True Immigrant Tales: Traveling in Steerage

Steerage conditions varied greatly, depending on the steamship line and the ship’s size, but all were unpleasant to say the least. Below is testimony from a government inspector, disguised as an immigrant, reporting in 1909 to the Dillingham Immigration Commission about the poor sanitary conditions on a smaller ship that carried less than 200 immigrants.

All the steerage berths were of iron, the framework forming two tiers and having but a low partition between the individual berths.  Each bunk contained a mattress filled with straw and covered with a slip made of coarse white canvas, apparently cleaned for the voyage. There were no pillows.  Instead, a life-preserver was placed underneath at the head in each berth. A short and lightweight white blanket was the only covering provided. This each passenger might take with him on leaving. It was practically impossible to undress properly for retiring because of insufficient covering and lack of privacy. Many women had pillows from home and used shawls and other clothing for coverings. . . .


Our compartment was subdivided into three sections—one for the German women, which was completely boarded off from the rest; one for Hebrews; and one for all other creeds and nationalities together. The partition between these last two was merely a fence consisting of four horizontal 6-inch boards. This neither kept out odors nor cut off the view.

The single men had their sleeping quarters directly below ours, and adjoining was the compartment for families and partial families—that is, women and children. In this last section every one of the 60 beds was occupied and each passenger had only the 100 cubic feet of space required by law. The Hebrews were here likewise separated from the others by the same ineffectual fence, consisting of four horizontal boards and the intervening spaces. Outside the fence was the so-called dining room, getting all the bedroom smells from these 60 crowded berths. . . .

The floors in these compartments were of wood. They were swept every morning and the aisles sprinkled lightly with sand. None of them was washed during the twelve days’ voyage nor was there any indication that a disinfectant was being used on them. The beds received only such attention as each occupant gave to his own. When the steerage is full, each passenger’s space is limited to his berth, which then serves as bed, clothes and towel rack, cupboard, and baggage space. There are no accommodations to encourage the steerage passenger to be clean and orderly. There was no hook on which to hang a garment, no receptacle for refuse, no cuspidor, no cans for use in case of seasickness.

Two washrooms were provided for the use of the steerage. The first morning out I took special care to inquire for the women’s wash room. One of the crew directed me to a door bearing the sign “Wash room for men.” Within were both men and women. Thinking I had been misdirected, I proceeded to the other wash room. This bore no label and was likewise being used by both sexes. Repeating my inquiry, another of the crew directed me just as the first had done. Evidently there was no distinction between the men’s and women’s wash rooms. These were on the main deck and not convenient to any of the sleeping quarters. To use them one had to cross the open deck, subject to the public gaze. In the case of the families and men, it was necessary to come upstairs and cross the deck to get to both the wash rooms and the toilets.


The one wash room, about 7 by 9 feet, contained 10 faucets of cold salt water, 5 along either of its two walls, and as many basins. These resembled in size and shape the usual stationary laundry tub. Ten persons could scarcely have used this room at one time. The basins were seldom used on account of their great inconvenience and because of the various other services to which they must be put. To wash out of a laundry tub with only a little water on the bottom is quite difficult, and where so many persons must use so few basins one cannot take the time to draw so large a basin full of water.  This same basin served as a dishpan for greasy tins, as a laundry tub for soiled handkerchiefs and clothing, and as a basin for shampoos, and without receiving any special cleaning. It was the only receptacle to be found for use in the case of seasickness.

The space indicated to me as the “women’s wash room” contained 6 faucets of cold salt water and basins like those already described. The hot water faucet did not act. The sole arrangement for washing dishes in all the steerage was located in the women’s wash room. It was a trough about 4 feet long, with a faucet of warm salt water. This was never hot, and seldom more than lukewarm. Coming up in single file to wash dishes at the trough would have meant very long waiting for those at the end of the line, and to avoid this many preferred cold water and the wash basins. The steerage stewards also brought dishes here to wash.  If there was no privacy in the sleeping quarters, there was certainly none in the wash rooms.

