We have seen that during periods of humanitarian reform, a recognition of the rights of one group can lead to a recognition of others by analogy, as when the despotism of kings was analogized to the despotism of husbands, and when two centuries later the civil rights movement inspired the women’s rights movement. The protection of abused children also benefited from an analogy—in this case, believe it or not, with animals.
In Manhattan in 1874, the neighbors of ten-year-old Mary Ellen McCormack, an orphan being raised by an adoptive mother and her second husband, noticed suspicious cuts and bruises on the girl’s body. They reported her to the Department of Public Charities and Correction, which administered the city’s jails, poorhouses, orphanages, and insane asylums. Since there were no laws that specifically protected children, the caseworker contacted the American Society for the Protection of Animals. The society’s founder saw an analogy between the plight of the girl and the plight of the horses he rescued from violent stable owners. He engaged a lawyer who presented a creative interpretation of habeas corpus to the New York State Supreme Court and petitioned to have her removed from her home. The girl calmly testified:
Mamma has been in the habit of whipping and beating me almost every day. 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…. I never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped.
The New York Times reprinted the testimony in an article entitled “Inhumane Treatment of a Little Waif,” and the girl was removed from the home and eventually adopted by her caseworker. Her lawyer set up the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first protective agency for children anywhere in the world. Together with other agencies founded in its wake, it set up shelters for battered children and lobbied for laws that punished their abusive parents. Similarly, in England the first legal case to protect a child against an abusive parent was taken up by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and out of it grew the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, Chapter 7
Added to diary 15 January 2018