Greek woman [1909]

Sherman made at least three portraits of Theano Papasotiriou [Θεανώ Παπασωτηρίου] sometime after her arrival on the S.S. Athinai on 3 June 1909. Like many of the Chief Registry Clerk's other subjects, Papasotiriou was detained before leaving Ellis Island, giving him an opportunity to photograph her. But unlike a number of Sherman's other Ellis Island portraits, the subject of this photo definitely went on to become a U.S. citizen, albeit decades after her entry.

Sherman didn't include the name of this spectacularly adorned woman but instead captioned the photo "Greek woman, June 1909". Other prints have "Gypsy woman" and "Greek woman wearing coins" written in the frame or verso. I compared three separate prints of the photo, along with a recently struck high-resolution scan, paying special attention to a key part: the immigrant identification tag pinned to her left side. The large number "10", referring to the ship's manifest sheet number, is discernible, but the number below is more ambiguous in the different prints. However, looking closely at one print for a 2017 retrospective exhibit of Sherman's work revealed something obscured in the others: the smaller number "23", which refers to the line number on the sheet.1

Assuming this "Greek woman" was wearing her own tag, having the two numbers would prove to be a crucial piece in the puzzle of pulling her out of anonymity, but not quite enough on its own to begin an effective search. But there are some additional, unexpected clues hiding in plain sight.

Above the numbers on the tag would be the name of the ship line, the vessel, and passenger name—but none are legible. However, having the specific month and year of arrival, the passenger's ethnicity or nationality, the manifest and line numbers are extremely useful data points to develop a search strategy. Combining this with some of the subject's physical attributes (her elaborate attire, the scar under her left eye, approximate age, etc.) offered enough clues to narrow the search and zero in on an identity.2 Still, I had to start with some assumptions (arrival dates, ascribed ethnicity, etc.) that could easily have been misleading and mix these with some discernible facts.

Sherman's handwritten date on the photo proved to be accurate and I found an exact match to the "10" and "23".

From Salamína to San Francisco

Papasotiriou was about 40 years old at the time of the photos, though the deep lines on her face, and in one photo, slumped posture gives the appearance of a much older woman. According to the ship's manifest she stood 4′ 4″.

After locating her arrival record, it became clear that the photo contained even more surprises. Though the three portraits Sherman made of Papasotiriou all feature a solitary figure, she wasn't traveling alone. She had come with four children to join her husband, a steamship captain, who had emigrated to the U.S. a couple of years earlier. Her husband had come to the U.S. along with their three older sons, making Theano Papasotiriou a mother of at least seven. According to the ship's manifest and other documents I located later, all family members were born in Salamína, a large island in the Attica region of Greece.

Within ten days of her landing at Ellis Island, Papasotiriou was in California, where she and much her family would make their home for the rest of their lives. It's not clear what triggered the family's five-day detention. Papasotiriou and her children were all in good health, had money and had purchased a train ticket to their final destination, and they were joining immediate family. However, based on the crossed out lines in the manifest, it appears there was some confusion about the final destination of the family; one inspector wrote "New York, New York", while the other wrote "San Francisco, California" but with no street address. Her husband's name, Soterios, was penciled in over another man's name and the original New York street address. The discrepancy may have caused the inspectors to initiate another interview.

Or perhaps her appearance was too reminiscent of the much maligned and ill-treated Roma immigrants who had attempted, most without success, to land at Ellis Island only to have been turned away as undesirable immigrants. According to newspaper reports around the time of Papasotiriou's arrival, female Roma were dressed somewhat ostentatiously in elaborate dress and accompanied by much gold and jewelry. It's quite conceivable that the initial inspectors at Ellis Island simply couldn't tell the difference between the national costumes of peoples, while remaining cautious as to not let Roma pass without extra scrutiny. This could explain why some prints of Papasotiriou were captioned "Gypsy woman."

Papasotiriou's dress was indeed elaborate, at least by contemporary standards at Ellis Island, so much so that it attracted at least one newspaper article that reported on her arrival at Ellis Island but focused primarily on her appearance. At first I assumed that Papasotiriou must have changed clothes before Sherman took his photograph then re-affixed the immigrant identification tag for effect, but the article shows otherwise and produces an alternate image of travel below deck in steerage. This was a woman who was proud to display her heritage at the expense of comfort during the long journey from the port of Piraeus, Greece to Ellis Island. The distinctive style of her attire is a large part of what helped me reach a solid conclusion regarding her identity, and, as I would come to discover a bit later on, is clearly in the traditional style of Salamína bridal wear.

Greeks rightfully take great pride in their rich cultural heritage—while remaining mindful of regional variations—and this of course extends to the intricately woven textiles, embroidery and clothing. The National Historical Museum in Athens has preserved some remarkable examples of traditional clothing from Salamína. A description they've added to a traditional bridal/festive dress from the late 19th century proved to be a good match to Papasotiriou's appearance in Sherman's photographs:

Traditional costume from Salamis. It consists of white cotton tunic, a pleated dress decorated with gold embroidery and a gold-embroidered velvet "tzakos" (vest). A gold-embroidered velvet apron is worn at the waist. The head is covered by a fez.3

Other examples of traditional female clothing from Salamína feature the similar elements and patterns.  Such styles continue on into contemporary times.

