Issa Somali [1914]

On 14 March 1914, immigration inspectors at Ellis Island recorded the entry of a group of over 60 passengers from Northeast Africa that had just arrived on the S.S. Chicago from Le Havre, France. The group's size coupled with their exoticism would attract attention, including from Augustus Sherman who was prompted to organize the group for multiple photos. As it would turn out, capturing people's attention was perhaps the whole point of their migration to the United States, of which they received a great deal during their time in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. However, they were neither immigrants, migrants, or tourists—categories far out of reach to ordinary Africans for decades to come—but rather "non-immigrant aliens" who's ethnicity and culture would be used as entertainment in choreographed public spectacles. For over one hundred years, the identity of this highly atypical group of arrivals at Ellis Island has remained stubbornly obscure and the story of their long year in the United States, never fully told. By adopting a non-linear approach to historical records and visual evidence from archives, government documents and contemporaneous newspapers, I was able to make a definitive match to Sherman's uncaptioned, undated photograph above. Deconstructing the photo taken on that chilly Saturday in March 1914 and recontextualizing the data entered into the ship's manifest and other material, reveals an eye-opening and remarkably unsettling narrative of passage from the Horn of Africa to the United States.

Peter Mesenhöller, himself a cultural anthropologist, identified the individuals in this and two related photographs by Sherman as Borana from Southern Ethiopia, a designation that's been carried over from and to others but has not received much further critical examination.1  However, based on the material presented here, it's clear that the designation Borana was incorrect. Most, if not all, members of the group were actually ethnic Issa Somali, originating from what was then French Somaliland (Côte française des Somalis). According to the ship's manifest below, the entire group came from the village of "Ayacha, Abyssinia" [Aysh'a/Aysha/Aïssaha, Ethiopia] and were (colonial) citizens or subjects of France. A number of other documents corroborate the location or put it more generally in nearby French-controlled Djibouti.2

At the time of the group's emigration, their homeland was fraught with conflict brought on by colonial powers rapacious quest for new territory and resources—and World War I was just months away from commencing. Starting in the 1880s, Britain, France and Italy were aggressively "claiming" territories during the so-called Scramble for Africa, but were only successful—thanks to routine murderous tactics—in areas around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa. If the individuals in the group were indeed French citizens/subjects, then they could only be from French Somaliland and not from Southern Ethiopia, which remained independent during the European imperial powers' incursions into the area. But behind Sherman's Issa Somali photos, instead of an immigration story we have something all together different: a migration narrative which exposes part of the means by which ethnological expositions—more provocatively referred to today as human zoos—were populated, promoted, and exploited. For decades, these human exhibits were regular features at World Expositions, colonial expositions, Völkerschau in Germany, the Jardin zoologique d'acclimatation in France, as well as at museums and burgeoning zoological parks all throughout the world. This was an era when scientific and popular racism, fear, and colonialism could come together in one space.

Unsurprisingly, the United States was not without its own, homegrown versions. US-based circuses and sideshows—even the Brooklyn Zoo and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows—also featured similar expositions at different scales. In fact much of the early impetus behind the concept no doubt came from P.T. Barnum's public human exhibitions starting as early as the 1830s. Barnum initially focused on human aberration as "remarkable curiosities" but eventually extended his circus repertoire to include racially-charged portrayals of native and non-western freaks, missing links, and exotic ethnics combined in "monster menageries." Ringling Brother's and Barnum & Bailey would regularly feature highly dubious and unabashedly racist exhibits for decades to come; the same was true for New York venues like Coney Island and countless other sideshows across the U.S.3

By the time Sherman pointed his awkward box camera at this group of Issa Somalis in 1914, Barnum was long dead but the western world had entered into an even more heightened phase of public fascination for, and domination over, the other. For decades, human zoos had attracted hundreds of thousands of curious onlookers across the globe, but instead of fostering an understanding or appreciation of cultural variation, the zoos would further entrench public racism, embolden scientific racism, and develop a colonial gaze that situated (white) western superiority.

As with other "exotics" photographed by Sherman, a number of individuals in the group were detained or held before a Board of Special Inquiry on an LPC charge—a handful were even hospitalized immediately for apparent health risks and some were deported within days after landing. If the deportations accurately follow the narrative that can be pieced together from the manifest and special inquiry documents, families were broken up at Ellis Island; most were allowed to enter the U.S. while others, including children, were sent back—first to France, then it is assumed, to their homeland in French Somaliland. As with many of Sherman's other subjects, the protracted detention of the group gave him more opportunities to capture them in photographs.

Despite being uncatptioned, the group photograph carries a lot of visual information but not enough to establish identity on its own. However, with the aid of facial recognition software, and some additional photographs made towards the end of the group's time in the U.S., we can see a definitive match in another photo by Sherman of a young Issa Somali couple taken around the same time as the group photo. Although the photographs Sherman made are devoid of any dates, personal or geographic details, the ship's manifest served as a true flip side to the portraits and helped to map the initial trajectory of the group.

According to the manifest and special inquiry transcripts, all of the Issa Somali travelers were under the age of 35, and included musicians, shepherds, shoemakers, blacksmiths and camel drivers—the rest of the men were most likely pastoralists while the women were listed as homemakers. None spoke English or had any money; looking closely at the "nationality" column shows that one of the immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island determined the entire group be French citizens/subjects. There are too many family names to list in full, but they include the following: Abdalla, Aïcha, Aiga, Aigale, Akmad, Aoulesse, Awed, Bahdon, Bakdone, Djamah, Gaidi, Guerri, Koumene, Mera, Mohamed, Oigale, Oufune, and Saïd—a mix of transliterated traditional names as well as Arabic-derived names, reflecting the fact that Issa Somalis practice(d) Islam.


Early 20th century circuses and sideshows proved to be a profitable and attention grabbing business for impresarios like Samuel W. Gumpertz (1868–1952) and massive enterprises like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Each succeeding year brought about larger and larger expositions that sought to outdo themselves and any competition in terms of scale and level of exoticism. New York City had two permanent fixtures at Coney Island that regularly featured, among countless other distractions, large and small groups of performing exotics from all over the world: Luna Park and Dreamland. Invitations to spectacular shows that involved groups of non-immigrant aliens were routinely announced in newspapers and broadsides, satisfying a general public hungry for a taste of the exotic and the unusual—in both animal and human form. Imported exotics and native-born freaks would perform and tour the globe for weeks, months, even years if the public kept on paying well enough.

