Immigrant Images

The Ellis Island immigration center closed on this day in 1954, after 12 million immigrants over 62 years had passed through its gates. Approximately 2 percent of arrivals were rejected — not enough, according to some:

In 1896, the magazine Our Day published a cartoon entitled “The Stranger at Our Gate.” It featured an immigrant seeking entrance into America. The man makes a pathetic impression: short, hunched over, sickly, toes sticking out of his ragged shoes. Literally and figuratively, he is carrying a lot of baggage. In one hand is a bag labeled “Poverty” and in the other a bag labeled “Disease.” Around his neck hangs a bone with the inscription “Superstition,” signifying his backward religion and culture. On his back are a beer keg with the words “Sabbath Desecration” and a crude bomb labeled “Anarchy.” The man has come upon a gate that provides entry past a high stone wall. A pillar at the gate reads: “United States of America: Admittance Free: Walk In: Welcome.” Standing in the middle of the gate is Uncle Sam. Much taller than the immigrant, the unhappy Uncle Sam is decked out in full patriotic regalia. He is holding his nose, while looking down contemptuously at the man standing before him. Holding one’s nose implies the existence of a foul odor, but it also means that one is force to do something that one does not want to do. And that’s just the fix that Uncle Sam is in.

The above excerpt is from the Introduction to Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (2009). The gallery of specific cases that Cannato includes in his introduction demonstrate the inaccuracy of the cartoon complaint, given that potential immigrants faced deportation or lengthy detention on Ellis Island, whether for physical, mental, moral, or economic reasons. 

But applicant Frank Woodhull, who could perhaps be placed in the “Anarchy” category, did indeed enter America with surprising ease. Identified in the initial screening as having a tubercular appearance, Woodhull was pulled aside for further examination, where he was revealed as a she — Mary Johnson, who explained that she had been dressing and living as a man for some fifteen years. Immigration officials deemed Woodhull/Johnson healthy, intelligent, moral, and solvent; as reported by The New York Times, she was allowed to “go out in the world and earn her living in trousers.” Her photograph is included in the recently published Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-20. An immigration clerk and amateur photographer, Sherman convinced hundreds of prospective immigrants to pose: circus performers, war orphans, armed Cossacks, Romanian shepherds, Ethiopian tribesmen, kilted Scots….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.