When did little one abuse, lengthy thought of a non-public matter, grew to become a public concern? The 1874 case of ten-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson of New York Metropolis is normally thought of the primary nice problem to a violent custom.
“Although for lots of of years historical past data cases of cruelty to youngsters by dad and mom and different caretakers, few instances of kid abuse have been acted on within the courts earlier than the nineteenth century,” explains scholar Lela B. Costin.
As Costin writes, many legends have arisen about Mary Ellen, together with most prominently that, on the premise her being an “animal,” the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) stepped in to save lots of her from her viscous foster dad and mom.
When no public or non-public entity would step in to assist Mary Ellen, Etta Angell Wheeler (“variously termed a mission employee, a tenement customer, and a social employee”) appealed to Henry Bergh of the SPCA. The story goes that she recommended that Mary Ellen ought to certainly be regarded as “just a little animal,” too. Bergh supposedly affirmed that “[t]he little one is an animal. If there isn’t any justice for it as a human being, it shall have least have the fitting of the cur” to not be abused. On this legend, Bergh and SPCA counsel Elbridge T. Gerry determined the kid was entitled to safety below the legal guidelines in opposition to animal cruelty.
Might Ellen and her foster mom, Mary Connolly, have been in actual fact introduced earlier than a decide. Connolly was sentenced to at least one yr of exhausting labor. Mary Ellen would dwell to the age of 92, dying in 1956. Gerry would go on to type the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Youngsters (NYSPCC), which “triggered fast progress” of different anti-child cruelty societies.
However the precise historical past of Mary Ellen’s rescue is extra sophisticated than the legend. Since forming the SPCA in 1866, Henry Bergh had been requested repeatedly to assist abused youngsters.
“He ignored or resisted these appeals on the premise that cruelty to youngsters was completely exterior his sphere of affect,” writes Costin.
For this he was pilloried within the press. In 1871, he did permit his investigators to intervene in one other case of kid abuse, and although authorizing Gerry to look into the Mary Ellen state of affairs in 1874, he insisted he wasn’t doing so in his official capability as President of the SPCA.
Gerry’s authorized strategy had nothing to do with animal cruelty. He argued that Mary Connolly was responsible of felonious assault on the “feminine little one known as Mary Ellen.” He additionally organized for a standard legislation warrant, De homine replegiando to “safe the discharge of an individual from illegal detention” and convey the kid earlier than a decide.
“Cruelty to youngsters had lengthy been tolerated […]. Why then did the Mary Ellen case serve to stimulate court docket invention and a widespread philanthropic response?” asks Costin. “Clearly the reply isn’t the severity of the merciless remedy.”
She proposes that this specific case “of personal violence turning into ‘public property’ is greatest defined by a fortuitous fusing of a constellation of various and generally competing elements.”
There was the press; the mistreated lady was thought of extra newsworthy than, as an illustration, the thirteen-year-old boy crushed to dying by his father within the metropolis earlier that yr. Mary Ellen’s state of affairs additionally showcased widespread institutional rot, “critical dereliction on the a part of non-public charities and public reduction,” that gave rise to requires reform. (Mary Ellen had really been indentured to the Connollys, a system one native newspaper criticized as a “well-stocked little one market.”) Public authorities got here in a for a hammering, too, for including to “the neglect of youngsters by failing to implement current laws, set requirements and supervise little one placement actions.”
Violence in opposition to youngsters and girls inside the household was additionally an incredible concern of the rising ladies’s rights motion. Anti-violence meshed with suffrage, marriage legislation reform, and contraception campaigns. However a countering “judicial patriarchy” arose to keep up “male supremacy in selections about mother or father rights and definitions of acceptable parental care” with judges as an alternative of fathers on the helm.
The NYSPCC’s Gerry, as an illustration, used the brand new little one safety local weather to police immigrant household life—his brokers having precise police powers. His work, writes Costin, “forestalled nicely into the 20th century the event of a rational system of kid safety inside a bigger system of social companies.”
Help JSTOR Day by day! Be a part of our new membership program on Patreon right now.
JSTOR is a digital library for students, researchers, and college students. JSTOR Day by day readers can entry the unique analysis behind our articles without cost on JSTOR.
By: Lela B. Costin
Social Service Evaluate, Vol. 65, No. 2 (June 1991), pp. 203–223
The College of Chicago Press