AUGUSTUS F. SHERMAN Untitled, 19041 2017-03-11T04:02:48-08:00 Louis Takács 7841be6ee4f860ae11fdabc342ec4865ab90e4c0 16062 13 The smiles on their faces belie the fact that this family would spend nearly three months in detention at Ellis Island and ultimately be deported. plain 2021-10-21T10:52:20-07:00 The New York Public Library Digital Collections 1904 New York, New York Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Servian Gipsies." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Louis Takács 7841be6ee4f860ae11fdabc342ec4865ab90e4c0
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Serbian Gypsies 
"...this land is locked against them, rich or poor"
The Ištvanović family had already traveled half the world by the time they reached Ellis Island from Buenos Aires on 23 July 1904. Most likely Rudari Roma originally from the city of Šabac in northwestern Serbia, their surname had been latinized as 'Estevanovich' after migrating to Argentina in the early 1900s but their ever-roaming spirit remained. Stepping aboard the S.S. Tennyson for a month-long, 7500 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic, this group of 20 were venturing together to join a scattered but resilient network of Roma peoples who had already established a foothold in North America. But to join their family and friends in St. Louis, the group would first have to carefully navigate and overcome obstacles they immediately faced while trying to enter the Golden Door. Upon landing, the entire group was detained, held for special inquiry, and each family member was summarily declared a "Likely Public Charge". Although they would hire legal council, successfully present additional family members to testify on their behalf, and produce supporting documentation to fight the claim, they were unable to overcome unwritten law which singled out Roma for exclusion. As they waited in legal limbo, heads of each family filed several formal appeals to overturn the decision, to no avail. Sherman captured at least three portraits of the family during their 10+ weeks in detention before a final deportation order was handed down, blocking their entry and returning the entire group to Argentina.
Between the laws and statutes regulating immigration to the United States, lies practice. While there was nothing on the books that should have prevented Roma from entering the at Immigration Ports across the United States, there was a concerted behind-the-scenes effort to constrain entry. The lengthy archival paper trail that accompanies the Estevanovich family's time at Ellis Island exposes the federal government's covert tactics in excluding Roma from entry. Decidedly unhidden, however, was public press coverage of Roma immigration and settlement; throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Roma were regularly characterized in the press as “undesirable immigrants”, a people who could never be fully assimilated or Americanized.
Sherman’s Serbian Gypsies portraits taken at Ellis Island would serve as photo stock for visually illustrating the face of Roma exclusion in the press, books, magazines, as well as for lantern slides accompanying public lectures. The public could then rest assured that immigration authorities were keeping America safe from the “Gypsy menace”.
Ironically, the extra (negative) attention Roma and other ethnic groups received in the media is what makes the work of deciphering Sherman's Ellis Island portraits possible.
Assembling the clues
Captions or annotations were sometimes included on early prints of Sherman's photographs. Sherman made some of the these in his own hand on the photos, their verso or by typing in light areas of a print; others who played some role in a photo's distribution captioned them as well, possibly years after the photos were shot. Such annotations may appear to be invitations to explore identity further, but in reality many are vague, inaccurate, misleading—or they simply record an ethnicity, reflecting a preoccupation with racial "types" which passed as a form of scientific evidence during the first half of the 20th century. The date for Sherman's Serbian Gypsies has been recorded or ascribed to different photographic prints as 1902, 1905 and 1906; the image has also been captioned Rome Family, Hungarian Gypsies and Slovenian Gypsies on different prints or as captioned in reproductions appearing in the press and other media. The conflicting dates and ascribed ethnicities makes research into the subjects' identity prohibitive, but after discovering that Sherman's photos had a habit of turning up in a variety of contemporaneous publications (newspapers, books, periodicals, government documents), it becomes easier for the researcher to set boundaries by comparing dates and usage.1
Locating any relatively concurrent use or commentary is an essential step in deciphering anonymous but widely circulated photographs. In the case of Sherman's Serbian Gypsies, there were a number, with one standing out as the likely earliest use of the photo: a New York Times article from 12 February 1905 titled "Four Years of Progress at Ellis Island". This full-page article reproduced the above image with the following caption: 'Hungarian Gypsies, all of whom were deported'. Though the caption wasn't specific as to when the subjects were deported, the publication date was first clue to help me narrow the search and eliminate some of the attributed dates. Because the photo was shot outdoors and the subjects are hardly dressed for a New York winter, my first assumption was that the photo dated from at least the summer or early fall of the previous year. Sherman started his photographic work in April 1904, partly at the behest of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, so I started a more focused search within this timeframe.
