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Flying the Quarantine flag

THE FORGOTTEN OF ELLIS ISLAND
Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911

 

A Despatch from H.M. Ambassador at Washington
reporting on Conditions at Ellis Island Immigration Station
Presented to Parliament by command of His Majesty, 1923

Sir A. Geddes to the Marquess Curzon of Kedleston. (Received January 29, 1923)

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1. The Immigration Station.
 
(Administrative Officer: Mr. Robert E. Tod, Commissioner of Immigration, Port of New York.)
Mr. Tod has resigned since the date of this despatch.

(a.) Staff.

     Mr. Tod is a gentleman of independent means, who, some fourteen months ago, accepted office as Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York. He is a sympathetic, kindly, energetic and efficient man, who holds office for patriotic reasons. Any country might be proud to point to him as one of its officials. Mr. Tod has spared neither time, though nor pocket in his efforts to make Ellis Island humanely efficient.

     I met several members of the immigration staff. They seemed to me to be suitable and efficient.

(b.) Buildings.

     I was not favourably impressed by the plan of the buildings of the immigration station. On this subject, after only one visit, I am little inclined to express a definite opinion. It appeared to me, however, that much space on the ground floor that would be invaluable, if available, was practically useless because of insufficient provision for ventilation. Some of the rooms in use as waiting rooms for those who had to appear before boards are inconvenient of access. Similarly, some of the sleeping rooms impressed me as unsuitable to house the numbers that in rush times spend the nights in them.

     The lavatories, with latrine and urinal accommodation, open directly out of the sleeping and living rooms. This seems to me to be an inevitably unpleasant arrangement, especially in view of the fact that many, perhaps a majority of the immigrants, are unfamiliar with the pattern of conveniences in use in North America. Some of the immigrants are, I was told by the Secretary of Labour, apt to mistake the sanitary hoppers for drinking troughs, and the floor, or some drainage channel in it, for a latrine pit.

     The rooms provided for the medical boards are unsuitable and inadequate. No effort has been made to adapt them through structural alteration to their present purpose.

     While it is obviously necessary that the drifting crowd of immigrants who have to be handled in the building be prevented from straying and getting lost, I can quite understand that persons of some refinement and intelligence sent to Ellis Island resent the locked doors and wire "cages." These are much in evidence, and inevitably suggest imprisonment. I am satisfied, though, that the work of the immigration station could not be done without them. To unlock the doors and leave them open and to remove the "cages" would produce chaos worse confounded.

     Something is now being done to renovate the paint-work and to effect minor repairs. This has been too long delayed, and the buildings have been allowed to fall into a bad state. The roof in parts requires attention. This it is to receive. There can, however, be no doubt that the amount of money expended on upkeep has for years been insufficient, even to maintain the property.

     My general criticism of the buildings is that they are too small. Further, the immigration laws have been altered since they were built, and, however suitable they may have been at the time of their erection, they do not quite meet the present requirements. The attempt has been made through makeshift arrangements to adapt them to their modified purpose. I understand that the superintending architect of the United States Government is now considering how they can be better adapted. I have no doubt that further improvement is possible. It is difficult to see, however, how anyone can rearrange the buildings and grounds to make them really suitable. The ideal "Ellis Island" would have, I imagine, ground (sic) round it so that those whose sojourn there could not be brief would have space to move about and to get away from what must often be a nauseating contact with their companions in detention.

(c.) Condition of the Buildings.

     Cleanliness must in the circumstances be difficult to achieve. Many of the immigrants are innocent of the most rudimentary understanding of the meaning of the word "clean." I feel sure that a great effort is made to overcome the difficulties this produces. Still, I noticed in many corners impacted greasy dirt that it was possible to say with certainty had been there for many days, if not weeks or months. The impression that I received was that the cleaning is done with long-handled brushes and mops with, at times, aid from a cold-water hose. Nothing but hot water, strong soda and soap freely and frequently applied with a scrubbing-brush will serve if real cleanliness is to be obtained. As a result of the presence of chronic dirt, the buildings are pervaded by a flat, stale smell. This is quite distinct from the pungent odour of unwashed humanity. Both are to be met at Ellis Island. Indeed, the compound smell of old dirt and new immigrants is so nearly universal there that I should not be surprised if it were no longer noticed by the members of the staff. After leaving the island, it took me thirty-six hours to get rid of the aroma, which flavoured everything I ate or drank.

(d.) Arrangements for Immigrants detained on the Island.

     Sleeping accommodation for immigrants and detained persons is provided chiefly in two-tiered bunks. These, in most of the sleeping rooms, are arranged in wire cages, the alley-ways being roofed over with stout wire net.

     I am sure that it is necessary to encage the bunks to prevent thefts and even more unpleasant outrages. Yet I can understand a certain reaction of annoyed surprise on the part of those whose early experiences were of decent surroundings on being told to go to bed in a cage, even though the cage is necessary and provided for their protection.

     The actual surface upon which the immigrant reclines is either woven wire or canvas, supported on metal laths. The canvases that I examined had not been long in use, not more than a few months, but Mr. Tod said that they were not regularly changed or cleaned.

     I cannot help thinking that it must be very unpleasant to sleep in the lower of these two-tiered berths, when ill-luck places a brutalised sort of creature in the berth above. The Secretary of Labour informed me that cases have been known where the different calls made by nature on the upper berth-holder are responded to without his or her rising from the "bed." In any such instance it seems to me the immigrant in the lower berth has grounds for complaint against the officials who put him there. I cannot believe that instances of this hardship are numerous on a percentage basis.

     Five blankets are issued to each immigrant every night. Of these, two are intended to be spread on the wire or canvas and three to be used for cover. These blankets are of satisfactory quality and are sterilised as often as possible. Unfortunately the sterilisation plant cannot deal with all the used blankets every day. As a result, some of the blankets may be used by more than one immigrant between sterilisations. It is not difficult to believe that this may at times produce hardship for the later users.

     A cake of soap and two paper towels are also issued each evening to each immigrant detained overnight. The washing accommodation is good, though, of course, there is no privacy. I have heard this complained of. Such a complaint is merely factious. Similarly, some people do not like paper towels. Personally, I prefer them to cotton or linen towels in public wash-places.

(e.) Food and Feeding.

     The food is of good quality and well cooked. The dining room is the cleanest room in the building, when meals begin. It is impossible, however, for any staff to keep it clean during meals, owing to what may be incorrectly described as the "table manners" of the guests, who incidentally use the floor as a universal slop bowl and refuse can.

     The dining tables are covered for each meal with clean paper "cloths." The table ware is white glazed, thick, but not too thick, and strong. It seemed to me admirably suited to its purpose.

     There are special arrangements for the feeding of immigrants of the Jewish faith which, so far as I am able to judge, are satisfactory. I have heard of no complaints with regard to them.

     Generally, I thought the arrangements for feeding the best that could reasonably be expected to be made for the present sort of immigrant in the existing building. I attach a copy of the bill of fare for the 28th December, 1922. I personally saw the dinner served. It was excellent.

     The kitchen seemed to me to be well equipped and efficiently managed.

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