the first female lawyer in Ontario to defend an accused murderer, and went on to represent a number of notorious clients.

Parsons, the daughter of a Simpson’s department store executive, was a highly educated woman, holding a Bachelor of Arts degree in modern languages from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Comparative Languages from Bryn Mawr College. She had also started a doctoral studies in comparitive literature at the University of Rome. In 1924, she graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School and became the first woman whose academic accomplishments earned her the Osgoode Silver Medal. Parsons was also one of the first female lawyers in Canada with a disability, requiring a cane after having contracted polio as a child. In 1944, she became only the third woman to be named King’s Counsel.


Vera Lillian Parsons by Fred Demmler


The Black Hat (Mary Ethel Schreiner) by Frederick Demmler

Fred Demmler promised Vera he'd marry her when he returned home from the war. Whether this is true or not is hard to know. In any case, after Demmler's death in World War I, Vera remained permanently single. "I hardly think the study of law is a particularly good preliminary to marriage," she was quoted as saying while at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she graduated in 1924.

The sitter in Demmler's enigmatic 1914 portrait, "The Black Hat", is Ethel C. Schreiner of Pittsburgh, and she was a young friend of Vera Parsons. Ethel is the one who first brought Vera Parsons to Pittsburgh, gave her a "debut tea" at the Schreiner household (December 31, 1913), and probably first introduced Vera and Demmler. Demmler's "The Black Hat" and "Vera" are probably the two most recognized Demmler portraits today, both owned by the Carnegie. In each portrait, each woman is sitting in the same Stickley-like armchair in Demmler's Pittsburgh studio. Ethel was a soprano; she studied at New England Conservatory. In Pittsburgh, she was known for her dramatic readings of Marie Jenney Howe's parody, "An Anti-Suffrage Monologue".

Vera Parsons was called to the Ontario bar in 1924. Fluent in Italian upon returning to Canada, she engaged in settlement work with Italian immigrants in Toronto, but soon realized that providing translation services was not sufficient to meet their needs. She decided to become a lawyer. Parsons apprenticed with William Horkins, a distinguished criminal lawyer. She remained in Horkins' firm for many years and was eventually made partner.


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