Mary Ellen Wilson

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Mary Ellen McCormack in 1874

Mary Ellen Wilson (March 1864 – October 30, 1956) or sometimes Mary Ellen McCormack was an American whose case of child abuse led to the creation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.[1] At the age of eight, she was severely abused by her foster parents, Francis and Mary Connolly.[2] Because she was assisted by Henry Bergh, then the head of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, some sources incorrectly state that statutes against cruelty to animals had to be used to remove her from the home.[3] Hers was the first documented case of child abuse in the United States.[4]


Mary Ellen was born in March 1864 to Frances and Thomas Wilson of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.[1] Following Thomas's death in the Civil War, Frances had to take a job and was no longer able to stay at home to raise her infant daughter. She boarded her daughter, a common practice at the time, with a woman named Martha Score. When Frances Wilson's financial situation worsened, she began to miss her visitation dates with her daughter and was no longer able to make child care payments to Score. Score turned Mary Ellen, now almost two in to the New York City Department of Charities.[2]

The Department placed Mary Ellen under the care of Thomas and Mary McCormack (Mary went on to marry Francis Connolly following Thomas's death). According to Mary Connolly's court testimony, her first husband, Thomas McCormack, claimed to be Mary Ellen Wilson's biological father.[5] The Department of Charities placed Mary Ellen into the McCormacks' care illegally without the proper papers or receipts served. Thomas McCormack signed an "indenture" agreement upon retrieving Mary Ellen from the Department of Charities' care, but didn't explain his or his wife's relationship with the child to the Commissioner of Charities and Correction. The McCormacks were required to report the child's condition annually to the Department, but according to Mary Connolly's later court testimony, this only occurred once or twice during Mary Ellen's stay.[5]

Investigation into abuse[edit]

After Mary Ellen came into the McCormacks' care, Thomas McCormack died. Mary McCormack married Francis Connolly, moving herself and Mary Ellen to an apartment on West 41st Street. It was at this address that neighbors first became aware of young Mary Ellen's mistreatment. Her foster mother forced her to do heavy labor, repeatedly beat, burned, and cut the child[6] and locked her in a closet.[7] When the Connollys moved to a new address, one of the concerned neighbors from their 41st Street apartment asked Etta Angell Wheeler, a Methodist missionary who worked in the area to check in on the child. Under the pretext of asking Mrs. Connolly's help in caring for Connolly's new neighbor, the chronically ill and home-bound Mary Smitt, Wheeler gained access to the Connollys' apartment to witness Mary Ellen's state for herself. When Ms. Wheeler saw evidence of severe physical abuse, malnourishment, and neglect in Mary Ellen's condition—she was seen barefoot in December,[8] for example—Wheeler began to research legal options to redress the abuse and protect the young girl. After finding the local authorities reluctant to act upon the child cruelty laws currently in place, Wheeler turned to a local advocate for the animal humane movement and the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Henry Bergh. With the help of neighbors' testimony, Wheeler and Bergh removed Mary Ellen from the Connolly home using a writ of homine replegiando and took Mary Connolly to trial.[2]

New York State Supreme Court[edit]

Elbridge Thomas Gerry of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took her case to the New York State Supreme Court in 1874. At the time of the trial, Mary Ellen was 10 years of age.[1][9]

The deliberate cruelties and deprivations inflicted on Mary Ellen Wilson by her adopted parents included the following:

  • regular and severe beatings
  • insufficient food
  • being forced to sleep on the floor
  • having no warm clothes to wear in cold weather
  • being frequently left alone inside a darkened, locked room
  • being forbidden to go outdoors, except at night in her own yard

On April 9, 1874, the child testified in court regarding the abuse she had suffered:[9]

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 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 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.[2]

A jury convicted Mrs. Connolly of assault and battery and the judge sentenced her to 1 year in prison.[10] That year, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded, the first organization of its kind.[2]

Later life and death[edit]

Following the conviction of Mary Connolly, Mary Ellen was initially placed in a juvenile home before Etta Wheeler and her relatives successfully obtained custody of her.[11] Mary Ellen named her daughter, Etta, after Etta Wheeler.

In 1888 at age 24, Mary Ellen married Lewis Schutt. They had two children together. Schutt had three children from his previous marriage and they later adopted an orphaned girl. Mary Ellen died in 1956 at 92.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Markel, Howard (December 14, 2009). "Case Shined First Light on Abuse of Children". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-15. In fact, though, the quotation is from the 1874 case of Mary Ellen McCormack, below, a self-possessed 10-year-old who lived on West 41st Street, in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. It was Mary Ellen who finally put a human face on child abuse — and prompted a reformers’ crusade to prevent it and to protect its victims, an effort that continues to this day.
  2. ^ a b c d e "How One Girl's Plight Started the Child-Protection Movement". American Humane Association. Archived from the original on 2011-05-19. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
  3. ^ Unti, Bernard (2008). "Cruelty Indivisible: Historical Perspectives on the Link Between Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence". In Frank R. Ascione (ed.). The International Handbook of Animal Abuse and Cruelty: Theory, Research, and Application. Purdue University Press. p. 12. ISBN 9781557534637. Although scholarly and public confusion continues on this point, Bergh and Gerry did not intervene in Mary Ellen's case under an animal protection statute.
  4. ^ Regoli, Hewitt, DeLisi, Robert M., John D., Matt (2014). Delinquency in Society (9th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-4496-4549-6. The 1874 case of Mary Ellen Wilson is generally regarded as the first documented child abuse case in the United States.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ a b "The mission of humanity. Continuation of the proceedings instituted by Mr. Bergh on behalf of the child, Mary Ellen Wilson" (PDF). New York Times. April 11, 1874. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
  6. ^ "Mary Ellen Wilson: drawing attention to child abuse in the 19th Century". Herald Journal. October 6, 2004. Retrieved September 3, 2016.
  7. ^ Out of the darkness; the story of Mary Ellen Wilson
  8. ^ Out of the darkness: the story of Mary Ellen Wilson pg. 189
  9. ^ a b "Mr. Bergh Enlarging His Sphere". New York Times. April 10, 1874. Retrieved 2009-12-15. It appears from proceedings had in Supreme Court, Chambers, yesterday, in the case of a child named Mary Ellen, that Mr. Bergh does not confine the humane impulses of his heart to smoothing the pathway of the brute creation toward the grave or elsewhere, but that he embraces within the sphere of his kindly efforts the human species also.
  10. ^ "Trial of Mary Connolly for a Cruel Assault Upon "Little Ellen"—She is Convicted of Assault and Battery and Sent to the Penitentiary for One Year". New York Daily Herald. 1874-04-28. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  11. ^ Markel, Howard (December 14, 2009). "1874 Case of Mary Ellen McCormack Shined First Light on Child Abuse" – via

Further reading[edit]

  • Costin, Lela B.; Karger, Howard B.; Stoesz, David (1996). The Politics of Child Abuse in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-11668-2.
  • Pearson, Susan J. (2011). The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-65201-6.
  • Shelman, Eric A.; Lazoritz, M.D, Stephen (1999). Out of the Darkness: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson. Florida: Dolphin Moon Publishing. ISBN 978-1-452-41329-7.
  • Shelman, Eric A.; Lazoritz, M.D, Stephen (2005). The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children's Rights in 19th Century America. London: McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers. ISBN 978-0-786-42039-1.

External links[edit]