The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children's Rights in 19th Century America

As recently as 1874, no laws yet existed in this country for the protection of children. In New York of the same year, it was the widely publicized case of Mary Ellen Wilson—a nine-year-old girl who had been a prisoner in her tenement home, enduring unimaginable cruelty—that was the first to draw national and worldwide attention to both the social issue of child abuse and to the notion that children are entitled to humane treatment. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) founder Henry Bergh and his attorney, Elbridge T. Gerry, intervened on behalf of the abused little girl. Following this case, the first child protection agency was founded: the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

This examination of the child abuse case begins with a look at Mary Ellen Wilson’s life and provides background on the events surrounding the case. It draws upon—and reproduces within the text—numerous primary sources. Mary Ellen’s famous court testimony, queries urging Henry Bergh’s ASPCA to continue work on behalf of children, articles describing the courtroom scene, pleas from Mary Ellen’s family appealing for her custody and published documentation of the trial itself are all offered here for the first time. The extensive amounts of newspaper coverage, family letters, judicial orders and court transcripts presented in this work chronicle the historical case and its effects which have since provided hope for millions of abused and neglected children.

cover of The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children's Rights in 19th Century Americaauthor: Eric A. Shelman
Stephen, M.D. Lazoritz
asin: 0786420391
binding: Paperback
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amazon price: $62.11 USD


"Long before the rod was spared"

Concern about child welfare has risen sharply since a report into the death of Baby P last year. As one of Britain's leading child protection charities marks its 125th anniversary it's sobering to think when it started animals had more rights than children.

By Lucy Rodgers

May 19, 2009 / BBC News

As anyone who has read Oliver Twist will know, Victorian Britain could be a pretty bleak place for a child not born into money.

Widespread deprivation meant children were often forced to work long hours in hazardous occupations inside factories, down mines and up chimneys. Poor diet, healthcare and sanitation coupled with overcrowding also meant disease was rife and mortality high.

Large numbers of children were also orphaned and ended up living on the streets. Some were forced into prostitution, while others sought shelter in sewer pipes.

In fact, by the late 19th Century, NSPCC records show young people's rights were so unrecognised that while specific legislation existed to protect animals from cruelty, a similar law to defend children did not.

"Whilst we have a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, can we not do something to prevent cruelty to children?" asked an outraged Rev George Staite in a letter to the Liverpool Mercury in 1881.

Landmark case

However, change was under way.

Unbeknown to the Rev Staite, some years before he put pen to paper, the same question had already been asked across the Atlantic, where an increasingly socially-conscious New York society in had been shocked by the case of Mary Ellen Wilson.


Beaten by her adoptive family and scarred all over her body, the young girl was offered little protection until her case was taken up in 1874 by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Court documents accessed by the American Humane Society show how the animal welfare organisation's founder, Henry Bergh, successfully petitioned the courts on her behalf arguing a child deserved humane treatment.

The repercussions of the case were felt worldwide and Mary Ellen's battle went on to prove to be a watershed in the history of child protection.

It not only led to the foundation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, but in turn inspired the establishment of similar societies across Europe, including the Liverpool and London Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children, which later became the now-familiar NSPCC.

Philanthropic movement

The growth of such organisations at the end of the 19th Century was all part of an increasing desire within late Victorian society to improve the lot of those less fortunate, explains Dr Louise Jackson, senior lecturer in modern social history at the University of Edinburgh.

"In the 1830s and 1840s there had been huge amounts of poverty and ill-health, with poor sanitation, and very little action," she explains. "Then in the 1880s there were all sorts of calls for something to be done about it."

In most cases, people were inspired by a sense of religious duty "to rescue and help those who are worse off than themselves", she says. But, she argues, such philanthropy also flourished because of society's changing views of the family.

"Children were [previously] seen as belonging to parents. Children were legally allowed to work from a very young age, so there was a sense that this was discrete and separate from the state," she says. "But by the end of the 19th Century it was more acceptable for the state to intervene."

With societal attitudes advancing, many philanthropists were inspired to take action.

One of those was the Rev Benjamin Waugh, the founder of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children and one of the fathers of the NSPCC.

