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Humane societies have long history in U.S.

April 28, 2014
Samantha Hall-Saladino , The Leader Herald

Most Fulton County residents are familiar with the great work done by the staff and volunteers at the James A. Brennan Memorial Humane Society on Nine Mile Tree Road in Gloversville. Apart from providing adoption services, the humane society provides food, water, medical care and shelter to homeless, stray or unwanted animals; provides education programs; and advocates for animal laws, among other responsibilities.

Humane societies for animals have existed in the U.S. since the late 19th century - the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866. However, it wasn't until 1873 that the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was created, and not until four years later that such an organization existed at the national level with the creation of the American Humane Association.

The creation of the first humane society for children in the country came out of the highly publicized case of Mary Ellen Wilson. Wilson had been placed with a family illegally by the New York City Department of Charities. Mary McCormack Connolly, the adoptive mother, mistreated Mary Ellen. A Methodist mission worker named Etta Angell Wheeler became interested in Mary Ellen's situation after hearing the concerns of the Connollys' neighbors. One neighbor, a bedridden German woman named Mary Smitt, said she could often hear the child's cries through the walls. When Wheeler finally got a glimpse of Mary Ellen, she was dirty and thin, and had bruises and scars on her bare arms and legs. She was 10 years old. Wheeler was unsure how to proceed, but her niece suggested she contact Henry Bergh, the founder of the ASPCA, saying of Mary Ellen, "She is a little animal surely." Through the court system, Bergh and Wheeler were able to get Mary Ellen out of the abusive situation. Mary Connolly was sentenced to a year of hard labor in the penitentiary and Mary Ellen was placed with relatives of Wheeler. She died in 1956 at the age of 92.

The Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society was founded in 1887, its headquarters in Albany. (This organization is still in operation today in Menands as a humane society for animals under the name of Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.) The society had chapters elsewhere in the Capital Region, but Fulton County did not yet have its own humane society. A column in the April 6, 1905, issue of the Fulton County Republican discusses the case of the Brundage family in Berkshire. The three Brundage children were found in a deplorable state of neglect. The author writes: "There is talk of having a branch of the Humane Society started here in this city. It's organization cannot come too quickly and its members cannot be too active in bringing before the courts others of the Brundage type if there are others in this vicinity ... The Republican will give its heartiest support to any Humane Society founded here and it hopes that such a society will soon be active in its work of supporting neglected children."

Other citizens felt the same, it seems. In 1907, a group of Fulton County residents met to organize a local humane society, which would be known as the Fulton County Department of the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society. The branch would have almost complete independence, but it would be chartered and affiliated with the state organization. Gloversville High School Principal, Professor Ernest Merritt, was elected President of the Board of Directors of the organization. The Fulton County Department would find its home at 41 W. Fulton St. in Gloversville.

The humane societies of New York were incredibly busy. In 1900, the cases for the Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society nearly doubled and were well into the thousands. The Fulton County branch was active as well, but within two years of its inception, it was experiencing financial difficulties. A letter from the board appeared in the Fulton County Republican on Nov. 11, 1909, appealing to the paper's readers for assistance. They claimed that an organization like theirs was indispensable, and "the churches, the police, the commissioner of charities, all render valuable services. But it is entirely impossible for them individually or collectively to do even a small part of the work required." Even if the children and animals in the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville could be cared for without a humane society - which, the group insisted, was not the case - those living in the more remote areas of the county would not be looked after. The cases of neglect and abuse in the county "surpass[ed] belief for both number and hideousness." The group ended their plea by outlining the three negative outcomes that would result in the society's financial ruin: it would be difficult to revive such an organization in the future. Of course, then there would be no help for children or animals in Fulton County. And finally, in an attempt to shame readers into donating, the writers insisted that it would be a "lamentable reflection on this community," since humane societies elsewhere were generously supported.

The plea must have worked, because the Fulton County Department existed well into the 20th century. A 1915 report submitted to the Fulton County Board of Supervisors by H.W. Schumann, the branch's secretary and superintendent, documented 937 cases for the year. Examples of the charges in the children's department included kidnapping, parental neglect, intoxication, truancy, abandonment and burglary. Some of the charges in the animal department included lost or strayed animals, cats rescued from trees, overdriven animals, horses worked when unfit (sick or lame), and general neglect and cruelty.

Eventually, the missions of these humane societies shifted focus, concentrating mainly on animal welfare. By the 1950s, child abuse was becoming an issue at the federal level. Laws passed in the 1970s, along with the creation of Child Protective Service agencies, relieved humane societies of the responsibility of child welfare. The American Humane Association, however, still focuses on both children and animals. The Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society, which had a location on Phelps Street in Gloversville by 1949, closed down the Fulton County branch in 1972. The Fulton County Humane Society was created to replace the defunct department. Crawford Argotsinger donated about five acres to the society for the construction of a new shelter, which became fully operational in February 1973. This would eventually become the James A. Brennan Memorial Humane Society, named in honor of Dr. James Brennan, who would be recognized for his service at the shelter and as "a friend of man and animals alike."

Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.

 
 
 

 

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