Influence of Notaries Public Upon Immigrants - 1909

The office of notary public is such a common one and the duties appear to be so simple that the average American citizen thinks it one of little consequence. The American business man thinks of the notary public, when he thinks of him at all, as one who demands or protests commercial notes or takes acknowledgments.

The average American citizen knows little about him unless called upon to make an affidavit, give a power of attorney or sign a paper under oath. At other times the notary is but an acquaintance or is engaged in an occupation more or less remotely connected with the citizen's daily task and life.

This is especially true in the small cities and inland towns and villages where every resident is known to every other resident. Here the notary is frequently the town clerk or justice of the peace, and notarial services are occasions for a friendly chat. The fees which notaries public are permitted to charge for their services are so small that they are not an inducement in themselves, and the office is commonly sought by employers for their employees as a convenience in their business; by lawyers and officials interested in legal matters; and by others as a convenience to their friends or patrons.

The office carries no greater social distinction than financial advantage, for the notary public is without any particular standing, power or dignity, since the services rendered are of a clerical rather than of an administrative or judicial character, and there are practically no requirements beyond those of age and citizenship in most of the states. In small cities, therefore, and among Americans, notaries public do not exceed their authority or abuse to any great extent the powers conferred upon them. The American citizen, therefore, has few or no illusions about their functions and comes into contact with them only in a most perfunctory way.

This is not the relation notaries public in this country bear to immigrants. Their influence, especially upon the newly arrived immigrants, is out of all proportion to their official position and duties. This is especially true in cities, where immigrants congregate in large numbers.

According to a rough estimate made by the Commissioner General of Immigration, during the ten years from July, 1899 to June 30, 1908, 8,515,889 immigrants arrived and 3,275,589 immigrants returned, making the total remaining in this country, 5,240,300. According to the State Census of 1905 there were in New York State, 1,004,320 aliens, constituting 12.4 per cent. of the population. In four counties of the State over to per cent. of the population was alien, while ten other counties showed over seven per cent. to be alien.

The census of 1900 shows that the tendency of immigrants to remain in cities is general. 47.1 per cent. of all Poles in New York State were found in New York City; 28.4 per cent. in Erie County, (Buffalo); and 87.5 per cent. in cities with a population of over 25,000. Of all Italians in New York State, 79.8 per cent. were in New York City and 87 per cent. were in cities of over 25,000. Of all Russians, principally Russian Jews, 93.7 per cent. were found in New York City.

Cook County (Chicago), Illinois, in 1900 had no less than 91.2 per cent, of all Poles in Illinois; 72 per cent. of all the Italians; and 84.2 per cent, of all the Russians. The cities of Massachusetts, with a population of 25,000 and over, had 48.3 per cent. of all the Poles; 64.6 per cent. of all the Italians; and 88.3 percent of all the Russians of the State.

Four-fifths of all immigrants arrive at the port of New York and one-third express their intention of remaining in the State. On the whole the States with the largest cities and largest number of cities receive the bulk of the immigrants as residents. The functions of notaries public are therefore of no small importance in these States, namely, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In order to understand the place notaries public hold in the life of the immigrants in this country it is necessary to understand the position which they hold in the country from which most of the immigrants come. In 1907, 72 per cent. of all immigrants arriving in the country were men. Of these 8p per cent. were over the age of fourteen, and were therefore presumably acquainted with the Continental standard of notaries public. Earlier immigration to this country was from countries where the system of law, customs and legal practices are somewhat similar to our own, as Great Britain, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. These peoples, therefore, use existing institutions in America with readier adjustment.

The present immigration is largely from the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, and includes Poles, Slovaks, Magyars, Germans, Croatians, Jews, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Roumanians, Bulgarians, Dalmatians, Italians, Greeks, Turks, Syrians, and many other peoples. The position of notaries public in these countries is very different from that in America.

There the office is one of dignity and the incumbent is regarded as a person of learning and importance. The European notary undergoes a training and assumes responsibilities of a judicial rather than of a ministerial character. The requirements of candidates for the office, and the duties, obligations, fees, rights and privileges accorded the office are most carefully defined and penalties are provided for any violation of the laws. The laws which regulate notaries public cover in many instances several hundred pages, and have been formulated with great care.

