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The Journey to America Through Ellis Island


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Ellis Island is a place of names. Here millions of immigrants called out theirs for the first time - proud names, long names, names that would twist the tongue - before they stepped ashore onto America's soil. To most, Ellis Island was an Isle of Hope, a brief stopping point on the way to a better life. To an unfortunate few, it became an Isle of Tears, a place of detention and possible rejection.

When the great steamships of the early 20th century sailed into New York Harbor, the faces of a thousand nations were on board. There were Russian Jews, Irish farmers, Greeks in kilts and slippers, Italians with sharp moustaches, Cossacks with fierce swords, English in short knickers, and Arabs in long robes. The old world lay behind them. Ahead was a new life. Gone were the monarchies and kings, the systems of caste and peasantry, of famine and poverty. But also left behind were friends and family, as well as tradition and customs generations old.

By the 1890's steam-powered ships replaced sailing vessels and cut the time of an Atlantic crossing from three months to two weeks. Large shipping lines such as Cunard and White Star competed for the immigrants who were seen as a profitable cargo. The steamships could accommodate as many as 2,000 passengers in steerage, so-called because it was located on the lower decks where the steering mechanism of the sailing ships had once been housed. These long narrow compartments were divided into separate dormitories for single men, single women, and families. Jammed with metal-framed berths three bunks high, the air in steerage became rank with the heavy odor of spoiled food, sea-sickness, and unwashed bodies. There was little privacy, and the lack of adequate toilet facilities made it difficult to keep clean. A Russian Jew recalled that " the atmosphere was so thick and dense with smoke and bodily odors that your head itched, and when you scratched your head - you got lice on your hands."

By 1910 many ships had replaced steerage with four- and six-berth third class cabins. These vessels served meals in dining rooms with long tables set with dishes and utensils. However, on many of the older ships, passengers still ate meals from a tin mess kit while sitting on deck or in the hot, cramped steerage dormitories. The Italian lines served pasta and wine, and many shipping lines provided kosher food for Jewish passengers, but not all ships catered to ethnic or religious tastes. Cases of malnutrition were not uncommon. Standard fare consisted of potatoes, soup, eggs, fish, stringy meat, prunes - and whatever food the immigrants carried from home.

By the time the steamships sailed into New York, the first and second class passengers had already been inspected and cleared to land by immigration officials who came aboard. However, steerage passengers were not afforded such privileges and their first steps on the mainland were brief. They were directed helter-skelter onto ferries which shuttled them to Ellis Island. These vessels were little better than open air barges, freezing in the winter, sweltering hot in summer, and lacking toilet facilities and lifesaving equipment. Deaths caused by exposure to cold were not uncommon. A Public Health official estimated that of the children suffering from measles when they arrived, 30% died because of their trip across the harbor. On busy days the immigrants were imprisoned on these vessels for hours while they waited to disembark and be ferried to Ellis Island. Sometimes new arrivals had to wait in steerage for days, prolonging the miserable journey.

When they landed, the immigrants had numbered tags pinned on their clothes which indicated the manifest page and line number on which their names appeared. These numbers were later used by immigration inspectors to cross-reference immigrants about their right to land. Though relatively few immigrants who landed at Ellis Island were denied entry, the 2% that were excluded often equaled over a thousand people a month during peak immigration years. Greeted with pointing fingers and unintelligible commands, the new arrivals formed a line which stretched from the Ellis Island dock into the Baggage Room of the main building, winding its way up to the second floor where the immigrants were met by a team of doctors and inspectors who would decide which way the Golden Door would swing. Jostling three abreast, the immigrants made their way up a steep flight of stairs and into the great hall of the Registry Room. The inspection process had begun, although many did not know it.

Scanning the moving line for signs of illness, Public Health doctors looked to see if anyone wheezed, coughed, shuffled, or limped as they climbed the steep stairs. Children were asked their name to make sure they weren't deaf or dumb, and those that looked over two-years-old were taken from their mothers' arms and made to walk. As the line moved forward, doctors had only a few seconds to examine each immigrant, checking for sixty symptoms, from anemia to varicose veins, which might indicate a wide variety of diseases, disabilities and physical conditions. Of primary concern were cholera, scalp and nail fungus, insanity, and mental impairments. In 1907, legislation further barred immigrants suffering from tuberculosis, epilepsy, and the physically disabled. The disease which resulted in the most exclusions was trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection that could cause blindness and death. At that time, the disease was common in Southern and Eastern Europe, but almost unknown in the U.S. Doctors checked for trachoma by turning the eyelid inside out with their fingers, a hairpin, or a button-hook to look for inflammation on the inner eyelid - an extremely painful experience. The "button-hook men" were the most dreaded officials on Ellis Island.

