Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, Etta Angell Wheeler arrives to investigate reports of a neglected child. There, she finds conditions so terrible that they shock her to her core. But when she tries to save the little girl from her desperate situation, she is forced to turn to an unlikely ally.
The story began back in 1864, when a baby girl, Mary Ellen, was born to Francis and Thomas Wilson in New York City. Tragically, soon afterwards, Thomas passed away. Unable to stay home and look after her daughter, Francis paid a woman named Mary Score to look after Mary Ellen.
However, Francis’ work as a laundress was not well paid, and she soon slipped into financial difficulty. When she began missing payments to Mary Score, the woman decided to entrust the city’s Department of Charities with the care of Mary Ellen.
Unfortunately, that’s when things started to go very wrong. Mary Ellen was first sent to an orphanage on Blackwells Island before the department placed her in the care of Mary and Thomas McCormack – without performing the proper checks. Sadly, Thomas died not long after the adoption took place.
In time, Mary remarried, and took the young girl to live with her and her new husband, Francis Connolly, in a tenement on West 41st Street in Manhattan. However, the neighboring tenants soon began to suspect that poor Mary Ellen was leading a terrible life.
According to reports, the girl was kept a virtual prisoner in her home, rarely seen by the neighbors. Apparently, she was also beaten regularly, and locked inside alone for hours on end. But although they were shocked by such abuse, the other tenants did not know to whom they should report it.
Late in 1873, the Connollys moved to another tenement on the same block. However, by that time, one of their neighbors had succeeded in contacting Etta Wheeler for help. As a Methodist missionary, she made a habit of checking in on the children of impoverished tenants.
Soon, Wheeler had made her way to the Connollys’ new apartment, hoping to get a look at the girl. After questioning a neighbor who revealed that she had heard a child crying, Wheeler convinced Mary to open the door. Inside, she discovered a heartbreaking scene.
There was Mary Ellen, dressed only in a thin, tattered dress – despite the bitter December cold. Although Wheeler would later find out that the child was nine years old, she appeared to be no older than five. Furthermore, she had been consigned to washing heavy dishes in the sink.
Worst of all was the leather whip that Wheeler spotted resting on the table. She saw welts on Mary Ellen’s legs and arms from where the girl had been beaten. But the most terrible part, according to Wheeler, was the desperate look on the child’s face.
“The saddest part of her story was written on her face in its look of suppression and misery,” Wheeler testified at the time. “The face of a child unloved, of a child that had only seen the fearsome side of life.” By the time that Wheeler left the Connollys’ home, she was determined to rescue Mary Ellen.
However, it was not a simple task. Because she suspected that the Connollys were receiving money in return for housing Mary Ellen, Wheeler was fearful that they would disappear if she approached them. So, she began to ask for advice on the situation – but was dismayed by what she found.
Wherever she turned, no one seemed able to help Wheeler or the poor unfortunate Mary Ellen. Although the state had laws in place allowing for the removal of a child from an abusive environment, the authorities did not deem this case suitable for such an intervention.
Meanwhile, Wheeler continued to visit the Connollys’ neighbor, who was bedridden, and the pair grew ever more concerned about the child. Eventually, in the spring of 1874, Wheeler’s niece made an unusual suggestion. “You are so troubled over that abused child,” Wheeler recalls her saying, “why not go to Mr. Bergh?”
Interestingly, Wheeler’s niece was referring to Henry Bergh. A New York activist, he had founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals some eight years previously. Her reasoning was simple. If Mary Ellen could be considered an animal of sorts, shouldn’t Bergh be obliged to help her where others would not?
Encouraged, Wheeler set up a meeting with Bergh, and told him about Mary Ellen’s plight. Amazingly, he was willing to help. After reading testimony provided by Wheeler and others, Bergh briefed a lawyer who, in turn, argued in court that Mary Ellen be taken away from the Connollys’ home.
Bergh’s impressive influence bore dividends. Less than 48 hours after Wheeler’s initial report, Mary Ellen was removed from the Connollys’ care. By the time she was brought to the courtroom, men were said to have sobbed aloud at the sight of her tiny, battered body.
On April 10, 1874, Mary Ellen gave testimony to the conditions in which she had been held throughout her young life. According to her, she had never been kissed or shown affection, and was never allowed outside or to play with other children. On top of that, her mother would beat her with a whip or scissors nearly every day.
In light of the testimony of Mary Ellen and others, Mary Connolly was sentenced to a year in the penitentiary. Mary Ellen, meanwhile, was removed from her home for good. Although offers to adopt her came in from around the world, she eventually found a loving family with Wheeler’s mother and sister in upstate New York.
Despite such difficult beginnings, Mary Ellen adjusted well to normal life. She married and went on to have a family of her own, even adopting a baby girl. But it wasn’t just Mary Ellen’s future that was changed for good. Inspired by her case, Bergh helped to found the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children that same year – the first ever agency of its kind.