The immigrant conies to America entirely ignorant of the difference between the duties and standing of notaries public in his home and in his future country. The American has seldom experienced any fraud orhardship and if he thinks about it at all, he cannot put himself in the immigrant's place, because he does not know in what respect the notary public is held abroad by his countrymen. Furthermore, the immigrant enters a social environment which tends to increase the power of the notary public and which practically does not exist for the American.

This social environment is a combination of business activities designed to meet the immediate needs of the immigrant on arrival, and brings him almost immediately under the influence of the notary public. While the immigrant may not need the notary public's services as such, he does need them as employment agent, banker or expressman, and the fact that the notary public combines these functions brings to him many men with many perplexities.

It is therefore possible for notaries public who deal almost exclusively with immigrants to use the latter's misconception of their powers, and exercise many of the functions of Continental notaries. They not only assume a confidential and advisory relation but perform legal services though they are not lawyers. The need of counsel upon arrival in New York City is greater than appears at first sight.

The present immigration is of nationalities widely separated from the American in language, laws, customs, and social and political institutions. The immigrant does not immediately come into contact with the American or readily make himself understood. This contact is even more delayed when he lives in a city colony, or works in such isolated places as labor camps, and canneries.

Very few immigrants when they arrive know who their employer is to be. They usually meet him through an employment agent or labor boss. Many employment agents are notaries public. What so simple as the offer of the labor boss to render other services; what so natural as for the immigrant to place confidence in an officer whom he has learned to respect in his own country? He may be wary of the labor boss but when he is a notary public also, what then?

Immigrants are generally poor on arrival. They have not had much money to bank. They frequently have families on the other side and must send money to them. They may wish to bring them over, and so become purchasers of steamship tickets.* The immigrant bank and steamship ticket agency run by his own countrymen seems the safest place to deal and on the window and in the advertisements is that ever reassuring sign "notary public." It has all the old world magic in the new world maze.

As has been shown, the tendency is to locate in cities, although many come from rural communities, and the demand for rapid adjustment is therefore greater. When the immigrant is brought into court charged with the commission of crime or with the infraction of one of the hundreds of city ordinances, of which in many instances he has never heard, his medium of justice is frequently the "shyster" lawyer who speaks his language; the interpreter, who may be a boot-black called in from the street; or the policeman; or the professional bondsman.

He is entirely in their hands and is not infrequently ignorant of the entire proceeding. ± It is therefore again possible for the notary public to show his power. When an immigrant is brought before the court on some petty charge and there is no interpreter available, he is dismissed without a hearing, in entire ignorance of the charge. Men are thus held for hours until trial, in terror of what will happen to them. because they know that conviction, if they have been here less than three years, means loss of home and opportunity.

They then go to the notary public for an explanation and for advice. The honest notary public learns the charge and explains it; but too often the man is charged a high fee for advice on how to keep out of prison, when he had perhaps only violated a pushcart ordinance. The shyster lawyer, too, finds it an advantage to he a notary public.

The illiteracy of the immigrants puts them in the power of the notary public. They have families or friends to whom to write; they have remittances to send; they have business deals to be closed there; there is perhaps a little property to sell or an investment to be made here, or debts there or here to be paid off. Some one must advise and direct them in these matters.

Furthermore they are ignorant of American customs and procedure. The proportion of illiteracy varies greatly. In 1908 it was less than 2 per cent. among the Finns; under to per cent. among the French, German and North Italians; and rose to 30.3 per cent, among the Jews; to 50.7 per cent. among the South Italians; to 52 per cent. among the Ruthenians; and to 60.2 per cent. among the Lithuanians.

The notary-public-banker-steamship agency combine is a very willing letter writer and preparer of documents and even runs a post-office to accommodate its patrons. Before the attention of the Federal government was called to the matter, a number of such institutions had regular substations of the United States postal service, an invaluable asset to business. Now they merely receive and forward mail.

