The Dark Side Of Ellis Island

By Kirsty 8 months ago

'Concentration Camp' Island...

Image source: Smithsonian Magazine 

The conditions and layout of the island were so dire that some immigrants referred to it as a concentration camp. The only perks were actually having heat and running water, but aside from that, the experience for an immigrant arriving on the island would be the reality of those tall fences, fenced-off areas and even areas divided by yet more fences.

Immigrants Were Herded Like Cattle!

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The first place in the US where immigrants would land wasn't actually Ellis Island - it was Manhattan. They had to dock here and then take a detour. First and second class passengers - as well as American citizens - were allowed to enter the country from there. The poorer passengers were herded onto ferries and taken to Ellis Island for processing.

Rookie Routine Checks

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The immigrants didn't just have a quick inspection at Ellis Island and then pass through. They had to 'prove' they were fit and worthy enough to be allowed entry into the United States. This meant inspections, where the immigrants were taken to a Great Hall to be poked and prodded by a group of medical officers.

A Danger Zone!

Image source: Insider

The hospital wards on the island were filled with people going through all manner of sickness and disease, including tuberculosis. The wards were set up in a way to try and control risks, including two sinks being provided in the tuberculosis ward so that one could be used for washing, and the other for spitting!

Sick Children Were Separated From Their Parents

Image source: eBaum's World 

Imagine the terror of not only arriving at Ellis Island as an immigrant, in a new place with physical and mental tests, but to then be separated from your parent as a child - and a sick child at that. The island workers had to separate the ill from those who were healthy, which meant sick children had to be taken away from their healthy parents.

Pirates Were Hung There In The 1800s!

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And we don't mean witty Captain Jack, we mean violent and ruthless pirates, criminals, and murderous sailors. Before Ellis Island became what it is today, it was a place where guilty people met a violent end. It was even nicknamed 'Gibbet Island' after the wooden post that was used to display the bodies of the dead... Grim.

It Was Then Used To Store Military Explosives

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The final hanging on Ellis - or 'Gibbet' - Island was in 1839 - so what happened to the place after this? Well, it was switched to a munitions depot for the navy, which meant all manner of military ammunition and even dangerous explosives were stored there. It would go through one final change when it became an official federal immigration station.

The Island Had A Double Life As A Prison During The War

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When the United States fought against Germany in the war, it resulted in a lot of suspicion on German immigrants in the US. It labelled these people as potential enemies of the state, and they were kept at the island under harsh conditions after being rounded up and held. The island became the main prison for people they believed could be a risk.

...And This Continued To Hold Nazi Sympathizers

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While the prison began during the First World War to hold those considered as enemies of the state, it continued into the Second World War where Ellis Island would then act as a prison to hold those people suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. In total, around 1,500 people had been held prisoner on this island during the wars.

Enclosed With Barbed Wire Fences

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The worst part about this was that this is the first thing immigrants would see when approaching the island: those high, double wire fences topped with barbed wire and even what looked to be watchtowers. All that made you think of was a detention centre or prison, which of course the island ended up being for many, many years.

Immigration? More Like Deportation

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Ellis Island was originally a gateway to America for immigrants - but that didn't last. By the early 1920s, laws came into place to make it harder for immigrants to get through, and over the next few years, it had quickly shifted into a detention centre, and the main stop for the deportation of immigrants who were deemed unworthy.

It Became A Hold For Criminals, Communists And Anarchists!

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No longer focusing on immigrants, the island quickly became the perfect spot for imprisoning and then kicking out people believed to be communists or radical political rebels, including Emma Goldman (pictured here), who was a Russian-born anarchist deported during the Red Scare. The island's controversial detainments eventually resulted in a lot of lawsuits!

Children Traveling All Alone!

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The first immigrant arrivals on Ellis Island turned up on New Year's Day back in 1892 - but they weren't adults, or children with their parents. They were three children traveling unaccompanied: a teenage girl named Annie Moore, her 11-year-old brother and the final brother who was only 7! They had traveled from Ireland to New York to reunite with their family.

And The Stopover At Manhattan Was A Dangerous And Corrupt Time!

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This stopover and the process of people being transported and herded was a time filled with dodgy dealing and corruption. It might be no surprise that some of the immigration officials at the time were corrupt and would happily take bribes in exchange for letting lower-class immigrants enter the US through Manhattan without having to be taken to Ellis Island.

'Deficient' People Were Marked With Chalk Like Animals

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The lucky people would pass these examinations quite quickly and be sent on through. The not so lucky - the people the medical examiners deemed as having something wrong with them - but be physically marked with chalk and then taken away. This was so medical officers could conduct even more tests and screenings.

