MaryEllen is not here with us; her case took place in 1874, but she is here with us in spirit because her case is regarded as the beginning of public concern for abused and neglected children.
MaryEllen was a child born out-of-wedlock whose mother and father were dead. The New York Commission of Charities and Correction had given her to a Mr. and Mrs. Connolly who were to care for her and report each year on their progress.
The Connollys abused her. She was beaten, locked in her room and rarely allowed outside, and she was not given adequate food or clothing. A neighbor who had been upset by the child’s screaming told a mission worker. The mission worker could find no one to intervene; the police had no grounds because no crime was being committed; and the agencies wouldn’t get involved since they didn’t have legal custody.
An appeal was finally made to Henrey Bergh, the founder and president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He believed MaryEllen should be entitled to at least the same protection against cruelty that was already given, by law, to animals. He took up her cause and persuaded a judge to hear her case.
MaryEllen was carried into the courtroom wrapped in a horse blanket. This is what she said: “My mother and father are dead. I don’t know how old I am. I call Mrs. Connolly ‘mama’. I have never had but one pair of shoes, but I cannot recollect when that was. My bed at night has been a piece of carpet stretched on the floor underneath a window. Mama has been in the habit of whipping me with a twisted whip – a raw hide. (Mama) struck me with a scissors and cut me. I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by anyone – I have never been kissed by Mama. Whenever Mama went out, I was locked up in the bedroom. I do not want to go back and live with Mama, because she beats me so.”
MaryEllen was removed from the people who mistreated her. Her case stirred public attention and complaints began to pour in to Henrey Bergh. So many cases of child-beating and cruelty to children came to light that a community meeting of citizens was called and an association “for the defense of outraged childhood” was formed. That association gave rise to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was incorporated the year after Mary Ellen’s case.