The First Chapter Of Children’s Rights


The next day Wheeler again visited the sick woman in Hell’s Kitchen and found in her room a young man who, on hearing Wheeler’s name, said, “I was sent to take the census in this house. I have been in every room.” Wheeler then knew him to be a detective for Bergh.

On the basis of the detective’s observations and the testimony provided by Etta Wheeler, Bergh’s lawyers, Gerry and Ambrose Monell, appeared before Judge Abraham R. Lawrence of the New York Supreme Court to present a petition on behalf of Mary Ellen. They showed that Mary Ellen was held illegally by the Connollys, who were neither her natural parents nor her lawful custodians, and went on to describe the physical abuse Mary Ellen endured, the marks and bruises on her body, and the general state of deprivation that characterized her existence. They 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. The lawyers requested that a warrant be issued, the child removed from her home and placed in protective custody, and her parents brought to trial.

Bergh testified that his efforts on behalf of the child were in no way connected to his work with abused animals and that they did not make use of the special legal provisions set up for that purpose. Because of Bergh’s association with animal rescue, to this day the case is often described as having originated in his conviction that the child was a member of the animal kingdom. Bergh, however, insisted that his actions were merely those of any humane citizen and that he intended to prevent cruelties inflicted on children through any legal means available.

Judge Lawrence issued a warrant under Section 65 of the Habeas Corpus Act as requested. This provision read in part: “Whenever it shall appear by satisfactory proof that any one is held in illegal confinement or custody, and that there is good reason to believe that he will … suffer some irreparable injury, before he can be relieved by the issuing of a habeas corpus or certiorari , any court or officer authorized to issue such writs, may issue a warrant … [and] bring him before such court or officer, to be dealt with according to law.”

The press of the day hailed Gerry’s use of Section 65 of the Habeas Corpus Act as brilliant. The act was rarely invoked, and the legal means for removing a child from its home were nonexistent. In using the little-known law, Gerry created a new method for intervention.

That same day, April 9, 1874, Mary Ellen was taken from her home and brought into Judge Lawrence’s court. Having no adequate clothing of her own, the child had been wrapped in a carriage blanket by the policemen who held her in custody. A reporter on the scene described her as “a bright little girl, with features indicating unusual mental capacity, but with a care-worn, stunted, and prematurely old look. … no change of custody or condition could be much for the worse.”

The reporter Jacob Riis was present in the court. “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.” Her body and face were terribly bruised; her hands and feet “showed the plain marks of great exposure.” And in what almost instantly seemed to condemn Mrs. Connolly before the court, the child’s face bore a fresh gash through her eyebrow and across her left cheek that barely missed the eye itself. Mary Ellen was to carry this scar throughout her life.

Jacob Riis “saw a child brought in at the sight of which men wept aloud, and heard the story that roused the conscience of a world.”

Interestingly, there is no further mention in the ample reports surrounding Mary Ellen’s case of her foster father, Francis Connolly. He was never brought into court, never spoke publicly concerning the child. All her life Mary Ellen exhibited a frightened timidity around men, yet it was against her foster mother that she testified.


On the evening of her detention, Mary Ellen was turned over to the temporary custody of the matron of police headquarters. The next day, April 10, the grand jury read five indictments 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. Once the stepmother had been brought into the legal system, there were ample means to punish her.

Mary Ellen herself was brought in to testify against the woman she had called her mother. On her second appearance in court she seemed almost wholly altered. She was clothed in a new suit, and her pale face reflected the kindness that surrounded her. She carried with her a new picture book, probably the first she had ever owned. She acted open and uninhibited with strangers, and interestingly, seemed to show no great fear of her mother or any apparent enmity toward her.