Steerage passengers may be filthy, as is often alleged, but considering the total absence of conveniences for keeping clean, this uncleanliness seems but a natural consequence. Some may really be filthy in their habits, but many make heroic efforts to keep clean. No woman with the smallest degree of modesty and with no other conveniences than a wash room, used jointly with men, and a faucet of cold salt water can keep clean amidst such surroundings for a period of twelve days and more. It was forbidden to bring water for washing purposes into the sleeping quarters, nor was there anything in which to bring it. On different occasions, some of the women rose early, brought drinking water in their soup pails, and thus tried to wash themselves effectively, but were driven out when detected by the steward. Others, resorting to extreme measures, used night chambers, which they carry with them for the children, as wash basins. This was done a great deal when preparation was being made for landing. Even hair was washed with these vessels. No soap and no towels were supplied. 

[Read about the people and events of Ellis Island prior to 1909 in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

True Immigrant Tales: “Are you a polygamist?”

[In 1913, Scottish travel writer Stephen Graham (1884-1975) left Liverpool, England, as a steerage passenger. This is another excerpt from his book, With Poor Immigrants to America (1914). In the previous installment, he described events leading up to his inspection at Ellis Island. Here, he tells of his observations on the island itself.]

“Once more, it was Quick march! And—hurrying about with bags and baskets on our hands—we were put into lines.  Then we slowly filed up to a doctor who turned our eyelids inside out with a metal instrument. Another doctor scanned faces and hands for skin diseases, and then we carried our ship-inspection cards to an official who stamped them.  We passed into the vast hall of judgment, and were classified and put into lines again, this time according to our nationality. It was interesting to observe at the very threshold of the United States the mechanical obsession of the American people. This ranging and guiding and hurrying and sifting was like nothing so much as the screening of coal in a great breaker tower.

ImageDoctor examines immigrant’s eyelid.


It is not good to be like a hurrying, bumping, wandering piece of coal being mechanically guided to the sacks of its type and size, but such is the lot of the immigrant at Ellis Island.

But we had now reached a point in the examination when we could rest. In our new lines we were marched into stalls and were allowed to sit and look about us and, in comparative ease, await the pleasure of officials. The hall of judgment was crowned by two immense American flags. The center, and indeed the great body of the hall, was filled with immigrants in their stalls, a long series of classified third-class men and women.  The walls of the hall were booking-offices, bank counters, inspectors’ tables, stools of statisticians. Up above was a visitors’ gallery where journalists and the curious might promenade and talk about the melting pot and America, “the refuge of the oppressed.” Down below, among the clerks’ offices, were exits; one gate led to Freedom and New York, another to quarantine, a third to the railway ferry, a fourth to the hospital and dining room, to the place where unsuitable emigrants were imprisoned until there is a ship to take them back to their native land.

Image  Registry Hall at Ellis Island

Somewhere also there was a place where marriages were solemnized. Engaged couples were there made man and wife before landing in New York. I was helping a girl who struggled with a huge basket and a detective asked me if she were my sweetheart. If I could have said, “Yes,” as like as not we’d have been married off before we landed. America is extremely solicitous about the welfare of women, especially of poor unmarried women who come to her shores. So many women fall into the clutches of evil directly they land in the New World. The authorities generally refuse to admit a poor, friendless girl, though there is a great demand for female labor all over the United States, and it is easy to get a place and earn an honest living.

It was a pathetic sight to see the doubtful men and women pass into the chamber where examination is prolonged, pathetic also to see the Russians and Poles empty their purses, exhibiting to men with good clothes and lasting “jobs” all the money they had in the world.

At half-past two, I gave particulars of myself and showed the coin I had, and was passed.

Have you ever been arrested? asked the inspector.

Well, yes, I had. I was not predisposed to lie. I had been arrested four or five times. In Russia you can’t escape that.

For a crime involving moral turpitude? he went on.

