Read American Passage Online

Authors: Vincent J. Cannato

American Passage

The History of Ellis Island
In Memory of
My father
Vincent John Cannato
and My grandfather
Vincent Joseph Cannato






Chapter 1
Chapter 2





Chapter 3
A Proper Sieve
Chapter 4
Peril at the Portals
Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
The Roosevelt Straddle

Chapter 10
Likely to Become a Public
Chapter 11
“Czar Williams”
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Moral Turpitude

iv ⁄ Contents





Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17





Chapter 18
Chapter 19
The New Plymouth Rock




About the Author

About the Publisher
Ellis Island is one of the greatest human nature offices in the world; no week passes without its comedies as well as tragedies.
—William Williams, Ellis Island Commissioner, 1912

Ellis Island was the great outpost of the new and vigorous republic. Ellis Island stood guard over the wide-flung portal. Ellis Island resounded for years to the tramp of an endless invading army.

—Harry E. Hull, Commissioner-General of Immigration, 1928

BY 1912, THIRTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD FINNISH CARPENTER Johann Tyni had had enough of America. “I wish to go back to Finland. I didn’t get along well in this country,” he admitted less than three years after he and his family had arrived. The married immigrant with four children was depressed and unemployed. “I worked too hard and I am all played out,” he said. “I am downhearted all the time and the thoughts make me cry.”

The Reverend Kalle McKinen, pastor of Brooklyn’s Finnish Seamen’s Mission, had had enough of Johann Tyni. For the previous year and a half, Finnish charities had been taking care of the Tyni family. “This man has been crazy since he landed here,” McKinen wrote immigration officials. “It is to be regretted that his family were [
] ever admitted to this country.” He also complained that Tyni’s wife was not very bright and could no longer care for her children. Out of a mixture of desperation, pity, and anger, Reverend McKinen brought the Tyni family to Ellis Island.
After observing Johann on the island’s psychiatric ward, immigration officials decided that they too had had enough of the Tyni family. Doctors at Ellis Island diagnosed Johann with “insanity characterized by depression, sluggish movements, subjective complaints of pain in the head and a feeling of inefficiency.” They also declared that Johann’s nine-year-old son, John, was a “low grade imbecile” who showed “the characteristic stigmata of a mental defective.”

The family had originally arrived at Ellis Island under much happier circumstances. With three children in tow, Johann and his wife arrived with $100 and presented themselves to authorities in good physical and mental health. Less than three years after coming to America, Johann, his wife, two Finnish-born sons, and two American-born children were deported back to Finland from Ellis Island, anxious to get back to Johann’s mother-in-law to rebuild a life that did not make sense in America.

Something had clearly happened since they arrived. Though two more children were born after their arrival, the Tynis lost their twoyear-old Finnish-born son, Eugen, while living in Brooklyn. Perhaps the shock of his son’s death, combined with a new, harsh, and unfamiliar environment, was enough to push Johann Tyni into a deep psychological abyss.

Immigration officials were not interested in the reasons for Tyni’s mental illness. They were only concerned that he could no longer work and support his family. In the official terminology, the entire Tyni family was deemed “likely to become public charges,” a designation that allowed officials to deport them back to their native Finland. Twoyear-old David and infant Mary, both citizens by reason of their birth on American soil, were not technically deported and could have remained in the country, but obviously joined their parents and siblings on the return trip to Finland.

By this time, the government could not only exclude immigrants at the border but also deport them after their arrival if they came under an excludable class. The specter of Ellis Island haunted not just those newly arrived immigrants awaiting inspection but also those who managed to land initially who could be threatened with deportation for three years after.

Unlike the Tyni family, some immigrants never got the chance to set foot on the American mainland before being sent back home. Eighteenyear-old Hungarian Anna Segla arrived a few months after the Tyni family in 1910. After the inspection at Ellis Island, doctors certified her as possessing “curvature of spine, deformity of chest,” as well as being a dwarf. They believed that those physical defects would prevent Anna from gaining meaningful employment in America. Anna Segla was ordered excluded.

