research, This Day in History, Writing

Ellis Island closes its doors, November 12, 1954

Arrival at Ellis Island, courtesy of Scholastic.com
On this day in 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, although it had not been the federal immigration center for 30 years.  From 1892 to 1924, immigrants to the United States through New York harbour had filed through its corridors, been checked for infectious diseases and mental problems; and then, if lucky, were released into the streets of New York.
When I thought of Ellis Island in the past, I always assumed that several of the Mitchells, Russells, Kanes, and other members of my father’s family came through this facility.  When I read that the facility was only open from 1892-1924, I realized that only one of my relatives would have come through its doors. Reading through This Day in History, I realized how little I knew about this icon of immigrant life. I was further surprised that Ellis Island only processed the third-class passengers; first- and second-class passengers disembarked at piers in New York or New Jersey to go through customs after a brief on-board inspection. Those at Ellis Island really were “the huddled masses.”
The Grand Hall, courtesy of Scholastic.com
I have not visited the Ellis Island museum, although I suspect walking through it would give rise to hundreds of stories. I cannot imagine waiting in the grand hall for hours, much less the days or weeks it would take before a family member was released from quarantine.  These photographs are taken from the tour on Scholastic’s teachers site; although the text is for 4th- or 5th- graders, and rightly so, the pictures are powerful in themselves.
It is very strange to think that only my paternal grandmother went through Ellis Island; to be honest, I am not even sure of that, although it seems likely.  The early life of my grandmother is largely unknown, which seems odd in modern times. Last week, the social worker who is helping my parents with assisted living asked my three siblings and myself for the history of my grandparents.  I was appalled at how little we knew about my paternal grandmother. The historical record is all too brief, and honestly, seems to have a bit of the Irish blarney attached to it.

One day in the 1890’s, a ship docked at Ellis Island from Cobh, Ireland. As the families filed out, there was a little girl who seemed to be alone.  She was about 3 or 4 years old, and had no family with her.  She only knew her first name, but left Ellis Island with a brand-new, patently made-up last name, O’Smith (oh, that’s very Irish).  The story goes that she had a piece of paper with the name and New York address of a first cousin pinned to her dress, and that he raised her as his own.

I have several problems with this story. First, how does a 3-year-old get on a ship in Cobh?  If her parent or parents died on board, wouldn’t the ship’s captain or purser know about it?  Would the officials on Ellis Island really just send a little girl off to the address given on a paper pinned to her dress?  And if this address is that of a first cousin, why didn’t he give her either his own name or restore her original one?

According to what we know, she did grow up in New York with her first cousin’s daughters, and she kept the made-up name of O’Smith until she married my grandfather. No one knows how old she was when she died in 1947, having taken to her bed several years before when she gave birth to a Downs syndrome child. It was whispered that the root cause was alcoholism, but no one knows much of anything about her life.  How can someone living less than 100 years ago, who married and had six children, be such a mystery?

Her story draws the writer in me; I want to know what she felt, dreamt, loved, lived.  I have always been fascinated with history, of a place, of a family, of a person.  My grandmother’s story would have to be fiction, but it is a story I am itching to write.

Do any of you have mysteries in, or mysterious members of, your family? What are your stories?

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