Ellis Island : Memories of a Kinder America

This summer I was very fortunate to take a photography tour of Ellis Island. Not the clean and shiny museum that hundreds of people visit daily, but the crumbling back lot of Ellis Island that’s held together with cobwebs and mold. 

It was so exciting to have access to areas not open to the public. It’s where I met John McInnes, one of a small but mighty group of people who are working passionately to keep this part of our history alive.

I learned much more from him than I had ever dreamed. Who knew that in 1998 Ellis Island was officially divided in half? One half went to New Jersey and the other half to New York. (It’s complicated.) And there were no Green Cards. A passenger who got off the ship and passed legal and medical inspection was just sent off to be a happy worker bee. No strings attached. 

Forty percent of the 12 and a half million people who came through Ellis Island lived right in New York City. Most of those people ended up working in the factories. Others went to cities like Chicago, Detroit, or Pittsburgh. They built our cities. They worked in the mines and the factories doing the hard, dirty jobs that many Americans didn’t want .

The closed area of Ellis Island, where I spent my day, was home to the Immigrant Hospital, the first public health hospital in the United States. It was one of the most extensive public health systems in the world, treating a range of diseases such as tuberculosis, trachoma and diphtheria. (Cholera patients, I learned, were quarantined at Hoffman or Swinburne islands off the Staten Island coast.)There were 22 buildings and during peak years more than 300 staff people, many of whom lived on the grounds. You’d think there’d be ghost stories, but John wouldn’t tell.  

Today, when Immigration is such a touchy subject, it was refreshing to sit down and learn its history. It’s sad to see how welcoming we once were and how forbidding some people want us to be today. No, the system was never perfect. But it seems to me that there was a time when we did the right thing. 

John expresses it beautifully on his tours:

 “These people came here, our hospitals restored their health, and then we sent them off to do the nastiest work available. And for this, they gave up everything.  Friends, family, even their language, just to come here.  They’d been told that the streets in America were paved with gold, but they learned three things, fast.  One, the streets weren’t paved with gold. Two, many streets weren't even paved at all. Three, we expected them to pave the streets. It’s important to honor these people, to go to places like Ellis Island and see what they had to go through, just to get work. They didn’t ask for anything beyond that. They weren’t that different from people who sneak across the border today, to find work. Some Americans think they’re here to get handouts and welfare benefits, and I’m not saying there aren't people who do. But many of them quietly live in the shadows and do the work that no one else wants to do.”

The question of immigration, like all things political, is not a simple black and white picture. It is murky, gray, and difficult. And I think this little man-made island that sits on the border of New York and New Jersey has some history lessons for us. I truly believe that we need to preserve this place and these stories of the past so that we can learn from them.   

Here’s more of my conversation with him.

Ellis Island Hospital

Can you give me a broad history of Ellis Island?
Before Ellis Island opened in 1892, immigration was a state responsibility. The United States government decided to make it a federal operation so they moved all immigration out of New York City, first to Castle Garden in lower Manhattan, and then to an island in New York harbor called Ellis Island. They built the immigration station in 1892 to be the primary entry point for people from Europe, Africa and South America. Although many people did enter through Boston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, the vast majority came through Ellis Island.

From 1892 to 1954, 12 and a half million people were processed at Ellis Island. In 1924 immigration laws became stricter, mostly because of political pressure from Americans who believed too many southern and eastern Europeans were arriving. Now, you’d have to apply for a visa and have your health inspection in your home country before you came here.

So, from 1924 until it closed in 1954, the Ellis Island mission changed from immigration to deportation. It became a barbed wire enclosed camp for processing detainees and deportees.  

When it was a detention camp in WWII, who were they detaining?
Some of the detainees were German merchant mariners, seamen captured on the high seas. The majority were German- and Italian-Americans who were sympathetic to the Axis powers.  Most of these people had families, so our great hall, where all immigrants had been processed, became a kind of a day room where people could relax and have a sense of community. Ellis Island was actually a barbed wire enclosed camp from the mid 1920’s until it closed in 1954.

Ellis Island Hospital

Were there any German-American, Italian-America, or Japanese Americans who may have been suspected for espionage held there? 
Anyone who was suspected of espionage would have gone to a federal facility. Ellis Island was really for low-level individuals considered to be undesirable because of their sympathies to, say, the German Bund. Hence many of the families were deported after the end of World War II. It's kind of shocking to realize that children who had lived in the United States their entire lives were deported back to Germany, a war-torn and unfamiliar country. 

