Lewis Hine took his iconic Italian family looking for lost baggage at Ellis Island in 1908, but didn't identify the subjects of his photo-study.1 Not widely seen until long after Hine's death in 1940, the photo has gone on to become emblematic of the classic Ellis Island experience, with understandably strong resonance among Italian Americans. It has been reproduced in countless articles, books, posters, and in 2002, the image was even repurposed for a 37 cent U.S. postage stamp. Despite the photo's ubiquity, the subjects' identity has remained obscure for over 100 years. But descendants and relatives of this "Italian family" never forgot.
Looking closely at the photo, a handwritten name is just barely visible on a piece of baggage that sits in front of the mother. This tantalizing detail is what prompted me to investigate the subjects' identities further. But the longish surname wasn't at all straightforward to decipher and the date usually ascribed to the photo, even by Hine himself, proved to be off by three years. So it took some effort to narrow down a manageable set of possibilities, but I arrived at some likely identities and my conclusions were eventually corroborated by family descendants and other sources. I came to find out that it wasn't exactly unknown territory I was entering but rather a path somewhat obscured by time.
Decades after the photo was taken, family members recognized themselves in it when they, by chance, came upon a reproduction of the photo in a magazine story about immigration and Ellis Island. But there was little they could do with the information—and before the digital age, no easy way to communicate the facts or claim their identity. So they placed a copy of the photo on the wall and kept the story of their personal connection to the portrait within their own circle of family and friends. The situation appears to have remained unchanged for decades to come.
Then in 1985—albeit after everyone in the photo had passed away—full attention was given to the subjects in Hine's iconic image: they were identified by former neighbors and friends in both a newspaper article and as the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, titled "Italian-American Traditions: Family and Community". But the "new" details, now more than 30 years old, do not seem to have made their way to the metadata on web-based platforms (i.e. digital archives), news reporting, or even recently published books of Hine's photography.2
It's next to impossible to find the photo associated with the family names and vice versa, let alone any details about who they were beyond their names. Part of the reason for this is that sometime after 1910 the family's started to spell their name as 'Justave' instead of 'Custozzo', making any search into already indexed records problematic. Combined with the fact that Anna's maiden name (Sciacchitano) is the only reliable data point, the best way to make the connection between the two names was to try and revisit 1900s-era Ellis Island through archival sources.
But there's much more to the story besides the names, and a good starting point for what's been missed is the family's point of emigration in 1908.
Ellis Island: L'isola della speranza, l'Isola delle lacrime...
After a two-week voyage from Palermo on the S.S. Regina d'Italia, the family arrived at Ellis Island on 16 May 1908. It was the peak era for immigration to the United States. Nearly 600,000 immigrant arrivals were processed at Ellis Island in 1908 alone and Italy was consistently providing more immigrants to the U.S. than any other European country. It wouldn't be long before more than ten percent of the entire nation’s foreign-born population had Italian roots. But just as the Italian population was increasing dramatically in major cities all across the U.S., so too was a decidedly anti-Italian prejudice that would follow the family from Ellis Island to their adoptive country.
The ship's manifest reveals their identities as follows: Anna Custozzo [née Sciacchitano], b. 1872; Paolo Custozzo, b. 1897; Maria Custozzo, b. 1905 and Domenico Custozzo, b. 1907. All were born in Santa Margherita di Belice, Sicily and were traveling to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where they would join the husband of Anna and father of the children, Giovanni Custozzo.
Without the name showing in the photo (even just barely), there would be literally no way to determine the subjects' identity. Did Hine leave it in as a clue for the viewer? Hard to say, but according to the ship's manifest, 13-year-old Paolo was the only family member able to read and write; perhaps it was he who wrote his mother's maiden name, Anna Sciacchitano, on the one bag in the photo that they managed to locate.There was another family member, not photographed by Hine, that was traveling with the Custozzo family. Anna's 71-year old father, Paolo Sciacchitano, was also on the ship and listed on another page of the manifest, just a couple of lines before the entry for Anna and her family. The slight distance between the father and his daughter's family in the manifest might have been intentional, unplanned, or unavoidable. There's a good chance of the former because traveling with, and being responsible for, her father could have put the whole family at greater risk of being detained or even debarred from entry. Both might have realized the risk, and for this reason kept some distance between the elderly man and a mother traveling alone with three young children.
