Below is an article
that appeared in the "New-York Daily Tribune" on
June 4, 1905:
Despair Fills the Heart of the Rejected Immigrant.
Many Commit Suicide When They Find They Cannot Enter
the Land of Liberty.
© 1905, Anna S.
Just two words, stamped in purple ink across a square piece of blue
cardboard, but they represent the final decision of the immigrant's last
court of appeal!
The clerk at Ellis Island picks up the card and
studies its two faces, each divided into a checker board of printed
questions and written answers. These set forth in terse fashion the fact
that one Antonio Ciserno arrived from Naples, Italy, on the steamer
------ on February 19. The Ellis Island physicians discovered that the
man suffers from a slight curvature of the spine, which in time would
prevent his laboring and place him in the pauper class. He was turned
over to the detention department, and had a hearing three days later,
February 22. Here he exercised his right to appeal to the higher
immigration officials at Washington, where the decision of the Ellis
Island officials was sustained.
The clerk runs his pencil down the list of outgoing
steamships, until he finds one belonging to the same company which
brought Antonio Cisnero to America; then he fills in the one remaining
vacant space on the square of cardboard. He hands the card to his chief,
the inspector in charge of deported immigrants, who summons an assistant
"Notify Antonio Cisnero that he will be deported via the steamer ------
on Saturday, March 4."
And so, on the very day when the Chief Executive is
inaugurated to renew his government over 76,000,000 free people, the
little tragedy of one Italian life enters upon its last sad act. Antonio
Cisnero, with shoulders drooping, chin sunken in his breast, eyes hollow
and deep circled, turns his back upon the land that has refused him
entrance, and his face toward a land which holds for him no welcome.
"No doubt your work has its humorous aspect to
lighten the tragic side," remarked a caller to Inspector McKee, head of
the Deporting Bureau.
The inspector shook his head.
"There is nothing humorous about a deported
immigrant," he replied. "You can work in this department until your hair
is gray, but you will never get over your dread of pronouncing sentence
of deportation on one of those poor devils. It is like closing the gates
of Paradise on a man who has climbed the ladder with bleeding feet and
hands. It is consigning him to a life of poverty the like of which
America does not know, cannot realize. You can't appreciate this until
you have been abroad and studied the actual conditions of paupers in
Italy, in Russia, in Finland. We, here on the island, can read his
horror and dread of returning in his face, particularly in his eyes, but
it is the steerage steward on the returning boat, or the ship's doctor,
who has a broader comprehension of the deported immigrant's tragic trip.
"Scenes? Yes, we have them sometimes. Women go into
hysterics; emotional, highly strung men threaten suicide and tear their
hair with their hands and the air with their cries; but the man you want
to watch is the man who says 'Si, signor,' and then looks at you with
eyes that follow you clear out of the room, and who sits in that one
sunken position until his day of deportation arrives, noticing nothing,
speaking to nobody and eating next to nothing. He's the an who goes on
the boat but never gets off--that is, unless the steerage stewards and
the ship's doctor catch him in the act and save his life, for which they
get no thanks."
Of all the immigrants landing on American shores the
South Italian comes in largest numbers, representing 40 per cent of the
alien flood, and he brings the smallest amount of money, an average of
$11.36 a head. On the other hand, his own government exercises the great
care in getting him out of the country and makes the least provision for
his care if he is returned. In truth, Italy has absolutely nothing to
offer the emigrant deported from America. He must either beg or steal,
for the almshouse offers shelter only to those who are absolutely
decrepit and helpless.
He seldom gets beyond Naples. If his home was inland,
a poorer welcome awaits him there than in Naples. In the latter city he
may beg, in his small inland town or on the miserable farm or vineyard
where he left parents or brothers, or even sons, the door will be closed
in his face. Perhaps the entire family contributed toward the fund which
carried him to America. It was believed that in this news, golden land
he would make a fortune which would enable them all to flee in turn from
the half starving existence which they led that he might go. That he has
the dreaded tuberculosis, or, perhaps, only red rimmed eyes, to bar his
entrance to the land of their dreams is no excuse in their eyes. He has
failed--failed them and himself. Therefore, let him beg of the rich
Americans who forbade him entrance to their land. And he does.
You will meet him at the church doorway, holding back
the soiled quilt for your entrance, and as you drop a five-centime piece
into his tattered hat you will not dream that the dim eyes once shone
with a glad light as this man looked at Ellis Island's turreted roofs,
all ignorant of the fate awaiting him as he passed the inspection
If his nature is hardened by the experience, the
deported immigrant becomes a dangerous factor in his own land. If he
broods, he becomes a menace to the safety of passengers aboard ship on
the return voyage. The mental diary of an old ship's doctor holds many
secrets of the steerage, tragedies of which the gay life in the first
class cabin catches no reflection.
It is still told aboard one huge ocean liner how a deported immigrant started an epidemic of suicide, which struck terror
to the ship's crew and which was hidden from her passengers only through
strict discipline and the diplomacy peculiar to ship's officers.
