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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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2. The Hospital.
(Medical Superintendent: Dr. Billings.)

     The hospital and medical service are not, I understand, under the Department of Labour, but under the Secretary of the Treasury. This administrative provision seems to create less difficulty than might have been expected. The reason for this lies largely, if not entirely, in the personalities of Mr. Tod and Dr. Billings. The principal medical officer seemed to me to be an admirable official as well as a competent and enthusiastic practitioner of the art of medicine.

     His hospital arrangements are good. It is true that the buildings are in need of new paint and minor repairs. Some construction is also needed, and the technical equipment, though not bad, might be improved.

     It is difficult to judge in such a matter, but my impression is that the nursing and ward maid (or ward orderly) staff might be strengthened with advantage.

     The hospital has to deal with every sort of disorder, ranging from slight injury to obscure tropical diseases. It is at once a maternity home and an asylum for the insane. On the occasion of my visit there was at least one patient there, a young woman, who had spent ten months in the psycho-pathic ward. This real hardship to the patient was caused by her friends maintaining a legal fight to secure her admission. That she was mentally deranged was painfully obvious. Yet there she had remained for ten months in an environment not unsuitable for an insane person detained for a few days, but wholly unsuitable for long-continued residence with a view to cure or recovery.

     On the whole, I thought the hospital arrangements good. I inspected the laundry, which I found to be efficient.

3. The Isolation Hospital.

     I had time merely to glance at the hospital for persons suffering from infectious diseases.

     The general lay-out is good, and the kitchen is excellently arranged and equipped. The quality of the food is good. The wards seemed comfortable and decently kept.

     Here, as elsewhere, more money for maintenance to the structure is obviously necessary.

     The pathological laboratory for the whole medical service on the island is situated at the end of the isolation hospital. I judge it to be efficient and reasonably adequate. It, like every other department on the island, needs more money to spend on upkeep.


     After seeing Ellis Island and studying. its problems, I believe that it is true to say that it is impossible to administer any immigration station under existing United States laws without hardship and tragedy. If a system could be devised which would prohibit persons desiring to come to the United States from sailing from Europe or elsewhere without the certainty of admission to the United States, the problem would be almost entirely solved.

     At present United States consuls, when granting a visa to passports to the United States, may mark the visa with the number of the regulation which they believe that individuals entering the United States would violate. Not only so, United States consuls abroad send communications through the mails to the Commissioners of Immigration saying that they have issued passports to such-and-such persons who are sailing on a particular boat on a specified day, and that, in the judgment of the United States consul, they should not be allowed to land. I feel quite sure that this does not unfairly bias the judgment of the immigration authority, but, if an individual is clearly not eligible to enter the United States, it would, in my judgment, be kinder to prevent him sailing from Europe or elsewhere than to let him reach Ellis Island and there turn him back.

     It is clearly a difficult problem that presents itself for solution. If I were asked to advise the responsible authorities, I should recommend twelve things:–

  1. Put the existing buildings into a thorough state of repair and alter the latrine arrangements.
  2. Arrange for these buildings to be maintained structurally and to be kept thoroughly clean
  3. Arrange through structural alteration for proper medical examination rooms.
  4. At least refurnish, but if possible replace, the present first-and second-class rooms by rooms with windows looking to the outside, as the third-class rooms have.
  5. If possible, through structural alteration, improve the ventilation of the downstair rooms so that they can be freely used in the work of handling the crowds of immigrants.
  6. Do everything to expedite the handling of the immigrants, especially in the matter of appeals.
  7. Provide a new station for criminal deportees (prostitutes, "Reds," etc.).
  8. Provide a new station for those requiring "kosher" food (or, alternatively, let Ellis Island be the "kosher" station and provide a new station for the rest).
  9. Authorise United States consuls to refuse visas to the pass-ports of those obviously prevented by law from entering the United States.
  10. Arrange, if possible, for all immigrants to be finally approved or disapproved in their home lands.
  11. Abandon the quaint custom of delivering lectures on Americanisation to criminal and other deportees. Strangely, this well-meant activity seems to be more annoying to its victims than any other single detail in the life of Ellis Island.
  12. Brighten up the hospital interiors with fresh paint and keep them even still more scrupulously clean.

     In conclusion, I noticed a desire upon the part of officials to say that Ellis Island is as good as any immigration station in any land. It may be. Still, it is quite certain that no other nation's principal immigration station has the same problem to solve for the reason that the laws of the United States are not the same as those of any other nation.

                    I have, etc.
                         A. C. GEDDES.

P.S.—I have handed copies of this despatch to the Secretary of Labour, Mr. Davis, and to the Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York, Mr. Tod. — A.C.G.


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