Or this is simply a part of the Sciacchitano-Custozzo story we cannot know.Remarkably, it might just be because of Paolo Sciacchitano that Hine made his chance encounter with the Custozzo family. Paolo, and not the rest of the family, was detained by immigration inspectors upon arrival and held before for a Board of Special Inquiry to determine whether he should be allowed to enter the U.S. The cause? He was deemed a "Likely Public Charge" (LPC) and this designation was going to at least delay his processing; in relatively rare cases it could lead to deportation. Paolo didn't have much money to his name but stated that he was going to join his son (Gaspare) in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Doctors had certified his good health and Paolo already had a rail ticket to his final destination; in fact, he was heading to the same street address as his daughter's family.
Perhaps it was his age that made him a potential liability to the inspectors. Given the rampant ageism, discrimination, and racism built into immigrant processing during the 1900s, being a 71-year old "Southern Italian" at Ellis Island put him in a particularly risky category that could easily have led to deportation. Paolo Sciacchitano was detained for two days and it's quite possible that Anna and her family waited those two days, not in detention, but in another part of Ellis Island (e.g. the Barracks Building) until Paolo was released. However, interviews with family members conducted during the 1980s—long before the mass digitization and indexing of ship manifests—tell a slightly different version of events. One family member's recollection was that Paolo Sciacchitano was deported because of an eye infection and that Anna and her children were picked up by her husband, but was running two hours late. According to the manifest and special inquiry records, although Paolo Sciacchitano was detained for two days, he was ultimately released. Subsequent records indicate that he indeed went onto his son's home but died just four years after his arrival in the U.S.
If it was even possible, Anna and her family may have waited for her father to be released, but if the distance they seemed to display towards each other was intentional—kept up in order to prevent additional scrutiny from being applied to the family as a whole—then they might have went on without him. Upon his release, Paolo Sciacchitano would have been met by his son, Gaspare, at the Barge Office in Lower Manhattan or received assistance from an Italian immigrant aid society stationed at Ellis Island, then traveled by train to his family's home in Scranton.
In either case, waiting for Paolo Sciacchitano's release is likely what gave Hine the opportunity to capture the Custozzo family.
Hine made another photo at Ellis Island, captioned English family, that's been definitively dated 16 May 1908—the same day that Paolo Sciacchitano and the Custozzo's arrived. It is then likely that both photos were taken on the same day, giving new insight into Hine's movement between his subjects.
The subjects of Hine's English family have been identified by family descendants. Remarkably, this family of ten, who arrived on a different steamer from the Custozzo's, was also separated on the ship's manifest; the mother (Retty Maria Sympson) was on one page, while the father (John Sympson) and eight children were listed on another. The separation on the manifest also would mean that they were processed in a different order, apparently leading to some confusion while the family's father searched for the mother. This "English Family" was waiting for their mother to be located, oddly reminiscent of the Italian family trying to locate their "lost baggage." But in their case, no family members were detained.
It's likely that Hine didn't know about Paolo Sciacchitano's detention and that his perceived "worried expressions" on the Custozzo's faces might have come more from the uncertainty about the fate of their father/grandfather, rather than that of the "lost baggage."
By age 14, Paolo was out of school and working full time as a sweeper in a silk mill while his father (Giovanni) worked odd jobs. The other children were at school and Anna kept house. They lived in a predominantly Italian American neighborhood but with a number of African American families intermingled on surrounding street blocks, including where the Custozzo family lived. The neighborhood was solidly working class and most of the Custozzo's would live at this same street address for more than three decades to come.
During the 1910s, Lewis Hine visited a number of silk mills in Scranton. There he would photographically document the oppressive and abusive labor practices industry was subjecting children to, just as he'd been doing in coal mines, factories and textile mills all across the U.S.
