Mary Ellen McCormack was a young girl who was subjected to child abuse in New York City in the 1870’s. She had an important influence on the history of intervening on behalf of abused children. Prior to her case, interventions for abused children were unheard of, and there were no legal protections for abused children (Markel, 2009). However, her case inspired significant changes in these areas.

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In 1864, Mary Ellen was born into a traditional nuclear family. However, her family type changed to a single-parent family when she was a baby. Her father was killed in the Second Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, leaving her mother alone. Mary Ellen’s mother had to work as a laundress, so she paid for another woman to provide childcare, but when this became too expensive, she sent Mary Ellen to an orphanage. From there, Mary Ellen was adopted by Thomas and Mary McCormack, a couple from Manhattan, again joining a traditional nuclear family. However, Thomas McCormack soon died (Markel, 2009), so she was again left as a child in a single-parent family.

Mary McCormack began physically abusing Mary Ellen, so in late 1873, her neighbors complained to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Investigator Etta Angell Wheeler was assigned to her case, and she was outraged at the fact that there were no laws to protect children like Mary Ellen. She sought the help of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and he hired lawyer Elbridge Gerry to bring Mary Ellen’s case to the New York Supreme Court. Not only did the success of the case make it possible for Mary Ellen to be removed from her adoptive home, but it also brought widespread public attention to the issue of the abuse of children. An article was published in The New York Times about Mary Ellen’s testimony, portraying her as highly sympathetic, so more of the public began to care about the issue. Also, the case inspired Bergh, Gerry, and another philanthropist, John D. Wright, to start the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was the first child protective agency in the world (Markel, 2009). Thus, Mary Ellen’s case sparked the movement in favor of interventions on behalf of abused children.

  • Markel, H. (2009). Case shined first light on abuse of children. The New York Times. Retrieved from