While laws protecting children from physical and sexual abuse are taken for granted today in most places, this wasn't always the case.
Back in the 19th century for example, the Biblical proscription to "spare the rod and spoil the child" was taken literally. This meant that corporal punishment was widely used, whether in schools, for dealing with delinquent children, and even as a way to enforce discipline in the home. As a result, there were no laws in place to allow for a child could be removed from an abusive home no matter how severe that abuse was. But a horrific case that came to light in New York's Hell's Kitchen district back in 1874 would help change that.
When a social worker named Etta Angell Wheeler was visiting a dying woman living at a house at 135 West Forty-First Street in early April of that year, she heard loud shrieks coming from another part of the same house. After questioning neighbours, Wheeler learned that the shrieks were coming from the apartment where Francis and Mary Connolly lived with Mary's adopted daughter, Mary Ellen. She also learned that the shrieking was a regular occurrence since the young girl was beaten by her adopted mother on a daily basis.
Though Etta Wheeler complained to the Department of Public Charities and Correction about the abused child, she was quickly frustrated by the lack of any real laws protecting children. Finally, out of desperation, she turned to the newly-established American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and its president, Henry Bergh. While New York had already passed tough new laws protecting animals from abuse, there was nothing equivalent protecting human children, something that most people found unbelievable. Once Henry Bergh became aware of what was happening, he became determined to rescue Mary Ellen and argued that she was as much a part of the animal kingdom as the animals that ASPCA worked to save.
Since city agencies were unable to help, Bergh hired the prominent trial lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to act on Mary Ellen's behalf so that she could be removed from the family home for her own safety. Invoking the legal concept of habeas corpus, Bergh and his attorney argued that the child was in immediate danger and insisted that she be brought to court so that she could speak on her own behalf. The sight of the eight-year-old child bearing the physical scars of her daily abuse helped rally public support. Newspapers gave graphic coverage of the case, along with descriptions of the visible scar on her face where Mary Connolly had struck her with a pair of scissors that very morning. Also, through the heartbreaking testimony she provided, the court managed to piece together much of the backstory that led to her being placed in the Connolly home in the first place.
Following her father's death in the Civil War (he had been a Union soldier who had been killed in battle) his widow, Frances, had been left to raise her newborn daughter alone. This being an era before social programs to help single parents, Frances was forced to work two jobs just to keep herself and her daughter properly fed. After she lost her job as a laundress, Frances was unable to care for her young daughter. She was then forced to send Mary Ellen to the city orphanage at Blackwell Island and losing all rights to her.
Just a few years later, Mary Ellen was adopted by Thomas and Mary McCormack. Unfortunately, Thomas died soon after the adoption went through and Mary then married Francis Connolly. It was also around this time that Mary Connolly began abusing her adopted daughter. The full extent of this abuse only came out during the trial and Mary Ellen's testimony was dutifully reported in newspapers across the country.
Here is a partial excerpt:
My name is Mary Ellen McCormack. I don't know how old I am. My parents are dead. Don't recollect the time I did not live with the Connollys. I call Mrs. Connolly, Mamma. I have never had but one pair of shoes but can't recollect when that was. I have had no shoes or stockings on this winter. I have never been allowed to go out of the rooms where the Connollys live except in the night and then, only in the yard...Mrs. Connolly has been in the habit of whipping me almost every day. She used to whip me with a rawhide. The whip always left black and blue marks on my body. I have on my head two black and blue marks which were made by mamma with the whip, and the cut on the left side of my forehead, which were made by a pair of scissors in mamma's hand. She struck me with the scissors and cut me. I have no recollection of ever having been kissed. I have never been taken on mamma's lap or caressed or petted. I never dared to speak to anybody because, if I did I would get whipped....I don't know why I was whipped. Mamma never said anything to me when she whipped me. I do not want to go back to mamma because she beats me so. I have no recollection of being on the street in my life.
After a brief trial, Mary Connolly was convicted of assault and battery and the court ordered Mary Ellen's permanent removal from the Connolly home. Despite various offers from members of the public to adopt her, she was then placed in a home for delinquent teenagers which, frankly, was little better than the abusive home from which she had escaped. It was only after Etta Wheeler and other members of her family volunteered to raise her that Mary Ellen finally got a stable home where she managed to grow up without abuse.
As a result of Etta Wheeler's urging, Henry Bergh, Elbridge Gerry, and prominent Quaker John D. Wright founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on December 15, 1874. Formed as a way of providing children with many of the same legal protections that animals already enjoyed under New York law, the society quickly became a model for similar organizations across the United States. By 1910, there would be 250 societies across the continent crusading on behalf of abused children. Though there was considerable controversy over the some of the society's early crusades (which opposed the use of children as stage performers, for example), the society can still be credited with many of the later laws protecting children from abuse as well as laying down the foundations of the modern foster system.
As for Mary Ellen McCormack, she spent the rest of her childhood in a small community near Rochester, New York under the watchful eye of Etta Wheeler and her family. Marrying at the age of 24, Mary Ellen had two children of her own as well as being a fond stepmother to her husband's three children from a previous marriage. By all accounts, she was a devoted mother and grandmother who lived to a ripe old age before dying in 1956.
While comprehensive laws protecting children from the kind of abuse that Mary Ellen McCormack exist in most places around the world, it remains far too easy for many children to slip between the cracks. Along with children who are continuing to die of parental mistreatment, we are seeing far too many cases of children being subjected to physical and sexual abuse by family members and authority figures and real progress remains elusive. In an era in which immigrant children are routinely being taken from their parents and kept in facilities little better than jails, we would do well to remember the kind of abuse that inspired us to care about the welfare of chiildren. It's a lesson that we need to keep learning even today.