After six days at sea last September the light house at Sandy Hook was a welcome sight. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have meant for early travellers, particularly immigrants, to see land after far longer, stormier, and less luxurious voyages across the Atlantic. Throughout the Queen Mary 2 the origins and stories of Sam Cunard’s ships are traced in paintings of former liners, quotes, old photos, newspaper articles, portraits of famous voyagers, and potted histories of the Company’s successes. However at the entrance to the Britannia Dining Room the panels trace the trials, successes and, sadly, failures of their less famous passengers. A reminder of what Trans-Atlantic travel meant for many of our parent, grandparents or great-grandparents – it followed an immigrant’s voyage from the Old World to the New.
It’s estimated that over 100,000 immigrants came to the shores of North America on one of the many Cunard ships that made the crossing on regular schedules. The process often began in the offices of Cunard agents throughout Europe who arranged travel to the company’s ports of departure and onward to New York, Boston, Halifax or Quebec City. The class most of these hopeful – often desperate – passengers travelled in was called “steerage”. In the early days of sailing ships the name was apt – the area that had carried cargo from the New World to the Old served as sleeping quarters, dining room and bathroom for as many as 500 people crowded together like cattle for voyages that took up to 40 days.
Eventually wooden wind-powered ships were replaced by steel hulled steam ships which cut the longest journey to 12 days. The United States government took the lead in demanding a standard for passenger carriage – the United Kingdom reluctantly followed suit and by the later half of the 19th and into the early 20th century standards had improved for what was often now called “Third Class”. Sleeping quarters were segregated, sanitary conditions vastly improved, basic food provided and a promenade deck provided fresh air. The Captain was now being held responsible for the cleanliness, health, and discipline on board his ship and fines were severe for non-compliance.
The Cunard agents booked the emigrants passage to the departure port, arranged accommodation (in hostels affiliated with the line) and transportation to the ship. Ofttimes it was here that the change of names took place not as erroneously thought on New Yorks’ Ellis Island, Halifax’s Pier 21 or Quebec City’s Grosse Isle and Louise Basin. The agents were dealing with people who’s language or even alphabet was not their own and names would be shortened or Anglicized and appeared in their new form on the ships’s manifest. More often than not immigration officers in the receiving ports were recent immigrants or sons of immigrants themselves and spoke several languages. New York’s mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was an officer at Ellis Island for several years and spoke Italian, Yiddish, German, French, Hungarian, and Croatian as well as English. And he was not unusual for that.
As Cunard was subject to fines for anyone deemed inadmissible the Company set aside sheds at their ports where doctors examined all the steerage passengers prior to boarding. They were then given an antiseptic bath, a haircut and their luggage subject to disinfecting by steam – a process which often destroyed their worldly belongings as well as germs and vermin. They would then be quarantined for several days before boarding their ship.
The Queen Mary displays centred on immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, but the experience was much the same in Boston, Halifax or Quebec City. The Commanding Officers would present the passenger manifests and the required paper work to an Immigration Official who had boarded the ship with the pilot. As well as the manifest affidavits addressing the health of those on board were required.
The following transcript is taken from the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild* entry for the arrival Manifest of the Cunard liner SS Lucania from Liverpool, England and Queenstown, Ireland into New York City on July 28, 1902.
Affidavit of the Master or Commanding Officer, or First or Second Officer.
I, Jas. B. Watt, Master of the Lucania from Queenstown do solemnly, sincerely, and truly swear that I have caused the surgeon of said vessel sailing therewith, or the surgeon employed by the owners thereof, to make a physical and oral examination of each and all of the aliens names in the foregoing lists or Manifest sheets, 9 in number, and that from the report of said surgeon and from my own investigation, I believe that no one of said aliens is an idiot, or insane person, or is a pauper, or is likely to become a public charge, or is suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease, or is a person who has been convicted of a felony or other crime or misdemeanour involving moral turpitude, or a polygamist, or an anarchist, or under promise or agreement, express or implied to perform labour in the United States, or a prostitute, and also, according to my knowledge and belief, the information in said Lists or Manifest concerning each of said aliens named therein is correct and true in every respect.
(signed) J. B. Watt, Commanding Officer
Sworn to before me this 28th day of July, 1906 at New York
(signed) (illegible) Immigration Officer
Affidavit of Surgeon
I, B. Sydney Jones, Surgeon of the Lucania, Sailing Herewith, do solemnly, sincerely, and truly swear that I have had 9 years’ experience as a Physician and Surgeon and that I am entitled to practice as such by and under the authority of RCP London & RCS, Eng., and that I have made a personal examination of each of the aliens named herein, and that the foregoing Lists or Manifest Sheets, 9 in number, are, according to the best of my knowledge and belief, full, correct, and true in all particulars, relative to the mental and physical condition of such aliens.
Sworn to before me this 28th day of July, 1906, at New York.
(Signed) (illegible), Immigration Officer.
