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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Celtic Memory: Experiencing Ellis Island

Immigrants arriving by ferry at Ellis Island.
Immigrants arriving by ferry at Ellis Island.

In March of 1897, Catherine Fallon, my maternal great-grandmother, and her sister, Julia, left County Leitrim, Ireland, and sailed to the Port of New York, ultimately settling in Brooklyn. A couple decades later, in June, 1923, Agnes and John Dorman, my father’s parents, relocated as well. Saying goodbye to Port Glasgow, Scotland, they took up residence in a Brooklyn neighborhood less than ten miles from Catherine Fallon’s house. In addition to living in the same NYC borough, my four relatives had another thing in common. The Fallons and the Dormans had entered the U.S. officially through the immigration processing station known as Ellis Island. Although I’ve been aware of Ellis Island since I was a child, it wasn’t until recently that I explored what that experience was like for them. In my research, I discovered it could be an intimidating, even grueling experience. Also, I realized that Catherine and Julia, because of who they were, could have been marked with chalk and sent back to Ireland.

The Establishment of Ellis Island

Prior to the late nineteenth century, immigration requirements and procedures in the United States were handled on a state-by-state basis. Fears about the spread of contagious diseases, however, led to the federal government taking control of immigration in 1891. Immigration processing stations were set up at various ports of entry. Perhaps the most renowned of these is Ellis Island. Located on the same island as the Statue of Liberty, it was opened in January of 1892 and remained active until November of 1954. During those sixty-two years, over 12 million immigrants were processed. However, not all who landed in New York had to go through Ellis Island.

Immigrants who traveled in first or second class did not have to go through processing at Ellis Island
Immigrants who traveled in first or second class did not have to go through processing at Ellis Island.

Not All Immigrants Are Equal

Just like today, in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, where an immigrant came from made a difference. This wasn’t so much about nationality. Being a white person from Europe didn’t ensure a welcome into the U.S. Your place on the boat mattered more. First and second class passengers disembarked from steamships in New York City, went through a brief customs inspection, and then were allowed to their merry way. Those who could afford only third-class accommodations (aka Steerage), were moved from the ship onto a ferry and transported to Ellis Island for legal and medical inspections. These passengers were the tired and poor referred to in the famous poem. Nevertheless, the price of their ticket wasn’t cheap. From the end of the nineteenth century until the start of World War I, a ticket for Steerage cost five pounds. This may not sound like much but for a typical Irish laborer, five pounds was the equivalent of six months’ wages.

Americans didn’t exactly open their arms in welcome to these third class immigrants either. The general U.S. immigration policy at the time can be summed up as let in those who can provide healthy, cheap labor and be good citizens, and keep out all those who might spread disease or be a burden on government resources. There was a list of illnesses, conditions, and other qualities which made an immigrant an undesirable in danger of deportation. One item on the list was venereal disease. Apparently, government officials believed there was no way a first or second class passenger could possibly have a sexually transmitted disease. This example offers a glimpse into the mindset third class passengers encountered when they first arrived in the United States.

Being Processed

An overhead view of Ellis Island immigrants waiting to be examined.
An overhead view of Ellis Island immigrants waiting to be examined.

On average, getting through Ellis Island took three to five hours, longer if you were pulled out of line for further examination or “special inquiry.” Most of that time was spent waiting in line to be called forward for inspection.

Passports were not required for entry to the U.S. until 1925 so the legal examination consisted of checking the information about the immigrant from the ship’s manifest. This included not only name and age but nation of origin and occupation. Literary skills were tested as well.

The medical exam was cursory for many who went through Ellis Island. For some it was little more than the visual scrutiny of a physician. Generally, young, healthy-looking men and boys old enough to work were quickly passed through the station.

But anyone with certain obvious physical conditions, such as a stooped back, a cough and / or runny nose, a limp, eye problems (e.g. pink eye), and so forth would be pulled out of line and marked for further inspection. Being elderly or noticeably pregnant would get an immigrant marked too.

Marked and Certified

When an immigrant was pulled out of line, the public health official marked that person’s clothes with a letter written with chalk. The immigrants marked with chalk were escorted by guards to gender-specific examining rooms where they were required to partially disrobe. A doctor then performed a more thorough physical including things we would consider normal today: listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, taking the person’s temperature, measuring height and weight. But many immigrants were also subjected to an eye exam during which the doctor used a button hook to turn the person’s eyelid up in order to check for trachoma, an infectious eye disease which causes blindness.

Initial medical exam at Ellis Island.
Initial medical exam at Ellis Island.

About 15-20% of immigrants were pulled out of line and sent for further examinations. Some of the letters used to mark the people included:

C for conjunctivitis

CT for trachoma,

G for goiter,

L for lameness,

P for lungs

X for mental disability

When this examination was concluded, the health official would give the immigrant either an OK or a medical certificate. The medical certificate resulted in the immigrant being moved to the hospital wing or deported. Those allowed to go to the hospital wing instead of being deported were often kept in isolation for months, even years. At the end of this detention, the immigrant was presented with a bill for the treatment. Those unable to pay often were deported at that point.

Immigrants who received a medical certificate could appeal and be granted a hearing before the IS Board of Special Inquiry. In most cases, the medical certificate was overturned and the immigrant was allowed to enter the U.S.

Women unaccompanied by a man had a higher chance of being denied entry to the U.S. than men did.
Women unaccompanied by a man had a higher chance of being denied entry to the U.S. than men did.

Women at Ellis Island

Ellis Island could be more difficult for women than men. A woman could be deported simply for being pregnant. Unmarried women with children would be deported on the basis of immorality. Even single women without children, if they were unaccompanied by a man, could be deported. This is why I said my great-grandmother and her sister, who had made the journey from Ireland on their own, could easily have been denied entry. Single women frequently were marked with an SI which meant they were to be sent for a special inquiry.

Special Inquiry

Those marked with SI were taken by guard to an inquiry room where they were questioned by a panel of interrogators. Even an apparently simple question for which there was a reasonable answer could cause problems for the immigrant. Single women would be asked who they were meeting in the U.S. or who had sent for them. A woman who answered, “My fiancé sent for me,” frequently was detained at Ellis Island until that man came for her. At times, officials even insisted the marriage ceremony be performed on site before the woman would be free to go.

Men marked for special inquiry could run into problems too. Ads for jobs in America ran in Irish papers. Some companies sent contracts to Ireland for the prospective employee to sign. Often these companies offered to pay for the man’s passage to the U.S. Since regular employment was sparse in Ireland at the time, especially for Catholics, these Irishmen felt they had done well to have a job waiting for them in the United States. Unfortunately, this business practice of hiring and transporting foreign laborers into the U.S. in order to pay them excessively low wages was against the law in America. So these immigrant men, who had thought they had set up a new life in the States, instead found themselves on a ship back to Ireland.

Approaching Ellis Island by ferry.
Approaching Ellis Island by ferry.

Despite the discomforts and pitfalls of getting through Ellis Island, the majority of immigrants were admitted into the U.S., enriching their adopted country with their culture and traditions. Today, Ellis Island operates as a museum and provides an extensive online database of passenger lists for those researching their ancestors’ journey to the U.S.

To get more of a sense of the Ellis Island experience click here to watch the music video “Ellis Island” by the Irish band, The Corrs. It made me cry. In a good way.

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