Until 1891, individual states took responsibility of processing newly arrived immigrants. By the 1890s, the increasing burden led the federal government to take on the role of gatekeeper. Legislation enacted in 1891 established the Bureau of Immigration within the Treasury Department, and stipulated the reasons for which immigrants could be denied admission. Also all those hoping to immigrate to the United States had to undergo a medical examination. The immigration facility at Ellis Island is a physical manifestation of that legislation. 1891 Immigration Act is a revised version of the 1882 Immigration Act and expands the types of “undesirable” immigrants to include idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges. Federal guidelines mandated health inspection of each arriving immigrant with the goal of building a healthy, robust workforce for American’s growing industrial economy, and controlling the numbers of people who, because of health or disability, would become public charges.
The original wooden building succumbed to fire on June 15, 1897 and was closed for reconstruction for over three years. Ellis Island reopened in December, 1900. The new fireproof building is made of brick and limestone, and many workers involved in the construction process are recent immigrants themselves. Arriving passengers during this period were processed at the Barge Office in New York Harbor
Jeanne Rynhart’s Ellis Island statue of Annie Moore, holding her hat in the harbor breeze, unveiled in 1993. Annie was selected by immigration officials to be the first in to the depot for medical inspection and processing and was described by the New York Times as a “rosy-cheeked Irish girl.” She received a ten-dollar gold piece. It was her 15th birthday and was traveling with her two younger brothers.
The island would be expanded by 22 acres and twenty-nine new buildings would be added making Ellis Island the largest immigration station in the country - contained not only the Registry Hall with dormitory and dining facilities, but also the largest US Public Health Service hospital in the country.
The 1891 legislation set a precedent for federal intervention and established a formal process by which immigrants would be accepted or excluded from America. Once in place, this process facilitated further restrictive legislation in 1903 (excluding beggars, insane, prostitutes, and anarchists), 1917 (added a literacy requirement), and 1924 (a quota system is established significantly reducing the numbers of immigrants to America and, consequently reducing the numbers arriving at Ellis Island.) This law required all immigrants, 16 years or older to read a 40-word passage in their native language. These dual-language cards were used by inspectors to test immigrants&apos; literacy.
The federal government assigned the U.S. Public Health Service (U. S. Marine Hospital Service) to inspect all arriving immigrants. So the first American an immigrant met was a uniformed doctor of the US Marine Hospital Service (also know as U.S Public Health Service.) The PHS evolved from a federal government program under President John Adams in order to provide health care for merchant seamen and a series of marine hospitals are established in port cities. In 1870s there is a reorganization headed by a supervising surgeon (later Surgeon General). The physicians were modeled after the military with uniforms and ranks. The responsibilities of the U. S. Marine Hospital Service (renamed the Public Health Service in 1912) increased dramatically as public concerns about the spread of contagious diseases mounted. Also medical exams of all new arrivals were mandated by the federal government in 1891 and this task was assigned to the Marine Hospital Service.
Those who could afford first- and second-class tickets were inspected aboard ship in the privacy of their own cabins. On board exam were shorter than those at Ellis Island. “I’d like to say something about the Boarding Division. There was some danger in the Boarding Division because doctors had to climb rope ladders up the sides of ships, sometimes 30-40 feet. And this could not be done by an older officer without danger--in fact, no older officer had ever been assigned to that duty. On the very large ships of course, entry was made in the side of the ship by opening a special door about the height of the tug. But on most ships it was necessary to climb a rope ladder, and climbing a rope ladder in the wind and rain was not too much fun! In fact it required some athletic ability.” Dr. Grover A. Kempf 11 September 1977
Ellis Island, around 1920. The hospitals, shown on the bottom of the photograph, treated 250,000 ill immigrants during the course of its operation.
Steerage passengers arriving at Ellis Island. Immigrants traveling in steerage or third class required a complete medical exam. They were taken by ferry from their steamship to Ellis Island.
On average, 4,000 to 5,000 immigrants were processed each day on Ellis Island. The largest number of immigrants processed in one day was just over 11,000 in April, 1907
More Italians entered through Ellis Island than any other group. Approximately four million immigrants arrived from Italy.