After the Immigration Officials had been reassured that indeed the Commanding Officer and Surgeon of the Lucania had personally checked all the people on the 9 pages of the Manifest who were not citizens of the United States the process of verifying the suitability of said aliens to reside in the United States began. Of the 970 passengers on board 570 were in steerage, though not all of them were immigrants, passenger #869 was author Sinclair Lewis who was returning home to continue his schooling at Yale.
Upon docking at either the Hudson or East River pier the cabin class passengers would disembark and proceed through what were lax procedures even for those who were immigrants. Often people who otherwise would have been “excludable” would spend the extra money on a cabin knowing that their chances of avoiding being deported were better as “cabin class” passengers.
It was not so easy for those in steerage. Wearing tags bearing their manifest number they would be hurried along to board barges and then wait for hours for transport to Ellis Island for processing. Even then a type of segregation was practised and passengers would be lined up according to their appearance with the prosperous-looking in the front of the line. Those who Cunard officials felt would possibly hold up the process – poorly or unusually dressed passengers – were kept to the last.
On arriving the passengers, who were allowed to enter the main shed in groups of thirty, would face their first challenge: a wide steep staircase to the Registry Room. Most were unaware that they were being watched by medical inspectors as they struggled to reach the top carrying the possessions they had brought with them. Anyone showing difficulty – gasping, stopping – had a large “H” marked on their back in chalk, a signal for a further medical check. They were eyed quickly from head to toe and further chalk marks could be added – “G” for goitre, “L” for lame, “B” for back. Elaborate hairdos were suspected of camouflaging possible scalp diseases, a child of an age to walk who was being carried was examined for infantile paralysis, signs of mental weakness were looked for; the inspectors had it down to a science and the process was quick and over in less than three minutes. The final check was the dreaded “eye” men; using button-hooks they would lift the eye-lids of each passenger looking for signs of highly infectious trachoma. A large chalk “X” could lead to further examinations, possibly hospitalization, and in many cases deportation.
If the immigrant passed the medical there was still the Immigration Inspector to see – the final arbiter with many questions about you: Who you were? Where you came from? Why you were immigrating? Were you an anarchist? Were you a polygamist? Did you have relatives in the United States? Many of the same questions Cunard had asked you on their manifest. The inspecting officer would make notations on the manifest and indications of their decision.
Four to five hours after their arrival at Ellis Island almost 98% of the immigrants were free to leave. The sad unlucky few who had been refused would be held on Ellis Island (sometimes for a lengthy period in the detention hospital there), deported on the next ship back to England or Ireland and an unknown fate. Such was the case of Frum Churchin who had made the trip to be reunited with her husband, who had no doubt come ahead to get settled and then send for his wife. This transcript is taken from the documentation from the arrival of the SS Lucania on July 28, 1902.
882* Churchin, Frum? 46y; female; married (stamped over: “In Hospital”); HWife;
Contract 43236; can read/write; Nationality: Russia; Race-Hebrew; Last Resi-(“Russia” heavily written over something else); Final Dest: New York
City; tkt?-yes; Pd by Self; Has $10; In US before?-no; Joining Husband, N. Churchin, 282 Monroe St, New York City, NY; In prison-no; Polygamist-no;
Anarchist-no; Promise of Labor-no; Health-?; Crippled/Deformed-no.
“Deported” stamped over passenger number on Manifest.
Amongst the standard information – literacy, nationality, race, funds, anarchist (?) is the dreaded question mark following “Health”. Mrs Churchin had been subjected to the button-hook and according to the deportation record below (though the name is spelled differently the passenger number is identical) trachoma had been detected rendering her inadmissible. She had been given one meal – a dinner – at the Island facility and then boarded on the RMS Carmania (another Cunard liner) for return three days after her arrival.
*Chinejin, Fruine 46y; female; Grp 5, Pg. 1; 1 person (Pass 882); Cause of
Detention-Dr.Cert. Trachome; Insp-Rotz; Def: 7/30, Pg (unclear); Secy-Lor;
Deported: 10:30 7/31/06, Carmain, Officer: Kennedy; Meals: 1-Dinner.
It is hard to imagine the emotion after such a long voyage – which according to the records started in Russia – to be so close and yet so far. What would happen to her? Where and what was she headed for when she returned to Liverpool? What of her husband who was no doubt waiting for her? Trachoma was largely untreatable and repeated infections lead to blindness. Unfortunately though much has been done in transcribing passenger list from to the New World very little seems to have been done to record the return voyage. I’ve been unable to trace anything about Frum Churchin (Fruine Chinejin) after she left New York on July 31, 1906. Sadly this was often the fate of those who were turned back.
Reading over what I have written since that day in September when we stood in line for the longest time to go through Immigration at the Brooklyn Cruise dock after seven days on a luxury liner I question how I would have fared as an immigrant over a century ago. And I think back to my mother in 1919 – a 17 year old girl who had never been outside of Crumlin coming to a strange country to be with family she had never met. I can only imagine the courage, and often the desperation, that it took for her and all those others to take that step. And I think how lucky for me and so many of us that that step was taken.