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Futility Closet

Feb 25, 2019

In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell how one girl's ordeal led to a new era in child welfare.

We'll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky's accomplishments.


By a 1976 resolution, George Washington forever outranks every other officer in the U.S. Army.

Humorist Robert Benchley invented some creative excuses for missing deadlines.

Sources for our feature on Mary Ellen Wilson:

Eric A. Shelman and Stephen Lazoritz, The Mary Ellen Wilson Child Abuse Case and the Beginning of Children's Rights in 19th Century America, 2005.

Susan J. Pearson, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America, 2011.

Frank R. Ascione, Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty, 2005.

John E.B. Myers, Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future, 2006.

Karel Kurst-Swanger and Jacqueline L. Petcosky, Violence in the Home: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 2003.

Mary Renck Jalongo, "The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson: Tracing the Origins of Child Protection in America," Early Childhood Education Journal 34:1 (August 2006), 1-4.

Lela B. Costin, "Unraveling the Mary Ellen Legend: Origins of the 'Cruelty' Movement," Social Service Review 65:2 (June 1991), 203-223.

Sallie A. Watkins, "The Mary Ellen Myth: Correcting Child Welfare History," Social Work 35:6 (November 1990), 500-503.

Jini L. Roby, "Child Welfare Workers in the Legal Arena: What Works, What Doesn't," Child & Youth Care Forum 30:5 (October 2001), 305-319.

John E.B. Myers, "A Short History of Child Protection in America," Family Law Quarterly 42:3 (Fall 2008), 449-463.

Susan Vivian Mangold, "Protection, Privatization, and Profit in the Foster Care System," Ohio State Law Journal 60 (1999), 1295.

Natan Sznaider, "Compassion and Control: Children in Civil Society," Childhood 4:2 (1997).

Marian Eide, "The First Chapter of Children's Rights," American Heritage 41:5 (July/August 1990).

Wanda Mohr, Richard J. Gelles, Ira M. Schwartz, "Shackled in the Land of Liberty: No Rights for Children," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 564:1 (July 1999), 37-55.

Gerald P. Mallon, "From the Editor: The Legend of Mary Ellen Wilson and Etta Wheeler: Child Maltreatment and Protection Today," Child Welfare 92:2 (March/April 2013), 9-11.

Amy D. Ronner, "Dostoevsky as Juvenile Justice Advocate and Progenitor of Therapeutic Jurisprudence," St. Thomas Law Review 30:1 (Fall 2017), 5-41.

"Mary Ellen Wilson: Fact and Fiction," [Wooster, Ohio] Daily Record, April 29, 2017, 7.

Howard Markel, "Case Shined First Light on Abuse of Children," New York Times, Dec. 14, 2009.

Daniel Bergner, "The Case of Marie and Her Sons," New York Times Magazine, July 23, 2006.

Al Baker, "Plan to Hasten Abuse Inquiries Came Up Short," New York Times, Jan. 21, 2006.

"Mary Ellen Wilson," New York Times, June 14, 1874.

"Mary Ellen Wilson," New York Times, June 2, 1874.

"The Custody of Mary Ellen Wilson," New York Times, May 1, 1874.

"Mary Ellen Wilson," New York Times, April 22, 1874.

"Mary Ellen Wilson; Further Testimony in the Case Two Indictments Found Against Mrs. Connolly by the Grand Jury," New York Times, April 14, 1874.

"Mary Ellen Wilson; Further Testimony as to the Child's Ill Treatment by Her Guardians," New York Times, April 12, 1874.

"The Mission of Humanity; Continuation of the Proceedings Instituted by Mr. Bergh on Behalf of the Child, Mary Ellen Wilson," New York Times, April 11, 1874.

"Mr. Bergh Enlarging His Sphere of Usefulness," New York Times, April 10, 1874.

Listener mail:

Mary Ilyushina and Lianne Kolirin, "Russia Reopens Investigation Into 60-Year-Old Dyatlov Pass Mystery," CNN, Feb. 4, 2019.

"Russia's Reopening the Investigation of the Spooky Dyatlov Pass Incident," The Chive, Feb. 8, 2019 (warning: contains some potentially disturbing photos and one strong expletive).

Emma Friedlander, "Russian Investigators Are Reopening the Dyatlov Pass Case. But What Is It?" Moscow Times, Feb. 14, 2019.

Wikipedia, "Tiddles" (accessed Feb. 12, 2019).

Rob Baker, "Tiddles, a rather fat cat that lived in the public lavatories at Paddington Station - 1978 - photo by Chris Moorhouse," Twitter, Jan. 22, 2019.

Anna Menta, "Absurd New 'Harry Potter' Book Written By Predictive Text Already Has Fan Art," Newsweek, Dec. 14, 2017.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, "Harry Potter Chapter Written by Bots Is Magically Terrible," CNET, Dec. 12, 2017.

Charles Pulliam-Moore, "This New Harry Potter Chapter, Written With Predictive Keyboards, Is Magically Unhinged," io9, Dec. 12, 2017.

Shannon Liao, "This Harry Potter AI-Generated Fanfiction Is Remarkably Good," The Verge, Dec 12, 2017.

Evan Narcisse, "That Freaky Bot-Written Harry Potter Chapter Got Turned into a Freaky Cartoon," io9, Feb. 13, 2018.


Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Mandie Bauer. Here's a corroborating link (warning -- this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!