Anna had been headed to live with her aunt and uncle in Connecticut. The childless couple had promised to take care of Anna and offered to post a bond for her release. For nearly two weeks, Anna was detained at Ellis Island while her case was appealed to officials in Washington. In a letter most likely written by her aunt and which Anna signed with an
, Anna eloquently made her case for admittance. “I beg to say that the hunchback on me never interfered with my ability to earn my living as I always worked the hardest housework and I am able to work the same in the future,” the letter stated. “I pray Your Honor permit me to land in the United States.” Despite her pleas, Anna was sent back to Europe.

Other immigrants were detained for even longer periods of time at Ellis Island, although many were eventually allowed to enter the country. When Louis K. Pittman came through Ellis Island in 1907 as a young boy, doctors discovered that he suffered from trachoma, a mildly contagious eye disease against which medical officials were especially vigilant. Rather than being deported, Pittman was allowed to stay in the island’s hospitals while doctors treated his condition. Decades later, Pittman remembered his stay at Ellis Island as “very pleasant,” with toys, good food, playmates, and very lax supervision by adults. After seventeen months in custody at Ellis Island’s hospital, Pittman was allowed to rejoin his family on the mainland.

Others, luckier than Pittman, were detained for shorter periods. Frank Woodhull’s experience at Ellis Island began in 1908 when he returned from a vacation to England. The Canadian-born Woodhull, who was not a naturalized American citizen, was heading back to New Orleans where he lived. As he walked single file with his fellow passengers past Ellis Island doctors, he was pulled aside for further inspection. The fifty-year-old was of slight build with a sallow complexion. He wore a black suit and vest, with a black hat pulled down low over his eyes and covering his short-cropped hair. His appearance convinced the doctors to test Woodhull for tuberculosis.

Woodhull was taken to a detention ward for further examination. When a doctor asked him to take his clothes off, Woodhull begged off and asked not to be examined. “I might as well tell you all,” he said. “I am a woman and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.” Her real name was Mary Johnson. She told her life story to officials, about how a young woman alone in the world tried to make a living, but her manly appearance, deep voice, and slight mustache over her thinly pursed lips made life difficult for her. It had been a hard life, so at age thirty-five Johnson bought men’s clothing and started a new life as Frank Woodhull, working various jobs throughout the country, earning a decent living, and living an independent life. Mary Johnson’s true sexual identity was a secret for fifteen years until Frank Woodhull arrived at Ellis Island.

Johnson requested to be examined by a female matron, who soon found nothing physically wrong with the patient. She had enough money to avoid being classified as likely to become a public charge, was intelligent and in good health, and was considered by officials, in the words of one newspaper, “a thoroughly moral person.” Ellis Island seemed impressed with Johnson, despite her unusual life story. Nevertheless, the case was odd enough to warrant keeping Johnson overnight while officials decided what to do. Not knowing whether to put Johnson with male detainees or female detainees, officials eventually placed her in a private room in one of the island’s hospital buildings.

“Mustached, She Plays Man,” said the headline in the
New York Sun
. Despite her situation, officials deemed Johnson a desirable immigrant and allowed her to enter the country and, in the words of the
, “go out in the world and earn her living in trousers.” There was nothing in the immigration law that excluded a female immigrant for wearing men’s clothing, although one can imagine that if the situation had been reversed and a man entered wearing women’s clothing, the outcome might have been different.

Before she left for New Orleans, Johnson spoke to reporters. “Women have a hard time in this world,” she said, complaining that women cared too much about clothes and were merely “walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods shops, the jewelers, and other shops.” Women, Johnson said, were “slaves to whim and fashion.” Rather than being hemmed in by these constraints, she preferred “to live a life of independence and freedom.” And with that Frank Woodhull left Ellis Island to resume life as a man.

But the vast majority of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 did not experience any of these hassles. Roughly 80 percent of those coming to Ellis Island would pass through in a matter of hours.

For these individuals, Arthur Carlson’s experience is probably closer to their own. A Swedish immigrant who arrived in 1902, Carlson spent about two hours at Ellis Island before being allowed to land. “I was treated very well,” Carlson reminisced later in his life. “Nothing shocked me. I was so thrilled over being in a new country.” Destined for New Haven, Connecticut, Carlson originally planned to travel there by boat, but officials suggested that the train would be faster. Soon thereafter, Carlson had his train ticket and was on his way to be reunited with his brother.

