The Story of Mary Ellen

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The Beginnings of a Worldwide Child-Saving Crusade

The following account is by Mrs. Etta Angell Wheeler, the humanitarian who first discovered and reported the case.

Late in the year 1873 there was brought to me by a poor working woman, the story of a child whose sad case inspired the founding of the first "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children." The woman was a quiet, reserved Scotch woman, truthful and careful of her words. The story was that during the two previous years, there had lived in the rear tenement, 349 West 41st St., a family of three persons, a man, a woman and a little girl, supposed to be five or six years old; that during these two years the child had been a close prisoner having been seen only once by the other tenants; that she was often cruelly whipped and very frequently left alone the entire day with the windows darkened, and she locked in an inner room; that the other occupants of the house had not known to whom to make complaint, the guardian of the house, who lived on the premises, refusing to listen.

A week before, this family had moved to the rear tenement 341, on the same street. Later in the day I went to 349 and heard a like story from others; then, hoping to see the child, I went to 341. The house was separated from the one in front by a narrow paved court, each of the three floors had two apartments, a living room and a bedroom in each. The living rooms were separated by a thin partition through which, during weeks to come, the cries of the child gave evidence of her unhappy life. The family I sought was on the top floor. Wondering what reason I could give for my intrusion, I knocked at the door. It was not opened. Wishing, if possible, to learn if the child was there, I knocked at the door of the adjoining apartment. A faint voice bade me "Herein." I saw a tidy room and in the dark bedroom a young German woman apparently very ill. While sitting by her bed for a short time she told me of coming with her young husband, not long before, to this land of strangers and strange speech; of her homesickness and failing health.

I asked her of her new neighbors. She had not seen them, there was a child, she had "heard it crying, perhaps it too was sick." Promising to come again, I returned to the other apartment where, after a time, the door was slightly opened and a woman's sharp voice asked my errand. I began telling her of her sick and lonely neighbor and talked on until, unconsciously, she had opened the door, so that I could step in. This I did and, being an unbidden guest, made a very brief call. I was there only long enough to see the child and gain my own impression of her condition. While still talking with the woman, I saw a pale, thin child, barefoot, in a thin, scanty dress so tattered that I could see she wore but one garment besides.

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. These things I saw while seeming not to see, and I left without speaking to, or of, the child. I never saw her again until the day of her rescue, three months later, but I went away determined, with the help of a kind Providence, to rescue her from her miserable life.

How was this to be done? The man worked but irregularly. The woman earned no money. Their dress and living showed very little means. The postman had told the person who brought the first report to me that he left no mail for this family except, frequently, registered letters. Thinking this might mean money for keeping the child, I feared to arouse any suspicion lest the family should disappear, so I determined that no rescue should be attempted until there was fair promise of success. I asked advice. No one could tell what to do. There seemed no place of appeal. Meanwhile, it was, from the sick woman I was to learn more and more of the cruel treatment of the little girl. She grew always worse, and her bed being now against the thin wall separating the two living rooms, she could but hear much of the abusive treatment. As often as I went to see her there was a piteous story to hear. At last she was told what had first brought me to the house, and we waited and hoped together.

Weeks went by. Easter Sunday came, bright with sunshine, warm with the breath of Spring. As I went into church, passing from the brightness without to the beauty of palms, and lilies and organ strains within, the thought of the dying woman and the poor child smote upon me. I was very early and with a few flowers from the altar steps I turned away and went to spend the morning in the tenement. The child had been locked early in the dark bedroom, the Easter sunshine shut out, the man and woman had gone, and would not return till night. The poor invalid gave the flowers a pathetic welcome and as I sat by her side she told me of Easter Sundays of her childhood in the beloved Rhineland, all homesickness for which had now passed into longing for the land where sickness is not. Yet always she had wished to stay until her little fellow sufferer was rescued. We spoke of Christ and the Resurrection, of the glorious meaning of Easter Day, and we talked of the child alone in the darkness, and prayed for her release. Poor suffering woman! She knew death stood at the door, she did not yet know he was not to enter until the child she had so pitied, was free and that, in that very Easter week.

I had more than once been tempted to apply to the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals," but had lacked courage to do what seemed absurd. However, when on the following Tuesday, a niece said: "You are so troubled over that abused child, why not go to Mr. Bergh? She is a little animal, surely." I said at once, "I will go." Within an hour I was at the society's rooms. Mr. Bergh was in his office and listened to my recital most courteously but with a slight air of amusement that such an appeal should be made there. In the end he said: "The case interests me much, but very definite testimony is needed to warrant interference between a child and those claiming guardianship. Will you not send me a written statement that, at my leisure, I may judge the weight of the evidence and may also have time to consider if this society should interfere? I promise to consider the case carefully."