It is not only the peculiar needs of the immigrant which bring him into touch with the notary public. The immigration itself has an important bearing. One illustration is the large number of detached men who arrive. In 1907, 72 per cent. of all aliens arriving in the United States were male, and of these 89 per cent. or over 64 per cent. of all immigrants were above the age of fourteen.

Only 4 per cent. of all aliens were above the age of 45. The older the immigration, other things being equal, the larger is the percentage of women. Thus in 1908, among the Irish, 51.1 per cent. were females; of the Scandinavians, Germans and French over 40 per cent. were females; while of the Greeks, who are among the recent aliens, only 6.9 per cent. were females, and of the Bulgarians, Servians and Montenegrins 4.5 per cent. were females.

The Jews furnish an exception to this rule, and to certain other rules con-. cerning immigration, owing to the fact that they come so largely on account of political and religious persecution. As a consequence of this their migration is to a larger extent than among other nationalities, a family migration. Over 40 per cent. of all Jewish immigrants in 1908 were females.

This preponderance of men among certain nationalities results in isolation in labor camps. Far removed in many instances from justices and other officers of the law, or from lawyers who can attend to their affairs, they are cut off from all educational and Americanizing influences. ± Living conditions in the camps are largely within the control of the commissary who is frequently a banker, employment agent and notary public.

A second characteristic of the immigration is the increasing number of young unmarried women who come to this country to earn a livelihood. In some instances, as among the Poles, they come in small groups or gangs, apparently without any family connections. This concentrates in cities groups of young, often ignorant, and wholly un-Americanized workers, who come under the influence of the notary public and in whose marital relations he later plays an important part.

The primal necessities of the immigrant—work, adjustment to city conditions, connection with others in the home country, settling of business affairs, movement from place to place in search of work, banking of savings, etc., have been shown. These are recognized and met by the immigrant's own countrymen through unique institutions, known as "immigrant banks."

These are very different institutions from American banks. They flourish in all large cities where immigrants concentrate, as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburg and Buffalo. There are more than 1,000 "correspondents," as they are often called, of these banks scattered throughout New York State. Their business is to collect from immigrants money to be sent abroad by the banker.

So large a number of persons doing a banking business is due to the character of the present immigration. The English, Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrant knows or rapidly acquires English, and largely employs existing banking facilities. Comparatively few institutions have been created for his special convenience. Ignorance of the English language and of American laws and customs among many of the more recently arrived Italians, Hungarians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Croatians, Slovaks, Greeks and Syrians has apparently given rise to these banks which especially minister to their needs.

The banker not only accepts deposits and transmits money to Europe, but maintains a post-office at which mail may be called for, or from which it may be forwarded. He sells steamship tickets, and as a notary public prepares documents and performs legal services, and helps the alien to secure citizenship papers. He finds work or advises his client as to employment, introduces him to lodging-house keepers, attends to his correspondence, acts as interpreter and arbitrator.

He becomes the custodian of documents, valuables and baggage, and renders many other gratuitous services. Some bankers conduct a well-organized mail order business and furnish supplies to distant labor camps. In many instances the bank is conducted incidental to a grocery store, saloon, barber shop or other business. These general utility centers owe their origin to persistent racial ties and predilections, and naturally attract the newcomer to known and apparently sympathetic individuals, rather than to impersonal corporations.

They result also in some degree from the pride or modesty of the alien .which deters him from entering an imposing banking office in the garb of a laborer. The clerk in an ordinary bank neither could nor would perform the numerous little, but to the alien essential, offices to which reference has been made.

The handling of steamship tickets is an important adjunct to this species of banking. While the immigrant banker entirely depends on the big banking house, through which he transmits money, he depends to almost the same degree on the steamship companies. Much of the money deposited with the banker is for the purchase of prepaid steamship tickets. In the case of these deposits the banker by selling his customer an order for a ticket, instead of transmitting his deposit abroad for the purchase of a ticket there, saves money for his customer.