The Issa Somalis had come to the U.S. to literally perform their ethnicity, their culture...as white westerners wanted it. Billed as "Somaliland", they would be on view for thousands of New Yorkers in the "biggest 'pit' show on the American Continent" at Dreamland and twice daily in the world's largest indoor arena at the second iteration of Madison Square Garden (1890–1926). By opening Somaliland for the 1914 season, the "greatest show on earth" was continuing its already decades-long practice of Grand Ethnological Congresses of Barbarous and Savage Tribes. The Issa Somalis were next in a long line of imported exotics and the circus/vaudeville press was enthusiastically reporting on their plans months before the group's arrival at Ellis Island.

At first, however, I found no direct evidence of exactly what the group's engagement in the U.S. entailed: no newspaper articles, advertisements, broadsides or playbills, or archival material in sight. I suspected that their engagement was cut short for some reason and that they made the long journey back home without much touring or that their appearances simply didn't attract much attention, at least not enough for the press to take notice. But after making the connection to Issa Somalis instead of peoples living in then independent Ethiopia, a few seemingly unrelated leads appeared, which in turn exposed an already established pattern of (West) Somali transnational migration to Europe. 

Contemporaneous newspapers provided the first links to their origins.  Besides a number of crude advertisements for Barnum and Bailey's Somaliland show, a lengthy article titled "Freaks in Paris Togas" in the 24 March 1914 edition of Washington Post focused on the group's arrival in the typically dismissive, insensitive and racist language of the day:

Ellis Island had quite a flutter when the Somali outfit arrived. Brass buttoned folk looked up books to see if they were Arabians, Egyptians, Mohammedans, fire worshipers, Hottentots, philosophers, or just plain "cullud folks." The immigration officials couldn't for the life of them tell whether the Somalis were "undesirable aliens" or the very latest fashion models from Paris.

Seven days after their arrival at Ellis Island, the group was already set to perform with Barnum & Bailey at Madison Square Garden. The 28 March 1914 edition of the New York Clipper, a weekly entertainment newspaper, featured a lengthy review of Barnum & Bailey's massive season opener on 21 March. The article included a brief mention of "Weird Somali Land" as a part of Display 18: "In the exhibition hall were presented the Barnum & Bailey's Congress of Freaks...which included the Somali Village—Sixty natives of Somali Land."

Besides the Somalis, this "Freak Congress" included: giants; midgets; magicians; Maxine, the snake enchantress; Happy Jack Wilson; fat boy, Eddie Mascher; skeleton dude; Nairobi, lionfaced boy; and Stanley Ke'ter, blue man.


According to the ship's manifest above, the entire group was headed for Dreamland, c/o Samuel W. Gumpertz, Impresario. This would have been the Dreamland circus Sideshow, since the original sprawling Dreamland burned down in 1911 and was never rebuilt. There were few additional clues regarding their engagement in the ship's manifest, but one of the individuals detained was able to provide a reference or letter of support from Frank A. Cook, General Agent and Legal Adjuster for Barnum & Bailey Circus in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For years, Cook managed the "importation" of international performers and likely had something to do with this group making such an atypical and precarious journey. Or something was arranged between the two so the group could perform with both enterprises.

As it turns out, Samuel Gumpertz and John Ringling embarked on a five-week tour of Europe together in late 1913, where they would "sign up some rare specimens of freakdom...to be the headliners of Dreamland's Pit Show." They were successful in their pursuits and the spring 1914  season headliners would be the Issa Somalis photographed by Sherman:

The feature of the New Dreamland will be a village of 150 Samolis [sic] from Central Africa. These strange people have never been seen on this Continent. Their skin is black as ebony and long, bushy hair projects from their heads. Their teeth are white as alabaster, and to keep them so the Samolis are continually polishing them with pieces of roots that grow in the country. Mr. Gumpertz will bring native doctors and merchants with the Samolis to treat them and provide nourishment that they are accustomed at home. Native school teachers will come to instruct the children, and in every way the original conditions which surround them at home will be employed to make their trip to America as comfortable and safe as possible.4

Subsequent documents reveal that both both Gumpertz and Barnum & Bailey were indeed partners and this was an elaborate and costly affair. Each was responsible for the welfare of about 30 members of the group and for their eventual return after seven months work, and, it was stated, "if they are satisfied to remain they will stay longer." But unlike other performers, immigration authorities allowed the Issa Somalis to enter the U.S. without bond, a decision or oversight that would carry unforeseen consequences.Gumpertz provided the funds for the group's travel and employed someone to bring the group from Djibouti to Marseilles to New York, then serve as translator and manager for some of the troupe.  This liaison would be Maklouf (Meyer) Ouhayoun (1862-1937), a Moroccan-born entrepreneur who would wind up having an extended, and at times contentious, relation with the group. When asked by immigration officials at Ellis Island what sort of performance the group would be putting on, Ouhayoun deadpanned: "They will have a native village where they will do a war dance", which was apparently good enough for the inspectors to approve the group's entry. He also claimed to have paid all travel costs (with funds from Gumpertz), costs which didn't need to be reimbursed by the Issa Somalis, and made arrangements "with the various chief of the tribes" to secure their long journey.5  Frank Cook met the group at Ellis Island and, given the resources at his disposal, most likely arranged for their travel to the city. This wasn't the first or last time Dreamland or Barnum and Bailey would host large groups of ethnic exotics for their shows.

