In 1874, there was an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but there was no similar organization to defend children against abuse. The mores and customs of those times regarded children as the chattel of their parents. “Dickensian” does not begin to describe what many, many children suffered. Then came the case of Mary Ellen Wilson.
Mary Ellen (sometimes also called McCormack) was born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen 150 Years ago this past March. When her father Thomas died, her mother had no other means of support. In order to take a job, she had no choice but to board her infant daughter with a woman named Mary Score. This was common practice at the time. For a while, the expedient worked for Frances Wilson and her baby girl, but when Frances lost her job, she could not longer pay Score to take care of the baby, who turned the child over to the New York City Department of Charities. Mary Ellen was not quite two at the time.
The welfare agency placed the child in foster care with a couple named McCormack. It was a trumped-up situation. Mr. McCormack claimed the child, saying he was Mary Ellen’s biological father. The Department of Charities handed the kid over illegally. And though the law required them to follow up annually on her condition, they failed to do so.
|Etta Agnell Wheeler|
Mary McCormack hung onto Mary Ellen, even after her husband died and she remarried. It was at this point that neighbors became aware of what was happening to the little girl. One of them talked to Etta Agnell Wheeler, a Methodist missionary who worked in the area. Wheeler gained entrance to McCormack’s apartment on a pretext of looking for care for a relative. She found the child barefoot in December, washing dishes at the kitchen sink. She was obviously bruised, malnourished, and neglected. Wheeler applied to the local authorities to help the child, but they refused to enforce even the paltry child protection laws that were on the books.
In desperation, Wheeler went to Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He agreed to help. Neighbors testified. This group of concerned adults managed to get Mary Ellen away from McCormack. An ASPCA lawyer pled her case before the New York State Supreme Court. Ten-year-old Mary Ellen testified on her own behalf. She had suffered a dreadful litany of cruelties: Regular and severe beatings, malnutrition, sleeping on the floor, no warm clothing, being locked inside dark rooms, and allowed to go outside only at night and in her own yard.
Here is a heart-wrenching quote from her testimony:
“My mother and father are dead. I don’t know how old I am…I have no recollection of ever having been kissed by anyone… I have never been taken on 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….I have no recollection ever being on the street in my life.”
In the year Mary Ellen made this testimony The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded. It was the first, but afterwards many other such organizations were established.
|Mary Ellen Schutt before her death|
Etta Wheeler and her relatives eventually got custody of Mary Ellen. When she was 24, in 1888, Mary Ellen married a widower, Lewis Schutt who had three children. Together they adopted an orphan girl and named her Etta, after Wheeler. Mary Ellen lived to be 92. She died in New York in 1956.
As some of you know, my African series, which launches next month with Strange Gods, is based on the Ten Commandments. Each book will deal with the sin mentioned in the Commandment and with another grievous sin for which there is no commandment. There are many evils that deserve their own commandment. Child abuse is number one on my list.