During inspection, those immigrants who appeared sick or were suffering from a contagious disease were marked with blue chalk and detained for further medical examination. The sick were taken to Ellis Island hospital for observation and care, and once recovered, could proceed with their legal inspection. Those with incurable or disabling ailments were excluded and returned to their port of departure at the expense of the steamship line on which they arrived. In an attempt to discourage steamship companies from transporting ill, disabled or impoverished passengers, an immigration law of 1903 imposed a $100 fine for every excluded passenger.

Medical inspectors developed a letter code to indicate further examination, and roughly every two out of ten immigrants received mystifying chalk marks. This alphabet of ailments ranged from Pg for pregnant to K for hernia and Ft for feet. Those suspected of having feeble minds were chalked with an X, and along with those marked for physical ailments, about nine out of every hundred immigrants were detained for mental examination and further questioning. Usually this consisted of standard intelligence tests in which immigrants were asked to solve simple arithmetic problems, count backwards from twenty, or complete a puzzle. In an attempt to deal with immigrants' cultural differences, Ellis Island's doctors developed their own tests which allowed them to base their decision on problem solving, behavior, attitude, and the immigrant's ability to acquire knowledge. Requiring immigrants to copy geometric shapes, for instance, was only useful for testing those who had some schooling and were used to holding a pencil.

After passing the line inspection immigrants were waved forward toward the main part of the Registry Room. There they entered a maze of open passageways and metal railings which divided the entire floor. As crowded as a country town on market day, the Great Hall was "a place of Babel" where all languages of the world seemed to cry out at once. At the far end of Registry Hall the legal inspectors stood behind tall desks, assisted by interpreters fluent in major languages and any number of obscure dialects. Although the interrogation that immigrants were to face lasted only a matter of minutes, it took an average of five hours to pass through the inspection process at Ellis Island.

Wearing starched collars and heavy serge jackets, the inspectors verified the 29 bits of information already contained on the manifest sheet. Family names were recorded with care - especially if they were spelled Andrjuljawierjus, Grzyszczyszn or Soutsoghianopoulos. Firing questions at the immigrants, the inspector asked them their age, occupation, marital status, and destination in an attempt to determine their social, economic and moral fitness.

Influenced by American welfare agencies that claimed to be overwhelmed by requests for aid from impoverished immigrants, the exclusion of those "liable to become a public charge" became a cornerstone of immigration policy as early as 1882. The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 also excluded all immigrants who took a job in exchange for passage. These laws presented the immigrant with a delicate task of convincing the legal inspectors that they were strong, intelligent and resourceful enough to find work easily, without admitting that a relative had a job waiting for them.

In 1917 anti-immigration forces succeeded in pressuring the government to impose a literacy test as a further means of restricting immigration. The law required all immigrants sixteen years or older to read a forty-word passage in their native language. Most immigrants had to read biblical translations. Working from 9 am to 7 pm, seven days a week, each inspector questioned 400-500 immigrants a day. Those who failed to prove they were "clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to land" were detained for a hearing before the Board of Special Inquiry. As immigrants had no legal right to enter the U.S., there could be no lawyer present at this hearing, but friends and relatives could testify on the immigrant's behalf. The Board reviewed about 70,000 cases a year, admitting five out of every six detainees.

Along with medical detentions and immigrants facing a hearing from the Board, unescorted women and children were detained until their safety was assured through the arrival of a telegram, letter, or a pre-paid ticket from a waiting relative. Immigration officials refused to send single women into the streets alone, nor could they leave with a man not related to them. Fiancées, reunited with their intended husbands, often married on the spot.

After inspection, immigrants descended from the Registry Room down the "Stairs of Separation," so-called because they marked the parting of the way for many family and friends with different destinations. Immigrants were directed toward the railroad ticket office and trains to points west, or to the island's hospital and detention rooms. During its half-century of operation over 3,500 immigrants died at Ellis Island and over 350 babies were born. There were three suicides. While doctors, nurses, inspectors, interpreters, matrons, and other staff employed during the station's peak years generally followed the directive to treat immigrants with "kindness and consideration," the process of inspection and detention - and the frightening prospect of exclusion - remained overwhelming.

Ellis Island became too costly to run - in 1953 the island's staff numbered roughly 250, to serve approximately 230 detained immigrants. The doors finally closed on November 19, 1954. Its last resident, detainee Arne Peterson, a seaman who overstayed his shore leave, was granted parole and ferried to the mainland.

Excerpted from "Ellis Island" by B. Colin Hamblin

June Pelo

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