By May 1914, the group was performing at Dreamland; they had spent more than six weeks performing at Madison Square Garden and possibly other locations with Barnum and Bailey, now it was on to Coney Island for the next six months. In that time, thousands of New Yorkers would have observed them from afar in what Variety described as a "freak museum show [that] draws 'em like flies at a dime a throw..."  No accounts of interactions between performers and their audience have yet emerged, though given what others were subjected to around the same time, e.g. Ota Benga at the Brooklyn Zoo, it's hard to imagine there was mutual understanding or respect.6

Sherman also made a few isolated portraits of individuals from the larger group. Some were already featured in the group photo which—like a number of his photos—was taken outside on the roof garden of Ellis Island's main building, while others were taken with the subjects seated, most likely inside Sherman's office. Looking at the smaller portraits, we see more clearly some of the features, clothing (some of it western-styled, indicating that the sitters may have spent time in Europe), adornment, even weaponry of the individuals. Was this group of over 60 really traveling on a two-week voyage across the Atlantic dressed (and armed) like this? Hard to say, but many of Sherman's other portraits clearly required wardrobe changes—that was part of the act for the photographer. As with a number of his other photos, at least one of the Issa Somali portraits turns up in the print media during Sherman's lifetime, indicating that there was communication and sharing between Sherman the Ellis Island clerk/amateur photographer and media outlets.

While the group's journey from the Horn of Africa to Europe, to the United States must have been exhausting and extraordinarily precarious (two women were pregnant and there were two infants and more than a dozen children among the 60+ in the group), it must have also been disorienting, even bewilderingly, for them to now enter the near megacity of New York. And little more than a week after Sherman took his photos, the group would already be performing with the Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in one of their typically massive and incongruous menageries. New York City would become their home for almost a year before some would move on to another, even larger public event: the Panama–Pacific International Exposition (1915 World's Fair) in San Francisco, California. There the group would be one of a number of exotics vying for the attention of millions of fairgoers throughout the spring of 1915.

Based on what took place at documented human zoos in western Europe, we can guess at what the Issa Somali performances were like in the U.S. Exhibits would typically feature group members performing actual life rituals and celebrations centered around birth, marriage, and death that often involved music and dance. Or they would engage in mock ritualized activities (hunting, warfare, dispute settlement), or act out mundane scenes from daily life (cooking, washing, attending school). There was even a miniature and apparently functioning, mosque, though it's not clear whether audience members could only observe the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) or view entire worship services. In any case, all of this was a heavily choreographed affair, designed to maximize spectacle and help develop the colonial gaze of the viewer. Performers might also spend their time in booths simply manufacturing traditional handicrafts and wares, with makeshift replicas of their native surroundings in miniature as a backdrop—including leather working and blacksmith shops. And sometimes there were staged but non-theatrical activities; performers didn't actually perform but rather their being was the performance.

It was quite common for picture postcards to be made from mock scenes of village life; thousands survive and form the basis of much of our contemporary understanding of what actually went on at human zoos.7  The postcards tell part of the story, but what went on in the minds of both the performer and the viewer can only be speculated upon. Occasionally, some photos (and film) capture both in the same frame in a more spontaneous way; a patronizing smile or mocking laughter is clearly visible on the onlooker's face, while the other carries one of telling indifference. That is part of the colonial gaze.

From 'Völkerschau Somali' to 'Villaggio Somalo'

The fact that there were "Somali Villages" at expositions in Paris (1880s-1910s), Hamburg (1885-1920s), Bradford (1904), Oldenburg (1905), Dublin (1907), Aarhus (1909), Vienna (1910), Edinburgh (1910), Turin (1911), Freiburg & Berlin (1912), and extending until the late 1920s across multiple cities in Europe, revealed a several decades-long history of the "importation" of Somalis for the purpose of populating human exhibits. It also further supports the fact that Sherman's portraits were indeed of ethnic [Issa] Somalis: there was an established network, route, programming and apparent popularity behind the movement.

Dozens of French, German, English and Italian picture postcards showing scenes of Issa Somali village life in the exhibits survive and clearly resemble some of the individuals' clothing, adornment, hairstyles, and weaponry (e.g. iron spears, short swords [belawa], and shields [gãschãn] visible in Sherman's portraits and others associated with the group.

A long-forgotten 1909 engagement of transplanted "Ethiopians" at Carl Hagenbeck's Tierpark near Hamburg, Germany, offers some clues as to what their performance might have entailed.Since at least the 1890s, exotics with an expected high exhibition value (American Indians, Sámis, Somalis, Indonesians, Patagonians, etc.) had been lured or coerced by agents to come to Hagenbeck's park and perform for the general public. Hagenbeck's Tierpark regularly featured elaborate ethnological exhibitions that can be more accurately described as a Human Zoo; they in fact were staged in the middle of animal exhibits. Eric Ames writes: "In the 1909 'Ethiopian Exhibition,' for instance, the story revolves around a group of desert nomads who ambush a Hagenbeck animal transport."8  Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that the Issa Somalis Sherman photographed at Ellis Island staged similar scenarios.

But what was going on at Coney Island in New York or with the traveling Barnum and Bailey circuses all across the country, or at countless smaller sideshows was essentially no different than what took place at Hagenbeck's Tierpark. Hagenbeck had established connections in the U.S. since the late 19th century and even featured a large exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, an event that included innumerable so-called living exhibitions.9

By fall 1914, the troupe had finished their contractual work at Gumpertz's Dreamland in New York and with Barnum & Bailey's operation, which took them on the road across the U.S. It was now time to go home. Their return fit with initial statements made by representatives of both organizations at the time of the group's arrival at Ellis Island in March, indicating that "after the close of the circus season and the Coney Island season they [the Issa Somalis] will be returned to their native country."10  Some, however, were encouraged to stay longer.  More travel would ensue for about half of the group who decided to take their chances with new prospects.  This smaller group would travel across the American South, where they were billed as 'Somaliland African Savages — All Man Eaters' at the Georgia State Fair, and even briefly to Canada, then on to the East Coast and beyond.

The Zone

Correspondence between Samuel Gumpertz, Barnum & Bailey's Frank A. Cook and Bureau of Immigration officials show that by the fall of 1914 the group was divided as what to do next; about half wished to return home while the other half, according to their itinerant manager Meyer Ouhayoun, wished to keep on performing at new venues and save up money.11  Ouhayoun obliged and made bookings for a number of engagements at state fairs throughout the eastern seaboard, plus a 10-month engagement at perhaps the most auspicious event of the year: the Panama–Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), i.e. 1915 World's Fair.