Digging deeper into newspapers and periodicals from the time period for any mention about the arrival and/or deportation of Roma peoples, a few patterns quickly became apparent: Roma were periodically getting press and all of it was disparaging, playing up racist stereotypes that persist to this day. Newspaper articles asserted that Roma were kidnapping babies, casting spells on whites, stealing, menacing upright citizens, poisoning wells—and more and more were slipping across the borders, or at least trying to do so. 1904 was a particularly busy year for this ethnic group in the U.S. and Canadian press. Dozens of syndicated stories reported on their constant movements, suspicious activities, and deportations. Among the reports, few have anything remotely positive to say about the behavior of Roma in North America.
After many false starts, I eventually located two stories in The New York Times and The Evening World that appeared to correspond with Sherman's photo and caption. As it turned out, the brief article from August 1904 gave some crucial detail while leaving out certain key facts, simultaneously revealing both the institutional and popular prejudice of the time. The fact that the subsequent 1905 article referenced the group's earlier deportation indicated that the NY Times journalists were already familiar with the story, or that Sherman supplied them with that information along with the photograph when interviewing William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, and others at Ellis Island for the lengthy 1905 article. In any case, deportations were rare at Ellis Island, typically running at about 2% of all arrivals, so the chances of a mismatch became less likely. Of course newspapers didn't report on all deportations, but ones that were unusual or exotic in terms of ethnic composition, (Roma, Chinese, South Asians, North Africans, etc.), violent or salacious, garnered special attention in the press.
As a rule, Roma migrants didn't hide their characteristic style of dress and often traveled in large groups composed of immediate and extended family members, invariably attracting near instant attention from the press. Truthfulness and objectivity in their reporting was another matter.
Given the New York press' fairly regular reportage on Ellis Island related stories, there must have been well-established lines of communication between Ellis Island officials and newspapers. Or beat reporters were frequent visitors to the island, where they would wait for an angle on an unusual detention/deportation story to mine; or to shock readers with tales of immigrant hoards stricken with dangerous contagions; or of public charges poised to drain the resources of the state; or of menacing undesirables posing a grave threat to society—all of which required the Golden Door to be guarded so as to preserve law and order. Sometimes all of these elements could be combined in one piece, with one ethnic group.2
Look at the picture
The NY Times article speaks of the impending deportation of "Twenty Servian Gypsies" and gives the date of their arrival on the S.S. Tennyson as 23 July 1904. After cross-referencing all of the source material, including records certified by the Tennyson ship's master and immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island along with other documents discussed below, I concluded that the families were one and the same. There are 13 people depicted in Sherman's photo from what appears to be four separate families. Husbands stand behind wives with some of their children sitting, most of them looking away. Another photo isolates one part of the extended family, reversing the roles and shows the husband seated and mother with daughter standing. These were posed photos with a colorfully-dressed and exotic ethnic group who needed no props nor symbolic backgrounds for it to captivate the viewer, unlike a number of other photos by Sherman. In general, the subjects appear quite at ease; some smile while others look at the camera intently but not with much concern. Whether they were "proper" immigrants or not, they were the show.
The Tennyson's ship's manifest for this date records the arrival of 20 members of the extended Estevanovich family: four adult males, four adult females and 12 children, seven of which were two and under. All were listed as 'Servians' originally sailing from Buenos Aires with six stops at ports in Uruguay, Brazil and Barbados. Four of the adults were literate and all were judged to be in good health and not to require further physical examination. The men were all listed as laborers and their last place of residence was given as Buenos Aires. Together they carried with them an enormous sum of cash: $595 = over $18,500 in 2021 dollars.
