Americans In The Raw - Immigrants At Ellis Island

Immigrant Detained for Special Inquiry at Ellis Island.

Immigrant Detained for Special Inquiry at Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f7ecd3ca



In an open ditch, red and raw under a broiling sun, sixty-five Italian immigrants, stripped to the necessities, toiled silently with shovel and pick.

A hard-faced, red-necked man, their taskmaster, walked up and down the trench, and wherever he stopped the men worked with feverish speed. Temporarily, at least, this will be the fate of thousands of the other immigrants who flowed in through Ellis Island in this year's spring flood —the greatest in twenty years.

Immigrant Woman from Holland at Ellis Island.

Immigrant Woman from Holland at Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f81b53d1

During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1901. there were landed at New York 388,931 immigrants; in May alone, 92,485, and on one day in May, 6,491. The highest previous monthly record in twenty years was in May. 1893 — the flood is always heaviest in spring—when 73,000 were landed.

Polish Immigrant Woman at Ellis Island.

Polish Immigrant Woman at Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f830fb92

Persons with contagious or incurable diseases are sent back, and a far greater number of others on the ground that they are likely to become public charges. The others give their occupations and enter, but not always to take up the occupation given, for many calling themselves musicians have been found later working as waiters in restaurants or toiling as laborers on public works.

Woman and Child Waiting in one of the Railway Detention Rooms at Ellis Island.

Woman and Child Waiting in one of the Railway Detention Rooms at Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f854ef00

The Government assumes jurisdiction over the aliens as soon as their steamer has been passed at quarantine. Inspectors go aboard from the revenue cutters down the bay and obtain the manifests of alien passengers, which the steamship companies must supply. These manifests must show:

  • Full name—age—sex—
  • whether married or single—
  • calling or occupation—
  • whether able to read or write—
  • nationality—
  • last residence —
  • seaport for landing in the United States—
  • final destination in the United States—
  • whether having a ticket through to such destination—
  • whether the immigrant has paid his own passage, or whether it has been paid by other persons, or by any corporation, society, municipality or government—
  • whether in possession of money, and if so, whether upward of $30, and how much, if $30 or less—
  • whether going to join a relative, and if so, what relative and his name and address—
  • whether ever before in the United States, and if so, when and where—whether ever in prison or almshouse, or supported by charity —
  • whether a polygamist—
  • whether under contract, expressed or implied, to perform labor in the United States—
  • the immigrant's condition of health, mentally and physically, and whether deformed or crippled; and if so, from what cause.

It is a searching census, indeed.

Two Male Immigrants Wait in the Detention Pen - Men Who Will Be Deported as Not Desirable.

Two Male Immigrants Wait in the Detention Pen - Men Who Will Be Deported as Not Desirable. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f8bcb15e

When the steamship reaches her pier the inspectors discharge such immigrants as they may deem it unnecessary to examine (usually not over fifteen or twenty).

All the others are transferred to barges and taken to Ellis Island. There on the main floor of the big immigration building they are divided into groups, according to the manifests, and separated.

Later, in lines set off by iron railings, they undergo " primary inspection." Each immigrant is questioned to see if his answers tally with the manifests. If they do, he is discharged; if they do not, he is detained for "special inquiry," by boards composed of four inspectors, who decide all questionable cases. Only the Secretary of the Treasury can overrule their decision.

The immigrants are kept in the big detention room downstairs until the railway agents take them to board trains to their final destinations. While on the island they are lodged by the Government and fed by the steamship companies.

My concern has been, not with the larger meaning, but with the unkempt particles of this slow and constantly moving glacier of humanity; from whence and why they came, how much money they brought with them, the amount and character of their baggage. how they procured employment, and how they were assimilated.


I welcomed Florio Vincenzo when he came over to become one of us. He had no doubts of the future for he wooed the Goddess of, Good Fortune boldly. Florio is fourteen; lie came from Palermo.

He traveled light. When he opened his cheap paper valise, it was apparently empty, save for a pair of discredited and disreputable old shoes. Florio bowed, cap in hand, and his white teeth flashed as he smiled suavely: " I am a poor man, nobleman, seeking my fortune."

Young Irishmen Ready for Politics

Young Irishmen Ready for Politics. World's Work, July 1902. GGA Image ID # 1500378256

There was an odor that an old inspector knew. He picked up one of the shoes and extracted from it. after some manipulation, a creased and crumpled hunk of Bologna sausage. The other shoe was stuffed with a soft, sticky and aggressively fragrant mass of Italian cheese.