According to a letter from Gumpertz to Bureau officials eager to settle expenses later incurred by the group, the other half no longer wished to continue with their work with Barnum and Bailey, Gumpertz's Dreamland or any other circus, sideshow or public performance operation; Gumpertz claims that they left the U.S. sometime in late 1914.12  In any case, there was no real opportunity for any of them to stay and seek out other means of employment and settle—and certainly no viable path to citizenship.  Eventually, it is assumed, those that wanted to leave the U.S. returned to their homes in French-controlled Somaliland, just a few months after the chaotic outbreak of World War I. By separating, they would be leaving behind friends and family, but also the bizarre situation that found them acting out roles for New Yorkers.

The rest of the group would continue on in the roles, only with a heightened level of absurdity and disappointment that was fast becoming de rigueur for the times.

After 2-3 months of travel with Meyer Ouhayoun's show, the group that was apparently eager for more work "remained about a month in idleness", on their own in Jersey City. By late December 1914, their deteriorating situation had attracted the attention of local police and immigration officials, some of whom made visits to the reportedly squalid encampments that Barnum and Bailey provided for them on the outskirts of Jersey City.  An LPC charge was slowly building against the group.

Pursuant to instructions received verbally from  the Inspector in Charge of the Registry Division, I proceeded to Jersey City, N.J. to investigate the case of thirty-two Abyssinians who were reported to be in deplorable condition there.  With the Help of Chief of Police Monahan of Jersey City, I located these Abyssinians in a house on the outskirts of the City. From a white man among them I learned that one Meyer Ouhayoun, of 310 W. 28th Street, New York City, with whom these aliens made contract to show at different resorts in America, has deserted them without having paid them their wages. The contract expires Feb. 28th 1915. They are in a destitute condition and are objects of charity now. They are being fed and housed (in extreme misery).13

The group appears to have spent another month, again without employment, in the same area. Then Meyer Ouhayoun reappeared; he had a new offer for the group, cautiously accepted by its members.
By mid February 1915, the group made their way with Ouhayoun by rail to San Francisco to perform at the PPIE; all travel expenses paid and a promise of $15 a month salary for adult males from PPIE organizers—almost half of what they were promised by Gumpertz and Barnum & Bailey for their 1914 engagements.  Regardless, after days of travel the group of about 30 was now hastily set to take the stage—or rather be placed in an outdoor area next to the "wild animal arena"—at the fair, but their residency at that grand event would soon be fraught with labor disputes and all around disappointment.  Giving the way their venue was being devised, this was perhaps no surprise. The space allotted to the group was not in the PPIE's educational or scientific space but rather in its concessions and amusements area, aka the bewilderingly named "Joy Zone" or "The Zone", a ¾ mile-long stretch of exhibits that employed some 7000 laborers and performers.14

One could argue that the Zone's purpose was actually educational, but ultimately Somaliland other "exotic" concessions served as pedagogical vehicles for reinforcing racial stereotypes and promoting xenophobia, rather than for actual learning and enrichment.  According to news reports in the San Francisco dailies, tens of thousands of school children from surrounding counties visited the fair in just the first few months alone. One article titled "Little folk leave studies behind for day of Joy at the P.P.I.E." from the 15 May 1915 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle stated that "local pupils are to study exhibits as part of their regular work."

Other "living exhibits" were featured in the same area, including Japanese, Chinese, Samoan, and Oriental villages along with Hopi Indians at the Grand Canyon concession; each was incongruously situated among a racing coaster, a cinematograph, an Aeroscope, a place called Toyland (i.e. "midget circus"), an ostrich farm, an alligator farm, a submarine, and baby incubators. A little later in the year, at the PPIE's Education and Social Economy Palace, which was just a short walk away from the Zone, the fair would also play host to the Second National Conference on Race Betterment.  This conference within the fair featured a "Eugenics booth" that promulgated race hygiene/race suicide theories, extolling the virtues of well-born Nordics against the cataclysmic threat the darker races and Asiatic hordes posed to the United States. The language used by the race scientists, political figures, and academics gathered together for the event was uniformly deplorable and their junk science was fast aligning itself with the agenda of immigration restrictionists.  Was it just a coincidence that these two forces—ethnic exotics barred from legal immigration to the U.S. and the burgeoning field of eugenics—were coming together in the same place?

Though the Issa Somalis and other ethnic groups scarcely belonged among baby incubators, wild animal farms, and novelty acts, they were being directly and indirectly discussed at the Race Betterment conference because of the threat they—and all non-whites—represented to the dwindling populations of old stock Americas. The 1915 PPIE, like a number of past and future World's Fairs to come, was a multi-purpose tableau that reflected a state of the art for a number of scientific disciplines, contemporary political and corporate will, western imperialism, as well as what passed for public entertainment at the time.  It was against such a backdrop, far more ludicrous and purely exploitative than their New York venues, that this wayward group of Issa Somalis performed their culture.

Fierce Somali Warriors at the Fair...

The group's presence at the Fair was reported on in the San Francisco press with the same sort of hyperbolic and inaccurate details that followed them wherever they went. One broadside published to coincide with the group's arrival claimed that PPIE's "Somali Land" encompassed: "a tribe of 75 men, women and children — cannibal head hunters and divers — spear fighting — war dancing and songs — one of the most interesting features on the zone."15

Despite the theatrics at the PPIE Press Building dedication in the photo above, on-the-spot reporting concerning the group's activities would prove to be less than stellar.  According to several newspaper articles, a Somali woman named "Sasa" took ill and died at the PPIE, barely a month after her arrival in San Francisco. Her death made front page news in a lengthy article for the San Francisco Examiner, where she was described as "the little brown wife of the chief of the Somalis...[and]...mother of a little black mite named Nello, six months old." But after locating her death certificate, it turns out that although Sasa was indeed a performer at the PPIE, she was Samoan, not Somali. Sasa, her family, and the cultural traditions of her people were consistently misidentified as Somali throughout the article, thereby showing extreme disrespect to both groups. A few weeks later, a nationally syndicated article about some of PPIE's ethnic shows used a full page to explain the traditions on display at the "Samoan village" but added photos of Somalis and their encampments (captioned as Samoans) to support the text.16