"He argued that in England, children were not as well protected by the state as animals," says Phillip Noyes, the NSPCC's director of public policy. "To make the point he paraded children in animal blankets - what would now be considered a photo call - to show the public that children were really suffering."

From that day on, the NSPCC has campaigned for better child protection laws, starting with the 1889 "Children's Charter", which made child cruelty a specific offence for the first time.

This is a role the organisation still plays, with its expertise contributing to the 2002 Education Act, the Criminal Justice and Sexual Offences Acts of 2003 and the Children's Bill of 2004.

But unlike now, in the charity's early days it was also responsible for investigating suspected abuse cases, with the NSPCC's uniformed inspectors, known by many as "cruelty men", a familiar sight.

Changing attitudes

But as the decades passed, the NSPCC handed responsibility for child protection to the state, and during the 1970s the charity's function changed, with research and campaigning becoming central to its work.

The following decade it pushed for recognition of sexual abuse and battered baby syndrome and most recently launched its Full Stop campaign, which calls on all sections of society to take responsibility for ending child abuse.

And progress has been made, the NSPCC says, with the public now regarding such cruelty unacceptable and as an issue that the government should tackle.

"The question really has become how much money should be spent and not whether it should," says Mr Noyes, who sees the ChildLine helpline as key to the future fight.

But, the NSPCC argues, while conditions have improved for British children over the last 125 years, there are still "unacceptable levels" of child poverty and abuse - a fact highlighted by the recent case of Baby P.

So, it seems, the charity's late founding father the Rev Waugh's aim of "justice for all children" still remains a long way off.

Have I misread the history books re the NSPCC?


In the wake of the recent Ryan Report in Dublin, Ireland nowhere will you see mention of the child abuse as suffered by thousands of Protestants and children from mixed faiths as if they were somehow children of a lesser God! This to us at the NSCFC is totally unacceptable and as such we cannot and will not cease until the full truth is outed and those responsible brought to justice. That State, Church and Charity were involved in the systematic abuse of children of this there is no doubt according to the documented evidence and witnesses at our disposal all with their own personal allegations and horrific stories to tell. So if you can relate to victim and author of “Hanna’s Shame” or “Destiny Unknown” or “Empty Cradles” by Margaret Humphreys then we need you to come forward be it openly or anonymously via our Diaries page, for to remain forever silent is to give free licence to the perpetrators of child abuse as accused, namely the State, Church of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, ISPCC, SNSPCC, (NSPCC) and Barnardo’s be they in the Republic of Ireland or the UK and all of whom at this very moment in time still have great influence and oversight over the so-called wellbeing of children as supported by the State be it financially or otherwise! As such other than the Catholic Church they all have to date escaped open and full accountability for the systematic sufferings of innocent and defenceless children in the hundreds of thousands and this no-one should ignore for to do so is to make a complete mockery of the Biblical quote in Luke 18:16 when Jesus said “Suffer the little children to come unto me” and suffer they did at the hands of those who claimed affinity with God Himself. And yes its true to say that many such child victims of the above quoted were trafficked as cannon fodder to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) deprived as they were of their own name, age and birthright. Still others were used for experimental purposes, guinea pigs as to the effects of new psychotic drugs be they mind altering or otherwise and includes Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) to name but a few and yes its true to say that many a child died before they reached the age of five. So if you are a surviving victim or family member now is the time to let your voice be heard by joining our campaign for truth and justice.

National Society for Children and Family Contact (NSCFC) is a registered charity which believes that continuing contact with a child’s parents or extended family after separation or divorce is vital for the child’s balanced development and it works tirelessly to foster those all-important family contacts. As such we offer free support and advice to all those in need. Helpline at National rate on UK 0870 794 0075 or at

Kind regards

Mike Ellis

Chairman: “National Society for children and Family Contact”.

I'm the author of the book above -- Eric Shelman

I wanted to thank you for featuring the book here . . . I've just posted a couple of new videos on both books, this one and "Out of the Darkness: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson," for anyone who might be interested. . There are three videos. One is just a recap of the book with me, and the link is: and the other is in two parts -- an extensive interview for the radio broadcast, Talking History - this one with both authors, including Stephen Lazoritz, M.D. The link to part 1 is here:

Thanks again!

Eric Shelman

Pound Pup Legacy