No, no.

Have you a job in America? (This is a dangerous question; if you say yes, you probably get sent back home; it is against American law to contract for foreign labor.)

I explained that I was a tramp.

This did not at all please the inspector. He would not accept that definition of my occupation, so he put me down as author.

Are you an anarchist?

Are you willing to live in subordination to the laws of the United States?

Are you a polygamist?

What does that mean? I asked.

Do you believe a man may possess more than one wife at a time?

Certainly not.

Have you any friends in New York?

Acquaintances, yes.

Give me the address.

I gave him an address.

How much money have you got? . . . Show it to me, please. . . . And so on. I was let go.

At three in the afternoon I stood in another ferry boat, and with a crowd of approved immigrants passed to the City of New York. Success had melted most of us and, though we were terribly hungry, we had words and confidences for one another on the ferry boat. We were ready to help one another to any extent in our power. That is what it feels like to have passed the Last Day and still believe in Heaven, to pass Ellis Island and still believe in America.

[If you liked this story, you will enjoy my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]


True Immigrant Tales: “It Was the Tombstone of Columbus”

[In 1913, Scottish travel writer Stephen Graham (1884-1975) left Liverpool, England, as a steerage passenger. This is an excerpt from his book, With Poor Immigrants to America (1914), in which he described events leading up to his inspection at Ellis Island.]


                                                              New York City skyline, 1908

“The day of the emigrant’s arrival in New York was the nearest earthly likeness to the final Day of Judgment, when we have to prove our fitness to enter Heaven.  Our trial might well have been prefaced by a few edifying reminders from a priest.

“It was the hardest day since leaving Europe and home. From 5 a.m., when we had breakfast, to three in the afternoon, when we landed at the Battery, we were driven in herds from one place to another, ranged into single files, passed in review before doctors, pocked in the eyes by the eye-inspectors, cross-questioned by the pocket-inspectors, vice detectives, and blue-book compilers.

“Nobody had slept the night before. Those who appreciated America for the first time stood on the open deck and stared at the lights of Long Island. Others packed their trunks. Lovers took long adieus and promised to write one another letters. There was a hum of talking in the cabins, a continual pattering of feet in the gangways, a splashing of water in the lavatories where cleanly emigrants were trying to wash their whole bodies at hand basins. At last the bell rang for breakfast; we made that meal before dawn. When it was finished we all went up on the forward deck to see what America looked like by morning light. A little after six, we were all chased to the after deck and made to file past two detectives and an officer. The detectives eyed us; the officer counted to see that on one was hiding

“At seven o’clock, our boat lifted anchor and we glided up the still waters of the harbor. The whole prow was a black mass of passengers staring at the ferry boats, the distant factories, and skyscrapers. Every point of vantage was seized and some scores of emigrants were clinging to the rigging. At length, we came into sight of the green-gray Statue of Liberty, far away and diminutive at first but, later on, a celestial figure in a blaze of sunlight. An American waved a starry flag in greeting, and some emigrants were disposed to cheer while some shed silent tears. Many, however, did not know what the statue was. I heard one Russian telling another that it was the tombstone of Columbus.

“We carried out at eight, and in a pushing crowd prepared to disembark. At 8:30, we were quick marched out of the ship to the customs wharf and there ranged in six or seven long lines. All the officials were running and hustling, shouting out, ‘Come on!’ ‘Hurry!’ ‘Move along!’ and clapping their hands. Our trunks were examined and chalk marked on the run—no delving for diamonds—and then we were quick marched further to a waiting ferry boat. Here, for the time being, hustle ended. We waited three-quarters of an hour in the seatless ferry, and everyone was anxiously speculating on the coming ordeal of medical and pocket examination.