Six years later, an official account of the fair's 10-month run written by Frank Morton Todd, on behalf of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company, shows that little changed in the representation of exotic others; it also reports on what became of PPIE's "Somali Land" and its inhabitants. Besides a handful of newspaper articles, this is one of the few accounts, however inaccurate, of what took place:

"Native" villages did not seem to do well. There was, near the Van Ness entrance, a community of thin, black, and hollow-cheeked wanderers from Somali Land, who did a great deal of violent flat-foot dancing and spear shaking on their ballyhoo stand but failed to commit any acts of cannibalism inside, so they lost their popularity and did no business of any great volume, and early in the year Mr. Bryan, Assistant Director of the Division, invited them to leave. They refused to go, or at least they did not go, although the space had been sold. So Bryan laid the matter before the Immigration authorities, took a platoon of Guards to the compound, loaded the dark strangers on a Fadgl train, and escorted them to the Yacht Harbor, where a Government tug awaited them for Angel Island, whence they were in due time and regular form deported.17

Todd plays loose with the facts and simultaneously reveals his callous prejudice against the Issa Somalis, but he got one thing right: the Issa Somalis were evicted from PPIE grounds and eventually deported.

Barely two months into the Issa Somali's 10-month contract, the troupe refused to continue performing because their wages had not been paid, sparking an irreversible series of events that led to their removal. According to PPIE officials, the group's concession had been deemed a financial failure and their contract canceled. PPIE management took over the concession and flatly refused to pay but demanded that the group continue to perform...without a contract. Understandably, the Issa Somalis refused to return to work until they were paid, so PPIE officials immediately gave up on them and attempted to evict the entire group. The Issa Somalis refused to vacate and were then forcibly removed from their encampments at the fairgrounds and detained at Angel Island Immigration Station. The troupe received zero pay for the two months they had been at the Fair and were immediately replaced by another group who ran a concession called the "Streets of Seville", an exhibit which ultimately failed financially as well.

The Issa Somalis would never return to PPIE grounds. Angel Island would now serve as their home, in detention, for about two weeks until Ouhayoun once again found work for them—this time with the White City Amusement Company in Chicago, Illinois.

The group had to use their own funds (savings from the Coney Island season) to make the 2000 mile journey by rail from San Francisco to Chicago, which apparently left them in debt by they time they got to Chicago.  Ouhayoun did not accompany them; records indicate when he showed up at Angel Island days after the group's removal from PPIE grounds, most of the group were adamantly against keeping him as manager. They would take the offer from White City, who agreed to pay for a portion of their travel expenses, but from now on they would strike out on their own and manage themselves.

White City

From the moment they arrived in Chicago, things started to deteriorate for the group even more rapidly than it had in San Francisco. After their short contract at White City ended, where they were billed on broadsides as "an entire village of natives from the extreme part of the world...the world's strangest people", Somali Land started a new run at the Rialto Theater. But once again, the group's employer failed to pay them for their performances—this was the third time employers or managers had done so—and the group was rightly upset with the situation. According to court records and a few rather dubious newspaper reports, there seems to have been some sort of altercation between the group and Rialto Theater management resulting from the dispute; the latter quickly called for the riot police, who promptly came and arrested the entire group, locking them up in a jail at the Clark Street police station.

Fourteen Somali negroes, who raised cain when they didn't get pay for being wild men at S. State st. theatre, will be deported to Africa. Were in Judge Prindiville's court garbed only in sheets and blankets.18

From this point on they were considered public charges and would never leave police custody or detention upon their return to Ellis Island. Deportation was now inevitable and their troubles were again attracting the attention of the press.  The 10 September 1915 issue of Variety, would give a slightly different take on the group's plight: "Following its native custom of figuring 28 days to a month, the Samoli [sic] Village demanded pay of the State Street theater management three days before its month's engagement there expired.  Upon the refusal of the theater to turn over the coin, the Samolians [sic] quit and are at present in the county poor house.  They will be deported home by the Government.  Poor business at 'White City' this summer caused the removal of the Village to the State street house, that holds freaks of all kinds as attractions."The procedural documents that accompany their arrest and detention (testimonies, reports, arrest warrants, etc.) are fairly straightforward and, with some exceptions, are devoid of overtly discriminatory remarks. The photos of the group, made by the Chicago Daily News, show something quite different and more resemble hunting trophy photos. They are startling on multiple levels and are the last known photos of the group before their deportation.

In print, members of the press seemed to take pleasure in mocking the group's plight.

CHICAGO, ILL., Aug. 10 — Well, look who hopped right into the war! Ole Kink Bahdon [Harid Bahdon] of Somolis [sic] and he and his tribe of husky Africans got in on a run and jump, swept thru State street, stormed across the loop, scared the tar out the allied army of cops and landed in a fleet of patrol wagons. The "kink" of the African jungle wasn't fighting for glory. It was grub he wanted, and "big boss showman" Frank Albert, meal ticket for the Only Originals in Captivity, wasn't coming across with the dough, not even a pancake to assuage the hunger of Bahdon. No "notes" were exchanged between the "powers" — Bahdon just whooped his best war whoop, grabbed a spear, and the Tribe of Somolis [sic] was on the trail of the showman. Even tho [sic] he was draped in his best red couch cover when he appeared in court the next morning, the judge was unimpressed by kingly dignity. Bahdon and his army will be in bated captivity for 30 days.19

By the time of the dispute in Chicago, six members of the group had finished their contract with White City and gone on to New York to stay with an acquaintance who ran a grocery store and boarding house. They apparently tried to make their living busking on NY City street corners and doing odd jobs, but it wasn't bringing in nearly enough money to keep them afloat. Though they weren't in jail or captivity like their colleagues in Chicago, they too were in a dire economic state and had even applied to the French Consul "for aid and transportation to their native country but only received a few dollars to help purchase food." They wished to return home but were penniless, and their host "could not keep them longer...their keep was too heavy a drag on him."20  This small group would soon be reunited with the others at a detention center in Ellis Island.

