Protections for children so rare, non-existent it required bizarre intervention
This may come as a surprise to many but the first documented case of child abuse which was reported and dealt with in 1874 in the United States was in fact first reported to an animal welfare organization.
Not because children were considered animals, but the regulations and resources were so scarce that no government agency thought of this as a serious issue. So one can safely make this argument based on the evidence that animals had welfare rights well before children in the United States.
The case in question was of a young girl, Mary Ellen, who was born into a poor family in New York City in 1864 to Fanny and Thomas Wilson.
After Mary’s father died in the civil war, her mother struggled to raise her and could not find time to raise her and work at the same time. Fanny Wilson decided to leave her young child with a caretaker and kept on working days and nights and made the regular payments to the carer.
However, when poverty and unemployment restricted her from regular payment, the carer left Mary with Department of Charities. When Fanny came back for her girl, she was told that Mary had died and that they had buried her; Mary was alive and had just turned two at the time she was handed over to the Depart of Charities.
Mary’s life took an abrupt turn towards pain and misery when she was adopted by Thomas and Mary McCormack who had come into the charity and claimed to be Mary’s biological parents.
They were never asked by the Department of charities for any proof of parenthood, and the child was handed over the couple. Soon after Mary arrived in her new home, Mr. McCormack died, and Mary remarried to Francis McConnell.
Mrs. McConnell was a cruel person who showed no love or kindness towards the child and scolded her badly even when she could barely speak.
Neighbours could hear Mary scream all day when Mrs. McConnell used to beat her, often fifteen minutes straight without any remorse. Mary was not allowed to leave the house and had to stay indoors, and was beaten by anything that Mrs. Connelly found nearby.
Mary’s ordeals didn’t end even when Mrs. Connelly left the house for her works: Mary was kept in the chain in a small closet with an old piece of carpet to rest on and a dirty quilt to warm her.
Mary was beaten, starved, cut and burned for more than seven years and no one came to her aid. By that time Mary had only seen violence, scolding, torture and beating and did not know anything about the outside world.
When the family moved to another apartment, the neighbours took notice of the beating and a visiting Methodist mission sent Mrs. Etta Angell Wheeler to investigate the matter further.
When Mrs. Etta managed to enter the house, she found Mary in a terrible condition; scars all over her arms and faces Mary was only wearing a shirt and pyjamas, despite the fact that it was freezing cold in New York.
Mary was standing on a stool and washing dishes while Mrs. Connelly continuously scolded her for all that was wrong in her own life.
After observing little Mary’s plight, Mrs. Etta decided to do something to save the child from any more abuse, but it took Mrs. Etta another three months to make any progress in the matter.
Everywhere she went for help she was met with ignorance and stubborn bureaucracy; Mrs. Etta was told that despite the ‘unideal’ conditions Mary had to live in, she was better off in the care of Mrs. Connelly then living on her own.
Despite spending days knocking at the doors of countless agencies, Mrs. Wheeler failed to convince the authorities that the little girl needed attention and had to remove from the custody of this evil woman.
Desperate for help and utterly saddened, Mrs. Wheeler spoke to her niece about the matter who suggested seeing Mr. Henry Bergh who was the founder of American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Mrs. Wheeler initially got agitated upon hearing her niece’s suggestion and replied that Mary was no animal, but her niece convinced her that Mr. Bergh was a kind man and he had connections in many government agencies and surely he was the man who could help the little girl get out of the hell.
Mrs. Wheeler was desperate for help and memories of Mary’s scarred face, and helpless eyes convinced her to meet Mr. Bergh. Upon meeting Mr. Bergh, Mrs. Wheeler was told that she needed documentary evidence to back her claims, only then Mr. Bergh would be in better position to help her in the matter.
After obtaining the written testimonies from the neighbors, Mrs. Wheeler presented the evidence to Mr. Bergh who sent an agent to the neighborhood to confirm the testimonies.
The case was then presented to the court via ASPCA’s attorney Elbridge T. Gerry who prepared the petition and asked the court for the permission to remove Mary Ellen from the apartment.
The case was heard by the Supreme Court Judge Lawrence who approved Mary Ellen’s removal from Mrs. Connelly’s custody.
Mary Ellen was brought to court and testified that she was beaten day and night by her ‘mother.’ Mrs. Connelly was found guilty by the court and was sentenced to five years of hard labor whereas Mary Ellen was sent to a safe custodian.
Mary Ellen slowly but surely recovered and lived until 1956; she died at the age of 92 after having lived a happy and long life.