Mary Ellen Wilson was raised in New York City by an abusive foster family. She was an inspiration to animal rights activists who worked for the first child protection laws in American history. In 1874, the first child abuse case in U.S. history went to trial. Ten-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson had encountered long periods of awful maltreatment before anybody mediated, yet she turned into the perfect example for change in the country. Wilson’s story is tragic and amazing all at once. Animal rights activists were the ones who had to step up and save Wilson from an abusive home in the days before laws protecting children. Her story would inspire those same activists to advocate for laws that protect children today.
Mary Ellen Wilson was marked by tragedy from birth. Before Mary Ellen turned two years old, her father was killed in the Civil War. Frances Wilson had to work in order to provide for her daughter. Wilson employed a woman to watch Mary Ellen while she worked double shifts in a hotel laundry room. The woman also gave the child to the Department of Charities of New York when Wilson could not pay. Mary Ellen Wilson ended up in the foster care system as a result of that. Moreover, it marked the beginning of years of abuse. According to American Heritage, Mary Ellen lived with Francis and Mary Connolly for six years. Mary Ellen later testified in court, “My bed at night is only a piece of carpet stretched out on the floor underneath a window.” I can’t remember the last time I owned just one pair of shoes. The child had no connection to the outside world. She acknowledged, “I am never permitted to play with any children.” I have no idea how old I am. Mary Ellen was subjected to both physical and emotional abuse for six years. She stated, “I have no recollection of ever having been kissed.” I have no recollection of ever having been on the street. Mary Ellen was viciously whipped by her adoptive mother, who locked her up in a closet. Mama has a habit of whipping and beating me nearly every day. She used to beat me with a rawhide whip that was twisted. My body was always covered in blue and black marks from the whip. Additionally, Mary Ellen described how her adoptive mother cut her off with scissors, leaving her with a prominent scar on her face for the rest of her life.
Mary Ellen Wilson’s abuse was reported to the authorities by a concerned neighbor. Caseworker and Methodist missionary Etta Wheeler looked into the matter. Wheeler was horrified when she knocked on the door in December 1873 and found a “pale, thin child, barefoot, in a thin, scanty dress.” Mary Ellen Wilson, 9 years of age at that point, was the size of a 5-year-old. Additionally, the child had bruises covering his arms and legs. Shocked by the maltreatment, Wheeler went to the police. However, there were no laws against beating children, so parents still had almost complete control over how to discipline them at home. Without permission from the law, charities refused to take Mary Ellen from her adoptive parents, and the government did not want to intervene in a private matter. Wheeler got desperate as he got impatient. As a result, she inquired about the person who established the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Activists began advocating for animal cruelty legislation around the same time that Mary Ellen Wilson’s foster parents began abusing her. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was established in 1866 by activist Henry Bergh. Bergh declared that he would speak for the “mute servants of mankind” because he was disgusted by the way animals were treated. The ASPCA was founded by Bergh, who also wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Animals. The association before long turned into the implementers of a new enemy of savagery regulations. The activist made a lot of enemies for himself. Papers referred to Bergh as “The Incomparable Busybody.” However, Bergh was steadfast in his mission. This is purely a conscience-based decision with no baffling side effects. It is a moral dilemma in all of its facets. Additionally, Bergh acted immediately upon meeting Wheeler. Bergh got in touch with a lawyer for the ASPCA and sent an undercover agent to find out how Mary Ellen Wilson was doing. The matter was then taken to court by Bergh. Supporters of Mary Ellen asked a judge to remove the child from her abusive home in a petition. The judge agreed, and the first-ever child abuse trial in the United States began.
Mary Ellen Wilson was removed from the Connolly residence by police on April 9, 1874, and brought before the court. Since Mary Ellen wore worn-out garments, she strolled into court wearing a carriage cover. The incident was described by reporter Jacob Riis. As I looked, I knew I was in the place where the first chapter of children’s rights was being written. I saw a child brought in, and men wept loudly at the sight. I heard the story of little Mary Ellen, and it stirred the soul of a city and woke the conscience of a world that had been forgotten. Mary Ellen provided evidence against Mary Connolly during the trial. Connolly claimed that others were “ignorant of the difficulties of bringing up and governing children” in her defense on the stand. The jury pondered for only 20 minutes prior to viewing Connolly to be blameworthy and sending her to jail for one year.
According to the New York Times, Etta Wheeler adopted Mary Ellen Wilson herself after the trial. Mary Ellen relocated to a Rochester suburb, leaving behind the city’s tenements. Wheeler wrote, “A new life began here.” The child was a fascinating study because she had been enclosed for so long and was now in a new world. However, she was taught by other children in this home, just as children can teach each other. They taught her to play, not to be afraid, and to recognize and assert her rights. Henry Bergh was motivated to establish the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in December 1874 by Mary Ellen’s case. The SPCC would look into over 300 cases of child abuse over the next year. Backlash arose when Bergh and the SPCC advocated for legislation to prevent child abuse. Bergh requested permission to “break into the garrets of the poor and carry off their children upon the suspicion of spanking,” according to the New York World. The law was passed in 1876 despite opposition. Mary Ellen Wilson made a promise to her children that she would give them the childhood she never had. She had three stepchildren, two daughters, and an adopted daughter. Mary Ellen attended an American Humane Society meeting in 1913, where Etta Wheeler spoke. “If the memory of her earliest years is sad, there is this comfort in the fact that the cry of her wrongs awoke the world to the need for organized relief for neglected and abused children,” Wheeler said in his conclusion.
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