At this point, Samuel Gumpertz and Frank Cook, who were legally responsible for the welfare of the group, were nowhere to be seen, but their names were continually coming up in the correspondence between immigration officials dealing with the group's declining fortunes.

Everything in this country is strange to us...

On 3 September 1915, the Bureau of Immigration in Washington D.C. issued alien arrest warrants covering all 31 individuals. They were transmitted by telegraph to the Immigration Service in Chicago and subsequent action taken was swiftly administered. Warrants were served and hearings for the males followed the next day at the Clark Street police station (where the above photos were taken) and for the females at the Chicago Women's Shelter House, where the women and children were being held. According to the warrant, all were found to be in violation of the 1907 Immigration Act and its subsequent 1910 revision, which forbade the entry of persons likely to become a public charge. Irrespective of the fact that all entered the U.S. lawfully a year before and were not deemed to become public charges at the time, they were now being retrospectively assessed to be inadmissible.

In Chicago, sworn testimonies were taken from each adult, as well as from a 12 year-old named Adiva Koumene and several teenage boys. The statements are virtually identical and appear to be more of a compilation of responses to questions that made a case for their undesirability as immigrants. In essence, the questions begged the forgone conclusions from the Bureau, which was clearly poised to recommend immediate deportation. Despite the repetitive and coached quality of some of the responses, the statements shine light on the lives from the other side of stage and offer a glimpse into group members, finally as human beings. They're the closest thing we have to their actual words.

Adiva Koumene, testified as follows:

My name is Koimene Adowa, l also go by the name of Adiva Koumene; I am 12 years of age; was born at Djibouti French Somaliland, East Africa, Red Sea District. I sailed from Djibouti, through the Suez Canal, to Marseilles, France. From Marseilles l went to Havre, France and sailed from there on the Steamship “Chicago” March 3rd, 1914. I arrived at New York March 14th, 1914. A Mr. Cook brought me to this country for show purposes. I belong to a troupe 31 members. Mr. Cook told us he would return us to our homes 20 months after our arrival here. We went from New York to San Francisco. Our show was not a success, and we fell into distress at San Francisco and was in the Immigration Office there for quite a while. I have no friends or relatives in this country, am dependent, and am now a public charge of the City of Chicago. My father is dead, but my mother is living at the place above mentioned. I have no money, and no property excepting a small bundle of clothing which the police took charge of at the time that they took us into custody. I have no cause to show why I should not be deported, in fact I am anxious to be returned to my native land. The customs the language and everything in this country is strange to us, and there is nothing for us to do but to be returned to our native land. I understand this proceeding as explained to me by the interpreter. I do not wish an attorney to represent me, but I want the Government to take me in charge.21

Koumene's testimony, coming from the youngest member of the group, was used as the basis for the dozen other testimonies. Each has a line that concurs with Koumene's statement, attesting to its veracity, and ends with the accused accepting the deportation order.

Ahmed Mera, testified as follows:

My name is as above; age 35; born Djibouti, French Somaliland, East Africa, Red Sea District. I have a wife, Alba Nour, aged 21, and child Ahmed Hama, age 5, with me here. I have no money. Small bag of clothing with the police. I heard the testimony of Adiva Koumene, and it is true. I understand these proceedings, and I want the Government to deport me and my wife., and my child. I can show no cause why we should not be deported.22

Mera's wife, Alba Nour, testified separately:

I am 20 years of age; born Djibouti, French Somaliland, East Africa, Red Sea District. Husband is in the county jail. Accompanied by a child Hama Ahmed, five years of age; born in my native country. I was brought to the United States together with a party of my countrymen by a representative of Barnum & Bailey Circus, and was to be returned to my native country, at the expense of these show people, at the expiration of my term of employment with them. I fully understand the nature of these proceedings, and desire to be sent back at the earliest possible time. I have a small amount of baggage with the male members of the party.23

A tricky and thoroughly undesirable people

As the precarious status of the group further deteriorated and deportation loomed, there remained the matter of who would be responsible for paying the considerable expenses for the groups' travel, meals and housing. Costs had been obsessively recorded and itemized at each step of the way; state, local and federal institutions that had provided minimal or extended services expected to be reimbursed. As it turns out, the mounting costs would result in a great deal of correspondence between immigration officials, Gumpertz and Cook until well into 1916, who appeared negligent in keeping their promises and laxed in their responses to government inquires. In the end, ironically, such behavior protracted the group's detention even further.

After enduring about six weeks in police custody, the group was taken by rail from Chicago to New York; then it was on to detention at Ellis Island by 22 September 1915. The group now numbered 23; six were hospitalized for unspecified causes during their detention. All were deported on the S.S. Rochambeau on 9 October 1915, a "neutral ship" as requested by the government. The journey home would have taken several weeks and must have been precarious at best, given that WWI was raging. From Marseilles, France the group would have sailed on another ocean liner to the port of Djibouti...and back to their old lives.

While Sherman's group photo above isn't as widely reproduced as some of his other work, at least one related photo has been recently seen by thousands of New Yorkers in a modified form—albeit more or less devoid of any meaningful context. It's not clear whether Weiwei or any of the many other artists who have refashioned Sherman's portraits realized that his work didn't always capture actual immigrants. But in a sense, this makes contemporary reworkings even more powerful—particularly if the often complicated and heartbreaking backstories can be brought to light.

The group's arrival in the United States just a few months before the outbreak of World War I, and their deportation as the war raged on, ultimately exposes not only the open, eugenically-driven racism of the time but also a blunt mechanism for making the United States' nascent imperialism digestible to its citizenry.24  It is also a migration story, albeit one that's couched in the dubious environment of state-sanctioned exploitation: the group was allowed to enter the United States precisely because they were not immigrants who intended on staying.