Subsequent documents reveled that some or all of the family was from Šabac, Serbia, while five of the youngest children were born in Argentina. After living in Argentina for several years, it appears that the family name was latinized from the Serbian Ištvanović to Estevanovich or Stevanovich.
A steamship company clerk that processed the group before embarkation at the port of origin added most of the details in dark ink, while an immigration officer at Ellis Island added additional observations and amendments in the various fields using a lighter pen. The acronym "SI" was appended to the left of their names, indicating that the emigrants were to be held before a Board of Special Inquiry to assess whether they should be allowed to enter the U.S. as immigrants. All family members were marked as such.
According to the manifest, the final destination for the entire Estevanovich family was St. Louis, Missouri, where two unnamed brothers were staying or working at the Jacob Weiss Saloon, an establishment owned by an Austro-Hungarian immigrant. Their stated final destination also happened to be host to the great event of the year: The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, i.e. the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, which had begun just a few months before the family's arrival. Based on the manifest, it's impossible to say what the group planned to do once they arrived in St. Louis, but the Fair just might have had something to do with their emigration.3
One of the women was pregnant and two of the children were less than two months old, further complicating what was already a precarious journey. They had spent three to four weeks traveling by steamship [in steerage] up the coast of South America, through the Caribbean until reaching New York, but their journey wasn't yet halfway over in terms of distance and just beginning in terms of duration.
Discrimination, Detention, Deportation
Corresponding with the NY Times article, an entry on the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry sheet notes that all 20 members of the Estevanovich family were ultimately deported back to Argentina, again on the Tennyson and at the expense of the steamship company.
But not as immediately as the Times article implied and this delay is what possibly led to the right circumstance for the photographs to coalesce. The Estevanovichs didn't leave Ellis Island until 4 October 1904, over 2.5 months from the day they landed, giving Sherman plenty of opportunity to photograph the group. Sherman happened to be well-placed within Ellis Island to monitor detainees; during the early 1900s, he clerked at Special Inquiry hearings and appeals against deportation orders; eventually, he went on to supervise all appeals support staff. Such a position gave him a bird's eye view not of the flood of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island but rather a specific class of immigrants: those in detention.
The Estevanovich family was detained on the grounds that if allowed to enter the U.S., they would become a "Likely Public Charge" (LPC). LPC was a frequently employed but in this case entirely disingenuous claim considering that the family was flush with money, were joining immediate family, and were in good health.4 Regardless, the Estevanovichs were unable to overcome the LPC charge.
The final dismissals came over a week after the NY Times article claimed the decision had already been made. The appeals took longer to accommodate, in part because the family was waiting for two witnesses (a brother and a son/nephew of three of the Estevanovich men) to arrive and submit sworn affidavits on the group's behalf. In any case, denial meant deportation and even after four hearings before the Board of Special Inquiry on 24 July (all families), one rehearing on 31 July (Andrija/Andreas) and four appeals delivered on 19 August (all families), nothing changed.
Although there was no state provision, laws or federal statute that specifically singled out Roma for exclusion at ports of entry, the real reasons for their detention and ultimate deportation clearly had more to do with race-based discrimination rather than any regulatory provision put in place to limit the influx of public charges into the United States. As the Times article bluntly noted: "...they were not desirable immigrants." Other statements from Ellis Island officials made during the hearings would echo the language in the Times.
We know this because transcripts of the Special Inquiry hearings and related documents for the Estevanovich family have been preserved by NARA—only because the initial negative outcomes had been appealed—offering a fascinating glimpse into the forgone conclusions of the board. In each case, after a half dozen or so perfunctory questions by two inspectors and the chair of the inquiry, a similar motion ordering deportation was abruptly made for each family. Below is an excerpt from Jeverem's transcript, which is virtually identical to the other three:
Mr. Paul: How did you support yourself before you came to this country?
