Children as Animals - Origins of Anti-Cruelty Laws Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Children as Animals - Origins of Anti-Cruelty Laws

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My name is Mary Ellen McCormack. I don't know how old I am... I have never had but one pair of shoes, but I can't recollect when that was. I have no shoes or stockings this winter... I have never had on a particle of flannel. My bed at night is only a piece of carpet, stretched on the floor underneath a window, and I sleep in my little undergarment, with a quilt over me. I am never allowed to play with any children or have any company whatever. Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. She used to whip me with a twisted whip, a raw hide. The whip always left black and blue marks on my body. I have now on my head two black and blue marks, which were made by mamma with the whip, and a cut on the left side of my forehead, which was made by a pair of scissors in mamma's hand. She struck me with the scissors and cut me. I have no recollection of ever having been kissed, and have never been kissed by mamma. I have never been taken on my mamma's lap, or caressed or petted. I have never dared to speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped... Whenever mamma went out I was locked up in the bedroom... I have no recollection of ever being in the street in my life.

In 1894, Mary Ellen McCormack, who was nine years old, was able to provide the testimony quoted above in court due, in large part, to laws against cruelty to animals that then existed in the state of New York.

This entry will explore the genesis of the laws that are now on the books against physical child abuse, starting with the laws against animal cruelty that are their origin. It will also discuss the people and circumstances behind the creation of those laws.

Richard Martin and the RSPCA

Richard Martin was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1754. He was a wealthy landowner known for his love of animals and his quick temper when dealing with people. It was generally known that any man on his property (200,000 acres) who mistreated an animal would spend some time in the dungeons of his castle, subsisting on bread and water.

While he was a member of the Irish Parliament, that body once found itself threatened by rioters. Armed only with a small pistol, Martin turned to face the estimated 10,000 rioters and said:

If you advance six inches, I'll shoot every mother's babe of you as dead as that paving stone.

The comedic value of a single man, armed only with a pistol, making this threat was not lost on the mob. After the laughter subsided, the crowd gave him three cheers.

Martin was, in fact, the winner of any number of duels. Asked why he so vigorously advocated kindness to animals while he regularly fought humans with pistols, he responded, 'because a cow cannot hold a pistol, sir!'.

In 1822, as a member of the British House of Commons, Martin managed to gain passage of what is believed to be the first animal welfare law ever passed by a nation. The Martin Act, which has been called 'the animals' Magna Carta', outlawed cruelty to cattle, horses and sheep. During the debate on the bill, which was unruly, one Member of Parliament challenged Martin to a fight, to be held on the spot. The fight took place, Martin won, and the man voted for the act.

It became evident that magistrates didn't want to try cruelty to animal cases, especially after Martin actually brought a donkey into court to show its wounds. In 1824, Martin and three other Members of Parliament formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

In 1840, Queen Victoria commanded the Society to add Royal to its name. She has been quoted as having said:

No country can be called civilised that does not provide proper care for animals.

Thus was born the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which exists to this day.

Henry Bergh and the ASPCA

Henry Bergh was born into wealth, the son of a New York shipbuilder. He did not follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, his first career, after he had failed as a writer, was as a diplomat. In 1863, United States President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the US diplomatic legation in Russia.

His career as a diplomat lasted only one year. Some sources say that Bergh was dismissed because his superior at the legation resented Bergh's popularity with the Russians.

Other sources provide a more colourful story:

One day, Bergh saw a Russian peasant beating his horse. This was not an unusual sight at all. This time, though, Bergh ordered the driver of his carriage to stop. He then walked up to the peasant and demanded that he stop beating the horse. This got to be a habit with Bergh, to the point where his making this bizarre demand of peasants became a daily occurrence. Over time, his behaviour resulted in the Russians requesting that he be recalled by the United States government.

Whatever the reason for Bergh's sudden lack of employment, he did not return to the United States immediately. Instead, he spent several months in London seeking another diplomatic position.

It was during this period that Bergh was exposed to the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals. He set the formation of a similar organisation in the United States as his goal.

Using the influence of rich and politically powerful friends, Bergh succeeded in his efforts to get the New York State Legislature to pass An Act Better to Prevent Cruelty to Animals. As a result of this Act, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was formed in 1866. This organisation was charged with overseeing the enforcement of the Act and given appropriate police powers. Although the word 'American' appeared in the organisation's name, it was, in fact, empowered to act in the state of New York only.

Given the legal authority, Bergh didn't hesitate to use it for the protection of maltreated animals.

