The Rights of the Defenseless

Essay by maynomm September 2014

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June 22, 2014

The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America

Book Review

In her book, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America, author Susan Pearson provides great insight regarding the anti-cruelty movement that took place throughout the period referred to as the Gilded Age in America. By vividly explaining the connection between animal and child protection during the nineteenth century, Pearson is able to help provide a clear understanding of the way these two entities were related throughout this specific period in time. As the Gilded Age evolved into the Progressive Era anti-cruelty reformers began promoting prevention as opposed to punishment. This ultimately led to the advocacy movement concerning natural rights.

Pearson begins her book by providing us with a primary incident that occurred in 1873 regarding a small girl by the name of Mary Ellen Wilson who's only hope of being rescued from her extremely abusive living situation was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

The ASPCA had the authority to intervene directly, meaning that they were authorized to legally remove the child from her home. Law enforcement, on the other hand, did not have this authority. Police were not able to act on hearsay in cases such as this, and needed evidence in order to act in a situation of this type and punish the guardians. This resulted in the ASPCA being the only legitimate option for rescuing Mary Ellen. It was concluded that because the child was viewed as a helpless and oppressed little animal who was totally defenseless the ASPCA had legal rights to intervene in the situation. During this time there were no organizations in place to protect children from abusive situations. The rescue of...