The immigrant banker also influences the immigrant's life in another way. Most of the banks advertise and some of them own foreign papers published in America. These papers are the guides upon which many immigrants chiefly rely. Some of these newspapers claim to reject patently untrustworthy advertisements, while others accept them indiscriminately.

Some advertisements which appear in these papers are ingenious. One bank pretended that it was a branch of a well-known bank in Italy in order to attract those coming from the provinces where the bank was located.

Quite commonly, bankers, to give the impression that the bank has the endorsement of the government, have advertised that fifteen thousand dollars, or seventy-five thousand lire, have been deposited by them with the State. This latter form of advertising has been encouraged by a letter issued by a bonding company to secure business. This letter reads:

"If bonded by us you will be permitted to use on your letter heads, business cards and elsewhere, as follows: This bank is bonded for $13,000 under the laws of the State of New York by Bonding Company, capital and surplus $5,000,000, the largest surety company in the world."

This is so worded that the alien reading the advertisement quite naturally believes that the capital and surplus of five million dollars belong to the bank.

These banks do a very large business among the foreign-born population. In New York, 50 or about 5 per cent. of the immigrant banks located throughout the State transmitted abroad in 1907, $16,419,821.10, and in 1908, $10,812,315.53. Three important banking houses in New York City, which clear for small immigrant banks and correspondents all over the country, show heavy transmissions of money abroad.

Although the immigrants put their faith in these immigrant banks, the banking laws of New York State do not include them. During the recent panic in New York, although a number of New York State banks, under the supervision of the Banking Department, suspended business, all depositors were paid in full.

On the other hand at least twenty-five immigrant banks in New York City failed, with losses amounting to nearly one and one-half millions of dollars, all borne by depositors, and there were many other failures and losses not ascertainable.; A large number of these bankers were notaries public and had gained much of their business through the confidence reposed in them because of this office.

Much concern is expressed regarding the vast amount of money sent out of the country by immigrants, much of which is invested in the home country. It is not as well known that this army of bankers deriving a commission from each sum transmitted advises against the farm and against investments here, and warns against the tax rate on lands as being similar to that abroad and even tells the alien that only citizens can hold property and in many ways increases the amounts sent.

When these statements are made by a man who uses the seal of the State of New York they carry more weight than can be estimated. New York has 7,000 unoccupied farms but there is no business for a notary public banker from a farmer who settles here with his family.

The banker, who is not only labor agent, but a partner of the padronc or boss in the labor camp, has even more power over his countrymen.

The State of New York has an appropriation of $101,000,000 to spend on the Barge Canal. Four-fifths of the laborers employed are immigrants, and the housing, feeding and care of these men are for the most part in his hands. Where one man acts as the job giver, the provider of necessities, the paymaster, the banker, and the police officer in a camp remote from organized communities, the temptations are great, and the office of notary public which the partner of the padrone often holds, is a valuable asset indeed in bringing men within the control of this group.

Regarded as a State official, with his seal, and as the one boss who can hold the job for him, he practically owns the laborer, and can keep him isolated from Americanizing influences. The padrone is not interested in raising standards of living or in acquainting aliens with prevailing standards, and often sets a standard in these camps far below that prevailing in their home country.

The office of notary public not only gives confidence to men who meet this official in his various guises of banker, employment agent, etc. It gives the notary public who may be all or none of these other things, the pretext for undertaking legal work. Only the ignorance of the immigrant makes it possible for equally ignorant notaries public to palm off on him some of the worthless papers they call legal documents.

