Friday, October 9, 2015

Ellis Island: American Dream or Nightmare?

by Vincent Parrillo

Over the years many people have viewed Ellis Island sentimentally. Rev. Sydney Bass, an English Methodist minister, was decidedly not one of them. He would compare the immigrant processing station to Dante’s Inferno and as “worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta.” Here is his story, as he told it and which appears as an anecdote in my new historical novel, Defenders of Freedom, which is about women’s suffrage and Ellis Island between 1907 and 1919.

On a cold morning in January 1911, Rev. Sydney Bass stepped onto the dock at Ellis Island. An English Methodist minister, he had arrived on the White Star’s Adriatic on his journey to become the new pastor of a church in Harrison Valley, Pennsylvania. Foregoing the comfort of a cabin passenger, he instead traveled in steerage to experience firsthand the nature of that passage and to gather stories and experiences of those with him. These, he felt, would serve him well for many sermons to his new congregation.

Upon entry into the Great Hall, a line doctor marked in chalk an “L” (lameness) and “F+” (feet) on his overcoat, and then signaled a gateman to take him to one of the medical examining rooms. Asked to strip down to his underwear, he received a full medical examination to determine any other issues. Finding no others, the doctor discussed with him the physical problems affecting his entry. Because he had polio as a child, he had some atrophy and partial paralysis in his right leg, which was slightly shorter than his left leg, as well as some deformity in his right foot, combining to give him a significant limp.

When the doctor stated these defects would affect his ability to earn a living, Bass countered that it was fortunate, then, that his brains were on the other end, and that he did not preach and lecture with his feet.

Next, he was taken into a large holding room. It was now nine-thirty in the morning. The acoustics in the room intensified the noise coming from six hundred detainees of many nationalities, causing him to cover his ears until he could adjust to the clamor.

As freezing as it was outside, in this poorly ventilated room—filled with so many immigrants—the temperature was so hot that he took off his overcoat, folded it, and sat upon it, leaning his back against the wall near a ventilating shaft. The babble of voices continued to assault his ears. He realized with a strong sense of repugnance that many of those near him were Italians. He was outraged that he, an English gentleman, was placed in the same room as these illiterate, dark-complexioned peasants.

When he began feeling claustrophobic, hemmed in by all these people standing near him, he stood up and discovered to his disgust that the side of his coat touching the floor now had the mucous of someone’s spittle, about the size of a silver dollar.

Before he could give much thought to his revulsion, his nostrils were filled with the odors from the multitude of unwashed humanity surrounding him. Worsening that unpleasant aroma was the smell of garlic that some were eating and the breaths coming from those too close for him to endure. Even though he had ministered in some of the worst slums in England, he found this to be the worst smell he had ever encountered. He could almost taste and feel it.

He pushed his way through the crowd, trying to find somewhere in the room where the scents were not as awful. He located the men’s room and went in to relieve himself. Discovering that the air in this room of urinals and toilets was better than any part of the common room, he remained there as long as he could.

When he had been in the common room for one hour, Bass saw the door open for a moment, and he slipped out. Walking to the nearest official he saw, he asked for permission to wire the British consul and two prominent officials in his church. In a stern voice, the gateman ordered him back into the common room.

Shortly before one o’clock, gatemen moved all immigrants to the dining hall. As they walked, Bass complained to one of them, “You know, it’s ridiculous to detain me for a bad leg and then make me stand on it all these hours.”

The gateman shrugged and said nothing.

The dinner of lentil soup, corned beef with peeled boiled potatoes, peas, and bread was surprisingly good, especially accompanied with a bowl of tea. Returned to the common room afterwards, he sought refuge in the men’s room where the better air could aid his adjustment. A few other English immigrants joined him, until one of the gatemen ordered all of them to leave.

As the next several hours passed slowly, the English detainees found one other and clustered together, a total of sixteen men and four women. They conversed and learned about one another, finding some solace in commiserating with one another.

After their five o’clock supper—consisting of mutton stew, bread pudding with raisins, bread, butter, and tea—officials began leading the detainees downstairs to their sleeping quarters. Anticipating conditions similar to those in the common room with the smells of the Italians he disdained, Bass stood aside and refused to move.

“I will not go down there!” he insisted. ‘We English should not be herded together in such close quarters with so many others. Can’t you at least put the English all together in one room?”

Soon, the sixteen English detainees found themselves together in a dormitory room in the main building on the balcony level. To his dismay, Bass quickly discovered they shared the room with eleven others. Twenty-seven canvas hammocks, damp and impregnated with salt and disinfectant (a probable necessity, he thought), hung suspended from the ceiling in stacks of three and lined up in nine rows. He lay upon one, but he was unable to sleep. Adding to his discomfort was the constant screams of women somewhere in the distance.

Somehow he endured the terrible night. Before morning’s first light, gatemen roused him at four o’clock for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, seated in the dining room, Bass and his compatriots realized they were covered with bedbug bites. He prayed that his oatmeal, baked beans and pork, bread, butter, and tea was the last meal he would have to eat here.

Back in the smelly common room, he heard his name called at ten-thirty. Threading his way through the crowd, he was taken to the waiting room outside Board of Special Inquiry Room Number Two. Some other cases were being heard before his, and so he sat there until told to leave for his midday dinner.

After consuming some oxtail soup, roast pork, mashed potatoes, succotash, bread, butter, and tea, he anxiously returned for his hearing. At twelve-thirty, he was able to plead his case. The board allowed him to speak without interruption.

He explained that he was a minister coming to accept a preaching position in Pennsylvania. He had sixty dollars in his pocket and his property included securities worth hundreds of dollars. He could also present to them his certificate showing his success in examinations and his ministerial credentials, none of which the board wanted to see. At the conclusion of the hearing, the board chairman announced their unanimous decision that he be deported as an alien without visible means of support and thus liable to become a public charge.

Dumbfounded and angry, Bass appealed the decision, got permission to wire the British Consul and his sponsors and—with assurances from church leaders and the British Consul—Ellis Island Commissioner William Williams granted the appeal.

Embittered, Rev. Bass left the island and, six months later, offered vivid testimony at a congressional hearing on the abuses he said he endured. His claims were strongly contradicted by Secretary of Labor Charles Nagel, two New York congressmen, and Ellis Island Commissioner William Williams. The latter asserted that surprise inspections conducted in the past three years by congressional critics and journalists found no such conditions.

What was the truth? No doubt Rev. Bass encountered some unpleasant conditions and culture shock in his treatment, but was it as bad as he claimed? We’ll never know for certain, but his was not the only complaint about immigrant treatment back then. Some of those grievances and the ensuing controversies are detailed both in Guardians of the Gate and in Defenders of Freedom.


Vincent N. Parrillo is professor of sociology at William Paterson University, where he twice received the Faculty Achievement Award for Distinguished Scholarship and Creative Expression. He is executive producer, writer, and narrator of four award-winning PBS television documentaries, including Ellis Island: Gateway to America. An internationally recognized expert on immigration and Fulbright scholar, Vince has given talks at more than 100 universities in Asia, Europe and North America, including Roehampton University. He has also published numerous articles and textbooks on immigration and diversity, is co-lyricist of Hamlet: The Rock Opera, and directed an outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors in New Jersey.



  1. Well, at least the immigrants were fed okay while they waited.

    1. Yes. the food is supposed to have been rather good.


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