These articles and a sum of Italian money equivalent to about $1.80, and the clothes he stood in, formed the basis on which Florio expected to rear his fortune.

Pietro Viarilli was gray-haired, round-shouldered and weakened. He, too, had come to make his fortune. His impedimenta consisted of one padlocked canvas valise lined with paper and containing two striped cotton shirts, one neckerchief of yellow silk with blue flowers and edges, one black hat (soiled and worn), one waistcoat, two pairs of woolen hose of gay design, one suit of underwear, one pint of olive oil and about half a peck of hard bread biscuits.

Until his arrival the list included a quart of Vesuvian wine of the rich purple hue one may buy in cheap cafes in Naples. Carelessly Pietro had slung his valise from his shoulder, and had smashed his bottle, drenching his store of biscuits. He and his companions had munched them greedily until the supply was exhausted.

The contents of the bags and boxes of the Scandinavians, English, Scotch and Irish are usually more diverse. These immigrants bring over articles of personal adornment or household ornaments of a sentimental interest. The Scandinavians bring more baggage than any others. Close behind come the English and the French.

Roughly speaking, those from the North of Europe bring more personal effects than those from the South. The 2,000 immigrants who arrived on a Liverpool ship one morning this summer brought 1,185 pieces of checked baggage, 'exclusive of about 900 pieces of hand baggage.

This is about two-thirds more than the same number of persons from Southern Europe would have brought. For this reason Hungarians, Slovaks, Greeks Sicilians, and other South-of-Europe peoples, are called " walkers " by baggage men.

Russian Jewish Immigrants at Ellis Island.

Russian Jewish Immigrants at Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f8dee81a

During one month this spring 21,367 pieces of baggage were received at Ellis Island, examined and sent to various parts of the country, frail and poorly made, and awkwardly shaped, much of it unmarked and the rest scrawled over with undecipherable hieroglyphics.

The Government makes no charge for storage, and the immigrant, if he chooses, may leave his trunk or box on the island for a year, yet seldom a piece is lost.

It is said that the old customs inspectors can tell at a glance from the contents of a bag just what part of Europe its owner has come from. The Italians bring over wine, fruits, oil or nuts; the English and the Scotch will have a piece of tweed or heavy cloth, and the Irish bring frieze.

In the main, however, these immigrants come away from their homes to a strange country bringing less clothing and fewer personal effects than the average American workingman would drag out of a burning house, and chosen about as wisely.


At the examination the immigrants are asked to show their money. Some craftily fail to show it all; others willingly display their whole petty hoardings. The money is carefully counted, and, after a record has been taken, restored to them.

Later, they are asked if they wish any money changed. Many refuse for fear of being cheated: others stop before the busy money-changers booth at the end of the long examination room.

Last year the 388,931 immigrants showed $5,490,080, an average of $14.12. The French led all the others with an average of $39.37. The Hebrews stood at the foot of the list, bringing on an average $8.58. The Germans followed the French with an average of $31.14. The other nationalities stood in the list as follows:

Race Average Per Capita
Italians (northern) $ 23.53
Bohemian and Moravian 22.78
Scandinavian 18.16
Irish 17.10
Armenian 15.75
Croatian and Dalmatian 15.54
Greek 15.10
Slovak 12.31
Magyar 10.96
Italian (Southern) 8.67

A pleasant-faced little man with trustful blue eyes stood before the desk one afternoon. His wife, a typical German woman, and three children formed a patient, waiting group behind him.

The man wore a suit of "copperas jeans, " stained and worn, top-boots, and the high peaked cap of the German peasant.

He was fumbling through his pockets and in hidden recesses of his garments and producing money. Thalers, marks, Imperial treasury notes and gold pieces fell from his dirty fingers until a tidy little heap was lying on the counter.

Some of the immigrant officers looked on in amazement. The little German had seemed peculiarly unproductive soil for such a harvest—which amounted to over $600 to be converted into United States treasury notes.

He grinned cheerfully when the neat pile of crisp green bills was handed to him, and opening his shirt, stowed the roll where he could feel it next his body. But he was an exceptionally wealthy immigrant.


