CWTI Trainings

documentation graphic: woman on computer, man writing

Evolution of Federal Child Welfare Legislation















The Case of Mary Ellen Wilson


In 1874, the case of Mary Ellen Wilson triggered public concern about the plight of abused and neglected children.  This was one of the first cases of child abuse and neglect that received widespread media attention.  


Mary Ellen's Story

Photo of Mary Ellen Wilson
Photo from "Out of the Darkness: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson" by Eric A. Shelman and Stephen Lazoritz, M.D.

Although her story took place over a century ago, Mary Ellen Wilson’s legacy remains with us because her case is generally regarded as the beginning of public concern for abused and neglected children.  Due to the death of her father and her mother’s subsequent fall into poverty, Mary Ellen was turned over to the New York City Department of Charities.  The Department gave her to a Mr. and Mrs. McCormack, but without proper documentation or oversight.  Mr. McCormack died and Mrs. McCormack remarried a Mr. Connolly.  Rather than caring for her, the Connollys abused Mary Ellen.  Mary Ellen was beaten, locked in a room, rarely allowed outside, and not provided adequate food or clothing.

A neighbor who had heard the child’s screaming told a mission worker about Mary Ellen.  The mission worker went and observed Mary Ellen’s dire condition herself but could find no one to intervene.  Although some states, including New York, had laws prohibiting excessive physical discipline of children, the New York City authorities were unwilling to intervene.  An appeal was made to Henry Bergh, the founder and president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  Mr. Bergh and the ASPCA’s attorneystook up Mary Ellen’s cause and persuaded a judge to hear her case.  Mr. Bergh also elicited media attention from The New York Times, which published accounts of the case.  This media attention garnered wide public attention for the issue of child abuse and neglect.

Mary Ellen was carried into the courtroom wrapped in a horse blanket. This is reportedly her testimony to the judge: 

“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 hit 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 of ever being on the street in my life, ”

(Watkins, 1990, p. 502 as cited in McDaniel & Lescher, 2004, p. 34-35).

Mary Ellen was removed from the Connollys, placed first in a shelter for girls and then with the family of the mission worker who discovered her.  Mary Ellen’s case stirred considerable public attention.  Complaints about the mistreatment of children began to pour in to Henry Bergh and the ASPCA.  So many cases of child beating and cruelty to children came to light that a community meeting of citizens was called, which led to the formation of an association “for the defense of outraged childhood.”  That association gave rise to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first formal child protective agency in the United States.

               2 of 5               Next