Can we stay or must we go?

Visual article by Gerlinde Schuller

2 September 2022 . 4 min.

Ellis Island was a historic facility in
New York, US, that served as an immigration station from 1892 to 1954. About 12 million immigrants would pass through Ellis Island during the time of its operation. 2% were excluded from entering the US.

It is estimated that nearly 40% of all US citizens today can trace at least one of their ancestors back to Ellis Island. 

A ferry takes the immigrants to the main building on Ellis Island
Hospital and quarantine facilities on Ellis Island, 1902

Immigrants who could afford to travel as first- or second-class passengers are spared inspection at arrival. Unless they exhibit some medical problem or a legal complication arose, they proceed through customs at the arrival piers and are allowed to enter the country without impediments.

Third-class or steerage passengers, however, are ferried to Ellis Island where they are subjected to inspections conducted by the Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration.

Many ethnic minorities, including Roma and Germans, arrive from Eastern Europe, escaping economic oppression and racial discrimination.

As a clerk at Ellis Island from 1892-1925, Augustus Sherman was in a unique position to document countless immigrants as they attempted to gain entrance into the United States. The photos were not taken for official purposes. Sherman was simply fascinated by the people he was meeting on a daily basis.

Roma family all of whom were deported, 1905
Romanian shepherds after their arrival at Ellis Island,
ca. 1910
German immigrants at Ellis Island
Mother with her children arriving at Ellis Island
from Wallachia, Romania, then Austro-Hungarian Empire

Immigrants from East Europe at Ellis Island,
ca. 1906

The doctors at Ellis Island developed a medical and spacial system for screening immigrants.

Sick immigrants should be quickly identified by means of a medical inspection. The first test on arrival was a ‘six-second physical’.

System for the spatial coordination of immigrants
for medical inspection, 1917

Line inspection of arriving immigrants,
including trachoma examinations, ca. 1923

Immigrant children are examined
on arrival at Ellis Island, 1911

Physicians examining
Jewish men, ca. 1907

The medical officers marked any sign of a disease by a piece of chalk on the immigrant’s clothes. An X stood for insanity.

Medical codes used for marking diseases
on the immigrants’ clothes

Following the belief that diseases were linked to the origin of the immigrants, they were segregated by nationality.

Marked immigrants were quarantined. Immigrants who were definitively rejected had to leave at their own expense with the steamship company that brought them.

Immigrants were segregated by nationality

Quarantined men at Ellis Island,
1902/ca. 1930
A part of a group of 171 ‘aliens’ declared to be in the country illegally waving goodbye to the Statue of Liberty
from a Coast Guard cutter taking them from Ellis Island to Hoboken for deportation.

Famous immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were the German Romanian actor Johnny Weissmuller and the Jewish Romanian actor Edward G. Robinson.

Johnny Weissmuller was a Banat Swabian and born Johann Peter Weißmüller in Freidorf, today Timișoara. Edward G. Robinson was born into a Jewish family in Bucharest.

Both emigrated to the USA as children. Robinson arrived in Ellis Island in 1903 and Weissmuller in 1905.

American actors Johnny Weissmuller, 1932 (left)
and Edward G. Robinson, 1948

Read also my article Not my real name about Johnny Weissmuller, alias Tarzan.

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