           New York Harbor with Brooklyn Bridge in background, 1905

“At a quarter to ten we steamed for Ellis Island. We were then marched to another ferry boat and expected to be transported somewhere else, but this second vessel was simply a floating waiting room. We were crushed and almost suffocated upon it. A hot sun beat upon its wooden roof; the windows in the sides were fixed; we could not move an inch from the places where we were awkwardly standing, for the boxes and baskets were so thick about our feet; babies kept crying sadly, as irritated emigrants swore at the sound of them. All were thinking—‘Shall I get through?’ “Have I enough money?’ ‘Shall I pass the doctor?’ and for a whole hour, in the heat and noise of discomfort, we were kept thinking thus.

“At a quarter past eleven, we were released in detachments. Every twenty minutes each and every passenger picked up his luggage and tried to stampede through the party; a lucky few would bolt past the officer in charge, and the rest would flood back with heartbroken, desperate looks on their faces. Every time they failed to get included in the outgoing party, the emigrants seemed to feel that they had lost their chance of a job or that America was a failure or their coming there was a great mistake. At last, at a quarter-past eleven, it was my turn to rush out and find what Fate and America had in store for me.”

[Stephen Graham’s story about his experiences with Ellis Island processing continues in the next installment. Have you read Guardians of the Gate yet? It’s all about Ellis Island and its people.]

True Immigrant Tales: Smiling Through the Tears

[Maud Mosher worked for the Indian Health Service for eight years before accepting a position as a matron at Ellis Island. After serving from 1903 to 1907, she left and, in 1910, wrote several articles about her experiences in Coming Nation, a well-known periodical of the times. This is an excerpt.]

“It was as surprising as a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. Had it been a position on the moon it could not have seemed more improbable—would I accept a position as matron at Ellis Island, qualified for Boarding Duty, answer immediately, etc.

“I knew nothing about the Immigration service. To be sure, I had heard that Ellis Island was the place where the immigrants were examined the same as old Castle Garden—but Boarding Duty, what could it mean?

“After some further correspondence with the Commissioner of Ellis Island, the spirit of adventure prompted me to accept the position.”

“The conductor on the train told me that the terminal of the railroad was in Jersey City and that I would have to take a ferry boat to New York, ‘just follow the crowd’ from the depot. I did so and went into what seemed to be a fairly pleasant waiting room. ‘The crowd sat down, so did I. They waited, so did I. By and bye, they all rose and went toward a door and I supposed the ferry boat had arrived, so I went to the door also when someone near me said, ‘Well, we are in New York at last, and so we were. Instead of it being a waiting room, as I thought it was, it was the ferry and we had been crossing the North River while I thought we were waiting for the boat. . . .

“It was after midnight when we reached a hotel. In the morning I asked the maid in the hall how to get to the Barge Office where I had been directed by the Commissioner in order to get to the boat to the Island.


Barge Office in Lower Manhattan, departure point to Ellis Island, circa 1890s

“[She told me] ‘Ye go down Broadway. Ye’ll know ut when ye see ut because the buildin’s are so high. Ye go over straight east until ye git there, thin ye go down Broadway until ye come to the Battery, thin ye are at the Barge Office. Ye’ll know ut on account of the immigrants coming’ out and waitin’ on the strate. Ony policemin will tell ye if ye are afraid.’

“For a wonder I arrived at the Barge Office without losing my way, went onboard the Ellis Island boat, passed ever so many watchmen who asked me ever so many questions and finally found my way to the Commissioner’s office. . . .

“Next the Matron in Charge took me round the Island explaining things. . . . She said that they were not very busy that day as there were only about three thousand immigrants to be examined. To me it looked as though all the poor people of Europe had come in on that day.

“Out in Kansas no one was very wealthy but no one was so very poor. . . . In all my life I had never seen people so desperately poor except some of the reservation Indians and we always thought they were so poor because they were an uncivilized people—but these were people from the civilized countries,  so of course, they must be civilized. That is what Americans think. . . yet many of these immigrants. . . are no more civilized than our North American Indians, the reservation Indians, I mean, the real ‘old timers,’ as we used to call them in the Indian Service.

