Poor Mary Ellen came into existence in 1864 during the Civil War. She was the child of a happily married couple, Thomas and Fanny Wilson. Thomas had immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the potato famine and Fanny had come from England with an uncle to start a new life. They met in a grand hotel in New York City, Thomas shucking oysters in the kitchen while Fanny folded sheets in the laundry. Neither was making enough money to save but they found lodgings and worked hard, Fanny taking in sewing at night. When Fanny fell pregnant (no way to prevent that in 1864), Thomas, over Fanny’s protests, re-upped for a second tour of duty with the Union Army.
Rumors indicated the war would soon be over and, in the meantime, Thomas could send money home to save for the anticipated child. Thomas’ letters stopped coming when the baby was only two months old. Fanny was frantic. The War Widow’s relief fund verified his death and helped with the rent but Fanny could just barely afford childcare. Out of stress, anxiety, and hopelessness, Fanny started drinking. She relied more and more on the temporary numbness it provided until her addiction overtook her. In the end, Fanny abandoned her child to the sitter, Martha Stone, leaving her with only the widow’s relief fund ticket.
But Martha Stone was struggling too. As the men straggled back from the war, mothers were freed to stay home and the need for child care dwindled. One by one “her” kids left her care leaving Martha with Mary Ellen and no income. Despite having affection for the two-year-old toddler, she had no option but to turn her in to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Martha herself had grown up in an almshouse after her mother died and she was abandoned by her father. She well knew what awaited Mary Ellen but she had no other recourse. Mary Ellen became an orphan of the state of New York.
At about the same time, an American diplomat named Henry Bergh returned from Europe with a mission. He aimed to establish an American version of the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. His impassioned speeches educated influential members of New York society about the evils of cock fighting, dog fighting, the abuse of horses in the carriage trade, and unnecessary cruelty in the slaughterhouses. With their support, Henry persuaded the legislature to approve the incorporation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in the state of New York. The organization wrote and enforced the first laws against cruelty to animals in the United States.
Meanwhile, Thomas and Mary McCormack, residents of New York city tenements, watched while their three children died, one after the other, from diseases common to city children in the 1860s. Thomas felt their absence the most and wanted to adopt a child to replace them. His wife was reluctant. He persuaded her, and the authorities, by claiming that a child of his had been born by a previous wife who had subsequently been remanded to a hospital for the insane. They took custody of young Mary Ellen Wilson. Thomas doted on Mary Ellen but Mary was jealous and resentful that Mary Ellen lived while her children had died. Unfortunately, Thomas died soon after the adoption and Mary quickly remarried. The new family moved to the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City.
Mary Ellen was imprisoned in the new apartment. Her new step-father, Francis Connolly, was seldom at home and Mary was also absent for large amounts of time. Mary heaped chores upon Mary Ellen and berated and beat her when the work was not done to her satisfaction. Mary Ellen was not permitted to ever leave the apartment; she owned only one dress and no shoes. Neighbors would hear Mary shouting and Mary Ellen’s cries when she was beaten but they never saw the girl and were helpless about what to do. Eventually one of them mentioned the situation to a Methodist mission worker named Etta Wheeler, who regularly visited a bedridden neighbor across the hall. Under the pretense of seeking help for the neighbor, Etta knocked on the door of Mary and Francis Connolly’s apartment and was able to get a good look at the girl. She saw a thin, shy, and filthy girl washing dishes wearing a tattered dress over a body bearing bruises and sores on her bare legs and arms. She also noticed a leather whip.
Etta was shaken. Despite her entreaties, New York city authorities would not intervene, stating that they lacked the power to remove a child from her parent’s custody without sufficient evidence. So, Etta went to the neighbors in this and a previous residence, collecting statements from and commitments to testify if a trial against Mary Connolly was held. But she doubted that such evidence would be enough. Etta’s niece said to her, “You are so troubled over that abused child, why not go to Mr. Bergh? She is a little animal surely.” Etta agreed as a last resort to visit Mr. Bergh with the evidence she had gathered and to ask for his help.
Henry Bergh, champion of animal rights, could not resist feeling compassion for Mary Ellen’s plight. He did not see what the ASPCA could do to help Etta – but he knew what he could do as a private citizen. He had influence. Bergh sent an ASPCA investigator to the apartment (disguised as a census taker) to confirm Etta’s description of Mary Ellen. He instructed the ASPCA’s lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to take up her case which resulted in a court hearing. He alerted reporters at the New York Times about the planned public hearings. Bergh’s involvement worked. The police removed Mary Ellen from the custody of Mary Connelly and brought her to court so the judge, the reporters, and fellow citizens could hear her testimony. Newspaper accounts assured public awareness and stirred public opinion.
Mary Ellen was brought to court just as she had been found in her home – her tiny frame, barefoot, in her tattered dress, wrapped in a blanket supplied by the police. The onlookers were appalled.
“I don’t know how old I am.” “Mama whips me or beats me almost every day.” “She struck me with the scissors and cut me.” “Mama never says anything to me…I don’t know what I was whipped for.” “I do not want to go back to live with Mama because she beats me.” Comments of Mary Ellen Wilson in court, April 10, 1874.
On April 21, 1874, Mary Connolly was found guilty of assault and battery and was sentenced to one year of hard labor in the penitentiary.
At Etta Wheeler’s request, Mary Ellen Wilson was placed temporarily in the home of Etta’s mother. She was eventually adopted by Etta’s younger sister and her husband and grew up in a stable and nourishing home in upstate New York. When she was 24, Mary Ellen married. She and her husband raised two daughters, Etta and Florence, along with a foster child, Eunice. She died in 1956 at the age of 92.
But that was not the end of the story. In 1874, Misters Bergh and Gerry, together with Quaker philanthropist John D. Wright, founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In its first eight months of operation, the NYSPCC received and investigated hundreds of complaints, prosecuted 68 criminal cases, and rescued 72 children from abuse and neglect. By 1880 there were 37 such societies, by 1901 there were 162, and by 1910 there were 250 such organizations across the U.S. Today, the NYSPCC provides programs on parenting skills, training for professionals on identifying and reporting abuse and neglect, trauma recovery for abused and neglected children, as well as for welfare officials who have been affected by the child abuse cases on which they have worked. The NYSPCC can rightfully claim that today’s U.S. child protection legislation is based upon the child abuse case of Mary Ellen Wilson, the determination of Etta Wheeler, and the advocacy of Henry Berg, the founder of the SPCA.