According to popular immigration lore, Ellis Island was a beacon of hope to generations of immigrants, the first landing spot for huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But if you were one of the unlucky ones, you would disembark only to find yourself abruptly quarantined, isolated from both your destination and the family you came with, marked as a suspected health hazard. We hear much about how Ellis Island was the “golden door” through which millions passed en route to the so-called American dream. But we know less about the many immigrants who were unexpectedly stopped as they funneled through the island’s snaking lines and bureaucratic gauntlets. If you coughed, limped or looked in any way sick, you could be tagged with the migrant’s scarlet letter: a chalk mark on your clothes, indicating a speculative diagnosis of conjunctivitis, tuberculosis, or some other disease the government was fearful of allowing through its borders.
From there, you would be sent the Ellis Island hospital, a sprawling complex of more than 20 buildings and hundreds of beds. Immigrants were placed there to be examined and hospitalized as deemed necessary to protect public health. Tasked with handling healthcare for foreigners from around the globe, the Ellis Island immigrant hospital became known as one of the world’s most extensive public medical facilities. The facility employed new technologies, such as X-rays, and treated ailments ranging from cholera to malaria to mental problems (though mental health misdiagnosis was frequent due to cultural misunderstanding). The hospital has just been rehabilitated and is now open to visitors. The newly reopened structures, and the memories embedded in them, are illuminated in an accompanying exhibit by the installation artist JR.
Diverging from the museum convention of “lifelike” replicas of historical sites, JR’s haunting images work with the reality of decay at Ellis Island: he enlarged archival photographs of the buildings, patients, and staff and then pasted his translucent images on filmy windows, over stripped, peeling walls. The rooms are peopled with grainy projections of quarantined immigrants, adults and children, who languish in a decrepit bed, or stand aloof at the water’s edge, gazing at the Statue of Liberty on the horizon. Or they stare at the new visitors to the hospital—today’s tourist meeting the eyes of the newcomers of past generations, filling the abandoned space with the ether of memory and a sense of ambivalent inheritance.
Though born of a wave of social welfare innovations during the early twentieth century, the hospital served as a bleak adjunct to draconian immigration bureaucracy. Immigration screening processes were informed by concepts of eugenics and siphoned the privileged from the poor. The hospital subjected impoverished immigrant families to humiliating scrutiny and sometimes separation. Sewell Chan reported in The New York Times:
[M]edical inspections were directed at those immigrants who traveled in second or third class and for wealthier immigrants, entry into America—and citizenship—was nearly automatic. Those less fortunate had to submit to physical inspections that required stripping off all of one’s clothing—an entirely foreign concept, particularly to many immigrant women. … Fathers were separated from their wives and children, and a single sick child could require everyone—parents and siblings—to return home.
In the documentary Forgotten Ellis Island (2009), filmmaker Lorie Conway parsed the archives of medical records and photographs of the people who passed through the hospital and spoke to people who had experienced the wards as children. Many recalled feelings of dislocation and fear, despite stalwart efforts by the staff to care for patients who presented unprecedented healthcare challenges.
John Gaquer, an interviewee who was hospitalized for a time after arriving from France as a young boy in 1929, recalled the pain of separation from his mother: “I didn’t know what was happening, she didn’t know what was happening. And I was here in this place away from her, never knowing if I was going to see her again.”
Thousands such patient experiences, both healing and traumatic, played out against a social backdrop that wavered between hunger for migrant labor and fear of foreign bodies.
From its opening in 1902 through the 1930s, about 1.2 million immigrants entered the hospital—ten percent of the total population that streamed through Ellis Island; and in that time, about 3,500 deaths and 350 births occurred. Their memories haunt the complex once again. The overlapping legacies of the early immigration and public health systems look grim and in many ways cruel by today’s standards. But by foregrounding the images of the people who passed through—including the bodies healed, the lives ruptured, and the migrations that ended on the island with a terminal passing—we can glimpse the souls of a community of waiting sojourners.
Learn more about the guided tours of the Ellis Island Hospital at the Ellis Island website.