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Ellis Island: The Original "Shutter Island"

Updated on September 28, 2011
Ellis Island | Polish Immigrant 1907
Ellis Island | Polish Immigrant 1907 | Source

Looking back at the historic waves of 19th and 20th century migration to America, we tend to look at them with rose-tinted glasses.

Those tired, those poor and those huddled masses scraped together their meager belongings, boarded ship, and after a fitful voyage fell into the welcoming arms of their new country. Safe at last! Here, finally, was a society founded on the principles of equality and fair play.

Actually, the experience of arriving here for many 19th and 20th century immigrants was enough to give them thoughts of return. Except of course, many of them had no homes to return to, nor the money to do so. Which kind of made them easy marks.

For many, Ellis Island was the original "Shutter Island" - remote, forbidding, and utterly incomprehensible.

Ellis Island | The wait to disembark for 3rd class passengers could be very long.
Ellis Island | The wait to disembark for 3rd class passengers could be very long. | Source

We hold these truths to be self evident…

More than one arriving immigrant, having heard the glorious stories of American equality - and having left behind ossified and crushing class structures in their own country - was surprised and appalled to see that first and second class passengers disembarked immediately. The higher class passengers received only a cursory inspection on board then were released into the city.

It was a different matter for "steerage" passengers. First, they had to wait on board ship. Then, once they were allowed to disembark, they had to pass through the gauntlet of the processing hall.

The wait on board and then in the processing hall of Ellis Island could be days - and there was a fair chance that they - or one of the family - would be refused entry following a medical inspection.

Ellis Island | Arriving on land at Ellis Island was no guarantee that entry to the rest of the country was going to be granted any time soon - as these poor souls found out
Ellis Island | Arriving on land at Ellis Island was no guarantee that entry to the rest of the country was going to be granted any time soon - as these poor souls found out | Source
Ellis Island | Non-medical personal conduct an eye inspection - trachoma would mean the person would be refused entry.
Ellis Island | Non-medical personal conduct an eye inspection - trachoma would mean the person would be refused entry. | Source

Many were called, not all were chosen

Of all the indignities, perhaps the medical exam carried the greatest terror. Any one of a legion of conditions would mean "entry refused". Hygiene and sanitation were seldom matters of great concern for the government inspectors.

"The line of male immigrants approached the first medical officer with their trousers open. The doctor examined their external genitals for signs of venereal infection. Next he examined the inguinal canals for hernia.

"The doctor wore rubber gloves. I saw him "do" nine or ten men. His gloves were not cleansed between cases." (A Dispatch from H.M. Ambassador at Washington 1911)

Eye conditions (investigated with the dreaded button hook), venereal disease, TB, curvature of the spine, irregular heartbeats, hernia, lung conditions: there was a long list of scheduled conditions which would bar a poor immigrant from entry. Even scalp conditions - like the contagious "Favus" - could mean deportation, as could being a prostitute. In many cases, families would face an exquisite choice - break up or all return to their country of origin.

Ellis Island | Men lift their shirts for an inspection of their skin in 1902
Ellis Island | Men lift their shirts for an inspection of their skin in 1902 | Source

Although they did not enjoy a reputation for sympathy, not every inspector became inured to the work of processing so much humanity as if they were cattle:

"...you will never get over your dread of pronouncing sentence of deportation on one of those poor devils. It is like closing the gates of Paradise on a man who has climbed the ladder with bleeding feet and hands." (Inspector McKee 1905)

Ellis Island | The arrival experience was dehumanizing - but for most people, worth it.
Ellis Island | The arrival experience was dehumanizing - but for most people, worth it. | Source

Mistreatment and abuse

Conditions improved over time, but cases of negligence and mistreatment (e.g. taunting new arrivals as "cattle") were very common:

"We were shunted here and there, huddled and mishandled, kicked about and torn apart, in a way no farmer would allow his cattle to be treated." (Edward Corsi)

Little care was taken with names, and an immigrant from "Berlin" might exit the processing hall with that as his new surname - to say nothing of misspellings and other corruptions of important family names.

Poor or no English might be taken for a mental deficiency - with dire consequences.

Suicides and attempted suicides at Ellis Island were reported as well as bribery and even sexual extortion (although, due to the overcrowded conditions, one may wonder at the practicality of that pernicious demand).

Ellis Island like Shutter Island? Really?

In the 2010 motion picture film "Shutter Island", Teddy Daniels is sent to investigate a murder on a prison island for the criminally insane. The experience seems to disorient him - and the audience - to the point of insanity.

Most people's experience of Ellis Island never rose to the level of persecution that Teddy Daniels suffers on Shutter Island. Not even close. But for the truly poor, the desperately tired, and all the non-English speaking huddled masses, entering the processing hall at Ellis Island did became a kind of disorienting nightmare.

Happily, most people managed to emerge from that nightmare and began new lives which became more prosperous than anything they could have ever dreamed.

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    • JaneA profile imageAUTHOR

      JaneA 

      6 years ago from California

      Thanks Scott. I think the main connection for me is the fear and paranoia that both islands caused (some) people!

    • Scott2111 profile image

      Scott2111 

      6 years ago from Detroit area

      I did like shutter island... A little creepy.....

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