I think I'm in a frame...I don't know. All I can see is the frame. I'm going in there now to look at the picture.1
Revealing and exploring the human identities behind Sherman and Hine's portraits helps establish a fuller context for what a broad range of emigrants faced when they arrived at Ellis Island, and beyond. But zeroing in on the identity of one individual set against the millions of arrivals at Ellis Island requires a number of crucial elements to come together and for a high threshold of verification to be reached. Without conclusive visual or documentary evidence to corroborate an identity, even a well-supported hypothesis of identity can easily veer into speculation and result in a dead end or worse, a mismatch. The photos I've chosen to research in the preceding chapters are backed by, it is hoped, sufficient visual and documentary evidence, coupled with convincing arguments in support of the conclusions reached. Although Ellis Island remains the same physical setting, in this chapter I explore an unexpected reversal of unknowns. Here we definitely know the identities of the subjects in the photos, but we don't conclusively know the identity of the photographer(s).
In December 1904, a departmental letter from U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration, Frank P. Sargent, was sent to the Immigration Commissioner at Ellis Island, William Williams, and to the heads of other immigration stations. The letter requested that five (later seven) copies of photographs and detailed personal descriptions of excluded and deported aliens—specifically those classified as convicts, prostitutes or anarchists—be sent to the Department of Commerce and Labor – Immigration Service in Washington D.C. Descriptions of the crimes committed in the emigrants' homeland prior to emigration were included in the responding letters and shed light on an aspect of deportation policy that has received little attention.
Williams and his successors complied with Sargent's request until at least 1909, accumulating hundreds of case files and photographs that documented the deportation of convicts, prostitutes and anarchists from various ports of entry, primarily Ellis Island. The 1904-1909 time period happens to coincide with Sherman's earliest dated photographs and on through to his most productive period of photographing would-be immigrants—a connection that raises a number of intriguing implications.
In 2012, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released a dozen of these deportation case files sent by Commissioner Robert Watchorn to Sargent in conjunction with the exhibit Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates; 24 x 18 cm gelatin silver prints of deportee included in the case files were featured in the exhibit. The twelve separate portraits below were eventually added to NARA's online catalog and are included below. Though this represents only a small sample of the photos from NARA's sprawling collection of deportation files, they are eye-opening on multiple levels and might just help to re-contextualize Sherman's work at Ellis Island.2
Crimes of moral turpitude?
Appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, Commissioner-General Sargent was not a blatant restrictionist, but it's clear from his writings and interviews that he remained deeply suspicious of the "new immigration" and actively worked to shape public opinion around his own prejudices. However, he utilized more opaque and bureaucratic means to curb the rising tide of undesirables, e.g. favoring a literacy test on immigrants in order to target southeastern Europeans whose populations were thought to posses high rates of illiteracy; ramping up LPC designations in order to force hearings and increase the chance of deportation; investigating the complicity of shipping agents in suspicious overseas migration flows in order to curtail specific routes of passenger transport; and exaggerating the extent of alleged smuggling of Chinese laborers to help keep the "yellow peril" an existential threat.
A look at some of Sargent's writings concurrent with the release of the above departmental letter reveal odious prejudices against Southern Italian and Eastern European immigrants in particular. In his writings, he repeatedly bemoans the high rates of illiteracy, mental instability, pauperism and criminality of the "new immigration" and how the "very undesirable class from southern and eastern Europe is taking the place of the Teutons and the Celts."3 This fits with the implications of the letter as well as with most of the nationalities of the deportees in the photos. Other articles by Sargent dating from the time of the departmental letter, and paired with the work of the irrepressibly anti-immigrant Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, offer the same restrictionist/nativist arguments and shed light on the perceived threat, as Sargent puts it, the "diseased and pauperized peoples of Europe" posed to old stock America.
The accompanying letters to the photos are nearly identical to one another, no matter the nationality of the deportee. Besides recording standard physical diagnostics and measurements typical for the time (age, height, weight, eye color, shape of nose, chin and mouth, etc.), the letter also includes each deportee's shoe size, hat size and number of intact or missing teeth. This was in addition to the accompanying fine-grain, silver gelatin photograph which could more than adequately capture physical facial qualities in the hands of a good photographer. But what's truly astonishing about the letters are the details concerning the purported crimes of the soon-to-be deportees. There are a few serious past offenses in this small group (complicity in murder, spousal abuse, assault) but the rest are in the main, absolute misdemeanors by any account.
Some of the purported crimes are absurd by any standard and difficult to imagine they were used as grounds for deportation, especially since all were crimes that the assailants had already been punished for. But this was the early 1900s:
- An Italian was deported because he had "served one month in jail for stealing wood"; another because he had "served eight days in prison for applying vile names to a woman."; another because he "served two years twenty-seven days for adultery."
- A Hungarian was deported because he "served two terms in prison, three days for stealing wood bottoms, and four days for a similar offense."
- A Ukrainian was deported because he "Served two terms in prison; two months for assault and two days for failure to register his calf to the community."
- A Polish man was deported because he "Served nine months in prison; one month for stealing peas, and eight months for being an accomplice to thieves."
