Sometimes dreams turn into nightmares. At the beginning of the 20th century, the American dream that motivated so many people to cross the ocean was transformed into a nightmare for some people at the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. Today, it is possible to book an Ellis Island Hospital tour through sites like Giftory to follow in the footsteps of immigrants and discover some of the secrets buried in what was once one of the largest hospital complexes in the United States.
In fact, in that hospital sick immigrants were treated as soon as they set foot on land and those whose entry was prohibited by immigration laws, such as people with mental disorders.
From 1892 to 1924, more than 12 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, making it the largest and most active immigration point in the United States. Many knew it as the “Island of Hope” since it was the last step to enter the United States, but for others it became the “Island of Tears”, an insurmountable barrier against which their dreams crashed.
The Psychopathic Ward is born
The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital began operating in 1902 to house people who did not pass the rigorous medical inspection carried out when they arrived at the port. There patients were stabilized and sometimes returned to their countries of origin.
In fact, in 1882 the United States had passed the Immigration Act, a law that prevented people who could become a public charge (LPC) from entering the country – a restriction that many countries continue to apply today, by the way. Entry was not only prohibited to those with infectious diseases in order to protect the local population, but also to those suffering from mental problems.
A few years later, in 1907, the immigration law became even stricter and expanded the concept of persons “subject to compulsory exclusion” to include all immigrants “all idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons…, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority…, and mentally or physically defective…” as indicated by a document of the time.
Obviously, as the number of immigrants increased, so did those who had psychological problems, so very soon the 125 beds in the hospital were not enough.
Since people with mental disorders were prohibited from entering the country, the authorities decided to keep them in a separate facility and in 1907 an annex to the hospital was built on Island 2, which was called the “Psychopathic Ward.”
Flanked by Georgian Revival buildings, the Psychopathic Ward had a distinctive, almost stigmatizing profile, as not only was it the only flat-roofed building in the hospital complex, but it also had iron bars on the windows and its porch resembled a cage, keeping inmates in prison-like conditions.
The “Psychopathic Ward” had space for between 20 and 30 people, who were accommodated in private rooms or small halls, although sometimes doctors detected up to 80 cases of supposed mental disorders in one day, so it is likely that those immigrants will end up in overcrowded conditions.
Eugenic practices, when intelligence was measured in centimeters
The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was generally equipped with some of the most modern medical technologies, such as X-rays, and had a large laboratory, but the treatment received by people with mental disorders was not as cutting edge.
Initially, the Psychopathic Ward was created to observe suspected cases, treat the acute stress that some immigrants suffered due to the difficulties of travel, and hold serious cases until their deportation was possible.
It must be remembered that mental health care at the beginning of the 20th century was not ideal, to use a euphemism, and eugenic theories were the order of the day. Added to this was the fact that the immigration laws themselves proclaimed that “all idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons… persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority… and mentally or physically defective…” should be sent home, so it is not difficult to imagine that the “Psychopathic Ward” became a particularly devastating way station for those who walked through its gates.
Eugenic beliefs – now widely discredited – found space in that hospital. In 1913 Henry H. Goddard, a famous eugenicist and segregationist psychologist of the time, launched an intelligence testing program at Ellis Island that today would be classified as shameful.
Doctors working there used metal calipers to measure the circumference of immigrants’ heads, which was related to intelligence and was thought to predict “mental weakness.” As a result, those of a “superior racial lineage” had preference to enter the United States.
Those who belonged to “inferior stocks” were less lucky and it was not uncommon for them to end up in the Psychopathic Ward. In fact, it is likely that many people passed through those walls due to misdiagnoses or simply due to racial discrimination.
As a historical note, it is worth remembering that the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was specially designed to stop the immigration of Italians and Jews from Eastern Europe because they were considered “dysgenic.”
Misunderstood symptoms and misdiagnoses
It is likely that many of the immigrants admitted to the psychiatric section of the hospital diagnosed as “idiots” or “feeble-minded” were not really so. A document from the time noted that simply “Not answering the questions (because they seemed stupid) could qualify you as feebleminded and result in being denied entry.”
The very manual used by doctors to perform the initial examination stated that “Any suggestion, no matter how trivial, that points to a mental abnormality, is sufficient to refer the immigrant for further investigation.” The problem is that the manual also indicated excitement, impatience, recklessness or even exhaustion as suspicious signs. Confusion, lack of attention or disorientation were also considered symptoms.
However, many of those “symptoms” could be a perfectly normal state in the situation of an immigrant who had just completed a long sea journey and arrived in a completely unknown country. As a result, almost 50% of foreigners were evaluated for a possible mental disorder and it is likely that many diagnoses were actually the product of cultural differences, language barriers or the anxiety they might experience, which made their behavior seem unusual to the doctors.
In this sense, although the regulations indicated that “There must be two interpreters assigned exclusively to help in the examination of suspected cases of mental illness” to avoid cultural and language barriers, it was also recognized that “The absence of interpreters assigned exclusively to this service often causes prolonged and unnecessary detention of these cases.”
In that situation, it is not surprising that some tried to escape by swimming to the mainland from New York City, although none succeeded, and that some committed suicide.
A sad way back, a story that should not be forgotten
Many people left the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital within a week feeling welcome in their new land, hoping to make the American dream come true. Others, most notably those in the Psychopathic Ward, were sent back to their port of departure in Europe alone, with little or no money, poorly dressed, and in some cases downright sick.
No one bothered to ensure that these people returned to their homes, which in many cases were quite far from the port, so that their family and friends never saw or heard from them again.
In 1954 the hospital was closed, leaving the entire southern part abandoned. In 1996 it was listed as one of the “Most endangered historic places in the United States.” However, in 2014 it was opened to the public for guided tours, such as those that can be booked through Giftory, whose funds help finance its preservation and allow for truly unique and revealing experiences.
Today you can visit it. You can tour the austere abandoned rooms, see the rusty bars, and even discover some of the instruments that were used to diagnose/pathologize immigrants. You will be able to see the life-size photographs stuck on the walls of the immigrants who passed through there while they look back at you from a past that now seems very distant. You can imagine the history of a building that witnessed the American dreams, also the broken ones, full of the stories of those who wanted to have a better life, but were rejected.
Slingerland, A. S. (2015) Ellis Island Hospital, from quarantine to freedom. In: Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities.
Frances, J. (2008) Spectres of migration and the ghosts of Ellis Island. Cultural Geographies; 15(3): 359-381.
Mullan, E. H. (1917) Mental Examination of Immigrants: Administration and Line Inspection at Ellis Island. Public Health Reports (1896-1970); 32(20): 733-746.
Lombardo, P. (s/f) Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration. In: American Eugenies Movement.
(s/f) The Deportation of Insane Aliens — 1907. In: Social Welfare History Project.