Jeverem Estevanovich: We have been farm hands
Mr. Paul: Did you ever attempt to enter this country before and were refused admission and deported at that time?
Jeverem Estevanovich: I have never been in this country before.
Mr. Paul: I move the exclusion of the alien immigrants before the Board as likely to become a public charge. This alien is encumbered with his wife, who is pregnant and two very young children; he has an inadequate sum of money to preclude the possibility of their becoming public charges until such time as they would become self-supporting if at all. This class of immigrants are as a rule wandering, professional beggars, fortune tellers, and on the whole very undesirable for admission to this country. 5
The motion was seconded, then the chair declared that the aliens are unanimously excluded as likely to become public charges and ordered deported at the expense of the steamship company which brought them to the U.S. The line of questioning ended with the motion's acceptance. Hearings for each family head took place on 24 July, just a day after the group's arrival at Ellis Island. With each testimony, a copy of a letter from the Consulado de la Republica Argentine en St. Louis, MO, dated six weeks before the family's arrival, was entered into the record. The letter was sent to Commissioner Williams, prior to the group's arrival on the Tennyson. In a perfectly unequivocal manner, it stated that the entire family was expected by family members in St. Louis—who were ready to accommodate them—and that the group should come to the consulate for any assistance in locating their relatives. Though the letter appears to have not been discussed to any substantial degree, it nonetheless shows a high level of preparation on the part of the group. How many other emigrants could have produced such a document?
Did your wife ever tell fortunes?
On 31 July, a rehearing was held for the case of Andreas Estevanovich and family, apparently at the request of Commissioner Williams. Andreas was ostensibly the head of the entire group, and he was being accused by a "man from the Deporting Division" of having attempted to enter the country in November 1903, only to have been denied entry and deported; Andreas denied the claim made by the inspector in this and subsequent statements. Through the proceedings, we learn that two of his sons and a daughter were already in the U.S. and that one of them, 25-year old Stefan Stevanovich, had traveled from St. Louis to Ellis Island in order to serve as a witness for his father (Andreas) during the rehearing.
Chairman Coe: On what ship did you come to this port sometime last fall?
Andreas Estevanovich: I don't know, I could not tell.
Chairman Coe: What month was it you were sent back?
Andreas Estevanvich: I could not tell you; I do not recollect it.
Chairman Coe: Was it in October or November?
Andreas Estevanvich: (no answer)
Chairman Coe: What was the name under which you came her last fall?
Andreas Estevanvich: Only one name I have.
[Stefan Stevanovich is sworn in]
Mr. Hise: Have you any money saved?
Stefan Stevanovich: Yes, sir
Mr. Hise: How much?
Stefan Stevanovich: $500
Mr. Hise: Where is that money?
Stefan Stevanovich: With me
Mr. Hise: Show it?
Stefan Stevanovich: (Shows $500 in gold)
Mr. Jackson: What have you been doing in St. Louis?
Stefan Stevanovich: Working at any kind of work, underground, in factories, and any kind of work. I will pay for him if I have to pay $500, he is my father.
Mr. Jackson: These aliens came to this country on the S.S. Tennyson, November 20, 1903; were made S.I., and were excluded by a Board of Special Inquiry on November 23, 1903 as persons liable to become public charges. At that hearing the opinion of the Board was unanimous, and, aside from that, special stress was laid upon the fact that "if there is such a thing as an undesirable class of immigrants that come to this country, the immigrants before the Board are certainly within that class." [...] I also believe that they do belong to a peculiarly undesirable class. [...] My opinion is that he [Andreas Estevanovich] is a gypsy or has maintained himself after the fashion of a gypsy. I move to exclude them as likely to become a public charge.
Mr. Hise: There being no evidence submitted before the Board that these people are other than what they profess to be, viz, farmers; also the fact that the man, to my mind, is capable of supporting his family; he shows £41, which he says he has obtained by his own exertions; he has three children in this country, one of whom appears here and exhibits $500, in gold, of his earnings; he appears to be a hard working man. Believing there is no likelihood of these people becoming public charges, I, therefore, move to admit them.