Four months after the deportation, Cook still owed the U.S. government nearly $1000 to cover the group's expenses. A Department of Labor official prepared a memorandum for Alfred Hampton, Assistant Secretary General at the Bureau of Immigration that addressed Cook's financial negligence and concluded with the following warning: "...I expect that this will be an abject lesson for future consideration when circus companies and museum proprietors undertake to import foreign freaks and natives of strange lands for show purposes."25  Another memorandum declared: "They are a tricky and thoroughly undesirable people, and their continued residence in the United States should not be permitted - they should not have been admitted at the port..."26

The tacabbir returns

There are few studies that deal with the return, reintegration, and ultimate fate of groups like these performing tacabbir (the crosser of the sea). Somali performers such as Hersi Egeh Gorseh, who worked for decades with Hagenbeck's völkerschau, were apparently able to accumulate a considerable fortunes from years of travel and performance; he eventually used his savings to buy property and create a thriving textile business back home.27  Though Hersi Egeh Gorseh's story is fragmentary, it's not apocryphal and there is consistency around the central fact that he returned to Berbera financially much richer than when he left.28  Despite his financial success, however, it remains unclear how years of being put on display in so-called living exhibits for gawking Europeans would have affected him psychologically or socially.

But with the Issa Somali who landed at Ellis Island in 1914, we can say with certainty that they didn't have it easy while working abroad or go home with bags of money. What became of them?

Almost two decades after the group's deportation, Dexter W. Fellows, Publicity Director for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, created a self-serving fiction around the Issa Somali's experience in the United States that cruelly betrays the actual events:

The experience of the hundred or more Somalis whom we exhibited in 1914 was different from that of the Ubangis. They came with five school teachers and got along beautifully in the house we rented for them near the Garden. Evidently their beauty lay in their teeth, which they kept continually filing to a point with little sticks. Sheep was the piece de resistance of their diet, and the men and women dined separately. Upon their return to Africa, they bought plantations and built themselves splendid thatched mansions with the money they earned.29

Such an account, admittedly written by a career showman, is completely disingenuous and serves as a whitewashing of what the group endured during their long year in the United States—and no one was around to counter his anodyne and inaccurate claims.

It wouldn't be until the late 1950s that human zoos fell out of fashion, after the public seems to have lost its taste for colonial exhibits. Human zoos, such as "Somaliland" and dozens of others that toured across the U.S. in the early 20th century, have left a complex and uneasy legacy that's only recently started to be addressed.30

It's long overdue for the wider phenomena to be properly understood, acknowledged and contextualized—from both sides of the stage.


1 A description of a related photo in Andrea Temple and June F. Tyler's “Ellis Island: A Historical Perspective” from the 1990s recorded them as "Boran people of the Galla group from southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya."  Perhaps this was the initial source for their identification as Boran/Borana; subsequent captions would echo this designation.  For example, the July 2012 edition of the Ethiopian American includes an article that in part discusses the photo and the purported ethnic designation of the group, but it only loosely attributes the designation to the "U.S. National Park Service calendar" from 2006. Mesenhöller's book was published a year earlier in conjunction with the NPS, so it's plausible that the designation traveled from one to another. In addition, an April 2011 article from American History Magazine repeats the group's ethnic designation as Borana as does Kadiro Elemo's The United States and Ethiopia: the tragedy of human rights from 2013. More recently, a full-scale exhibit of Sherman's work did the same, 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. Others have acknowledged the group as potentially Ethiopian in nationality, not necessarily ethnicity, but expressed skepticism as to whether they were actual immigrants. See Getahun, S. A. (2007). The history of Ethiopian immigrants and refugees in America, 1900-2000: Patterns of migration, survival, and adjustment. New York: LFB Scholarly Pub, 20.

2 Bodhari Warsame has indicated to me that "Aysha (Aysha'a) was and still is a (key) trading post between the borders of Ethiopia and Djibouti, and also (was equipped with) an important railway station. That was where völkerschau organizers acquired the travel documents needed for recruited groups from that region, (in order) to evade French and British colonial authorities. So, the place was just a departure point for many groups, some even coming from then British Somaliland and beyond." B. Warsame (personal communication, 19 September 2019) 

3 One advertisement billed the group as: "The most remarkable ethnological educational exhibit ever shown to the civilized world. Earth's most curious people shown in their native haunts and daily pursuits. An impressive congress of savage people gathered from earth's dark corners and the innermost recesses of its primeval nations. These strange specimens of humanity will be seen in their native village at Dreamland, Coney Island, commencing Saturday, May 9th, 1914." [Advertisement. (1914, Mar 21). The Billboard, 26, 179.] In the 1930s Barnum and Bailey hosted over a dozen "Ubangi Savages from Africa's darkest depth [with] mouths and lips as large as those of full-grown crocodiles." The show was billed as the "greatest educational feature of all time" and as with the Somalis, Gumpertz facilitated their importation from Africa.

4 WILL REVIVE DREAMLAND: Samuel Gumpertz returns from Europe surrounded by freaks and a determination to rebuild the famous Coney Island pleasure resort. (1914, Jan 17). The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960), 26, 3. Retrieved from ProQuest.

5 FILE 53,939-36/a, Records of the War Relocation Authority, Washington Office Records, Evacuee case files; Barnum & Bailey, 17W3, Box 2349-50, 15/17/2. "Testimony of Meyer Ouhayoun, 03/14/1914" Record Group 85, E 9; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

6 In a particularly deplorable act of inhumanity in the name of scientific racism, a Mbuti pygmy from Congo named Ota Benga—who had initially been brought to the U.S. in a group for exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—later would end up on semi-permanent exhibit in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in New York.  Eugenically-minded anthropologists had devised the exhibit in order to show what they espoused were earlier stages of human evolution, and so a chimpanzee or orangutan was placed with an African man, behind bars, for paying customers.  The exhibit was a hit with zoo-goers and enthusiastically promoted in newspapers of the day, but was eventually closed due to public outcry from African American clergy.  Benga would eventually find refuge in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he committed suicide in 1916.  A sad end to a reprehensible series of acts.

7 Clemens Radauer's Humanzoos.net provides a comprehensive visual history of the global phenomenon, and includes "over 3000 postcards, photographs, publicity materials, newspaper articles and other items linked to the exhibition of “exotic” people in Europe and the USA." 

