Before the 18th Century, children were thought of as property. By the end of it, they were more often seen as valuable property. The sufferings of the little girl, Mary Ellen, led to the founding of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first organization of its kind, in 1874. The following is Mary Ellen’s story, which marked the beginning of a world-wide crusade to save children.
The real story is quite compelling, and it illustrates the impact that a caring and committed individual can have on the life of a child.
Mary Ellen Wilson was born in 1864 to Francis and Thomas Wilson of New York City. Soon thereafter, Thomas died in the Civil War, and his widow took a job. No longer able to stay at home and care for her infant daughter, Francis boarded Mary Ellen (a common practice at the time) with a woman named Mary Score. As Francis’s economic situation deteriorated, she slipped further into poverty, falling behind in payments for and missing visits with her daughter. As a result, Mary Score turned two-year-old Mary Ellen over to the city’s Department of Charities.
The Department placed her illegally, in the home of Mary and Thomas McCormack, who claimed to be the child’s biological father. In an eerie repetition of events, Thomas died shortly thereafter. His widow married Francis Connolly, and the new family moved to a tenement.
Mary McCormack Connolly badly mistreated Mary Ellen, and neighbors in the apartment building were aware of the child’s plight. The Connollys soon moved to another tenement, but in 1874, one of their original neighbors asked Etta Angell Wheeler to check on the child. Etta Wheeler introduced herself to Mary Connolly. She saw Mary Ellen’s condition for herself. The 10-year-old appeared dirty and thin, was dressed in threadbare clothing, and had bruises and scars along her bare arms and legs. Ms. Wheeler began to explore how to seek legal protection for Mary Ellen.
Based on their interpretation of the laws and Mary Ellen’s circumstances, the New York City authorities were reluctant to intervene. Etta Wheeler continued her efforts to rescue Mary Ellen, and, after much deliberation, turned to Henry Bergh, a leader of the animal humane movement in the United States and founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Ms. Wheeler located several neighbors who were willing to testify to the mistreatment of the child and brought written documentation to Mr. Bergh. After reviewing the documentation collected by Etta Wheeler, Mr. Bergh took action as a private citizen who was concerned about the humane treatment of a child. It was his role as president of the NYSPCA and his ties to the legal system and the press; however, that bring about Mary Ellen’s rescue and the movement for a formalized child protection system.
Recognizing the value of public opinion and awareness in furthering the cause of the humane movement, Henry Bergh contacted New York Times reporters who took an interest in the case. Thus, there were detailed newspaper accounts that described Mary Ellen’s appalling physical condition. When she was taken before Judge Lawrence, she was dressed in ragged clothing, was bruised all over her body and had a gash over her left eye and on her cheek where Mary Connelly had struck her with a pair of scissors. On April 10, 1874, Mary Ellen testified:
“My name is Mary Ellen. I don’t know how old I am…I have never had but one pair of shoes, but can’t recollect when that was.I have no shoes or stockings on this winter… My bed at night is only a piece of carpet, stretched on the floor underneath a window. I have no recollection of a time when I did not live with the Connollys. I am never allowed to play with any children. Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip—a raw hide. The whip always left black and blue marks on my body. I have now black and blue marks on my head which were made by mamma, and also a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors in mamma’s hand. She struck me with the scissors and cut me; I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by any one—have never been kissed by mamma. I have never been taken on my mamma’s lap or caressed or petted. I never dared to speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped. Whenever mamma went out I was locked up in the bedroom.. I have no recollection ever being on the street in my life. I do not want to go back to live with mamma, because she beats me so” Mary Ellen, April 10, 1874
In response, Judge Lawrence immediately issued a writ to bring Mary Ellen under court control. The newspapers also provided extensive coverage of the caregiver Mary Connolly’s trial, raising public awareness and helping to inspire various agencies and organizations to advocate for the enforcement of laws that would rescue and protect abused children On April 21, 1874, Mary Connolly was found guilty of felonious assault and was sentenced to one year of hard labor in the penitentiary.
Less well known but as compelling as the details of her rescue, is the rest of Mary Ellen’s story. Etta Wheeler continued to play an important role in the child’s life. Family correspondence and other accounts reveal that the court placed Mary Ellen in an institutional shelter for adolescent girls. Believing this to be an inappropriate setting for the 10-year-old, Ms. Wheeler intervened. Judge Lawrence gave her permission to place the child with her own mother, Sally Angell, in northern New York. When Ms. Angell died, Etta Wheeler’s youngest sister, Elizabeth, and her husband Darius Spencer, raised Mary Ellen. By all accounts, her life with the Spencer family was stable and nurturing.
At the age of 24, Mary Ellen married a widower and had two daughters—Etta, named after Etta Wheeler, and Florence. Later, she became a foster mother to a young girl named Eunice.It was her joy to give her children a happy childhood. Etta and Florence both became teachers; Eunice was a businesswoman. Mary Ellen’s children and grandchildren described her as gentle and not much of a disciplinarian. Mary Ellen died in 1956 at the age of 92. If the memory of her earliest years is sad, there is the comfort that the cry of her wrongs awoke the world to the need of organized relief for neglected and abused children.