Ellis Island was the largest Immigration center at the time it was in operation. Why is that? 
It just made sense. New York was a large city that could accommodate the huge influx of Europeans and had a complex train system that could move them south and southeast. And New York needed immigrant labor to keep the city growing.

Ellis Island Hospital (Laundry)

Ellis Island was where the third-class passengers were processed. The first and second-class stayed on the boat, were processed on the boat, and then sent on their merry way. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
The Bureau of Immigration was in the Department of Commerce and Labor so everyone who came to the United States was expected to find work here. If you could afford a second or first-class ticket, the belief was you could likely find a job, that you’d been successful in Europe and would continue to be successful here. The third-class passengers, often farmers and low-skilled people, were assumed to need legal and medical screening. They had to show the physical ability to do manual laborer

Legally, passengers had to have at least 25 dollars with them, and have a good idea of where they wanted to go. Processing time could be three to five hours. You spent most of that time sitting and waiting for an inspector to hear your family's case.

Ellis Island Hospital 

What about the medical exam?
It was somewhat cursory. The doctors checked for illnesses that could be determined just by looking at the face. Typically that would be runny eyes, red eyes, runny nose, cough. They didn't try to diagnose you. They just gave you 6 seconds of assessment and then they'd move you one way or the other. They might send you to the hospital for further inspection, basically a physical. From there, they determined whether you were suffering from the effects of your journey or were truly sick.

Ellis Island Hospital (Mattress decontamination)

Then what happened?
They would try to cure you, or at least try to assess the treatment you needed and its cost. In the early years, the immigrant was expected to pay for treatment, and if you couldn’t pay you’d be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Art Installation)

How would a poor immigrant be able to pay for that type of thing?
Typically, the immigrant would sign a bond. Ellis Island authorities would say, "To treat your disease, like trachoma, you may be in the hospital four or five months for $2 a day." The family would then sign a bond, kind of a loan to say, "We will repay this." If the immigrant couldn't pay, Ellis Island authorities would lean on immigrant aid societies for help. If they expected the immigrant would never be able to pay the bill, he or she would be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Art Installation)

Are there any statistics on how many people actually paid back that money and how much money was paid back?
No. Record keeping was poor. Often, authorities would waive whatever bill was due. In other cases, they would ask Congress to eliminate the debt.  Sometimes the immigrant disappeared. Finally, in 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that the government would pay for healthcare for all immigrants.

Ellis Island Hospital

How generous of us!
We were profiting from their labor. We needed them to do the work. And there was certainly a limit to what was acceptable. If you were going to be at Ellis Island for months, the government wouldn't pay, but if they thought you'd only be hospitalized for three weeks with diphtheria,
they would.

We’ve seen an eye ward and a psych ward, and there was a general ward and autopsy room. What did they do with people who died?
No one was buried here. Often they would just wrap the body in antiseptic liniments and return it to the family or immigrant aid societies like Catholic and Jewish charities. Or the bodies might be sent to potter's fields around the New York area. There was a potter's field in Jersey City and one in Hart Island in New York, which is still New York City’s potter's field. Some bodies were sent to a cemetery in Queens. 

Ellis Island Hospital (Autopsy Room)

Ellis Island Hospital (Room off autopsy room)

Ellis Island Hospital (Room off autopsy room)

What did they do with psychiatric cases? 
If you were determined to be feeble-minded, you would find yourself in a deportation hearing where your family had to prove they could care for you. If you were classified as a low-level feeble-minded individual, or moron, they might let you immigrate to states that needed laborers, say in the south and the southwest, but you had to show you could likely find work, and it would help if you had family there. Otherwise, a feeble-minded young man traveling alone might be deported. If you were an older individual without family, you would be deported. If you were a woman without family, you would definitely be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Stairway)

They used the words feeble-minded and moron?
Yes. There are actually 3 classifications of feeble-minded. Idiot, imbecile, and moron.

It was the science of the day, when you think about it. These intelligence tests were developed in Europe and brought to the United States, where Congress wanted a scientific method to determine who should be allowed in. They would test children. They would test teenagers. They would test all individuals at all ages levels if they suspected someone might be feeble-minded. Then they would classify you as idiot, imbecile, or moron and determine whether or not you could enter the United States. 

This system did lead to eugenics and certainly Adolf Hitler took advantage of these kinds of tests. So it evolved badly. But it was the science of the day.