Each of these people experienced Ellis Island in a different way. Their experiences ran the gamut of stories: admitted (Carlson), detained then admitted (Woodhull/Johnson), hospitalized then admitted (Pittman), admitted then deported (the Tyni family), and excluded (Segla).

No one story encapsulates the Ellis Island experience; there are literally millions. For most immigrants, Ellis Island was a gateway to a new life in America. It was an integral part of their American passage. It would become a special place for some immigrants and their families, while others retained only faint memories of the place or saw it as a site of unimaginable emotional stress filled with stern government officials who possessed the power to decide their fate. For a small percentage of people, Ellis Island was all they would see of America before being sent back home.

For immigrants like the Tyni family, Frank Woodhull, Arthur Carlson, Louis Pittman, and Anna Segla, why did the passage to America have to run through this inspection station on a speck of an island in New York Harbor, and why did their experiences differ so dramatically?

Our Day
published a cartoon entitled “The Stranger at Our Gate.” It featured an immigrant seeking entrance into America. The man makes a pathetic impression: short, hunched over, sickly, toes sticking out of his ragged shoes. Literally and figuratively, he is carrying a lot of baggage. In one hand is a bag labeled “Poverty” and in the other a bag labeled “Disease.” Around his neck hangs a bone with the inscription “Superstition,” signifying his backward religion and culture. On his back are a beer keg with the words “Sabbath Desecration” and a crude bomb labeled “Anarchy.”

The man has come upon a gate that provides entry past a high stone wall. A pillar at the gate reads: “United States of America: Admittance Free: Walk In: Welcome.” Standing in the middle of the gate is Uncle Sam. Much taller than the immigrant, the unhappy Uncle Sam is decked out in full patriotic regalia. He is holding his nose, while looking down contemptuously at the man standing before him. Holding one’s nose implies the existence of a foul odor, but it also means that one is forced to do something that one does not want to do. And that’s just the fix that Uncle Sam is in.

“Can I come in?” the immigrant asks Uncle Sam.
“I s’pose you can; there’s no law to keep you out,” a disgusted Uncle Sam replies.

According to this cartoonist, the gates to America were wide open to the dregs of Europe, and the government could do nothing to stop them. Although a powerful idea to many Americans, by 1896 this notion had become outdated. Congress was now creating a list of reasons that immigrants could be excluded at the nation’s gates, and that list would grow longer as the years passed.

To enforce those new laws, the federal government built a new inspection station. Almost 80 percent of immigrants to America passed through the Port of New York, and this new facility was located on an island in New York Harbor called Ellis Island.

The symbolism of the gate is important. Each day, inspectors, doctors, and other government officials stood at the gate and examined those who sought to enter the country. They deliberated over which immigrants could pass through and which would find the gate closed.

At the gate, Ellis Island acted as a sieve. Government officials sought to sift through immigrants, separating out the desirable and the undesirable. America wanted to keep the nation’s traditional welcome to immigrants, but only to those it deemed desirable. For undesirables, the gates of America would be shut forever. Federal law defined such categories, but the enforcement and interpretation of those laws were left up to officials at places like Ellis Island.

The process at Ellis Island was not a happy event, wrote Edward Steiner, but rather “a hard, harsh fact, surrounded by the grinding machinery of the law, which sifts, picks, and chooses; admitting the fit and excluding the weak and helpless.” To another observer of the process, this sifting process resembled “the screening of coal in a great breaker tower.”

The central sifting at Ellis Island occurred at the inspection line. All immigrants would march in a single-file line toward a medical officer. Sometimes having to process thousands of immigrants a day, these officials had only a few seconds to make an initial judgment. They would pay careful attention to the scalp, face, neck, hands, walk, and overall mental and physical condition. The immigrant would then make a right turn in front of the doctor that allowed a rear and side view. Often, doctors would touch the immigrants, feeling for muscular development or fever, or inspect hands that might betray more serious health concerns. They might also ask brief questions. Doctors developed their own methods of observation. As one noted, “Every movement of the body has its own peculiar meaning and that by careful practice we can learn quickly to interpret the significance of the thousand-and-one variations from the normal.”

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