Getting a job is casual business with an immigrant. Each seems to find an opportunity. In a big gray stone building on the Battery is a low living room with white walls —bare save for rows of benches. In one corner is a railed-off desk space where sit two or three kindly faced old men. An iron railing running the length of the room separates capital from labor.

A Typical Italian Immigrant Family at Ellis Island.

A Typical Italian Immigrant Family at Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f9097c8d

On the benches are men waiting to be hired, of all sorts but alike in having no friends and no work. They slouch like habitual park loungers. A dull spirit of lethargy hangs over the room.

The waiting peasants read dirty scraps of newspapers, or chat disconnectedly. Employers come in from time to time and tell the man behind the railing their needs. A fair-faced blond man in shirt sleeves, for example, came in one day and spoke briefly:—

" Who wants to work for a baker ? " called the manager.

A young fellow stood up like a boy at school, came forward and talked with the employer in German. Then he went back and sat down. Another man looked up from his paper, spoke to the baker, and the two departed chatting like old friends.

From 1,000 to 1,500 persons find employment every month at this bureau, which is maintained by the German Society of the City of New York and the Irish Emigrant Society. Usually, however, the immigrants rely on friends or relatives for a start.

Peasants from Norway on the Roof at Ellis Island Awaiting Deportation.

Peasants from Norway on the Roof at Ellis Island Awaiting Deportation. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f926aa32

Women seeking domestic service are more capricious than the men. They will not take a place outside of New York, not even in Brooklyn. They can get higher wages in New York than in any other place in the country.

Foreigners who have been in this country for less than one year are still subject to the immigration laws. If an immigrant becomes a public charge within twelve months, or applies to a public charity for relief, he is deported at the expense of the steamship company. The Outdoor Poor Bureau, maintained by the City of New York, handles about zoo° such cases every year.

The case of "Prince" Ranji T. Smilie was interesting. The " Prince " came into New York as an Eastern potentate with a retinue of swarthy retainers. He was really only a curry cook, and his coming had been cleverly exploited to advertise an Oriental restaurant in which the " Prince " was to cook and the retinue to become waiters. When the restaurant failed the waiters applied for relief and were sent to Ellis Island. Later they were deported.

Immigrant Waits at Ellis Island Until Her Friends Arrive.

Immigrant Waits at Ellis Island Until Her Friends Arrive. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f95c1c43

Some of the other cases have had interesting features: Ado Tokian, who described himself as a minister, thirty-one years of age, and did not know what ship he came on (not an uncommon occurrence), applied for relief in June. He had $.5.00 when he landed nearly a year previously, and had $3.00 at the time he made his application.

He had been refused on a similar application last September, whereupon he came back to the mainland and enlisted. He was discharged in June. In less than a month he was " broke. "

Another case was that of an English girl, an idiot and an epileptic, here a little more than a year. Her sister gave the unfortunate girl a good home, but circumstances recently made it impossible to support her longer.

When application was made at the Outdoor Poor Bureau, it was found that she was a British subject and could not be committed permanently to an institution here, because she had been in this country more than a year. The British Consul refused to do anything. The final outcome of the matter is yet to be determined.

Two Swedish Immigrant Girls on Their Way to Wisconsin.

Two Swedish Immigrant Girls on Their Way to Wisconsin. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f9ae759e

Roughly speaking, the North-of-Europe people make better citizens than those from the South of Europe. The better class go to the country and the worst to the cities.

The Greeks are considered about the least desirable of all; the Italians from the southern portion of the peninsula also make poor citizens; but those from the northern part of Italy rank with the Swiss and other desirable nationalities.

From 1821 to 1900, according to a recent Census Bulletin, over 19,000, 000 immigrants landed in the United States. Germany sent 5,000,000; Ireland, 3,870,000; Great Britain, 3,026,000; Scandinavia, 1,246,000; Austria-Hungary (including Bohemia), 1,000,000; and Italy, 1,000,000. Once the stream came mainly from the North of Europe; now it comes chiefly from the South—from the undesirable countries.

Coming to a New Land in Her Old Age.

Coming to a New Land in Her Old Age. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14f9c658bd

These Greeks and the Southern Italians, however, who live by selling fruit from the push carts in the city streets, earn considerable sums of money. An old Italian was detained at Ellis Island, preparatory to being deported because he had arrived here penniless.

He sent for his son, a push-cart man, who had been in this country just one year. The boy (he was not more than twenty) brought his bank book showing deposits aggregating $250.