“As I stood and watched the immigrants coming in, it looked as though they would never cease, every minute was an hour, and the line, two by two, kept moving on. The Doctors were examining their eyes and scalps at one place . . . on the line. Two Matrons, very grave and dignified, stood there looking and occasionally taking some woman or woman and man out of the ranks. Officers stood at different places giving strange commands in foreign tongues. Little children were crying, tugging at the mother’s skirts, the tears making streaks down their tired dirty faces, some of the many babies were screaming. Men and women and children were also bending under burdens which seemed almost beyond their strength to carry—bags, bundles, great packs, valises without handles tied together with rope, little tin trunks, great baskets, cooking utensils. . . .

“So many looked weak and starved, so many were filthy and dirty . . . so low and degraded looking, and so poor, so dreadfully poor! And I—I had to stay. . . .


Two Ellis Island matrons with their charges on the roof garden

“[Next day] when I reported for duty, the Matron in Charge introduced me to a Matron and told her, ‘Show her the ropes.’  . . . As I soon learned that the way of doing anything seemed to be of much more importance than . . . doing the duty itself.

“Every day, the terrible feeling of being in a place from which there was no escape grew upon me. The noise and confusion, the curt commands of the officers, the Sundays the same as other days—for the Sabbath is not observed at Ellis Island—the thousands of poor people arriving every day, the misery of the deported.

“The tears were always so near my eyes that I just had to keep on smiling to keep them from flowing.”

[Read more about Ellis Island staff & immigrants in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

True Immigrant Tales: Waiting Without Food and Water

[This is Part 2 of American journal Broughton Brandenburg's account of a 1903 steamship voyage with immigrants in steerage, taken from his book, Imported Americans.]

“. . . In mid-afternoon. . . when we reached the slip at Ellis Island we merely tied up, for there were many barge-loads ahead of us, and we waited our turn to be unloaded and examined.

“Waiting, waiting, waiting, without food and without water; or, if there was water, we could not get to it on account of the crush of people. Children cried, mothers strove to hush them, the musically inclined sang or played, and then the sun went down while we waited and still waited.

“Cooped up in the barge, we waited till the sun got down into the smoke of Bayonne and Elizabeth and was a great red ball only, so dull that the eye could contemplate it pleasantly. Then came the shadows of night, and we began to dread that our turn to be disembarked would come so late that we should either be taken back to the steamer or be kept on the island until morning. Myriads of lights were shining in the great buildings. Each time the old ferry-boat floundered across from the Battery it brought a crowd of friends of immigrants who had been summoned from New York and elsewhere to meet the newly arrived ones. All the races of Europe seemed to be represented in the crowds on the ferryboat as it passed close to us when bound back to the Battery.

“The babies had sobbed themselves to sleep, worn-out mothers sat with their heads drooped on the children they held to their breasts, and among the men mirth and song had died away, though now and then a voice would be heard inquiring if anyone knew when or where we would get something to eat.

ImageBarge arrivals at Ellis Island

“‘All ready for the last Irenes’ sang out a voice somewhere in the darkness up by the buildings, and there was a clatter of feet overhead and on the wharf. The doors of the barge were opened. The barge hands dragged out the plank. The ropes restraining the crowd were dropped, and the weary hundreds, shouldering their baggage yet once again, poured out of the barge on to the wharf. . . [and] to the covered approach to the grand entrance to the building, and the strange assemblage of Old World humanity streamed along. . . an interesting procession indeed. . . .

“Half-way up the stairs an interpreter stood telling the immigrants to get their health tickets ready, and so I knew that Ellis Island was having ‘a long day’ and we were to be passed upon even if it took half the night. The majority of the people, having their hands full of bags, boxes, bundles, and children, carried their tickets in their teeth, and just at the head of the stairs stood a young doctor in the Marine Hospital Service uniform, who took them, looked at them, and stamped them with the Ellis Island stamp. . . .