Those With Health Problems Would Be Denied Altogether

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If an immigrant had any signs of health problems, whether this was something contagious, a disease, a bad physical condition or even mental problems like insanity, they wouldn't be allowed to pass through at all. It was likely these immigrants were then taken as wards of the state instead. Even something like appearing a bit weak of mind would be enough for them to deny access.

If You Had A Criminal Record? No Chance

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It makes sense that rebellious criminals, violent criminals or those with extensive criminal records would probably be rejected from passing through Ellis Island, but there might have also been immigrants with one tiny misdemeanour in their past that was enough for a 'criminal' record who would then face rejection at the immigration station, even if fit and healthy.

Around 3,500 Immigrants Died In The Island's Hospital

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It's no surprise that the hospital section of the island was off limits for a long time. Can you imagine how horrible the atmosphere must be in there? We wouldn't be surprised if there was a ghost or two. The hospital - where immigrants were held - saw 350 babies born, 3,500 immigrants die and was also the holding place for 'further tests' if not fit and healthy.

The Anti-Immigration Feeling Was Strong

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The island's purpose was to process immigrants and deal with them in a kind fashion - but not everyone could put on a kind face. Despite the purpose of the immigration process, the anti-immigration feeling was very strong in this place, and immigrants arriving there must have lived in fear of being deported by people who didn't want them there.

Many Of The Immigrants Died Penniless

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The immigrants who arrived at the island for a chance of a better life, often never found it and didn't have a penny to their name when they died in the island's hospital. They would then get a 'pauper's' funeral, a burial reserved for those were poor and would only manage to have a basic grave.

Poisoning The American Gene Pool?

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Eugenics is the term for a scientific theory that people held during the early 20th century, believing that planned breeding and 'improvement' of the gene pool based on race was the correct way to be. People who believed in eugenics also believed that the groups of immigrants coming to America were polluting this 'perfect' gene pool by breeding and marrying!

Misconceptions of Ellis Island

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A lot of tales about Ellis Island and American culture tell that immigrants had their names changed immediately at the immigration station in order for them to sound less ethnic - but it's actually not the case. Names were only checked against ship manifests, and they were never forced to change their names. Some immigrants would volunteer if they wanted a more American-sounding name.

A Transgender Man Might Have Been Forced Back To His Female Identity

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The perhaps only exception to the rule about not forcing immigrants to change their name was a man named Frank Woodhull (pictured here). On arrival at Ellis Island, he'd told officials that he had been born as a woman named Mary Johnson, but had been living as a man named Frank Woodhull for 15 years. Frank was detained, and then allowed to enter the country only if he changed his name back to Mary Johnson. It's likely he was transgender, though it was never confirmed.

Famous New York Mayor Was Actually A Worker At Ellis Island!

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Serving as mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945, Fiorella LaGuardia was the son of Italian immigrants who actually worked as a translator at Ellis Island because of his fluency in Italian, Croatian and Yiddish. He even went on to represent immigrants from the island as attorney when handling deportation cases!

Closed For Good In 1954

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The immigration port was closed officially back in November 1954, with one of the main reasons being to save federal money. By the time of its closure, Ellis Island had processed an estimated - and whopping - 12 million immigrants, before immigration declined, it began to take in suspected enemies of the state and eventually becoming a tourist attraction.

What Next For Ellis Island?

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When the port closed and Ellis Island wanted to be sold by the government, there were a ton of proposals about what to do with the place. One of these was a potential drug rehab facility, while other options included a resort marina and even an ambitious 'city of the future' by an architect who really wanted to experiment!

20 Years In Limbo!

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Even though there were loads of ideas of what to do with the island, it still didn't come to a final decision. The next 20 years after closing down as an immigration station saw Ellis Island just sat there, waiting for a sense of purpose. Eventually, it became a museum open for tours by the 1980s and - of course - became the site for the Statue of Liberty!

It Took A While To Open The Darker, Forgotten Side Of The Island To The Public

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With the rank, rusting and ruined hospital side of the island still off limits to the public for a very long time, an organization called Save Ellis Island worked to raised money to eventually give new life to the old hospital so that it could be opened to the public. Tourists were able to visit the hospital complex from 2014.

Trapped On The Island

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Immigrants may arrive at Ellis Island in the hope of passing through and being reunited with spouses already in America, but officials could easily stop that happening - and did. Some immigrants were held without explanation, or told that they threatened national security, and then kept in the center with little updates and even less sympathy.

Some Sent Right Back!

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We don't know what would be worse - being held on the island 'detention center' for so long without knowing what's going on, or to be released into America for a short time only then to be taken back to the island and held again. Some immigrants were even held on the island for years! A lot of this was based on immigrants believed to be spies during the Cold War.

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