Following the Footsteps of Ellis Island Immigrants

by Barry Moreno

An immigrant’s passage through Ellis Island was no simple matter. With thousands of foreigners streaming through the station every day, a series of bureaucratic hurdles and a strict system of crowd control were kept firmly in place. Although procedures were pretty much the same over the years, there were seasonal variations: in summer, for example, aliens could be given eye examinations at the entrance to the main building downstairs rather than upstairs, as in the other seasons of the year.

What was a would-be American’s first experience in his or her new homeland like? For a person arriving at Ellis Island during its greatest flow of immigrants, between the 1890s and the 1920s, the process went much like this:


Before entering New York Harbor, steamships first paused at quarantine off the shores of Staten Island. Here they were boarded by state health officers, and only after these men gave the ship a clean bill of health were federal immigrant inspectors allowed on board.

The ship’s purser gave the inspectors the passenger list or manifest, and the ship’s surgeon advised them about any sick immigrants, as well as deaths and births at sea and the names of any passengers taken off by the quarantine officers.

Next, inspectors examined all cabin-class passengers — these more moneyed people usually had no difficulty passing inspection. Once the ship docked at one of the Hudson River piers, cabin-class passengers went freely down the gangway and had their luggage checked by customs officers.

For steerage and third-class passengers, inspection was quite another matter. They were given landing cards, and after their luggage was checked by customs, they were put on transport boats found for Ellis Island. With their landing cards pinned to their caps, hats, or coats and their health inspection cards in their hands, crowds of them filed into the main building in two inspection lines: one for men and one for women and children.

Line Inspection

Although unnerving, “inspection on line” was a cursory affair consisting of a general physical examination and an eye examination. Dressed in severely starched military uniforms, surgeons scrutinized each immigrant, looking for any sign of illness, disease, or unusual behavior.

For the sake of modesty and better control, male and female immigrants were directed into separate alleyways, where uniformed surgeons could make a better assessment of each person. Part of the trick was to have newcomers make a turn down the alleyway so they could be observed from the front, side, and rear. Doctors ordered aliens to take off gloves, scarves, shawls, bonnets, caps, and hats to reveal any signs of disease or disability.

Immigrants with health problems were quick to learn strategies in evading detection. In one case, a woman walked past an inexperienced surgeon without any trouble. But unfortunately for her, she caught the eye of a senior surgeon, who noticed something strange about her hair. The senior surgeon told her, Bitte, nehmen Sie die Perücke auf! (Please, take off your wig!) Its removal revealed a scalp ravaged by favus, a highly inflammatory disease.

With his ever-handy piece of chalk, the physician marked the woman with the letters “Sc.” This was part of the code developed by Ellis Island doctors and written on an immigrant’s coat or clothes, which was enough to result in a person’s being directed to the medical rooms for a thorough examination.

After passing the general physical examination, immigrants met the eye doctors, who, with the aid of a buttonhook, basin of disinfectant, and towel, proceeded to roll back the eyelids in search of signs of trachoma, the dangerously contagious eye disease that usually resulted in an immigrant’s being deported. This quick procedure could be painful.

Immigrants marked by doctors were diverted into a line going to the physical and mental examination rooms of the medical division; when necessary, others were sent to the hospital. All others climbed the stairs to the Registry Room, where an attendant stamped their steamship health cards to show they had undergone medical inspection.

Matrons, meanwhile, were on the lookout for prostitutes and unwed pregnant women; when spotted they were diverted to the Matron’s Pen for questioning. If any woman admitted that she was a prostitute or an unwed mother-to-be, she would be held for special inquiry and deported for moral turpitude.

Primary Inspection

The Primary Inspection Room was the centerpiece of the Ellis Island drama: here each alien would learn if he would be allowed into the country or not. As crowds flowed into the room, Ellis Island staff would group immigrants by the letter on the immigrants’ landing cards. For example, knowing that a certain inspector was handling groups A, B, C, D and E, the staff would direct those immigrants with matching landing card letters down the appropriate inspection aisle.

Once work began, clerks and interpreters called out each person, one by one. The inspector would begin his examination of the immigrant, making sure the immigrant’s responses matched what had been written on the ship’s manifest. Inspectors became adept at judging the honesty of the person they were speaking with.

Because of the great variety of languages spoken, interpreters often asked the questions. Meanwhile, the inspector made notations in red ink on the manifest: a check mark, a cross, “L.P.C.” (likely to become a public charge), “S.I.” (detain for special inquiry), and so forth. Sworn to identify doubtful persons, inspectors had to be confident in deeming an immigrant “clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to land.”

Undesirable immigrants included professional beggars, illegally contracted laborers, convicted criminals, persons guilty of moral turpitude, and those afflicted with loathsome and dangerous contagious diseases. The truly indigent and the very poor were also unwelcome and labeled L.P.C.

Based on the inspector’s decision, an immigrant was sent to one of four places: down one of the three stairways or separation or to Special Inquiry Detention.

The Stairs of Separation. Each of the three stairs of separation was screen off from the other and led to a different location. On the left was the Stairway to the New York Ferry, for those free to head to Manhattan. On the right was the Stairway to the Railroad Barges, for immigrants who were free to leave and who would be traveling via the railroad station in Jersey City.

In the center was the Stairway to Temporary Detention, for immigrants bound for the Information Bureau. This form of detention gave an immigrant time to solve a minor problem, such as having a destination address confirmed, waiting for the arrival of a husband or other relative, or waiting for money to be wired in.

Special Inquiry Detention Room. Immigrants who failed to pass the primary inspection would be given a special yellow card labeled “S.I.” — Special Inquiry. Special Inquiry cases were handled by boards of three inspectors who listened to the immigrant’s story and investigated further. The board had the power to admit an immigrant or to exclude an immigrant and order deportation. Immigrants were, however, permitted to formally appeal exclusion orders.

Barry Moreno works in the reference library at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. He is a freelance writer and is the author of a number of books and articles. An illustrated, revised edition of Moreno’s Encyclopedia of Ellis Island is due out in 2010.

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