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Evolution of Federal Child Welfare Legislation















The Case of Mary Ellen Wilson


The case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a child growing up in New York City during the late 1800s, triggered public concern about the plight of abused and neglected children.  This was one of the first documented cases of child abuse and neglect.  

This section excerpted from AFFT Curriculum Manual, Muskie School of Public Service; MacDaniel & Lescher (2004)



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 prompted 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 Mary Ellen, the Connollys abused her.  Mary Ellen was beaten, locked in a room, rarely allowed outside, and not provided adequate food or clothing.

A neighbor who had heard Mary Ellen’s screams told a mission worker about her.  The mission worker went to the home and observed Mary Ellen’s dire condition herself, but could find no one to intervene.  Although some states, including New York, had laws at that time prohibiting excessive physical discipline of children, the New York City authorities were unwilling to take action.  The mission worker appealed to Henry Bergh, the founder and president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), for assistance on Mary Ellen’s behalf.  Mr. Bergh and the ASPCA’s attorneys took 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.  The media coverage 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.  She grew up in that family and later married, having children of her own.    Following Mary Ellen’s case, complaints about the mistreatment of children poured 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 to address the issue.  This community meeting led to the formation of an association “for the defense of outraged childhood”, giving rise to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first formal child protective agency in the United States.


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