Chairman Coe: They are excluded.
(FORMER DECISION SUSTAINED) 6
The one dissenting voice throughout all of the hearings came from Mr. Hise and his opinion was referenced in subsequent documents filed on behalf of the family, to no avail.
Despite the outcome, Stefan remained in New York and together with another relative of Andreas who had just come forward, a younger brother named Thomas Michael, they retained the services of an attorney from a Manhattan law firm to represent the entire Estevanovich family in an attempt to reverse the decision of the Board.
The head of each Estevanovich family wished to formally appeal the Board of Inquiry's initial decision and rehearing, but new evidence would be needed. Stefan and Thomas made sworn affidavits in support of an appeal to be made before another convening of the Board of Special Inquiry. Thomas' affidavit stated that he had been in the U.S. since the mid 1880s, that he and his brothers were all born in "Shabats, Servia" (i.e. Šabac, Serbia) but was now a naturalized U.S. citizen who at no point during his stay in the U.S. had became a public charge, that he was a successful small business owner as a copper smith in New York (he had $5000 in savings), and was willing to support the Estevanovich family financially should the need arise. Additional evidence was entered, including a copies of telegrams, submitted by Stefan, from the Argentine Consulate in St. Louis dating from January and June 1904 that indicated Andreas had not attempted to enter the U.S. in November of the previous year. Within a week, the sworn affidavits and evidence were sent to both Commissioner Williams at Ellis Island, as well as to the U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration in Washington D.C., Frank Pierce Sargent.
On the same day that attorneys for the Estevanovich family submitted their first affidavit, it appears that Ellis Island officials unsuccessfully attempted to deport the entire group on the same ship they came in on, i.e. the S.S. Tennyson. According to a letter by agents of the ship to Commissioner Williams, the Tennyson could not accommodate such a large group at the last minute, so they were sent back to detention. Within a few days, the affidavits were submitted and received. The four briefs filed on behalf of the appellants concisely address the unfounded statements made by Board officials and offer sound arguments against their unfairness. Moreover, the prejudice of Board officials was called out by attorneys for the family in a manner unusually forthright for the time:
There is nothing in the law prohibiting gipsies, whatever that term signifies, from entering this country. The law does require the exclusion of 'professional beggars'; but these immigrants are neither gipsies nor beggars. There is not the slightest evidence in the case to support the statements of the inspector...
The law of the land does not permit even aliens to be excluded because they belong to an 'undesirable class of immigrants.' [...] There is nothing in the statue that gives the Board of Inquiry the power arbitrarily to determine who is and who is not desirable for admission to this country. Their duty is to administer and obey the law. 7
The attorneys were correct, but in the end their arguments mattered little. In this case, the Board had deferred judgement on the next steps to the Department of Commerce and Labor in Washington D.C., where officials reviewed the material and quickly set out a course of action, recommending deportation on two flimsy provisions that state:
'If he elects to appeal from said order of deportation, he must...file notice of such appeal promptly'
(Rule 9 of Department Regulations)
'No appeal will be considered after any such alien has in consequence of an adverse decision of a Board of Special Inquiry, been transferred from an immigrant station to be deported' (Rule 8 of Department Regulations)
The Department must, therefore, decline to entertain the appeal, leaving the decision of the Board of Special Inquiry as the final adjudication as to the right of the appellants to land in the United States. 8
And so because the group did not act promptly with their appeal (a dubious claim nowhere mentioned before) and because the physical act of having the group being transferred out of detention and taken to the pier for deportation violated Rule 8—despite the fact that the group was not accepted on board the Tennyson—is what ultimately nullified their final appeal. None of the letters between Ellis Island and Washington officials acknowledge the new affidavits or evidence. The case ended abruptly on the technicalities referenced above, most specifically Rule 8: the letter from the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor to the Commissioner of Ellis Island was dated 18 August; all appeals were dismissed on 19 August.