It was the first promise of help and I was glad. The next morning I sent a paper giving what I had seen and heard, which was little, and the much that had been told me by others, and what seemed to me their credibility as witnesses. Going later in the day to see the sick woman, I found in her room a young man with a large official looking book under his arm. Hearing a nurse speak my name as I entered, he said to me: "I was sent to take the census in this house. I have been in every room." I inferred at once that this was a detective for Mr. Bergh. When I left the house, the young man was waiting on the sidewalk to tell me he had seen the child and was then going to Mr. Bergh with his report of her pitiable condition.

The next morning, Thursday, Mr. Bergh called upon me to ask if I would go to the Court House, the child having been already sent for. He expressed pleasure that he need not ask me to go to a police court, Judge Lawrence of the Supreme Court having kindly taken the case. After we had waited a short time in the Judge's Court, two officers came in, one of whom had the little girl in his arms. She was wrapped in a carriage blanket and was without other clothing than the two ragged garments I had seen her in months before. Her body was bruised, her face disfigured, and the woman, as if to make testimony sure against herself, had the day before, struck the child with a pair of shears, cutting a gash through the left eye-brow and down the cheek, fortunately escaping the eye.

The child was sobbing bitterly when brought in but there was a touch of the ludicrous with it all. While one of the officers had held the infuriated woman, the other had taken away the terrified child. She was still shrieking as they drove away and they called a halt at the first candy shop, so that she came into court weeping and terrified but waving as a weapon of defense a huge stick of peppermint candy. Poor child! It was her one earthly possession. The investigation proceeded. The child's appearance was testimony enough, little of mine was needed, and, thus, on Thursday, April 9, 1874, her rescue was accomplished. This Mr. Bergh had effected within forty-eight hours after first hearing of the case. The next day the woman, who had so often forgotten her own suffering in pity and prayer for the child, died, happy that little Mary Ellen was free. Now, for the first time, we knew the child's name.

The prosecution of the woman who had so ill-treated her, followed soon. One witness was a representative of the institution from which the woman had taken the child, then less than two years old. No inquiry as to the child's welfare had been made by the institution during the intervening seven years. Record of her admission to this institution had been lost in a fire. The testimony of fellow tenants, and the damaging witness of the woman against herself, under cross-examination, secured her conviction and she was sentenced to the penitentiary for a year. When leaving the Court House I tried to thank Mr. Bergh for the rescue of the child, and asked if there could not now be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which should do for abused children what was being so well done for animals? He took my hand and said very emphatically: "There shall be one." Today all the world knows how well that promise was kept. The time has come for a forward movement in the welfare of children and little Mary Ellen's hand had struck the hour.

The child was rescued, but what was to be done with her? The press had given the case wide publicity, reports had drawn fanciful pictures of her beauty and attractiveness so that from every quarter from the West to Florida, and from England, came offers of adoption. The neglected, hindered child would require painstaking and patience, and those uncertain offers were declined. Some attempts to obtain her through claims of relationship were investigated by Judge Lawrence and proved fictitious. After a short time she was put in a home, not one for young children, but for grown girls, some of them wayward, who were being trained for service.

To me this was most unsatisfactory and after waiting some months I expressed my disapproval to Judge Lawrence who was now her guardian. He consulted with Mr. Bergh and soon after put Mary Ellen at my disposal. I took her to my mother near Rochester, New York, to my mother whose heart and home were always open to the needy.

Here began a new life. The child was an interesting study, so long shut within four walls and now in a new world. Woods, fields, "green things growing," were all strange to her, she had not known them. She had to learn, as a baby does, to walk upon the ground, she had walked only upon floors, and her eye told her nothing of uneven surfaces. She was wholly untaught; knew nothing of right and wrong except as related to punishments; did not know of the Heavenly Father; had had no companionship with children or toys. But in this home there were other children and they taught her as children alone can teach each other. They taught her to play, to be unafraid, to know her rights and to claim them. She shared their happy, busy life from the making of mud pies up to charming birthday parties and was fast becoming a normal child.

I had taken her to my mother in June. In the autumn following my mother died. She had asked that, after her death, my sister, living nearby, should take Mary. This she did and under her care were passed years of home and school life, of learning all good household ways; of instruction in church and Sunday school, and in gaining the love of many and the esteem of all who knew her.

When twenty-four she was married to a worthy man and has proved a good home maker and a devoted wife and mother. To her children, two bright, dutiful daughters, it has been her joy to give a happy childhood in sharp contrast to her own. If the memory of her earliest years is sad, there is this comfort that the cry of her wrongs awoke the world to the need of organized relief for neglected and abused children.

The Story of Mary Ellen was originally published by the American Humane Association, 135 Washington Ave., Albany, New York. It is published here by American Humane, 1400 16th St. NW, Suite 360, Washington, D.C. This may be reproduced and distributed without permission, however, appropriate citation must be given to the American Humane Association.

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