Ellis Island Hospital

Were people tested in their own language? 
Yes. Often the translators would just answer the question for the immigrant because they knew the tests were culturally biased.  An immigrant couldn’t identify a cup or a saucer out of a bunch of pictures because most likely they've never seen a cup and saucer, or an iron, or an umbrella. 

Our most famous translator was Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York. He said he answered questions for the immigrants all the time. He thought the tests were a ridiculous assessment of a person’s merit or capacity to work.

On our tour, someone mentioned a rumor that a prominent New York family was trying to get a family member into the hospital. Do you know who that was?
No. I’ve heard that story too. A lot of people did this, because they knew the doctors here had treated just about every disease known to man. 

Ellis Island Hospital

What determined a person’s immigration point?
Some cheaper steamship tickets would take you to Baltimore, but most immigrants wanted to go where they knew they were going to find work, so they came to New York and worked their way west.  Once in New York, they tended to collect in the small ethnic communities that are still here today.

Did people send letters to their home countries, encouraging others to come here, and coaching them on how to make it through Ellis Island?
Yes. The steamship companies also worked with people to make sure that they understood how to behave during immigration processing. Immigrant aid societies also helped. Typically, though, a factory owner would turn to some of the better employees and say, "Don't you have a brother-in-law in Italy? We're looking for workers. Would you think about bringing your brother-in-law over?"

Ellis Island Hospital

So people were really working together. There was no conspiracy to keep you out?
No.  Newspapers back home would often publish stories about local people who’d come to the United States and were making it. Readers got a sense that it would just work out, and you’d feel at home. Steamship companies would plant many of those stories to encourage immigration.

Did immigrants go home again?
Many people did go home because they had either made enough money to live comfortably there, or they just didn't like the United States. But typically, the third-class berth compartments on a passenger ship would go back to Europe filled with freight.

You mean third-class passengers were good for the exporting process?
Yes, in a way. Steamships were used to ship exports to Europe. With third-class passengers to fill the bottom of the boat, steamship companies had a commodity to bring into the United States, and other commodities to ship back. They made money both ways.

Ellis Island Hospital

What else would you like us to know?
Many people don’t know that during World War II the Ellis Island hospital was actually a psychiatric hospital. These were soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress, combat fatigue, and shell shock. When you go into some of the pavilions, there are hydrotherapy wards, electroshock therapy wards, and restraint rooms. This was the infancy of psychiatric work.

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution came to help. They had no idea how to help these men with the psychological wounds of war, so they had the soldiers do a lot of creative things, like knitting. When you go into some of the attics, you still see piles of yarn from the isolation wards. It was very well intended work. The soldiers made handbags and pocketbooks and oven mitts and the DAR would sell them. Just imagine coming back from your war experiences, and someone's asking you to knit.

Ellis Island Hospital (Hallway)

Did it work?
There's no real documentation of the work that was done. Just looms left behind. It’s sad that we threw millions of people into battle and then realized we couldn't treat the invisible wounds they would bring home. It makes you appreciate what soldiers go through today when they come back from war. 

Why do you think Ellis Island has captured our imaginations?
America's always had a love/hate relationship with immigrants. We enjoy the story but we have problems with the reality. The myth is that back in the good old days, people all came with their little bags and they were all very humble and earnest, and the inspectors were very good judges of who should be allowed in, and everything was done neatly and properly. But it wasn’t. Immigration was just as messy and political then as it is today. 

We are one of the few immigrant nations on the face of the Earth, but we don’t always recognize that. 

Ellis Island Hospital

Why do we want to make sure that these buildings stay with is? What's the point?
I think for a country to build a hospital that's specifically for immigrants, for third-class passengers, for complete strangers who are the poorest of the poor, is something to be proud of.  The United States chose to spend political will and capital on the poorest of Europe's poor. These people were considered undesirables.  They were Catholics, Jews, Poles, Russians,
Not as popular as the West Europeans who had come here earlier.  Just to know that they built this hospital for these people speaks well for citizens of the United States at the turn of the century.

Today, we’ve moved immigration out of the Department of Commerce into the Department of Homeland Security. This says that we see these same immigrants as a threat to our way of life.  
It’s an amazing turn.

Thank you, John.

One final, compelling thought . . .
This amazing place that welcomed so many of our ancestors–the people who built the America we live in–won’t last without help.  If you are compelled to learn more or to help preserve this historic site for the next generation, please visit saveellisisland.org

Ellis Island Hospital