Protection for Our Children: The Mary Ellen Wilson Case

Mary Ellen Wilson during her abuse case in 1874 | Courtesy of The New York Times

“The frail child in the tattered dress stands next to a large carved wooden chair, her hand resting on the arm for support. A large gash runs from her forehead to her cheek; her arms and legs are evidence of repeated and severe abuse.”1 It’s easy to assume that this came straight from the script of a horror movie, but it was the harsh reality for young Mary Ellen Wilson, a nine year old girl who was so beaten up and malnourished that she only looked about half her age. Although the worst part about it was that her guardian, the person that was expected to provide love and care, was the perpetrator of this little girl’s tortured condition, and law enforcement was only able to help with one hand tied behind its back. Help for children like Mary Ellen was hard to come by because, in the year 1874, parents could raise and discipline their children as they pleased. Parents of the time lived with the mindset that the government had no right to interfere with their parenting, but the Mary Ellen Wilson case opened the eyes of many, including Henry Burgh, who initiated a change and put together a team to end the violence.2

Before 1874, no one had actually ever seen young Mary Ellen. She lived in isolation for at least six out of the nine years of her lifetime. Luckily, her suffering was brought to light when neighbors reported the crying of a child without ever actually seeing the child. Due to the lack of child protection laws, there was not much officials could do about the situation. But once missionary Etta Wheeler caught wind of what was going on, she was determined to rescue Mary Ellen. Etta Wheeler is often overlooked when the Mary Ellen Wilson story is told, but without her kind efforts, Mary Ellen may have never gotten the help she needed.3

Wheeler paid many visits to Mary Ellen’s home, most of which were unsuccessful. and she was only able to catch short glimpses of the battered child. She then requested help from local organizations and charities that were known for providing essentials for children in need, but they did not possess the authority to intervene. Finally, Wheeler turned to someone who was known to take action for causes that he believed in, Henry Burgh.4

Henry Burgh was a rich, well-known diplomat famous for being the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and for getting overwhelmingly involving in things that he believed in. After working with Wheeler to learn more about Mary Ellen’s situation, he reached out to attorney Elbridge T. Gerry. Gerry was eager to get the ball rolling as well, and within 48 hours, Gerry and Burgh had developed a case and asked Wheeler to testify.5 In attempts to gather more information of his own, Burgh sent investigators to Mary Ellen’s home. After seeing the horrific conditions that Mary Ellen was in, law enforcement soon made the decision to remove the young girl from the dangerous home. Although there were no specific laws concerning child abuse, these circumstances were so special and concerning that an executive decision was made. They took the young, battered girl out of her death trap of a home and comforted her in a blanket. She was so oblivious to the outside world that when a police officer gave her a peppermint stick for comfort, she tried to use it for self defense.6

The NYSPCC’s first children’s shelter in 1875 | Courtesy of nyspcc.org

It was now time for Mary Ellen’s case to go to court, and who better to tell the Mary Ellen story than Mary Ellen herself? She was able to testify for herself in cour,t and gave the real and terribly sad testimony that follows: “My name is Mary Ellen…I have no recollection of ever having been kissed and I have never been kissed by momma. I have never been taken on mommas lap…I never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped; I have never had any more clothing than I have on at present…;I have seen stockings and other clothes in our room, but I am not allowed to put them on; whenever momma went out, I was locked up in the bed- room;…I don’t know for what I was whipped; momma never said anything when she whipped me; I do not want to go back to live with momma because she beats me so.”7

After a legal battle, Mary Ellen was permanently removed from her home and given her justice, but this was not enough for Henry Burgh. Burgh was determined to create an organization to protect future children from that kind of abuse. He quickly founded The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). NYSPCC was the first child protective organization in the entire world. It has since influenced over 300 different organizations and eventually it led to the development of Child Protective Services.8