Like a number of Sherman's other works, his "Greek woman" portrait has inspired a number of contemporary artists, including Sarah BallCatherine Bancroft and Ai Weiwei, to reimagine the work in new mediums. Weiwei's outsized rendering hung outdoors for months in Harlem, but unlike a number of his other "Lamppost Banners" based on Sherman's work, this portrait was of an individual that successfully entered the U.S. and went on to become a naturalized citizen.

Papasotiriou's clothing and adornment are physical signifiers of her ethnic identity and this distinctiveness is part of what can spark the creative imagination of onlookers over 100 years after the photos were captured. Sherman was no doubt drawn to Papasotiriou because of the uniqueness of her appearance, but exoticism back then could carry unpredictable outcomes. Attracting attention by being different in appearance increased the scrutiny of immigrant inspectors and thereby heightened one's chance of exclusion. Despite their detention, Papasotiriou and her children managed to avoid such an outcome.

Other Greeks who arrived at Ellis Island, including at least one photographed by Sherman, weren't as fortunate as Papasotiriou. Just a year and a half before Papasotiriou's arrival, a 50-year old Eastern Orthodox priest named Joseph Vasiliou was detained at Ellis Island for over two weeks while he appealed an initial deportation recommendation by a Special Inquiry board that had determined him to be Likely to Become a Public Charge (LPC). Vasiliou was from the village of Peštani in today's North Macedonia, but in 1908 that village was still part of the then crumbling Ottoman Empire. He was unable to overcome the LPC charge at his hearing and was ordered deported back to a part of the world that was fast becoming politically and economically unstable, especially for Greeks.

Papasotiriou left Greece with her family just a couple of months before a successful military coup d'état in August 1909 radically altered the old order of monarchist Greek politics, and just a few years before the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 would double Greece's territory. Both these events set the stage for Greece's initial compromised neutrality during World War I and her eventual involvement in the war which again increased Greece's territorial size—gains which were mostly lost during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922.

As with other countries all across Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, these were tumultuous years that would trap thousands of would-be immigrants to the U.S. in their homeland and at the same time trap just as many Greeks (and others) in the United States who never intended on settling permanently in the U.S. It's not clear whether Papasotiriou and her family ever intended on staying in the U.S. As with millions of others who came through the Golden Door at Ellis Island during the early 20th century, as the years passed and children grew to adults, the prospects of returning back to the old world for anything more than a visit would diminish, then vanish altogether.

In 1932, after living more than 20 years in the United States, Theano Papasotiriou naturalized as a U.S. citizen.4 It doesn't appear she ever returned to her homeland.  She died in 1947 in Solano County, California, not far from her first adopted home in the United States.  It's highly unlikely Papasotiriou ever saw the portraits Sherman took of her on the roof garden and offices of Ellis Island.

Stella Padnos, a Brooklyn-based Greek American writer, wrote a moving poem about Papasotiriou in 2017:

Over one hundred years ago she stood downtown, and I still mourn
those who left my living room last week.
She is a dying textile shop, she is a peasant, she is my great-grandmother.
She has fastened every single item of worth onto her body: velvets,
shawls from the mountains, coins and crosses from the church of goddesses.
She has sewn the memory of native flowers onto her apron
and let the threads fall like tears. A paper is pinned to her chest,
in case she doesn’t know who she is here. She is no one here,
and no where. There is no place for her, but she may lay her head
in the respite of trinkets. Many elders and scattered goats whisper her name tonight, many weeks
of waters away. While her body holds the church and incense
and chanting and blood of pricked fingers and Christ, her face holds
an unnamed shape for exhaustion of faith. How many tears
and pounds has she lost this month, since the journey began. And she is just beginning, I cannot
even whisper that sorrow to her.

Stella Padnos5

Like the other artists mentioned above who have visually reimagined Sherman's photograph, Padnos was unaware of the details surrounding Papasotiriou's arrival—yet she movingly draws words that fit the migration of this Greek woman.


1 See: Grzonkowska, A., Wicenty, J., Bokiniec, M., & Muzeum Emigracji (Gdynia). (2017). Augustus Francis Sherman: Atlas imigranta = Augustus Francis Sherman : atlas of the immigrant. Gdynia: Muzeum Emigracji w Gdyni.

2 Papasotiriou's 1924 Declaration of Intention mentions a "scar below left eye." 

3 See the National Historical Museum website [Εθνικό Ιστορικό Μουσείο].

4 "California County Naturalizations, 1831-1985," database with images, FamilySearch, Solano: Petitions for naturalization and petition evidence, 1929-1931, vol 9, image 131 of 249; Alameda County Superior Court of California, Oakland.

5 Padnos, S. (2017). Greek Woman, Ellis Island Immigration Station, circa 1909. Reproduced with author's permission.

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