Mary Ellen Wilson was a child who was abused by her foster mother in the 1870s. At the time there were no laws protecting children from physical abuse by their parents.
She was beaten, given insufficient food and forbidden to go outdoors. In her own words, during the eventual court case:
“Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day,” the little girl testified. “She used to whip me with a twisted whip — a rawhide.
“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 never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped.”
A local missionary, with the help of Mary’s neighbours, tried to get the authorities to act and save her. But they refused because beating your child was not a crime and they didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence of other crimes to get a conviction.
Eventually they approached the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) who took the case. The societies founder Henry Bergh said that he saw the girl, like the horses he routinely saved from violent stable owners, as a vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state.
They took her case the Supreme Court claiming wrongful imprisonment and got Mary removed while her foster mother was sentenced to one year in jail.
As a result of the case, members of the ASPCA went on that same year, 1874, to found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The worlds first child protection agency.
Mary went on to live a long life, which including adopting an orphan of her own, and eventually died at the ripe old age of 92.