Hine was indefatigable in his efforts to draw attention to injustices, particularly to the most vulnerable, that were hiding in plain sight. His work took him from immigrants' dreams and tears at the Ellis Island studio to the 14-hour work day of juveniles in oppressive factories, and to children harnessed to coal cars beneath ground. He captured the inhumanity of the work simultaneously with the irrepressible spirit his subjects evoked in hundreds of astounding portraits, many still in wide circulation.
Hine's visuals were so strong they actually made a difference and helped organizations like the National Child Labor Committee to successfully lobby for the reform of state child labor laws.
The oldest of the Custozzo boys (14-year old Paolo) was working in a Scranton silk mill at the time of Hine's visit, so it's conceivable that their paths crossed again. If they met, did they recognize one another? It had only been two years since their serendipitous meeting at Ellis Island, and in that time Paolo had quickly gone from immigrant to immigrant laborer. The irony of Hine possibly coming into contact with the same family member, years later but under equally precarious circumstances, is astounding. We don't have evidence of such a second convergence, but it's clear that the trajectory of both the social reformer (Hine) and his perpetual subject (society's dispossessed, neglected, abused, or marginalized) would always overlap.
Paolo went on to serve in WWI and died before turning 40 in 1937. His mother, Anna, died just a year before in 1936; Domenico in 1970 and Maria in 1975. All became U.S. citizens.
After contacting descendants of the Custozzo family in 2021, something entirely unexpected was revealed: the family had kept a 5-foot long wooden trunk that Anna and her family brought with them from Italy.
More than 110 years later, it was still there in Scranton, Pennsylvania—the same city where the Sciacchitano-Custozzo family had originally settled. Remarkably, it wasn't the baggage visible in Hine's photo.
Was it the "lost baggage"?
Such a large trunk would have been kept in another compartment on the S.S. Regina d'Italia, then transferred to a ferry that took the family from the steamship to Ellis Island, and finally walked over by the family to the main building. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, passengers would temporarily stow their baggage on the ground floor of the main building while they trekked through the inspection process. The spot where incoming baggage was stowed is where Hine took his portrait of the Custozzo's.
Given the fact that Paolo Sciacchitano was detained, one can assume that the rest of the family waited for word on his status, a process that must have taken a significant amount of time, and, undoubtedly, confusion since it's unlikely the family spoke any English. The Custozzo's baggage was probably moved to another part of the building because of the delay, so as to avoid mixing with what must have been a massive amount of incoming baggage from the next steamship arrivals—not unlike what happens today with luggage at baggage claim areas at busy airports when flights are delayed.
Unfortunately, we don't have a photo of the other missing piece, i.e. Paulo Sciacchitano, but seeing the trunk brings the title of Hine's photo full circle. We can now see a bit more of what wasn't lost, of what has endured physically—as much as it does in memory and in the public record.
1 Hine's photo-study has also been preserved in a mounted version and alternately captioned: "Italian immigrants at Ellis Island - 1905. Lost baggage is the cause of their worried expressions. At the height of immigration the entire first floor of the administration building was used to store baggage." During the 1910s and 1920s, Hine appears to have shared (or sold) negatives of his work with the Methodist Church Board of Missions, complete with log notes, captions or annotations. The General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church has recently made available a massive photo collection that includes several dozen uncredited works by Hine, some of them unique or with unique annotations, that offer startling new insight into both photographer's work. In the Methodist Church Board of Missions' print, Hine's photo is captioned "Immigrants. Italian family, mother and children. Ellis Island. N.Y. City." While small prints of Hine's work have been kept by the Church, unfortunately the negatives and any correspondence between Hine and the Church have not been preserved.
2 See: Walther, P., & Hine, L. W. (2018). Lewis W. Hine: America at work, p.89.
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This page references:
- Exhibit tells the story of Italian immigrants
- LEWIS W. HINE Italian family looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island, 
- Marca da Bollo da Lire Due al 'Fondo per l’Emigrazione'
- Custozzo family: arrival from Italy on the SS Regina d'Italia [16 May 1908]
- Paolo Sciacchitano: arrival at Ellis Island from Italy on the SS Regina d'Italia [16 May 1908]
- LEWIS W. HINE Silk worker, c. 1910
- Custozzo family in the 1910 Census
- Custozzo family in Scranton