This money represented the sum he had saved. He impressed upon the inspectors his ability to support his father, and the old man was admitted. The boy said his expenses were about $7.00 a week, and that he did not work for a padrone, but was an independent merchant.

Others follow different paths, and meet strange adventures. There is a man now honored in a Western State whom I shall call Karl Ritter. His older brother emigrated from the Black Forest to Wisconsin, where, laboring and living frugally, he acquired a prairie farm.

At the age of eight, Karl came over with his name stitched on a square of white cloth on his breast. Kindly men cared for him till on a dreary winter day he reached Black Earth.

Polish Immigrant Women Going from a Barge to the Immigration Building on Ellis Island.

Polish Immigrant Women Going from a Barge to the Immigration Building on Ellis Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14fa68bb30

When the day's work was over the station agent drove him over the dull prairie to his brother's place, and left him at the gate. He knocked, but getting no response, pushed desperately in.

An old man and older woman, with sinister vicious faces, sitting there within the little farmhouse, told him his brother had gone on a journey. After a fortnight, beaten down with terrors, Karl ran away, and tramping up country, secured a place on a farm.

Arrived at manhood, and owner of a farm of his own, he was called one day to Black Earth, to learn that the man and woman he had met the day of his arrival had murdered his brother the day before and hidden the body in the cellar.

Immigrants Landing on Ellis Island.

Immigrants Landing on Ellis Island. The Immigrants are Brought in Barges from the Ships to the Island. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14fb560442

I have heard another odd tale. Three Scandinavian immigrant boys were each left a sixty-acre prairie farm by their father. Mons was a fisherman—the more he thought the plainer he saw his duty. To Nils he said:

" If I give you my farm, will you support me so that I can fish ?"

Now Nils's 120 acres have increased to several thousand, and his stock is the finest in the country. Mons fishes all day in the lake, seldom catching anything, but content with his lot.

Released Italians Waiting for the Boat to Take Them to New York.

Released Italians Waiting for the Boat to Take Them to New York. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14fb8d46c7

The final destination of the hordes pouring in can be set down but roughly, though the objective point of all the new-comers is a part of their record. Of the '38,000 arrivals in May and June of this year the distribution of the largest streams flowing in from Ellis Island was as follows:—

  • New York City and State 59,786
  • Pennsylvania 24.499
  • Illinois 8.445
  • Massachusetts 8,781
  • Connecticut 5,870
  • New Jersey. 6,598
  • Ohio 4.862
  • Michigan 2,592
  • Minnesota 2666

Of the Italians, not more than half come as permanent settlers. Of the 533,245 immigrants from Italy in 'go', 281,688 according to their own declaration sought temporary employment with the intention of returning to their old homes.

Of these temporary immigrants there were 20,221. They have shown no tendency to settle in "colonies," but seek work wherever it may be had at tolerable wages.

Dutch Peasants at Ellis Island

Dutch Peasants at Ellis Island -- Mother, Son, Daughter-in-Law, and Grandchild Come to Make a Home in the West. Photograph by Arthur Hewitt. The World's Work, October 1902. GGA Image ID # 14fbabea77

They are unlike the Swedes, Danes and Finns, who usually go directly to Western lumber camps and farms. Even these, like many of the immigrants, retain their old home customs years after settling; and outward-bound ships in the spring are filled with two and three-year immigrants going home on visits. As soon as the coal strike had begun in Pennsylvania, thousands of the strikers went back to Europe.

Homesickness drives certain of the foreign-born residents of New York to the Battery Park sea wall in the spring. On sunny mornings the long rows of benches facing the sea are full of men and women with bright headdresses and gaily colored shawls, watching the ships come in.

They chat animatedly and their manners are vivacious. Their talk is of home, of Tuscan hillsides, of the vineyards, of Cretan villages, and of the old Mediterranean cities.

At regular intervals, when the boat from Ellis Island brings its load of newly arrived immigrants to the Barge Office, there is a rush of the homesick ones to the edge of the sea wall.

The peasants on the boat wave their hats or brilliant neckerchiefs, and sometimes there is a call of greeting from across the water. Those who sit on the benches do not go to the park for the clean, cool air, but to satisfy demands that are psychological.

Edward Lowry, "Americans in the Raw," in The World's Work: A History of Our Time, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, Vol. IV, No, 6, October 1902, pp. 2644-2655.

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