Monday, May 20, 2019

How the ASPCA Saved a Little Girl

Annamaria on Monday

Yes.  We are talking here about The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The little girl above is the child in question.  Because all but two of the female players in this drama are named Mary, I am going to list the cast of Mary characters here:

  • Mary Ellen Wilson, the little girl whose fate changed the treatment of children in New York
  • Mary Score, Mary Ellen's first foster mother
  • Mary McCormack, later Mary Connolly, second foster mother - the villain of the piece.

Mary Ellen was born to Frances and Thomas Wilson in New York in March of 1864, a period of great suffering for many children.  Think of all the worst pains inflicted on children in the novels of Charles Dickens.  Now multiply that by half a million.

Shortly after Mary Ellen came into that world, her father was killed in the Civil War.  Consequently, her mother had to go to work.  To do so, she boarded her baby with one Mary Score.  Not an uncommon thing for a single mother to do in those days.  Still, bad times continued to haunt Frances, and when she could not longer pay for little Mary Ellen's upkeep, Mary Score turned the not-quite-two-year-old over to the New York City Department of Charities.   This is where the plot thickens.

The Department put the baby in foster care with Mary McCormack and her husband--Francis (with an I), who claimed to be the little one's biological father.  Based on his claim, without proper proof and without proper paperwork, the city officials turned child over.  At which point Francis promptly died, and Mary McCormack promptly remarried--this time to Thomas Connolly.

Ridding itself of responsibility, the Department allowed the Connollys to make their custody of the child permanent.

They lived in a section of New York called Hell's Kitchen.  For little Mary Ellen, it was Hell, plain and simple.  Things became so bad that--even in that era of child labor--the neighbors began to notice how Mary Connolly abused the little one, forcing her to do heavy chores, beating, burning, and cutting her.  Even locking her in the closet so she could go out without the child.

The Connollys moved away.  But in their new neighborhood, folks living nearby became so distressed for little Mary Ellen that they asked a local Methodist missionary--Etta Angell Wheeler to look into the situation.   Etta became Mary Ellen's angel.  Using the ruse of a neighbor needing help, Etta got Mary Connolly out of the house and went to see what was going on.  She found the severely physically abused child barefoot, without proper winter clothing, and undernourished. She slept on the floor.  She went out only at night and only into the yard of the apartment where she lived.


Etta was determined to help Mary Ellen.   But she had a huge problem: Though there were child abuse laws on the books, the New York authorities were not willing to enforce them.

That was where Etta Wheeler got creative.  You see in 1870, there was in New York the headquarters of the American Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals.  Wheeler appealed to Henry Bergh, its founder.  Bergh took up little Mary Ellen's cause.   Mary Connolly was arrested and tried.  Here is a transcript from Wikipedia of the ten-year-old Mary Ellen's testimony at the trial:

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.  

Mary Connolly went to jail, but only for one year.

However, the scandal of her behavior brought about--that same year--the founding of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  It thrives, protecting children to this day.

Mary Ellen thrived too.  Eventually Etta Wheeler and her family took custody of Mary Ellen, who married at age twenty-four.  She and her husband had two children.  He had had three by a previous marriage.  And together they adopted an orphan.  Mary Ellen named her daughter Etta.

If your heart can stand this subject just a little longer, listen to this:


  1. It kind of makes you wonder...are we better now or just think that we are? I'd like to think we are.

  2. Our times are better, I think, Bro.At least in NYC. Individual children still suffer here, but at least—thanks to the child labor laws—fatcat sweatshop owners are not getting rich off their labor. Then, of course, there is the plight of girls worldwide. That is going on now.

  3. The RSPCA/SSPCA was founded in Britain in 1824, it took another 60 years before they thought to give children the same protection. Animals, medically, are still more protected than humans in the UK.