Have you discovered immigrant ancestors detained at Ellis Island? Between 1880-1920, more than 20 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. The inspections they endured are well documented. But what happened to those detained at Ellis Island?

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Ancestors Detained at Ellis Island

About 2 percent of immigrants were detained at Ellis Island for Special Inquiry (SI). Detained individuals then faced an extended interview with inspectors and medical staff. About one percent were classified and detained for political or legal reasons, including suspected criminals and anarchists.

Detained for Medical or Legal Reasons

About one percent were detained if suspected of a “loath-some or a dangerous contagious disease.” Immigrants with curable diseases were sent to medical facilities on Ellis Island. In other cases, hospitals in Manhattan received immigrants who were ill.

Suspected contagious cases were sent to Swinburne Island for observation. Active contagious cases were quarantined on Hoffman Island. Those diagnosed as incurable were deported. The steamship company was responsible for the return fare, according to U.S. legislation. However, ticket contracts were often written to place the burden on the passenger.

Liable to Become a Public Charge (LPCs)

After the Immigration Act of 1882 was passed, special emphasis was placed on LPCs, or “those liable to become a public charge [to taxpayers]. ”The LPC classification was the most frequent cause for deportation. Of the many anxiety-ridden experiences endured by immigrants detained at Ellis Island, eye examinations were particularly feared. U.S. Public Health officers were concerned about trachoma. This highly contagious eye infection could lead to blindness and even death. Common buttonhooks – designed to lace shoes and collars tightly – were used to invert the eyelids of immigrants to check for the disease.

The immigrants most likely to be classified LPC were pregnant women, women with children, and women traveling alone. Until a spouse or other male family member could vouch for them, these women and children often remained in detention.

Ellis Island’s Medical Facilities

Now derelict, Ellis Island’s medical complex once had 22 medical buildings, located on the south side of the island across from the main building and ferry slip. According to The New York Times, this complex “was one of the largest public health undertakings in United States history, and a place of heartbreak and hope, sickness and recovery. At its peak, 300 medical staff members worked in x-ray and laboratories, hospital wards, isolation rooms, operating rooms, a school for hospitalized children, a morgue, and an autopsy amphitheater used to instruct medical students.”

“No major epidemic was ever traced to an immigrant who entered America after being treated at the hospital. Nine of 10 patients treated at the hospital were cured and allowed to enter the country and begin the road to citizenship,” according to The New York Times. John Henry Wilberding, an immigrant from Germany in 1928, recalled

To those who [were treated], it was one of the most precious gifts you were given, because when you were sick you couldn’t do anything about it. But here is a place that rescued you.

Anti-Immigration Efforts

Immigrants Detained at Ellis Island

“The Inevitable Result to the American Workingman of Unrestricted Immigration,” Judge, 24 Dec 1892.

Since the 1880s, anti-immigration groups had tried to impose a literacy test to restrict immigration. The Immigration Act of 1917, passed over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, required all immigrants, 16 years or older, to be able to read a 40-word passage, usually Biblical, in their native language. Medical inspections of all immigrants were also made mandatory in this legislation.

Federal Commissioner of Immigration William Williams stated in his 1904 annual report that the U.S. was “receiving too many immigrants whose physical condition is poor.” He argued that the LPC classification was not applied often enough, because “it is obviously impossible to exclude on this ground all persons whose physical condition is poor” and he urged officials to exclude all cases of immigrants with “poor physique.” LPC categories included chronic conditions, including hernia, senility, deformity, poor eyesight, varicose veins, “weak pulse,” and Williams’ term “poor physique.”

In 1909, Williams unilaterally decided that all immigrants must show $25 and railroad tickets to their destinations to gain admittance to the country. Commissioner Williams was forced to withdraw his order after immigrant aid societies protested vigorously. Still, Ellis Island inspectors often weighed the prospects of those without income or skills, particularly for women and children trying to rejoin husbands and fathers.

Review by the Board of Special Inquiry

Immigrants Detained at Ellis IslandWhile waiting for additional review, legal detainees lived in dormitories on the third floor above the Registry Room, usually for a few days or up to a month.

Immigrants rejected for entrance into the country had the right to have their cases reviewed by a three-member Board of Special Inquiry for a final decision. The board members convened in a purpose-built Hearing Room in the main building on Ellis Island. There board members evaluated the evidence from medical officers and immigration inspectors before deciding to overturn or uphold the initial rejection. According to Alan Kraut’s Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the “Immigrant Menace,”  Ellis Island physicians tried to keep their medical assessments separate from final decisions to accept or deport immigrants at the Board of Special Inquiry.

Records of Immigrants Detained at Ellis Island

Records of deportations before 1890 have not survived. Between the early 1890s and 1902, those detained immigrants were noted directly on passenger lists, but no additional records survive of these detentions.

Beginning in 1903, inspectors used Form 818 or “Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry,” to document both the process and the resolution of cases of detained immigrants. These Special Inquiry records are indexed and included in New York passenger list databases.

An excellent guide at JewishGen, entitled Manifest Markings, helps translate the codes used by immigrant and medical officers in the Records of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry forms.

Of the many, many immigrants in my family who came during the peak years of immigration to the U.S. between 1880-1920, I’ve found only two held for special inquiry.

In the example below, at least 22 people have been held for special inquiry, although exact numbers are not known when “children” are cited but not enumerated. Of these 22, only two were deported because of the diagnosis of the highly contagious eye disease trachoma. Going by the number of meals eaten by the family (columns at extreme right), my relatives, Anton Fritz, his wife, Rosina, and their seven children, were admitted to the U.S. the next day.

Immigrants Detained at Ellis Island