Despite the quick dismissal, the group remained on Ellis Island for another six weeks, but no additional records concerning their detention are available. All that seems to remain are some notes entered on the August ship's manifest detailing their deportation, including for a newborn.
Maria Estevanovich, age 24, gave birth to her child (technically a U.S. citizen, or stateless?) in the hospital at Ellis Island on 19 September. The unnamed child was barely two weeks old when this extended family of now more than 20 was deported, but that wasn't the end of the Estevanovich's attempts to emigrate to the U.S., nor for other groups of Roma.
Roma on the Tennyson and Carpathia
Incredibly, the same passenger liner that carried the Estevanovich family to Ellis Island in 1904 also transported other extended families of East European Roma from South America to the U.S. Starting even before the Estevanovich's attempted emigration and continuing until at least the 1910s, some of these would-be immigrants would also be deported back to their port of embarkation—and would again have their detention and deportation reported on in the New York press.9
From another ship, a story would emerge that overlaps in time and overall narrative with the Estevanovich deportation—at more than ten times the scale. In early September 1904, when the Estevanovich's were still in detention awaiting deportation, a packed steamer sailing from Liverpool arrived at the Ellis Island immigration station. It was the S.S. Carpathia and it carried over 2000 emigrants from all over Europe. More than 200 Roma were among the passengers in steerage, constituting what could very well be the largest single attempted migration of Roma to North America.10 According to reporting at the time (which claimed to be citing immigration officials), it would also eventually amount to the largest deportation of a single ethnic group arriving at Ellis Island. By the end of September, about two-thirds would be deported but not before attracting a number of sensationalist news pieces in nationally syndicated press. Who were they? Mostly Russian Roma, many of which had already traveled widely across the Europe and even the Americas. The migration must have taken a great deal of planning and coordination—and might have been hastened by the Britain's increasingly intolerant immigration policies—but the group was described by their self-proclaimed spokesperson/interpreter, José Michel (i.e. 26-year old Joe Mitchell), as "...not Gypsies, but just a band of rovers."11
Others, including additional members of the extended Estevanovich family, would attempt to emigrate to the U.S. in 1911. Unlike many groups of Roma who tried the same, this group of 25 met with success in legally entering the U.S. and we can say with certainty that at least some of them went on to become naturalized citizens. Two ship's manifests from 1910 and 1911 which document the emigration of this second group of Estevanovich's, first from Cuba, then via Puerto Rico to Ellis Island, help to reveal a great deal more about their identities and origins.
The July 1910 ship's manifest is incredible document, filled with barely legible but fascinating insights into these well-traveled Roma. The inspection regime of customs officials is also exposed, with telling nuances about immigration procedures in U.S. controlled Insular areas.
Here we see one family of 25, most born in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, but with some born in France, Brazil and two different cities in a newly independent Cuba. At least two separate immigration inspectors added details in Spanish and English. Costa Estevanovich was apparently the head of the family and he carried with him the savings of the entire group: $4000, which is a staggering $115,000 in 2021 dollars.
According to notes in the manifest, the group had no permanent residence and had been away from Europe for 13 years. Their final destination was given as Chicago Illinois, but Costa “[couldn't] give [an] address, except [that] it is known as “Gypsy Place”. The occupation of the adults in the group was recorded as 'artista' in Spanish and 'actor' in English and the inspector blithely noted that they carried with them "Certificates for Chicago via New York...except for 2 dead ones."
The group made their way from Ponce, Puerto Rico to New York in January 1911. Two more children were born to the family by the time of this second voyage.
