Little Mary Ellen’s Story

A Little Girl’s Terror

A Caring Woman’s DeterminationBy April of 1874, nine-year old Mary Ellen Wilson had been continually beaten, cut and burned by her foster mother for more than seven years. She had never once been allowed outdoors, her keeper locking her inside a tiny, dark closet while she was away. In the coldest New York winters, the child slept on a piece of carpet on the floor, only a threadbare quilt to warm her.

When a concerned social worker named Etta Wheeler learned of the child’s plight, she made appeals to police, the church and the courts, but with no success. “Don’t interfere between parent and child” they said. While others may have given up, Etta was determined to help little Mary Ellen.

An Unlikely Hero For An Abused Child

In a desperate last resort, Etta went to Henry Bergh of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Would this man who was so kind to creatures help? Surely a human child had at least the same rights as a defenseless, abused animal? Bergh heard Etta’s story of “Little Mary Ellen” and brought the idea of children’s rights into the public arena for the first time. This story appeared on the pages of the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Tribune in 1874 and ASPCA laws were used to protect Mary Ellen.

Out of the Darkness…


Authors Eric Shelman and Stephen Lazoritz, in cooperation with Mary Ellen Wilson’s descendants, have written a first book, ‘Out of the Darkness’ – which seems to me to be leading the whole of society into the light with its message. This amazing American tale of abuse, imprisonment and triumph lead to the introduction of the first laws protecting children. Animals had rights and, unbelievably, the first legal action on behalf of a child was under those laws protecting animals because no laws existed for the protection of young humans. Children, along with women, were considered to be the mere chattels of their fathers, husbands and brothers, as they still are in many parts of the world. Princess by Jean Sasson is a cleverly told tale of life today in a wealthy Saudia Arabian family. Things are much sadder and crueller in cases of poverty. My hope is that by sharing our experience we can rid the entire world, finally, of cruelty and abuse.