Mary Ellen Wilson: Catalyst of Child Protection Movement

The story of Mary Ellen Wilson is an important, yet obscure and often underappreciated, one. Mary Ellen was born to Thomas and Francis Wilson in 1864 in New York City. By age 2, her father died and her mother found it necessary to board her while she found and maintained a job. As times were tough, she was unable to pay her caregiver, who turned the girl over to New York’s Department of Charities.

The department then illegally placed her with Thomas and Mary McCormack. Thomas McCormack claimed to be her biological father. In a strange repetition of events, he died, and his widow remarried a man named Francis Connolly.

Neighbors in their tenement discovered that Mary Ellen’s illegal adoptive mother, Mary McCormack Connolly, abused the child.

The Connollys moved, but one of the original neighbors asked Etta Angell Wheeler, a Methodist missionary, to check on the child. Wheeler found the 10-year-old girl frail, dirty, thin, bruised and scarred. Wheeler immediately attempted to seek help for Mary Ellen through legal channels.

Unfortunately, although New York permitted the state to remove children who were neglected by their caregivers, the authorities were reluctant to intervene.

Desperate to help, her champion contacted Henry Bergh, recent founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to         Animals.

With the assistance of Bergh and Elbridge T. Gerry, an ASPCA attorney, the first juvenile removal petition was filed. Bergh sent an investigator, impersonating a U.S. Census worker, to record Mary Ellen’s account of abuse and neglect. Gerry prepared a petition to remove her from her home so she could testify before a judge in April 1874.

The following is from the court transcript, as published in a 1990 article by Sallie A. Watkins in the journal Social Work.

“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.”

Mary Connolly was sentenced to one year in prison for felonious assault.

Activists went on to found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and Mary Ellen found a permanent home with Wheeler’s mother and sister. She lived a long happy life, marrying and having two daughters of her own and fostering a third.

“Although this crime would only claim one year of Mary Connolly’s life, it claimed something greater from Mary Ellen, her childhood,” said Leslie Vassilaros, executive director of Harmony House, Children’s Advocacy Center, who is presenting the first Mary Ellen Wilson Humanitarian Awards to three recipients during the Toast of the Vineyard fundraiser on Aug. 5. “Harmony House is proud to dedicate this award as a tribute to Mary Ellen Wilson, with the hope that every child has a happy childhood.”

Sources: Harmony House, History Channel, American Humane Association, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International, Oxford Journals


2016 Mary Ellen Wilson

Humanitarian Award Winners

• Brothers of the Wheel-Northern West Virginia chapter

• Ohio Valley Medical Center/East Ohio Regional Hospital

• Christian Fellowship Foundation


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