8 Eric Ames, “From the Exotic to the Everyday: The Ethnographic Exhibition in Germany,” in Vanessa R. Schwartz and Jeannene M. Przyblyski, eds., The Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Reader (New York and London, 2004), 321.

9 The "living exhibitions" included American Indians, Igorots from the Philippines, Mbuti pygmies from Congo, Aino from Japan and Patagonians from South America. It's worth noting that Issa Somalis were featured in human zoos at Hagenbeck's park on more than ten occasions from 1885 until at least 1929, perhaps more than at any other venue, even though Germany had no stake in territories in the Horn of Africa. Hagenbeck also mounted a Völkerschau Abessinien with ethnic Issa Somalis in 1913, just a year before Sherman's group photo at Ellis Island.

10 FILE 53,939-36/a, Records of the War Relocation Authority, Washington Office Records, Evacuee case files; Barnum & Bailey, 17W3, Box 2349-50, 15/17/2. "Testimony of Frank A. Cook, General Agent and Legal Adviser, Barnum & Bailey, 03/14/1914," Record Group 85, E 9; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

11 ibid. Interview with Sleiman Ali by Samuel D. Barbari on behalf of the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, 08/18/1915.

12 ibid. Letter from S.W. Gumpertz to Byron H. Uhl, Assistant Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, 01/12/1915.

13 ibid. Letter from J.B. Fitzgerald, Immigrant Inspector to Dr. Frederic Howe, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, 12/22/1914.

14 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company,, & World's Fairs and Expositions Collection (University of Pennsylvania). (1914). Condensed facts concerning the Panama-Pacific Universal Exposition, San Francisco, 1915: Celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, 35. Available via the Internet Archive.

15 San Francisco Blue Book; the Fashionable Private Address Directory, San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley-Alameda. 1915. Available via the HathiTrust.

16 "Somali Chief's wife is dead" San Francisco Examiner, March 9, 1915, p.1. 

17 Todd, Frank Morton, & Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company. (1921). The story of the exposition: Being the official history of the international celebration held at San Francisco in 1915 to commemorate the discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the construction of the Panama Canal. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 375, Available via the Internet Archive.

18 The Day Book., August 07, 1915, LAST EDITION, Image 6 via Chronicling America. The theater referred to was Chicago's Rialto Theater at 336 South State Street.

19 "Bad year for Kinks, but old Bahdon's going to eat just the same" Evansville Press [Evansville, Indiana], 11 Aug 1915, p. 6.  "Kink Bahdon" is actually Harid Bahdon, who is identified in a several of the images used in this chapter.

20 FILE 53,939-36/a, Records of the War Relocation Authority, Washington Office Records, Evacuee case files; Barnum & Bailey, 17W3, Box 2349-50, 15/17/2. "Interview with Sleiman Ali by Samuel D. Barbari on behalf of the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island," 08/18/1915 Record Group 85, E 9; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

21 ibid. Testimony of Adiva Koumene in a letter from Ward E. Thompson, Immigrant Inspector to Inspector in Charge, U.S. Immigration Service, Chicago, Illinois, 09/04/1915.

22 ibid. Testimony of Ahmed Mera, 09/04/1915. According to a March 1915 syndicated newspaper article, Mera was also given the name 'Ombopolubus', which allegedly means "seeing in six directions", but I've not been able to verify this statement.

23 ibid. Testimony of Alba Nour, 09/04/1915.

24 Between 1910 and 1935, field workers from the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) visited Coney Island in search of "degenerate heredity" for their research.  A 1922 visit by a 'Training Corps for Eugenical Field Investigators' to Coney Island purported to study "from the standpoint of endocrinology, the freaks found in the side shows of Coney Island" and was proceeded by an extended visit to Ellis Island; the group was led by the noted economist and Eugenics crusader, Irving Fischer, and was received by the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island; a 1921 training course for field workers took the same path from Ellis Island to Coney island.  The ERO's interest in sideshow performers appears to have centered on human aberration (dwarfism, giantism, albinism, congenital deformities, etc.), but they also studied exotic performers, specifically Papuan and Igorot "wild men", from whom they took hair samples or made convoluted pedigrees to prove their base genetics.  A recently released (2019) scan of two previously unidentified photos by Sherman indicates parallelism, perhaps even alignment, with the ERO's work—bolstering the argument that Sherman's photographic work could be used to illustrate eugenic ideas.  One of the photos features a bare-chested Franz Taibosh, a man more popularly known as "Clicko, the wild Dancing South African Bushman"; the other a small group of Issa Somalis at Ellis Island captioned, most likely by Sherman himself, "Wild Abyssinian Cannibals".  Further details on the ERO's work with Coney Island performers can be seen on the Eugenics Archive website and in Tanfer Emin's “Freaks and Geeks: Coney Island Sideshow Performers and Long Island Eugenicists, 1910–1935.” The Long Island Historical Journal 14.1/2 (2002): 1–14.

25 ibid. Memorandum for Mr. Hampton (Department of Labor), 02/04/1916. The warning was never heeded; Gumpertz and Barnum & Bailey continued with the importation of "foreign freaks and natives of strange lands" for decades to come.

26 ibid. Memorandum for the United States Commissioner-General of Immigration" (Anthony J. Caminetti), 08/30/1915.

27 Albin Michel, Lemaire S., Abbattista G., Labanca N. & Thode-Arora H. (2011), "Les villages itinérants ou la démocratisation du 'sauvage'". In: Blanchard P., Boëtsch G. & Snoep N. (Eds.), Exhibitions. L'invention du sauvage. Arles: Actes Sud, 295.

28 Hersi Egeh Gorseh's financial success is discussed briefly in Geshekter, C. (1985). Anti-Colonialism and Class Formation: The Eastern Horn of Africa before 1950. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 18(1), 20.

29 Fellows, D. W., & Freeman, A. A. (1936). This way to the big show: The life of Dexter Fellows. New York: Viking Press, 294-296.

30 See, for example, Pamela Newkirk's Spectacle: The astonishing life of Ota Benga (2016) for a heartbreaking account of Benga's tragic life in the U.S. Like the Issa Somalis, Benga was also on public display in New York, albeit under far more extreme circumstances, and earlier at a World's Fair.

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