“Passing straight east from the head of the stairs, we turned into the south half of the great registry floor, which is divided, like the human body, into two great parts nearly alike, so that one ship’s load can be handled on one side and another ship’s load on the other. In fact, as we came up, a quantity of people from the north of Europe were being examined in the north half.

“Turning into a narrow railed-off lane, we encountered another doctor in uniform, who lifted hats or pushed back shawls to look for favus heads, keenly scrutinized the face and body for signs of disease or deformity, and passed us on. An old man who limped in front of me, he marked with a bit of chalk on the coat lapel. At the end of the railed lane was a third uniformed doctor, a towel hanging beside him, a small instrument over which to turn up eyelids in his hand, and back of him basins of disinfectants.

“As we approached he was examining a Molise woman and her two children. The youngest screamed with fear when he endeavored to touch her, but with a pat on the cheek and a kindly word, the child was quieted while he examined its eyes, looking for trachoma or purulent ophthalmia. The second child was so obstinate that it took some minutes to get it examined, and then, having found suspicious conditions, he marked the woman with a bit of chalk, and a uniformed official led her and the little ones to the left into the rooms for special medical examination. The old man who limped went the same way, as well as many others. . . .

“Passing west, we came to the waiting-rooms, in which the groups which are entered on each sheet of the manifest are held until K sheet or L sheet, whatever their letter may be, is reached. . .

“We sank down on the wooden benches, thankful to get seats once more. Our eyes pained severely for some few minutes as a result of the turning up of the lids, but the pain passed.

“Somewhere about nine o’clock an official came by and hurried out U group and passed it up into line along the railed way which led up to the inspector who had U sheet. . . . Our papers were all straight; we were correctly entered on the manifest, had abundant money, had been passed by the doctors, and were properly destined to New York, and so were passed in less than one minute. We were classed as ‘New York Outsides’ to distinguish us from the ‘New York Detained,’ who await the arrival of friends to receive them; ‘Railroads,’ who go to the stations for shipment; and ‘S.I.’s,’ by which is meant those unfortunates who are subjected to Special Inquiry in the semi-secret Special Inquiry Court, which is the preliminary to being sent back, though, of course, only a portion of ‘S. I.’s’ are sent back. . . .

ImageEllis Island Money Exchange

“We began to see why the three stairways are called ‘The Stairs of Separation.’ To their right is the money exchange, to the left are the Special Inquiry Room and the telegraph offices. Here family parties with different destinations are separated without a minute’s warning, and often never see each other again. It seems heartless, but it is the only practical system, for if allowance was made for good-byes, the examination and distribution process would be blocked then and there by a dreadful crush. Special officers would be necessary to tear relatives forcibly from each other’s arms. The stairs to the right lead to the railroad room, where tickets are arranged, baggage checked and cleared from customs, and the immigrants loaded on boats to be taken to the various railroad stations for shipment to different parts of the country. The central stair leads to the detention rooms, where immigrants are held pending the arrival of friends. The left descent is for those free to go out to the ferry.”

[Read about other immigrants and Ellis Island workers in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]



True Immigrant Tales: Reaching the Promised Land

[American journalist Broughton Brandenburg traveled on a German steamship with Italian immigrants in October 1903 and wrote about his observations in his book, Imported Americans.  This is part of his account.]

“Sunday fell on the 11th, and it was a pleasant day till afternoon, when it began to get rough. The ship’s band was sent forward to play on the hurricane deck, in order to cheer up the emigrants, many of whom were beginning to look very badly, and to endeavor to brace them up till port could be reached; for it is a great saving to the company to take as many passengers as possible to Ellis Island in a good state of health.
“On this day occurred another medical inspection; and to make all of the health tickets appear to have been properly punched as each passenger was inspected day by day, a steward whom I had heard called Beppo went about and carefully punched any vacant spaces. As neither my wife nor myself had gone by for the last three of the four health inspections, having missed the call by being busy eating in the petty officer’s cubby, Beppo punched out the full twelve days of the voyage at one punching. When those tickets were presented at Ellis Island there was nothing to show that their bearers had not been properly inspected each day. . . .