New York City's public transportation in 1871 consisted of a system of horse-drawn streetcars. The ASPCA repeatedly warned the streetcar company to either limit the number of passengers or increase the number of horses pulling the car. During one heavy snowstorm, the streetcars ran as usual, with the usual number of horses and the usual number of passengers. The layer of snow on the ground made the job of the overworked horses even more difficult than usual. During the heaviest traffic period, when the workers were going home in the evening, Bergh stopped a car on Third Avenue, a major thoroughfare, and ordered the driver to have all of the passengers get out. The driver refused. Bergh then simply unhitched the team of horses, stopping that streetcar and all of the streetcars behind it. When the streetcar company tried to detour on Fourth Avenue, Bergh ran to Fourth Avenue and unhitched the horses there. The streetcars didn't move for over two hours, until the company hitched extra teams of horses to the cars.

Bergh's name was in the headlines of the newspapers the next day, with varying reactions. One newspaper proclaimed him 'The Good Genius of the Storm' while another accused 'Five Thousand People Go Without Their Dinners to Oblige Bergh'.

Mary Ellen

In 1864, in New York City, a daughter was born to Thomas and Frances Wilson, whom they named Mary Ellen. Later that same year, Thomas Wilson was killed in the United States Civil War.

Frances found that her widow's pension was not adequate to maintain herself and her daughter, and that she had to take on a job. Because she was unable to care for Mary Ellen while working, Frances placed Mary Ellen in the care of Mary Score, a woman who privately fostered children as her only source of income. Frances stopped sending her two dollars per week payment to Mary Score shortly thereafter. Mary turned Mary Ellen over to the New York Department of Charities, which sent her to an institution for destitute children.

On 2 January, 1866, Thomas and Mary McCormack went to the Department of Charities. They asserted that they were there to claim a child who, they said, was born to Thomas's mistress and who was then abandoned by her mother. Mary Ellen was turned over to the McCormacks' care on the basis of their undocumented claim.

Thomas McCormack died within months of having brought Mary Ellen home. Mary McCormack then married a man named Francis Connolly.

Over the next six years, neighbours and Margaret Bingham, the landlady of the Connolly apartment in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood, became increasingly concerned about little Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen's body was covered with bruises and cuts. Bingham had observed that Mary Ellen was kept confined in a small room during the heat of summer, underdressed in the cold of winter, forced to do manual labour beyond the capacity of any child and was even more malnourished than the other children in that impoverished and overcrowded tenement neighbourhood.

In 1873, Bingham brought Mary Ellen's plight to the attention of Etta Wheeler, a social worker acting under the auspices of the Methodist Church. Bingham told Wheeler that every time she had tried to speak to the Connollys on Mary Ellen's behalf, Mary Connolly responded that she would call in the law before allowing any interference in her home.

One of the Connollys' neighbours was a woman named Mary Smitt, who was seriously ill with tuberculosis. After getting Smitt's permission, Wheeler knocked on the Connollys' door, planning to use the pretence of inquiring about Mary Smitt to see Mary Ellen's living conditions for herself.

Etta Wheeler describes the scene that greeted her with the following words:

It was December and the weather bitterly cold. She was a tiny mite, the size of five years, though, as afterward appeared, she was then nine. From a pan set upon a low stool she stood washing dishes, struggling with a frying pan about as heavy as herself. Across the table lay a brutal whip of twisted leather strands and the child's meagre arms and legs bore many marks of its use. But the saddest part of her story was written on her face in its look of suppression and misery, the face of a child unloved, of a child that had seen only the fearsome side of life.

Wheeler asked the New York City Police Department to intervene. They refused, on the grounds that they could do nothing without proof of assault. Since there was no law allowing intervention inside a child's home, there was no way they could enter the home to get any proof that a crime had been committed. And without first having some kind of proof that a crime had been committed, they had neither proof of assault nor grounds to enter the home.

Wheeler then approached numerous charitable organisations. They all agreed to provide care for Mary Ellen, but only if she came to them by legal means.

Finally, acting on the suggestion of her niece, Etta Wheeler approached Henry Bergh, the founder and moving force behind the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Wheeler had prepared her argument that Mary Ellen, as a human, was a member of the animal kingdom and entitled to the protection of the ASPCA.

There are several versions of what happened after that.

The most popular, and colourful, version states that Bergh filed a court petition for legal protection and removal of Mary Ellen from her home, arguing that Mary Ellen, being human, was a member of the animal kingdom and therefore entitled to 'at least the same justice as the common cur'.

The more accurate, if less dramatic, story is that Bergh hired a private investigator to look into the conditions in Mary Ellen's home and how she came to be a member of the Connolly household.