  1. Mary Renck Jalongo, “The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson: Tracing the Origins of Child Protection in America,” Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 34, no.1 (August 2006): 1.
  2. Howard Markel, “Case Shined First Light on Child Abuse,” New York Times, December 14, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/15/health/15abus.html.
  3. Gerald Mallon, “From the Editor: The Legend of Mary Ellen Wilson and Etta Wheeler: Child Maltreatment and Protection Today,” Child Welfare vol. 92, no.2 (March 2013): 9.
  4. John E.B. Myers, “A Short History of Child Protection in America,” Family Law Quarterly, Volume 42, no.3 (Fall 2008): 451.
  5. Mary Renck Jalongo, “The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson: Tracing the Origins of Child Protection in America,” Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 34, no.1 (August 2006): 2.
  6.  Eric Shelman, The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children’s Rights in 19th Century America (Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Company, 2005), 16.
  7. Mary Renck Jalongo, “The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson: Tracing the Origins of Child Protection in America,” Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 34, no.1 (August 2006): 1.
  8. John E.B. Myers, “A Short History of Child Protection in America,” Family Law Quarterly, Volume 42, no.3 (Fall 2008): 451-452.

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57 Responses

  1. This is such a heartbreaking story. Mary Ellen was a young and innocent child who only knew of pain. It is terrible that parents could get away with such abuse and for the government to have no authority over these situations. Burgh took it into his hands to help Mary Ellen, thus, saving her life. However, he didn’t stop here. Burgh went above this case and created an organization to help children in similar situations as Mary Ellen. As a result, later on CPS was created. While the system is not perfect, children are getting the help they need to save them.

  2. This is such a heartbreaking story. It makes me wonder how many other children were abused, yet their stories were unheard of during this time. It seems strange to think that child abuse laws were absent before 1874 because of the commonality of it today. Thanks to people like Etta Wheeler, Henry Burgh, and Elbridge Gerry, these laws are existent and other organizations like Child Protective Services were developed. This is a very interesting article!

  3. I had never heard the story of Mary Ellen before and was surprised to know that her story was one of the pieces that led to the creation of Child Protective Services. It’s sad that parents, who are supposed to love and care for their children, could act and mistreat them so badly. There is no excuse for a child abuse by a parent, and in Mary Ellen’s case, there is nothing Mary Ellen could have done that could have warranted her mother treating her that way. I’m glad that there are agencies in place like The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Child Protective Services to protect and stand up for children who are otherwise unable to stand up for themselves.

  4. I think this is a well-written article that sums up how child abuse was dealt with in the past. I did not know the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, but I find it very inhumane from the parents’ side. It amazes me how there were no child protection laws before this, moreover, we still see child abuse til this day. I believe it is very important to protect our children, and these laws although they help, it still happens.

  5. It’s so heartbreaking knowing that child abuse has been around as long as it has, and that poor Mary Ellen endured a lifetime of pain in just nine years. Seeing that photo made me sick to my stomach because she honestly looks so much younger than nine. This is a very informative article.

  6. It saddens me to read a case of child abuse, but without this little girl the NYSPCC would not exist. In today’s world we see so many cases where children are abused physically, sexually, and mentally. It disgusts me to think what drives people to harm a child, but here they are from one to the next destroying the lives of our youth. Mary’s mother’s testimony was not talked about in this piece so it makes me wonder what she had to say for herself after her daughter said that she had never been kissed by her mother and that she didn’t know why she whipped her. I have a daughter and I couldn’t imagine ever hurting her just because or letting someone else do it.

  7. This is a great article that highlights something that is kind of taken for granted today. Basic children’s rights are something that everyone today should know about. On when/how it started is another story that not many people can say they know. The thing that made this article extremely compelling was the exact quotes from Mary Ellen, that is some extremely powerful story telling that is worth noting. It is that and the vivid physical descriptions of Mary Ellen that really stick while you are reading the article. They make you glad that something was done for her and something is being done for children abused today.

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