“In the morning the warmth of the Gulf Stream began to stir the chilled blood of all hands, and the first sail sighted since the Azores caused the poor emigrants to rejoice, as it was a token that they were nearing America. In a slow way the Italian provincial songs which had prevailed changed to American airs, attempted by those who had been in the States. Everybody seemed happier than they had been for days, and first-cabin passengers began to appear in numbers on the forward end of the hurricane deck. Several young women had brought out little bundles of delicacies, candy, oranges, apples, etc., and were dropping them over the rail to the emigrant children below. This kindly occupation was observed by the first officer, who was on the bridge, and he came down in haste and rebuked the first-cabin young women with severity, and sent the ship’s interpreter down to hector the emigrant children and their mothers. I wonder what he would have said had he known the quantities of first-cabin fare that was being smuggled to emigrants by the stewards and cooks every day. . . .

“The night before, the joy among the emigrants that they were reaching the Promised Land was pitiful to see, mingled as it was with the terrible dread of being debarred.

“There was little sleeping all night. About twelve o’clock the women woke up the sleeping children, opened their packs, and took out finery on top of finery, and began to array the little ones to meet their fathers. My wife pleaded with Camela to stay in her bunk and wait for daylight at least, but Camela could not understand why she should wait, and at three o’clock little Ina was brought up on deck arrayed in her very best, and as clean as her mother could make her with a small bottle of water and a skirt combination wash-rag and towel.

Image  “By six o’clock all the baggage in the comartments had been hauled out and up on deck, and the hundreds of emigrants were gathered there, many trying to shave, others struggling for water in which to wash, and mothers who had been unable to dress their children to their satisfaction in the cramped quarters below were doing the job all over again, despite the chill air.

“Happy, excited, enthusiastic as they were, there was still that dread among the people of the “Batteria,” the name used to sum up all that pertains to Ellis Island. I saw more than one man with a little slip of notes in his hand carefully rehearsing his group in all that they were to say when they came up for examination, and by listening here and there I found that hundreds of useless lies were in preparation. Many, many persons whose entry into the country would be in no way hindered by even the strictest enforcement of the letter of the emigration laws, were trembling in their shoes, and preparing to evade or defeat the purpose of questions which they had heard would be put to them.

“Some of the people who had confided in me came around even two or three times to ask me whether I thought they looked at all “sick in the eyes.” One woman who fancied that her baby had trachoma gorged the child all that day in an effort to get it asleep and keep it asleep, so that the doctor should pass it without examining it, as she was prepared to protest against its being waked up.

“More than once I heard leaders of groups telling men:

Remember, you have got no work and you paid your own way.

Oh, but they will not let me in if they think I have no work and will have no money to keep my family from charity,” protested one fellow whom I knew was under promise of work.

That makes no difference; you are a jackass not to do as I tell you; don’t you think I know my business? was the answer he received.

“Numbers of the people were privately taking out and setting aside varying sums from their slender stores of money, with which to “pay something to the American inspector and American doctor.” So accustomed were they to extortion by officials that they refused to believe me when I told them that it would cease at Ellis Island. They were astounded and deeply puzzled when it did.”

 [You can read about immigrants and Ellis Island staff in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

True Immigrant Tales: “I Was Weak in the Knees”

      [Louis Adamic was a prominent Slovene-American writer who migrated to America in December 1913 at age 15.]

“Now and then I glanced at the noisy, picturesque, garlicky crowd on the steerage deck; people of perhaps a dozen nationalities milling around the capstans and steam-hissing winches, pushing toward the rails straining and stretching, catching a glimpse of the new country, of the city; lifting their children, even their infants, to give them a view of the Statue of Liberty; women weeping for joy, men falling on their knees in thanksgiving, and children screaming, wailing, dancing.

