Mary Ellen Wilson was the first child taken away from abusive/negligent caretakers by court order in the United States. In 1871, Etta Angell Wheeler, a social worker or church worker (sources differ) in New York City, discovered the girl, who was beaten and starved by her foster parents, the Connellys (with whom she had been placed as a toddler by the Department of Charities). Though the situation appalled her, there were no laws in the city, state, or country protecting children from such treatment; the police said they couldn't do anything because it was a "family matter." So Wheeler was creative enough to turn to Henry Berg of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) for help, giving the theory that the child was a member of the animal kingdom and laws against cruelty to animals applied to her. (One wonders if this would have happened before the publication of The Origin of Species!) On this basis, Mary Ellen's parents were prosecuted. A lawyer provided by the Society argued on Mary Ellen's behalf, "citing an old English writ that barred the captivity of one person by another."
Mary Ellen's testimony in court included the following:
"I don't know how old I am . . . I have had no shoes or stockings on this winter . . . I have never had on a particle of flannel . . . I am never allowed to play with any children or have any company whatsoever. Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip, a raw hide. The whip always left black and blue marks on my body. I have now on my head two black and blue marks which were made by the whip, and a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors in mamma's hand . . . I have no recollection of ever having been hugged by mamma. I have never been taken on my mamma's lap, or caressed or petted. I never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped . . . Whenever mamma went out I was locked up in the bedroom . . . I have no recollection of ever being in the street in my life."
The court agreed that Mary Ellen had the right to be protected from cruelty, and she was taken away from her parents. Her foster mother was convicted of felonious assault and sentenced to prison. In 1874, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed in New York as a result of the case; this was a landmark in the history of protecting children from abuse in the U.S., although these societies were largely non-governmental agencies and it would be the 1960s before legislation specifically against child abuse was common in the U.S.
Mary Ellen was able to grow up in better circumstances, and she married and raised well-adjusted children of her own, including Etta and Florence who both became teachers. She lived to the age of 92. Eric A. Shelman and Stephan Lazoritz wrote Out Of The Darkness: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson in 1999 based on the legal documents of the time as well as interviews with Mary Ellen's descendants.
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