It’s not a secret that child welfare is my thing. Ugly as it may be at times, it’s something I love learning about. That’s why they call me Morbid Lindsey. Anyway, today I wanted to share the case that really got child welfare started: The Case of Mary Ellen
Although there were laws against child abuse in the United States prior to Mary Ellen’s case, they were pretty vague. Also, there were no organizations championing the protection of children—there were child-centered charities out there, but they didn’t do much with abuse. I found a nice history of child protection in America, and it explained, “Before the spread of nongovernmental child-protection societies beginning in 1875, intervention to protect children was sporadic, but intervention occurred. Children were not protected on the scale they are today, but adults were aware of maltreatment and tried to help.” The majority of people certainly weren’t for child abuse, but people also didn’t want to infringe on parents’ right to raise their kids as they “saw fit.” This can still be a bit of an issue today, but the laws are a lot more clear cut on what is termed abusive.
Then there was Mary Ellen Wilson. Fans of Les Miserables might notice that Mary Ellen’s early childhood has quite a few parallels with Cosette’s, but it’s only coincidental—Les Miserables was published twelve years prior to Mary Ellen’s case. Mary Ellen’s father died in the Civil War when Mary Ellen was a baby, leaving her mother to provide for the two of them. Mary Ellen’s mother paid to have the infant Mary Ellen board with a woman while she worked. When Mary Ellen’s mother lost her job and was unable to make payments for Mary Ellen’s boarding, the woman turned Mary Ellen (now a toddler) over to an orphanage.
The dates and details are a little blurry, but not long afterward she came into the care of Mary and Thomas McCormack. Some sources say she was adopted, while other sources say she was illegally placed with the McCormacks when Thomas McCormack claimed Mary Ellen was his biological child without providing any documentation. In the latter source there was also mention of Mary Ellen being ‘indentured’ to them, but I couldn’t find much on that. Shortly after, Thomas McCormack died and Mary McCormack remarried to Francis Connolly. Sometime after that (perhaps 1873?) The Connollys and Mary Ellen moved to a different apartment, which proved to be Mary Ellen’s salvation.
Sometime around 1873 the Connolly’s neighbors began to notice that something was very wrong. They didn’t see Mary Ellen come out of the Connolly’s apartment very often, but they certainly could hear her screams. The neighbors asked Etta Wheeler, a Methodist missionary who worked with the poor, to check in on Mary Ellen. Etta managed to get inside the Connolly’s apartment under the guise that she needed to ask the Connollys about their ill neighbor. Once inside, Etta saw 10-year-old Mary Ellen and the whip marks that covered her arms and legs. You can read Etta’s telling of the experience here.
Etta immediately set out to find help for Mary Ellen, but it was several months before she found someone that took interest in Mary Ellen’s plight. The police weren’t much help, and the existing child-centered charities didn’t have the power to do anything. Finally in 1874 Etta decided to check with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) based in New York. Henry Bergh, the founder of ASPCA, was a pretty influential guy, and with the help of Mary Ellen’s neighbors’ testimonies and Bergh’s lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, Mary Ellen was removed from the Connollys. Mary Connolly was tried and sentenced to a year in jail by the New York State Supreme Court. You can read more on the trial here.
After the trial, Etta Wheeler’s sister took custody of Mary Ellen and raised her for the remainder of Mary Ellen’s childhood. There’s not much out there about Mary Ellen’s life after the case, but it appears that it was much better than her early childhood. When she grew up, she got married, had a few children (and adopted one), and died at the age of 92. It’s not too much of an indication of her quality of life, but it seems like she had a full life.
Bergh and Gerry went on to create the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1875, which was also known as the Gerry Society. It was the first organization solely devoted to preventing the abuse of children, and it quickly spurred the creation of similar organizations around the country. The NYSPCC is still functioning today.
Here’s more if you’re interested: