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The curious case of Mary Ellen and child welfare rights!

by Aadarsh Jain

The curious case of Mary Ellen and child welfare rights!

May 15, 2021

Mary Ellen, a young girl, was violently abused and abandoned, but police were unable to intervene because no protections for the safety of children existed in this country at the time, but animal cruelty laws did. The following is Mary Ellen's tale...

Mary Ellen Wilson was born in New York City in 1864 to Francis and Thomas Wilson. Thomas died soon after, and his widow went to work. Francis was no longer able to sit at home and care for her newborn daughter, so she boarded Mary Ellen with a woman called Mary Score (a common procedure at the time). Francis’s financial condition worsened, and she fell back into debt, skipping meetings with her daughter and getting behind on payments. As a result, Mary Score gave Mary Ellen, a two-year-old, to the city’s Department of Charities.

636416769805829971 mary ellen Mary Ellen after

Marry Ellen And Her Suffering

The Department made a decision that would have grave implications for Mary Ellen; it put her in the home of Mary and Thomas McCormack, who appeared to be the child’s biological father, unlawfully, without sufficient evidence of the relationship, and with insufficient supervision. Thomas died soon after, in an unsettling recurrence of events. His widow married Francis Connolly and moved to a slum on West 41st Street with their new families.

Mary McCormack Connolly mistreated Mary Ellen severely, and the child’s condition was known to the apartment building’s residents. The Connollys quickly moved to a new block of flats, but in 1874, one of their original neighbours asked Etta Angell Wheeler, a concerned Methodist mission worker who frequently visited the tenements’ poor tenants, to check on the boy. Etta met Mary Smitt, a chronically ill and homebound resident, at the new address, who reported that she often heard a child crying across the street.

Etta Wheeler approached Mary Connolly under the cover of seeking assistance for Mrs. Smitt. She had firsthand knowledge of Mary Ellen’s suffering. The 10-year-old looked messy and weak, wearing threadbare clothes and bearing bruises and scars on her arms and legs. Ms. Wheeler started looking at ways she could get Mary Ellen legal help and security.

636416769805205967 mary ellen Mary Ellen

Etta Wheeler engaged in her attempts to save Mary Ellen and, after much thoughtful consideration, appealed to Henry Bergh, the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a pioneer in the animal humane movement in the United States (ASPCA). Mr. Bergh sent a New York investigator (as a census worker who was to get access in Mary Ellen’s house) to check all claims after checking the documents received from Etta Wheeler. ASPCA counsel Elbridge T. Gerry prepared a motion for Mary Ellen to be removed from her home to show that she had been abused by a magistrate. As a private citizen, Mr. Bergh acted with respect for the fair care of an infant. But Mary Ellen’s rescue and push toward a formalised child safety scheme were guided by his work as the President of the NYSPCA, his connections to the legal system and the public.

Ellen's Letter

“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 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 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 any one—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 ever being on the street in my life” Mary Ellen, April 10, 1874, 

The press has covered the caregiver Mary Connolly’s conviction extensively, increased media interest and inspired different departments and organisations to promote law enforcement to save and protect abandoned children. Mary was found guilty of a violent attack on April 21 1874 and sentenced to a year’s hard labour in prison.

The rest of Mary Ellen’s narrative is less familiar but so impressive as the descriptions of her escape. Etta Wheeler played a significant part in the life of the kid. Familiar letters and other sources indicate that the Court put Mary Ellen in teenage girls’ institutional shelter. Ms Wheeler intervened with the belief that this was an unacceptable environment for the 10-year-old. Judge Lawrence granted authorisation to put the infant in Northern New York with its own mum, Sally Angell. But when Angell died, the younger sibling of Etta Wheeler, Elizabeth, and her husband Darius Spencer took good care of her. Her life with the family of Spencer has been stable and loving in every respect.

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