Ignorant of the limitations of the office, the immigrant entrusts the notary with the settlement of his affairs and hundreds of worthless documents are sent abroad and great losses result from the entanglements. The pretensions of notaries public may be best seen from the following translations of advertisements which are typical of those found in the papers published in foreign languages in the largest cities of the State:

  • Bills of sale, deeds, mortgages, wills and all kinds of legal papers drawn for cheapest prices.
  • Passports for all parts of the world quickly and cheaply obtained. All German and Russian legal transactions made.
  • Charters and articles of incorporation for societies, unions, etc., drawn up more cheaply than at any other place.
  • Tenement houses, shops and flats to sell or rent.
  • Bad debts, notes and checks collected on commission.
  • All legal transactions honestly and cheaply attended to. Money to loan on mortgages.
  • We proceed in military, inheritance, orphan, registers or mortgages, tabulations, buying and selling, loans, tax, estate regulating, industrial and patent matters; in criminal and divorce law suits. We prepare petitions and letters.
  • We settle in general the diverse affairs of Hungarians in their old country quickly and cheaply without postponement.
  • We give advice and directions free of charge. Office hours until ten in the evening.

The influence of this body of officers upon the immigrant population depends to some degree upon the number and location of their offices.

Prior to April, 1905, in New York State, the number of notaries public was limited to five for each thousand inhabitants in each county. The Governor may now appoint such number as may be necessary. There are in New York State approximately 26,000 notaries public. Of these, 5,763 are located in Manhattan and 10,262 in Greater New York.

A study of the distribution of the 5,763 notaries public in Manhattan shows that fifteen out of the thirty-one assembly districts have more than one notary public to every thousand of population.* Excluding the First Assembly District which comprises the Wall Street section where there are fifty-six notaries public per thousand, there are about 1.75 per thousand of population.

One district has a notary public for every one hundred persons, another for every 143, and another for every 250 persons. There are more than Soo notaries public doing business almost exclusively with immigrants in New York City.

A canvas made of two assembly districts, shows the occupations of those found. Ninety-four notaries public are recorded for the Eighth Assembly District, which is not largely an alien population. It was possible to locate but forty-five at the addresses given, while thirty-nine others not recorded in that district were found, making a total of eighty-four.

The main occupations of these eighty-four were as follows: Lawyers, 28; clerks in law offices, 9; business agents, Ix; real estate agents, 8; bankers, 7; printers, 3; insurance agents, 3; steamship ticket agents, 2; furniture dealers, belt manufacturers, electricians, teachers, silk dealers, liquor dealers, stablemen, clothing dealers and restaurant keepers, x each. In four instances the occupations could not be learned.
A canvass was also made of the Third Assembly District in which there is a large alien population, chiefly Italian. Of the 197 notaries public in that district 98 were located. Their occupations were as follows: Bankers and steamship agents, 31; real estate and insurance agencies, 23.; clothing stores, 7; lawyers, 5; undertakers, 3; printers, 3; auctioneers, 2; saloon keepers, 3; cigar stores, 3; barbers, 1; loan offices, T. Among the others were employment agents, bill posters, manufacturers, importers and jewelers.

A number of notaries public in these and other districts conducted business in saloons, pawn shops, and barber shops. In one instance the desk where the notarial business was transacted was in the corner of a barber shop; in another the seal was kept under the bar in the saloon, and in still another the notarial sign was in the store window of a wine merchant, among liquor bottles.

It is now possible, from this review of the position of notaries public abroad, of the immigrants' immediate condition and needs on arrival, and of the ease with which almost any one can become a notary public in this State, to understand not only the desirability of the office but the great opportunities for fraud and abuses which this investigation has revealed.

The writer desires to give the fullest credit possible to notaries public who deal with immigrants who confine their activities to the proper functions of their office, or who at much inconvenience transact miscellaneous business for their fellow countrymen, as well as to bankers and employment agents who do not misuse their powers.

There undoubtedly does exist the greatest necessity for some counsel for people in a strange country, beset by many doubts and difficulties, and in the midst of a tense industrial and social struggle, and for some institution which will minister to their immediate needs in the simplest way.

But an investigation of some 500 notaries public in New York State, who deal chiefly with immigrants or foreign speaking peoples, has revealed an appalling amount of hardship caused both by fraud and by ignorance on the part of some notaries public, and has demonstrated that since a notary public in the eyes of the immigrant is such an important dignitary there is great necessity for limiting his powers strictly to his office.

The practices are described in detail that they may be met by adequate regulation, by education, and by fostering institutions and movements which will facilitate the assimilation of incoming immigrants.



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