Mary Ellen Wilson: America's First Recognized Child Abuse Case
When a little girl named Mary Ellen was abused, the courts would not help because there were no laws to prevent child abuse. Thankfully, animal abuse laws existed. The dedication of several kindhearted people saved Mary Ellen and led to the founding of The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The New York SPCC, along with activists from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, worked together to form the American Humane Society. Together they would work to prevent this type of abuse from happening again. This is Mary Ellen’s story.
Mary Ellen was born in New York City in 1864 to Thomas and Fanny Wilson. Shortly thereafter, her father died in service during the Civil War. Her mother was forced to seek employment to care for herself and her daughter. She boarded her child with a woman and made payments for the baby’s care. This situation was common at the time. Mrs. Wilson became delinquent after failing to make her payments. Soon, she began missing visits to Mary Ellen due to poverty. In response, the caretaker gave the little girl to the Department of Charities. When Fanny finally came to see the toddler, she was told by the caretaker that the little girl had died. But Mary Ellen was now two years old and very much alive.
A man named Thomas McCormack appeared at the department and claimed to be the child’s biological father. The Department of Charities never asked for documentation, but simply turned the child over to Mr. McCormack and his wife Mary. Thomas McCormack died shortly after, and Mary McCormack got remarried to a man named Francis Connolly. Mary Ellen was supposed to be the illegitimate child of Thomas McCormack, but this was never verified. Mrs. Connolly hated the child because of the father’s betrayal, and the abuse began immediately upon his death.
Mary's Life With Mrs. Connolly
Mrs. Connolly mistreated Mary Ellen terribly, beating her daily. Neighbors later testified that when Mr. Connolly left for work in the morning, Mary would systematically beat the child for up to fifteen minutes at a time. They heard her crying and wailing while being dragged through the apartment. Though everyone in the building knew about the abuse, no one intervened. Later, a two-foot braided horsewhip was found and determined to be a tool used daily on Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen was never allowed to go outside or even look out the window. When Mrs. Connolly was away, she locked the child in a tiny, dark closet with only a piece of carpet to lie on and an old quilt to warm her. She was beaten, cut, starved and burned for more than seven years.
During this time, the family moved to another apartment building. However, the abuse had been so horrific that a former neighbor remained concerned for the little girl. When a Methodist mission worker visited, the lady asked Mrs. Etta Angell Wheeler to check on Mary Ellen. Etta Wheeler managed to get a brief entry into the apartment and what she found horrified her. Mary Ellen, now ten years old, was literally covered in scars, burns, welts, and a cut that ran from her forehead to her chin (her “mother” felt Mary Ellen was not holding a piece of cloth properly and slashed the girl’s face with scissors). Though it was December in New York, the child wore only a threadbare dress and was barefoot, standing on a stool while washing dishes. Mrs. Wheeler did not speak to Mary Ellen at this time.
When she left, she was determined to get the girl out of there. It took her three months to make any progress.
Mary Ellen and Mrs. Wheeler
Mrs. Wheeler went to the authorities with her story of Mary Ellen’s abuse, but the authorities did nothing. Some jurisdictions had laws prohibiting excessive physical discipline. In fact, New York permitted the removal of children from neglectful homes. However, their determination, in this case, was such that they would not intervene, so they left Mary Ellen with Mrs. Connolly.
In her quest to help the little girl, Etta Wheeler talked to her niece who said she should seek assistance from Mr. Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The niece remarked, “She is a little animal, surely.” She meant that as a living, breathing, feeling creature, Mary Ellen was entitled to live as well as an animal. Not knowing where else to turn, Etta Wheeler went straight to Henry Bergh who listened but stated that he must have written documentation from witnesses.
Etta Wheeler obtained written evidence of the abuse from several neighbors, including one whose apartment shared a wall with the Connolly's. The neighbor told Mrs. Wheeler that she heard the beatings and the cries of the child on a daily basis. Etta took the neighbors' testimonies to Henry Bergh, who sent a worker out posing as a census taker. He was able to see the child himself and reported to Henry Berg that the allegations were true and accurate.
Mr. Bergh and the Fight to Save Mary Ellen
Mr. Bergh made it clear that he was acting as a concerned citizen and not in his capacity as president of the NYSPCA. Later, it was falsely said that the court case of Mary Ellen was conducted under this office and presented as an animal abuse case. He sent a NYSPCA worker to the apartment, and the allegations were confirmed as true and accurate. ASPCA attorney, Elbridge T. Gerry, prepared a petition and presented it before the court asking permission to remove Mary Ellen from the home so she could be brought to the judge to testify about the abuse. Judge Lawrence of the Supreme Court took the case. Mr. Bergh was instrumental in rescuing Mary Ellen. His position and ties to the legal community made people listen and take the case seriously. Once he became involved, Mary Ellen was rescued in forty-eight hours!