Some questions linger: how did Ellis Island officials collect and verify the details of a would-be immigrants' criminal past? Were past crimes recorded in emigration papers or passports? Even for stealing peas? Or was it simply a question put to the emigrant, to which some of them truthfully responded and an inquiry began? A 1904 article from The New York Times subtitled 'How the Inspectors make up for Congress's refusal to pass restriction laws' offers some clues:
When an immigrant appears whom the Inspector believes to be of the criminal class or a contract laborer, the Inspector shapes his questions accordingly. Sometimes a man appears who looks as though he had spent a time in jail. Then the Inspector, looking at the papers before him as though he had the case all there, asks a question such as 'What have you been doing since you came out of prison?' The immigrant then, taken off his guard, makes some reply which shows that he has been in prison, an he is set aside to be deported.4
It appears that immigrant inspectors used their own discretion when deploying questions designed to entrap interviewees, much as they did when questioning suspected polygamists and anarchists.
By 1908, there was active interest on the part of U.S. government officials to standardize the way criminal records were recorded and issued in so-called "penal passports" for ex-convicts, something that would have ended the creative inspection regime, at least for this layer of excludable classes.
Based on the circumstance of Sargent's request and physical setting in which the photos were shot—as well as their composition and tonality—I argue that it is likely that the photographs were taken by Sherman. Some of the backdrops such as partition walls (taken from the medical examination rooms), light fixtures, doors, and chairs are identical to ones in Sherman's widely-circulated photos, while others were taken on the roof garden of the main building in a strikingly similar manner to photos attributed to Sherman.
Moreover, the handwritten initials "A.F.S." appear in the upper left-hand corner of each of the cover letters that accompanied the photos and personal descriptions in this set of deportation files. In fact, his initials appear on over 130 ex-convict deportation files that I subsequently analyzed.If Sherman wasn't the photographer, then he was at least working alongside someone who was taking photos concurrently with him—and in a near identical manner. How likely is that? More likely would be that Sherman was the photographer for both scenarios, i.e. detained immigrants and (ex-convict, etc.) immigrants awaiting deportation. No other Ellis Island staff has been identified or referred to as being an onsite photographer during the same time period, but someone was certainly busy taking photos in an official capacity—and getting fairly good at it while developing a characteristic style. Sherman's job title at Ellis Island around 1904/1905 was Registry Clerk and immigration and photo historians have long wondered what brought about Sherman's interest in photographing seemingly random arrivals. With the re-contextualization of this set of images we might now have the impetus: it was part of his job.5
The six photos below—three on the left-side panels attributed to Sherman and three on the right-side panels lacking attribution—illustrate the compositional similarities that consistently run through both bodies of work:
As with most work done by employees all throughout the U.S. Federal government, bylines or credits for their work, creative or otherwise, are often non-existent. If a source is given, it typically lists the government authority or agency involved in the work under review rather than personal names. All of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits were taken on Federal property, presumably during Sherman's work time. Was the box camera he used also owned by the government? Given the logistics, it's likely. The resulting anonymity is in keeping with governmental work paid for by taxpayer money and is perhaps a big part of the reason why some of Sherman's work has quietly ended up in the public domain.6
Besides turning up in print publications, during Sherman's tenure at Ellis Island his photographs were also framed "displayed around the visitor's balcony" at Ellis Island for years and given as mementos to important visitors to the immigration station.7 None of the deportee photos, however, were displayed publicly but some were passed on to the press, who reproduced illustrated versions based on the photos taken at Ellis Island. No mention of the practice of photographing convicts, anarchists, prostitutes, etc. appears to have been made publicly; the photos by and large remained in government agency hands.
The scope and duration of the deportee photography remains unclear, but the official process appears to have started shortly after Sargent's December 1904 letter.8 9 Photos and deportation files made years after Sargent's request continue to reference the December 1904 letter, indicating compliance with "instructions contained in Department letter No. 47768", rather than statutory law. Interestingly, although Sherman had worked at Ellis Island since the 1890s, his earliest photos actually date from just five months prior to Sargent's letter, while the station was still under Commissioner William Williams authority, but the reasons for Sherman's initial photographs dating from (at least) mid-1904 remain obscure. In any case, Sherman would have been well-positioned to carryout or at least be involved in the apparently novel practice of photographing deportees; he already had some experience at Ellis Island. But why take photos of would-be immigrants who may have been detained but not necessarily deported? As with the photos and detailed personal descriptions of deportees to come, some of the answers might lie with official instructions sent to immigration stations by Commissioner General of Immigration Sargent.
A June 1904 article in the Washington Times features, in part, an interview with Sargent that broadly illuminates the Bureau of Immigration's motivation for collecting "immigrant type" photos and also happens to coincide with the time of Sherman's first known photographic portraits:
Another plan is [for the Bureau] to secure photographs of a high grade of the various types. Commissioner Sargent has some folios of such photographs for his personal study which are very interesting. They are veritable kaleidoscopes of human character, and a glance through them is sufficient to show any discerning mind who are desirable and who the undesirable—no need to ask anyone to violate international courtesy by naming them.10
While we can assume that the reason for creating a photographic and diagnostic record was to prevent deportees from reentering the country under false names, even those who steal peas and wood, it's unclear how this new regime was applied. There are also some patently counterintuitive aspects of the practice.
