Mary and Thomas McCormack
appeared and he claimed to be the child’s biological father. The Department of Charities never asked for documentation, but simply turned the child over to the couple. Mr. McCormack died shortly after and Mary remarried a man named Francis Connelly. Mary Ellen was supposed to be the illegitimate child of Thomas McCormack although this was never verified. Mrs. Connelly hated the child because of the father’s betrayal and the abuse began immediately upon his death.
Mrs. Connelly mistreated Mary Ellen terribly, beating her daily. Neighbors later testified that when Mr. Connelly left for work in the morning, Mary would systematically beat the child for up to fifteen minutes at a time. They heard her crying and wailing while being dragged through the apartment. Though everyone in the building knew about the abuse no one intervened. Later, a two foot braided horse whip was found and determined to be a tool used daily on Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen was never allowed to go outside or even look out the window. When Mrs. Connolly was away, she locked the child in a tiny, dark closet with only a piece of carpet to lie on and an old quilt to warm her. She was beaten, cut, starved and burned for more than seven years.
During this time, the family moved to another apartment building. However the abuse had been so horrific that a former neighbor remained concerned for the little girl. When a Methodist mission worker visited, the lady asked Mrs. Etta Angell Wheeler to check on Mary Ellen. Etta Wheeler managed to get a brief entry into the apartment and what she found horrified her. Mary Ellen, now ten years was literally covered in scars, burns, welts and a cut that ran from her forehead to her chin (her “mother” felt Mary Ellen was not holding a piece of cloth properly and slashed the girl’s face with scissors). Though it was December in New York, the child wore only a thin, worn dress and was barefoot, standing on a stool while washing dishes. Mrs. Wheeler never spoke to Mary Ellen at this time.
When she left she was determined to get the girl out of there. It took her three months to make any progress at all.
Mrs. Wheeler went to authorities with her story of Mary Ellen’s abuse to no avail. Some jurisdictions indeed had laws prohibiting excessive physical discipline and New York permitted the removal of neglected children. However their determination in this case was such that they would not intervene and Mary Ellen was not removed from the care of Mrs. Connolly.
In her distress and quest to help the little girl, Etta Wheeler talked to her niece who said she should seek assistance from Mr. Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The niece remarked, “She is a little animal surely.” She meant that as a living, breathing, feeling creature Mary Ellen was entitled to live as well as an animal. Not knowing where else to turn, Etta Wheeler went straight to Henry Bergh who listened but stated that he must have written documentation.
Etta Wheeler obtained written evidence of the abuse from several neighbors, including one whose apartment shared a wall with the Connollys and she heard the beatings and the cries of the child daily. Etta took the testimonies to Henry Bergh who sent a worker out posing as a census taker. He was able to see the child himself and reported to Henry Berg that the allegations were in fact true and accurate.
Mr. Bergh made it clear that he was acting as a concerned citizen and not in his capacity as president of the NYSPCA. (Later, it was falsely said that the court case of Mary Ellen was conducted under this office and presented as an animal abuse case.) He sent a NYSPCA worker to the apartment and the allegations were confirmed as true and accurate. ASPCA attorney Elbridge T. Gerry prepared a petition and presented it before the court asking permission to remove Mary Ellen from the home so she could be brought to the judge to testify about the abuse. Judge Lawrence of the Supreme Court took the case. Mr. Bergh was instrumental in rescuing Mary Ellen. His position and ties to the legal community made people listen and take the case seriously. Once he became involved, Mary Ellen was rescued in forty eight hours!