ImageArriving at Ellis Island

“From the ship we were transferred on a lighter to Ellis Island. . . . The day I spent on Ellis Island was an eternity. Rumors were current among immigrants of several nationalities that some of us would be refused admittance into the United States and sent back to Europe. For several hours I was in a cold sweat on this account, although, so far as I knew, all my papers were in order and sewed away in the lining of my jacket were twenty-five dollars in American currency—the minimum amount required by law to be in the possession of every immigrant before entering the country. Then, having realized away some of these fears, I gradually worked up a panicky feeling that I might develop measles or smallpox, or some other such disease. I had heard that several hundred sick immigrants were quarantined on the island.

“The first night in America I spent with hundreds of other recently arrived immigrants in an immense hall with tiers of narrow iron-and-canvas bunks, four deep. I was assigned to a top bunk. Unlike most of the steerage immigrants, I had no bedding with me, and the blanket which someone threw at me was too thin to be effective against the blasts of cold air that rushed through the open windows; so that I shivered, sleepless all night, listening to snores and dream-monologues in perhaps a dozen different languages. . . .
“Late in the afternoon on the last day of 1913, I was examined for entry into the United States, with about a hundred other immigrants who had come on the Niagara. . . .

ImageRMS Niagara

“The official spoke a bewildering mixture of many Slavic languages. He had a stern voice and a sour visage. I had difficulty understanding some of his questions.

“At a small table, piled with papers, not far from the examiner’s desk, was a clerk who called out our names, which, it seemed, were written on the long sheets of paper before him.

“When my turn came, toward dusk, I was asked the usual questions. When and where was I born? My nationality? Religion? Was I a legitimate child? What were the names of my parents? Was I an imbecile? Was I a prostitute? (I assume male and female immigrants were subjected to the same questionnaire.) Was I an ex-convict? A criminal? Why had I come to the United States?

“I was questioned as to the state of my finances and I produced the required twenty-five dollars.

“What did I expect to do in the United States? I replied that I hoped to get a job. What kind of job? I didn’t know; any kind of job.

“The inspector grunted vaguely. “And who is this person, Stefan—Stefan Radin—who is meeting you?

“I answered that Stefan Radin was the brother of a friend of mine, now dead.

“Then the inspector waved me out of his presence and the clerk motioned me to go back and sit on one of the benches nearby.

“I waited another hour. It got dark and the lights were turned on in the room.

“Finally, after dozens of other immigrants had been questioned, Steve Radin was called into the examining room and asked, in English, to state his relationship to me.

“He answered, of course, that he was not related to me at all.

“Whereupon the inspector fairly pounced upon me, speaking the dreadful botch of Slavic languages. What did I mean by lying to him? He said a great many other things which I did not understand. I did comprehend, however, his threat to return me to the Old Country. It appeared that America had no room for liars; America was glad to welcome to its shores only decent, honest, truthful people.
“My heart pounded.

“Finally, it occurred simultaneously to me and to Steve Radin that the man must be laboring under some misapprehension. And truly, before another minute elapsed, it turned out that the clerk had made a mistake by entering on my paper that I had declared Stefan Radin was my uncle. How that mistake occurred I do not know; perhaps the clerk had confused my questionnaire form with someone else’s.

“Finally, perceiving the error, the examiner’s face formed a grimace and, waving his hand in a casual gesture, he ordered me released. . . . I was weak in the knees and just managed to walk out of the room, then downstairs, and onto the ferryboat. I had been shouted at, denounced as a liar by an official of the United States on my second day in the country, before a roomful of people, including Steve Radin, whom, so far, I had barely glimpsed.

ImageEllis Island ferry boat

“But the weakness in my knees soon passed. I laughed, perhaps a bit hysterically, as the little Ellis Island ferryboat bounded over the rough, white-capped waters of the bay toward the battery.

“Steve Radin gaped at me. Then he smiled.

“I was in New York—in America.”

[Read more about immigrants and Ellis Island staff in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]