Three of the photos in the set above feature detainees in groups of two or more. Why were unrelated individuals, who arrived on different steamships, photographed together rather than apart? There would be little chance of them trying to reenter the U.S. as a group, so why not make separate photographs? Or were the photos simply cut and cropped before being distributed to immigration officials at different ports of entry? Or was there another choreography at play? More importantly, were all detainees slated for deportation photographed or just those deemed to be convicts, prostitutes, and anarchists?
In any case, the deportation photos as a whole fit well within the body of much of Sherman's known work, as dozens of his iconic "immigrant" photographs actually capture the face of restriction, of failed emigration, of shattered dreams.
There's a deep irony running throughout this small set of images. With most of Sherman's photos, we don't know the identity of the sitters and have little chance of ever knowing because of Sherman's misleading or nonexistent annotations. But with the deportation photos we have far more personal and photographic information about those who were definitely not let into the U.S., rather than those who might have been.
1 Jeff Bailey aka Jeff Markham in the 1947 film noir, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur.
2 Because of the limited access to NARA's archives during the Coronavirus pandemic, the case files I first studied only included individuals featured in the 2012 NARA exhibit, i.e. deportees who had been "convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude" prior to their attempted entry to the United States via Ellis Island. In May 2022, I was able to undertake a fuller analysis of over 130 ex-convict deportation case files which included photographs, all of which were made at Ellis Island. The original 12 case files from the NARA exhibit proved to be a representative sample of the larger body of ex-convict deportation files and supported my initial conclusions. Sherman's initials were included in 99% of the supporting documentation.
3 Sargent, F. (1904). Problems of Immigration. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 24, 153-158. Available via JSTOR.
4 SIFTING THE IMMIGRANTS AT ELLIS ISLAND. The New York Times, 17 July 1904, p.24.
5 During his tenure with the Immigration Service at Large, Sherman worked at Ellis Island as Stenographer, Clerk, Registry Clerk, and Chief Clerk. By 1921, he was serving as Private Secretary to Commissioner of Immigration, but by 1923 until his death he worked as a Clerk in the Special Inquiry Division. See: Report Submitted by Superintendent I. F. Wixon relative to the Personnel Force, 1924 Casefile 55280/4. [Undated.], from: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Series A: Subject Correspondence Files, Part 3: Ellis Island, 1900-1933 [ProQuest History Vault].
6 One photo attributed to Sherman first turns up, uncredited, in the Annual report of the Superintendent of Immigration to the Secretary of the Treasury for the fiscal year ended 1903/04, printed in late 1904; the 1906/07 report features eight photos by Sherman. Appearing in a variety of publications (newspaper articles, books, magazines, etc.) starting in 1904, each reproduction of his work does not credit a photographer or name a source. Sherman's name is first mentioned in the February 1917 edition of National Geographic where a second round of his photos was published, repeating some images included in the May 1907 edition where his work was uncredited or, in a related publication, includes the line "Photograph from F. P. Sargent, Commissioner General of Immigration." Most of the 36 photos included in the 1917 edition added the following byline: "Photo from/by Frederic C. Howe". Although Sherman was undoubtedly the photographer for all of the photos, he is credited as such on only four of the images. Howe was Commissioner of Immigration of the Port of New York (Ellis Island) from 1914-1919.
7 Pegler-Gordon, Anna In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy. (American Crossroads, number 28.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2009, 129.
8 By March 1909, Commissioner Watchorn was actively discussing the feasibility of photographing all immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island and other immigration stations. A number of syndicated newspaper articles reported on an unrealized plan that partly overlaps with what was already being done with "known" would-be-immigrant convicts, as well as with the composition of some of Sherman's photographs. The proposal revealed: "One scheme is the installation of moving picture machines in the examining room at Ellis Island. There, the immigrants can be caught as they come before the medical inspectors. The immigrants form in lines and it will be easy to get a profile of them. After the examination they are required to walk down a narrow lane and turn sharply to the left. A moving picture apparatus at that point can catch the full front of the immigrants. Each immigrant can be tagged with a number that will show in the picture. The tag will correspond to the man's name on the ship's steerage list." [To detect criminals: Robert Watchorn's plan for photographing immigrants. The Grand Island Daily Independent, 8 April 1909, p.4. See also an earlier report on the proposal: Photographing of all immigrants upon arrival is proposed. The Washington Post, 30 March 1909, p.6.
9 NARA records indicate the practice was discontinued in May 1909, just eight months after Sargent died in office and only a couple of months after the far more extensive effort to capture immigrant arrivals on film was apparently dismissed. It remains unclear when the last deportation files for those accused of being a prostitute, anarchist or ex-convict were sent from immigration stations across the U.S. to the Bureau of Immigration.
10 Problem of the immigrant just now especially pressing. The Washington times, 19 June 1904. Available via Chronicling America.