Mary Ellen Wilson
How One Girl's Plight Started the Child-Protection Movement
Mary Ellen’s story marked the beginning of a world-wide crusade to save children. Over the years, in the re-telling of Mary Ellen Wilson’s story, myth has often been confused with fact. Some of the inaccuracies stem from colorful but erroneous journalism, others from simple misunderstanding of the facts, and still others from the complex history of the child protection movement in the United States and Great Britain and its link to the animal welfare movement. While it is true that Henry Bergh, president of the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), was instrumental in ensuring Mary Ellen’s removal from an abusive home, it is not true that her attorney -- who also worked for the ASPCA -- argued that she deserved help because she was “a member of the animal kingdom.”
The real story -- which can be pieced together from court documents, newspaper articles, and personal accounts -- is quite compelling, and it illustrates the impact that a caring and committed individual can have on the life of a child.
Mary Ellen Wilson was born in 1864 to Francis and Thomas Wilson of New York City. Soon thereafter, Thomas died, and his widow took a job. No longer able to stay at home and care for her infant daughter, Francis boarded Mary Ellen (a common practice at the time) with a woman named Mary Score. As Francis’s economic situation deteriorated, she slipped further into poverty, falling behind in payments for and missing visits with her daughter. As a result, Mary Score turned two-year-old Mary Ellen over to the city’s Department of Charities.
The Department made a decision that would have grave consequences for little Mary Ellen; it placed her illegally, without proper documentation of the relationship, and with inadequate oversight in the home of Mary and Thomas McCormack, who claimed to be the child’s biological father. In an eerie repetition of...