Through his urging, The New York Times became involved and sent reporters to cover the trial of Mrs. Connolly. From their reports, we have actual recordings of the account. When Mary Ellen was brought into the courtroom, she was still wearing the dress Mrs. Wheeler had seen her in three months before. Her face was disfigured and, only one day prior, had been slashed with scissors. Mary Ellen was ten years old but was only the size of a five- or six-year-old. Poor nutrition and circumstances had stunted her growth.
Until now, they had not even known the child’s name! Mary Ellen was in hysterics, having been locked inside for more than seven years, living with the constant fear that her stepmother would punish her for what was happening. She was carried into the courtroom wrapped in a blanket and holding a peppermint stick that a police officer had given her in hopes of calming her screams. Once she settled down, she was able to tell the Judge some of her ordeals.
On April 9, 1874, ten-year-old Mary Ellen testified, “My father and mother are both dead. I don‘t know how old I am. I have no recollection of a time when I did not live with the Connollys… Mamma (Mrs. Connolly) has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip—a rawhide. The whip always left a black and blue mark on my body. I have now the 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. She struck me with the scissors and cut me; I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by anyone—have never been kissed by Mamma. I have never been taken on my Mamma‘s lap and caressed or petted. I never dared to speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped… I do not know for what I was whipped—Mamma never said anything to me when she whipped me. I do not want to go back to live with Mamma, because she beats me so. I have no recollection of ever being on the street in my life.”
Life After Mrs. Connolly
On April 21, 1874, Mrs. Connolly was found guilty of felonious assault and sentenced to one year of hard labor in prison. I could not find anything more about her life after prison.
The court sent Mary Ellen to a home for grown girls who had been in trouble and were being reformed. Needless to say, this did not work at all. Jude Lawrence was Mary Ellen’s guardian, and Mrs. Wheeler prevailed upon him to release Mary Ellen into her custody. She went to live with Etta Wheeler’s mother in Rochester, New York, where she was exposed to a life of freedom and love. But she didn’t know what that meant at first.
Mary Ellen had been so deprived of life experience that she was unable to live normally for a while. She had to be taught how to walk outside. She had never walked upon uneven surfaces and could not distinguish between heights, grass, pavement, rocks, and pebbles. She had never seen living trees, grass, or flowers. She had seldom even seen the sky. She was unaware of accepted right and wrong behaviors and discipline was only physical to her. She had never owned a toy or played with other children. She had never been told of God and had no exposure to religion of any sort.
Mary Ellen learned to be a child by observing other children. The adults taught her manners and life skills. When Etta’s mother died, Mary Ellen went to live with Etta’s sister and was loved and treasured. She received religious instruction and learned how to run a household. She lived there until the age of 24 when she married a kind man. They had two children. and by all accounts, Mary Ellen was a gentle and loving mother. She named one daughter Etta in honor of the woman who had led the crusade to rescue her.
She seldom spoke of the early years, but she and Etta did once attend a session of the American Humane Association’s conference, where Mrs. Wheeler was the guest speaker. That was in 1913.
In 1956, Mary Ellen died at the age of 92. She lived a long and happy life following her horrific and harrowing early years.
Mary Smitt, the Neighbor Who Cared
The following is taken from Etta Wheeler's personal account of the matters regarding Mary Ellen Wilson.
Mrs. Wheeler was trying to get into the apartment to see Mary Ellen when she met the neighbor, Mary Smitt. The Smitts lived next door to the Connolly family and shared a common wall through which sounds were easily heard.
Mary Smitt had come from Germany with her husband and shortly after became very ill. She became bedridden and was in a position to hear all that transpired on the other side of the common wall. She heard a child crying and thought, perhaps, the child was sick as well. As Etta Wheeler grew to know Mary Smitt, she shared her concern and mission to rescue Mary Ellen from the home.
As time passed, Etta grew to care for Mary Smitt. One Easter Sunday, Etta brought flowers to Mary, who was bedridden. That Easter, Mary Ellen had already been locked in a dark room for the day, and her step-parents had gone out—not planning to return until nightfall.
Mary Smitt and Etta Wheeler sat talking about Easter, Christ, and the Resurrection. Mary shared stories of her home and childhood in the Rhineland and said she longed to pass over to a better place where she would not be sick anymore. She told Etta that before she was to die, she wanted to know that the child was safe. She considered Mary Ellen a fellow sufferer.
The day after Mary Ellen was rescued and taken into safety, Mary Smitt died in peace knowing it was okay to leave. She had done all she could to help the little girl.
I was unable to locate more about Mary Smitt or her life.
- Mr. Bergh worked to bring legislature that brought about The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He was determined to prevent this sort of exploitation and abuse of children.
- Elbridge T. Gerry became President of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and later wrote a book, The Relation of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to Child-Saving Work.
- Mary Smitt, the neighbor who shared a common wall with Mary Ellen, died the day after Mary Ellen was rescued. She had hung on, hoping to see the child safely removed from the abuse.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Brenda Barnes