Using the information obtained by the private investigators and the testimony of Etta Wheeler, lawyers working for Bergh filed a petition on behalf of Mary Ellen. They argued that the Connollys, who were neither her natural parents nor her lawful custodians, held Mary Ellen illegally. This argument was upheld, as no documentation had been presented by Thomas or Mary McCormack showing that they were related to Mary Ellen when they claimed her from the charitable institution that had been her previous home. The petition described Mary Ellen and her living conditions. Bergh's lawyers offered a list of witnesses willing to testify on behalf of the child and concluded by stating that there was ample evidence to indicate that she was in clear danger of being maimed or even killed. They requested that a warrant be issued, that Mary Ellen be removed from her home and placed in protective custody, and her parents brought to trial.

Judge Abraham R Lawrence issued a warrant under Section 65 of the Habeas Corpus Act as requested.

On 9 April, 1874, Mary Ellen was brought into Judge Lawrence's court.

At this point, the popular, if inaccurate, version of what happened quotes a journalist who was present as having said:

I saw a child brought in, covered in a horse-blanket, at the sight of which men wept aloud. I saw it laid at the feet of the judge, who turned his face away, and in the stillness of that courtroom I heard the voice of Henry Bergh. 'The child is an animal', he said. 'If there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the cur in the streets. It shall not be abused'.

Mary Ellen was, in fact, brought into the courtroom wrapped in a carriage blanket, since she had no adequate clothing of her own.

The reporter and photojournalist Jacob Riis was present in the court. His actual words were:

'I saw a child brought in... at the sight of which men wept aloud, and I heard the story of little Mary Ellen told... that stirred the soul of a city and roused the conscience of a world that had forgotten, and as I looked, I knew I was where the first chapter of children's rights was being written'.

Mary Ellen's body and face were bruised. Her hands and feet 'showed the plain marks of great exposure'. On her face there was a fresh gash through her eyebrow and across her left cheek that barely missed the eye itself.

That evening, Mary Ellen was turned over to the temporary custody of the matron of police headquarters. The next day, five indictments were brought against Mary Connolly for assault and battery, felonious assault, assault with intent to do bodily harm, assault with intent to kill, and assault with intent to maim.

Margaret Bingham testified that she had seen Mary Ellen locked up in a room and had told other neighbours, but they said there was no point in interfering since the police would do nothing. Bingham further testified that she had tried to open the window of Mary Ellen's room to let in some air, but it would not lift more than an inch.

Etta Wheeler testified on the conditions she had seen on the day she had visited Mary Ellen.

Mary Connolly, during her testimony in her own defence, accused the prosecuting lawyers of being 'ignorant of the difficulties of bringing up and governing children'.

It took a jury only 20 minutes to reach a verdict of guilty of assault and battery. Mary Connolly was sentenced to one year of hard labour in the city penitentiary. In handing down this sentence, the judge defined it not only as a punishment to Connolly but also as a statement of precedence in child abuse cases. It is interesting to note that no accusations were made, nor charges pressed, against Francis Connolly. There is no readily available documentation as to his role in Mary Ellen's home life or as to his circumstances during or after the trial.

Child Protection Agencies

As a result of the public outcry over Mary Ellen's case, the New York State Legislature passed laws permitting the chartering of Societies for The Protection of Children.

In 1875, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) was created, with Henry Bergh as one of its founding members and its first Vice President. It is believed to have been the first child protection agency in the world. The NYSPCC investigated 300 cases of child abuse in its first year.

In 1882, an Englishman named Frederick Agnew visited the United States and saw the work being done by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Just as Henry Bergh had been inspired by the English Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Frederick Agnew was inspired by the American New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Agnew organised a similar society in Liverpool on his return home.

The idea spread throughout England. The London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded in 1884. The Reverend Benjamin Waugh, a congregational minister in East London, was appointed Honorary Secretary. Out of this organisation grew a national British SPCC.

England's first Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act, which became law in 1889, was in large part, a product of lobbying by Benjamin Waugh and his supporters. In that same year, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) was founded with Benjamin Waugh as Director and Queen Victoria as Royal Patron. In its first year, the NSPCC investigated 3937 cases of child abuse and neglect.

Thus, the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals inspired the creation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made Henry Bergh a household name in New York City, starting the chain of events leading to the rescue of Mary Ellen from her hellish existence with the Connollys. The publicity around the trial of Mary Connolly led to the first laws and organisations in the United States and England specifically designed to protect children from physical abuse.


Mary Ellen spent the rest of her childhood being cared for and raised by a sister of Etta Wheeler, in the town of North Chili, near Rochester, New York.

At the age of 24, Mary Ellen married a widower named Louis Schutt. Together, they had two children, Etta and Florence. She also raised Louis Schutt's three children from his first wife, and adopted another child.

It was a point of pride for Mary Ellen that she was able to provide her own children with a childhood so different from her own, the scars of which she bore for the rest of her life.

Mary Ellen Schutt died on 30 October, 1956, at the age of 92.

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