A young man and his wife from Southern Italy had been
landed at Ellis Island. They had money enough to start on the new life,
but during the voyage the man developed a disease which the immigration
officials recognized at first glance. He was ordered deported by the
same boat on which he had arrived. For a time he and the woman sat in
silence, then an argument arose. The woman had elected to remain. The
horror of Italy's poverty was stronger than her wifely affection. She
was strong, and she could find work. Moreover, she had the funds. In
spite of the combined efforts of officials and a priest who was called
in to mediate, the woman remained firm. She divided the money with her
husband, and left him.
From the time that she left the island her husband
never spoke a word. The pity so plainly expressed on faces all about him
stung rather than soothed. The steerage steward on the returning boat
was warned, and he, in turn, ordered a strict guard placed over the man,
but the sixth day out the unhappy creature managed to slip a breadknife
into his pocket, and he was found in the bathroom with his throat cut
from ear to ear. The ship's surgeon sewed the cut, and despite the
rolling motion of the boat succeeded in performing the difficult
operation of tracheotomy. The man glared and writhed when he recovered
from the anesthetic, but a close guard was placed over him.
Three days later a woman peered into the open doorway
of the tiny hospital. Whether she really looked like his wife or whether
the mere sight of a member of her sex caused a spasm of fury, the fact
remains that the patient reached for his throat, and before attendants
could interfere, he tore open the wound and died almost instantly.
The news of the tragedy somehow reached the stokers'
room, and that night a lifeless figure was cut down from a dark corner
in the coal bunkers. Even the most intelligent of seagoing men are
superstitious, and the ship's doctor began to tremble, nor was his
anxiety misplaced. Before daybreak he was summoned to a cabin de luxe,
where a wealthy woman, travelling in charge of a nurse, had deliberately
taken an overdose of morphine.
From that moment, officers and crew redoubled their
vigilance, the doctor slept lightly and peace seemed to have settled on
the great ocean liner. The last night on board was duly celebrated with
the captain's dinner, followed by a dance on the promenade deck. The
second cabin passengers crowded to the rail to watch the gay scene, and
on the deck below homeward bound Italians played their last games of
chance and sang merrily, for on the morrow the ship would drop anchor in
the Bay of Naples. Suddenly, above the blare of trumpet and the crash of
cymbal, the laughter of young girls and the swish of silken skirts, the
first officer, watching the dance, caught the far-off thrilling cry,
"Man overboard." Over the railing a deported immigrant had leaped to
death rather than face the chill[y] welcome which Naples held for him on
Some years ago a young Italian woman,
beautiful, straight, lithe and strong, landed at Ellis Island and
waited for the lover who never came. The letter which arrived in
his stead was never shown to the officials, but the girl thrust it
into the bosom of her velvet gown with an expression that
made the watchful attendant shudder. She had no money. The boat on
which she had arrived carried her back, and the ship's doctor
became greatly interested in her case. She represented to him a
magnificent study of a woman scorned. She never spoke of her
family or of her future in Italy, and the physician often thought
of her in the next few years, in fact, whenever a handsome Italian
woman boarded his boat. And at last she came once more, a little
older, a little taller and straighter, but [as] beautiful as ever.
photo: Waiting for the Verdict; Immigrants at Ellis Island, in
Doubt Whether They Will Be Allowed to Remain Here or be Deported.
She would not speak of her past or her future,
merely assuring the ship's surgeon that, having made enough
money, she was returning to America to stay. Midway on the voyage she
fell ill with pneumonia, and when the physician saw that she could not
live, she read his decision in his face and asked for a priest. There
happened to be one on board, and he administered the last sacrament.
When he came from the narrow hospital, he handed to the ship's doctor
a wicked looking stiletto. The girl was dead and with her the revenge
of five long bitter years, during which she had worked and planned the
death of the man she loved and the woman who had stolen him from her.
Five years of plotting with a knife in her bosom! Two bitter trips on
the boat from which her body, carefully weighted, was slipped over the
ship's side to the dead hours of the night!
Some months ago, a young Englishman was deported on
the score of valvular disease of the heart. He accepted his sentence
with suspicious submission. The ship's officers were duly warned, but
they saw no cause for alarm in his conduct during the voyage. He ate
moderately, chatted not freely but cheerfully with other steerage
passengers, and seemed resigned to his fate. The night before the boat
docked, a number of the male passengers were dancing on the upper deck
by moonlight, exhibiting their skill in rough jigs and reels. Some of
the crew gathered around to watch, and the tide of merriment was at
its height, when the deported immigrant rose, announcing that he could
outdance the best of them. Wilder and wilder grew his pace, and one by
one his competitors dropped out. Then suddenly the circle of
interested watchers saw him stagger backward, his hand clutching at
his shirt bosom. The chief steward of the steerage sprang forward, but
he was too late. The man fell dead at his feet. In the mad dance he
had committed suicide under the very eyes of the officers who had been
guarding him so closely.