Many of the millions of immigrants who arrived into the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century intended to return to the old country. They were known as Birds of Passage and they came to American to earn enough money to allow them to return home and buy property. About a third of those arriving at Ellis Island would return home of their own accord, sometimes traveling back and forth seasonally. Many came alone, expecting to rejoin their families in Europe within a few years. For many Italian immigrants, migration to the United States could not be interpreted as a rejection of Italy. In reality, it was a defense of the Italian way of life, for the money sent home helped to preserve the traditional order. Rather than seeking permanent homes, they desired an opportunity to work for a living, hoping to save enough money to return to a better life in the country of their birth.
They worked long hours for what wasn’t a bad wage, considering they received room and board — for an inexperienced, all-purpose maid, about $4 per month in 1845, about $12 per month in 1901 and about $20 per month in 1916. Many sent money back to their families in Ireland. Many found jobs for their sisters and paid their ways to America. ”When the girls lived in these middle-class houses, they learned how to do things in middle-class ways,“ Lynch-Brennan says. ”They learned how to set a nice table. They learned what proper manners were. And so when the Irish girls married, and they did tend to marry Irish men, they made their families adhere to those middle-class standards.
Ship’s name Port of Departure Date of Arrival Manifest Sheet Number Name of Passenger Line Number on which passenger’s name is shown
The medical exam begins as new arrivals ascend the stairway to the main hall. There uniformed doctors of the PHS (after 1912) note signs of illness or disability.
U. S. Public Health Service doctors inspected immigrants for a number of diseases and impairments that might deny them entry into the country. If an individual failed the initial exam, he or she was sent to the hospitals for further treatment.
By far one of the most dreaded aspects of the line inspected was the eye exam. Physicians checked for trachoma by everting the eyelid and looking for signs of the disease (sores or scars). New arrivals were also checked for defective eyesight.
Line examination of - doctor examines eyes of immigrants.
If an immigrant was suspected of being ill, or injured, or unfit they were pulled from the line and subjected to closer inspection.
There were no instruments available to evert the eyelid when checking for trachoma, doctors employed button hooks commonly used to assist women in buttoning their shoes or gloves
Stopping an emigrant suspected of defective eyesight. He will be detained for further examination to ascertain if this defect would prevent him from earning a living. About 20 percent of immigrants passing through Ellis Island were detained for further inspection.
Favus was another loathsome or dangerous contagious disease. Quick diagnosis - acute observation - Chief Medical officer Dr. Billings who spots a woman that is suspect and asks her in German to remove her wig.
A chalk mark on the right shoulder of a newcomer’s garment signals the need for closer examination. It&apos;s been said that some very savvy immigrants wore reversible clothing as &quot;insurance.&quot; If they received a chalk mark, when opportunity presented itself, they turned their coats inside out and continued on without undergoing the more thorough exam. Detainees were often separated from others in wire mesh compartments which resembled an animal pen or jail cell. &quot;Marked&quot; immigrants were escorted by guards to other examination areas. There they were checked by another doctor for the ailment indicated by the chalkmark. If the second physician deemed it necessary, the person was sent to the hospital, hopefully to recover. If the ailment or disability was incurable the immigrant was sent back to his/her port of origin.
Austrian immigrant Adele Sinko was 21 and found the experience very embarrassing, “there was these big kids running around, but you had to do it. The examination was done by women, but the kids were there. That I resented, when you had to strip to the waist.” Two women doctors were appointed to the medical staff at Ellis Island in 1914. Previous to this appointed it was required that a matron be present when a female immigrant was examined.By 1924 four female physicians, two female attendants and a nurse were on staff.
Ellis Island inspection - two shirtless men. Notice the letter ‘K’ in chalk on right shoulder of man in upper left.
Immigrants awaiting examination on Ellis Island, c. 1920
Immigrants’ names were checked against the steamship manifests as part the screening procedure on Ellis Island.
The emigrant showing passport, money and answering questions with a view to ascertaining whether he/she is likely to become a public charge on the country, is amenable to the contract labor law, etc. (indentured servitude) After the medical inspection, officials interviewed immigrants about the amount of money they had, where they were going, and if they had work promised to them.
Undesirable emigrants to be taken back by steamship company that bought them.
After emigrants are passed, those waiting for family of friends, are placed into pens according to nationalities.
Most immigrant spent only four or five hours on Ellis Island, departing through the ferry terminal onto boats that delivered them to New York City or the Central Railroad of NJ terminal in Jersey City, where they boarded trains to destinations across the country.
Immigrants who were detained on Ellis Island, mostly awaiting a relative to retrieve them, were served three meals a day. Immigrants often spoke about eating unfamiliar food, like bananas.
