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Mary Ellen McCormack in 1874

Mary Ellen Wilson (1864–1956) 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] As an 8 year old, she was severely abused by her stepparents, Francis and Mary Connolly.[2]


Mary Ellen was born to Francis and Thomas Wilson of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.[1] Upon Thomas's death, Francis had to take a job and was no longer able to stay at home to raise her infant daughter. She boarded her daughter with a woman named Mary Score, a common practice at the time. When Francis 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, into the New York City Department of Charities.[2]

The Department placed Mary Ellen under the care of Mary Connolly and Thomas McCormack. According to Mary Connolly's court testimony, Thomas McCormack, Mary Connolly's first husband, claimed to be Mary Ellen Wilson's biological father.[3] 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 did not explain his or his wife's relationship with the child to 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.[3]

Investigation into abuse

Shortly after Mary Ellen came into the McCormacks' care, Thomas McCormack died. Mary McCormack married Francis Connolly, moving together with 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. 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. Wheeler, under the pretext of asking Mrs. Connolly's help in caring for Connolly's new neighbor, the chronically ill and home-bound Mary Smitt, gained access to the Connolly's apartment to see Mary Ellen's state for herself. When Ms. Wheeler saw evidence of physical abuse, malnourishment, and neglect in Mary Ellen's condition, Wheeler began to research legal options to redress 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 Burgh successfully removed Mary Ellen from the Connolly home and took Mary Connolly to trial.[2]

New York State Supreme Court

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. She was now 10 years old.[1][4]

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

The child testified in court regarding the abuse she had suffered, and afterward – on April 10, 1874 – she said:

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.[2]

Mrs. Connolly was sentenced to jail for one year. That year the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded, the first organization of its kind.[2]


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

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 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. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "How One Girl's Plight Started the Child-Protection Movement". American Humane Association. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "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.
  4. "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."

Further reading

  • Out of the Darkness: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson, 1999, Dolphin Moon Publishing Authors: Eric A. Shelman & Stephen Lazoritz, M.D.[1]
  • The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children's Rights in 19th Century America, 2005, McFarland & Company, Authors: Eric A. Shelman & Stephen Lazoritz, M.D.[2]

External links


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