The cover picture got shot in 1874, when Mary Ellen Wilson was, apparently, only 5 or 6 years old. The little child was taken from her foster parents thanks to a peculiar law, the one about Cruelty to Animal, already part of the American justice system.

As for children abuse there was still no norms or laws for their safeguard

However, when the picture was taken, Mary Ellen was 10 years old. She would show on her body the sign of her malnutrition as well as the abuse that she was daily enduring from her foster parents Mary and Francis Connelly. Her story was the one which sensitised  the American public opinion over the need of a legislation for such stories. Thanks to this, the very first association in the world dealing with Child Abuse came to life, with the name of “New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children”.

Mary Ellen’ story

Mary Ellen was born in March 1864, daughter of Tomas and Fanny Wilson. Shortly after the birth, her father Tomas died in the second battle of Cold Harbor, during the Civil war in the US. Her mother would work day and night in order to provide for her little child, but when she lost her job, she was forced to leave her to an orphanage.

Below: Mary Ellen 10 years old

When she is 2, Mary Ellen was adopted by a man named Thomas McCormack, married with Mrs Mary McCormack. The man died a year later, leaving the baby with her foster mother, Mary McCormack.

The woman would despise the child

The widow soon got remarried to Francis Connolly, and they decided to keep the baby

Mary Ellen is about 3 years old: she could not foresee what would have happened to her from now to the next 7 years

The new family moved to the man’s apartment on the 41st street of Manhattan. Beated, mistreated and locked inside the wardrobe for hours, they forbid her to both go out and look out of the window.

She gets any sort of tortures by her captors, that the same Mary Ellen will report later on:

Continuous and heavy beating
insufficient food
forced to sleep on the floor
no heavy clothes during the freezing winters in New York
very often left alone in a dark locked room
Impossibility to go out, apart at night, within the building yard

Mary Ellen wears on her fragile body the signs of her tortures and some of her neighbours get suspicious, one of whom Mrs Etta Angell Wheeler (1834-1921), a methodist missionary. She used the excuse of asking for help to Mrs Connolly about their neighbour Mary Smitt that was bedridden. Mrs Wheeler managed to step in the Connolly’s apartment and observe the condition of the little Mary, obliged to walk with bare feet in December. Beyond that, it was extremely clear the state of malnutrition and physical abuses that Mary and her bruises, scars and burns were portraying.

Mary Ellen would look like a 5-6 years old but in reality she was 10

Below: picture of Etta Wheeler

We have got to take action. How, though?

The local authorities were not incline to intervene, especially since child abuse were not part of the then legal rights. Mrs Wheeler though had a stroke of genius: she contacted Mr Henry Bergh, lawyer specialised in prevention against Animal Cruelty.

Thanks to her own testimony and the ones of the neighbours, Mrs Wheeler and Mr Bergh obtained the removal of Mary Ellen from Mr and Mrs Connolly.

Below: Mr Bergh, the lawyer who saved Mary and took her away from her torturers-foster parents

The neighbours testified about the continuous cries of the poor Mary Ellen and Mrs Mary Connolly was brought to trial. The testimony of Mary Ellen on April 9, 1874 is harrowing:

“My father and my 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”.

During the trial, Mrs Connolly was plead guilty and condemned to one year of prison (it is important to remember this was the first sentence ever made on Child abuse) and Mary Ellen was given to the care of an institute. Thanks to the clamour that this trial provoked, in 1874  the“New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children” was born, the first society in the world dealing with prevention and abuse on children, still operating to this day.

What about Mary Ellen?

Despite the awful tortures, the life of Mary seemed to recover pretty normally. When she was 24 she got married with Mr Louis Schutt. the couple brought up the two natural children they had as well as three others coming from a prior union of the man.

Beyond the 5 children, Mary and Louis decided to adopt a little girl who was left an orphan

Mary Ellen died in 1956, at the venerable age of 92. The tragic events that scarred the young Mary made possible to open the eyes about the justice system and how it had to be changed. In the following years, millions of children would start receiving a just protection by the institutions of all the world.

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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