U.S. Public Health Service doctors and nurses posed in front of the general hospital with young immigrant patients.
Within a year after the new building was open, a second island was constructed of fill and a hospital building was constructed. It was filled to capacity only days after opening in 1902. By 1908, two more connected hospital buildings opened. Still the faculty was unable to accommodate the large numbers of immigrants that arrived with contagious diseases. These patients were transported to hospitals in New York City until fear of infecting city residents prompted them to start refusing immigrants. In 19111 contagious disease wards were under construction on a third island. At this point the number of hospital beds was increased to 725.
One of the wards in the Ellis Island hospital. Patients were treated for everything from broken bones to tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. Three hundred fifty-three babies were born on Ellis Island and 3,500 people died in the hospitals.
Immigrants confined to the Ellis Island hospitals spent some of their time in craft classes and other activities. A library near the hospitals had books and newspapers on twenty-six languages.
As part of the health services on Ellis Island, nurses held baby clinics for immigrant mothers.
Immigrants awaiting deportation are getting some air on the roof of the main building. Approximately two percent of new arrivals were denied entry and deported to the country of origin. The chief reason for deportation is for medical reasons, trachoma being the more frequent of the loathsome contagious diseases.
Part of the reason the only two percent of new arrivals are deported is that steamship companies were required to pay the costs of returning the rejected back to Europe. In 1905 it was estimated that in Bremen Germany, steamship companies refused tickets to about 8000 people. Due to the legislation of 1891, immigrants were required to undergo medical exams before departure and after arrival in the US. Fiorello LaGuardia was the American consul in Fiume from 1903 to 1906 and he was very serious about the steamship company took their obligation seriously to certify the health of those emigrants boarding their ships, and in 1908 the Italian government began conducting its own exit physical.
The quotas of the 1920s restrict immigration (especially from Southern and Eastern Europe) but also moves the primary responsibility of immigration inspection to American consulates abroad. The role of Ellis Island is gradually decreases. During WWI it serves as a internment center for 1,500 German sailors and aout 2,000 suspected “aliens and spys.” During WWII, Ellis Island serves as a detention center housing Nazi sympathizers. During the Cold War the detainees are suspected Communists that are awaiting deportation. In 1954 Ellis Island closed its doors. In 1965, Ellis Island is proclaimed part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. 1999 - museum is open to the public
Ellis Island - original building
Annie Moore from County Cork Ireland arrived on January 1,
1892 was the first person to enter the U.S. via Ellis Island.
The first hospital on Ellis Island opened in 1902.
The 1891 legislation set a precedent for federal
intervention and established a formal process by
which immigrants would be accepted or excluded.
• In 1903 beggars, the insane,
prostitutes and anarchists are
• In 1907 a literacy
requirement is added
• In 1924 a quota system
significantly reduces the
number of immigrants coming
Doctor boarding steamship to inspect first- and
second-class passengers in the privacy of their
On average, 4,000 to 5,000 immigrants were processed each day on
Ellis Island. The largest number of immigrants processed in one day
was just over 11,000 in April, 1907
More Italians entered
through Ellis Island than
any other group.
Approximately four million
immigrants arrived from
Immigrants awaiting examination on Ellis Island, c. 1920
Immigrants’ names were checked against the steamship
manifests as part the screening procedure on Ellis Island.
Most immigrant spent only four or five hours on Ellis Island, departing
through the ferry terminal onto boats that delivered them to New York
City or the Central Railroad of NJ terminal in Jersey City, where they
boarded trains to destinations across the country.
Immigrants who were detained on Ellis Island, mostly awaiting a
relative to retrieve them, were served three meals a day. Immigrants
often spoke about eating unfamiliar food, like bananas.
U.S. Public Health Service doctors and nurses posed in
front of the general hospital with young immigrant patients.
An operating room on Ellis Island, as it looked in the 1920s. U. S.
Public Health Service doctors practiced the latest in medical knowledge
and techniques, giving immigrant patients the best of medical
One of the wards in the Ellis Island hospital. Patients were treated for
everything from broken bones to tuberculosis and other contagious
diseases. Three hundred fifty-three babies were born on Ellis Island
and 3,500 people died in the hospitals.
Immigrants confined to the Ellis Island hospitals spent some of their
time in craft classes and other activities. A library near the hospitals
had books and newspapers on twenty-six languages.
As part of the health services on Ellis Island, nurses held
baby clinics for immigrant mothers.