Despite the long history of Roma being turned away at immigration stations and border points throughout the U.S., this part of the Estevanovich family appears to have passed through the inspection regime at Ellis Island without incident. No detention, no special inquiry hearing, no scandalous reporting in newspapers—no deportation. Some, perhaps even all, went on to becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. While it remains unclear just how this family is related to the 1904 Estevanovich arrival, it does point to the fact that both as individuals and as a group, Romani peoples tenaciously found ways to the U.S. during the early 20th century.12
Geljan dade tu dureste,
Te barjova, bizo tute
tu te na džana
To amal avilo
Me pučhav le, dade,
Dal' khere tu ka ave
Ti slika dikhava,
Tuke me rovava
You went, oh father, far away
You left us,
To grow up without you
Without knowing you
Your friend came
I asked him, oh father,
Whether you'll come home
I look at your picture
And cry to you 13
Sherman's two images of the extended Estevanovich family date from 1904, making them some of his earliest portraits of Ellis Island arrivals. Shortly after he took the photos, Sherman would be regularly photographing aliens awaiting deportation, perhaps as part of his official duties at Ellis Island. It wouldn't be long before his images would travel beyond the island.
By 1905, Sherman's portraits were turning up in a variety of print publications, including newspapers, government documents, books and several periodicals. Published in 1906, Edward Steiner's convoluted but essentially pro-immigration On the trail of the immigrant, featured Sherman's Serbian Gypsies group portrait with the dubious caption: "WITHOUT THE PALE — Not always is the adverse decision of the Commissioner so easy as in the case of some Servian gypsies who, deported from New York, found their way to Canada and quickly made police records." While other captions also highlight the group's deportation, this is the only one I've discovered that makes a claim about what happened to them after leaving Ellis Island.14
Besides the contemporaneous pickup of Sherman's photos, both Estevanovich portraits above have been reworked by contemporary artists such as Catherine Bancroft and Ai Weiwei, who were drawn to their old world/new world ambiguity during the latest, ugly iteration of the US's long-running debate around immigration. It's not clear whether they 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 their work even more powerful—particularly if the often complicated and heartbreaking backstories can be brought to light.15
By untangling the family's suspended time at Ellis Island, the Estevanovich narrative reveals more about unwritten U.S. policies of discrimination and exclusion rather than immigration, settlement and citizenship—but the concepts have been persistently connected over the centuries of immigration to the U.S. While we only have a fragment of this particular group's long journey, having it illuminates the complex and frustrating path many immigrants had to navigate—especially ones extra-judiciously deemed undesirable—and upends the way one should read Sherman's portraits, no matter the form they're presented in.
It's been over 100 years since Sherman stood behind his large, cumbersome box camera and captured this determined group of would-be immigrants on the roof garden of Ellis Island. It's hard to imagine that either he or his subjects could know that at the beginning of the 20th century the images produced would outlive their own lives, but not the policies and prejudice that brought them together in the first place.
A few years after the deportation of the Estevanovich family, some traces emerge of two of Andreas' sons in an unexpected place: Butte, Montana.
Stefan, who appeared at Andreas' rehearing, and his brother Milan were part of a large group of 'Servian Gypsies' living just outside of Butte that were arrested for vagrancy and ordered to leave the city. In a typically dubious news article, other claims of theft, begging and stealing wood were also made. The story is fragmentary and it remains unclear what became of the group after their time in Montana. However, national news reporting from rural America to Ellis Island kept consistent pace with with American Gypsies' shifting geography—invariably leveling accusations of public nuisance, theft, larceny, kidnapping and violence. It would be decades before their portrayal in the press would approach even a negligible degree of fairness.
From the 1920s on, the Estevanovich family name can be found in U.S. Census returns and vital records, particularly around Alameda County, California.16
1 Sherman's Serbian Gypsies first appeared in a New York Times article from 12 February 1905 titled "Four Years of Progress at Ellis Island", but the photo quickly turned up in a variety of other publications, including:
- "Is there an immigrant peril? The popular impression that the scum of Europe invades the United States vigorously combated by qualified experts", The National civic federation review. v.2 no. 3 (June 1905)
- "Exclusion or suspension of immigration necessary", The Railroad Trainman v.22:2 (Sept 1905)
- "Good and bad immigrants at our gates", The Christian Herald (1 Nov 1905)
- Grosvenor, G. Hovey., National Geographic Society (U.S.). (1907). Scenes from every land: a collection of 250 illustrations from the National geographic magazine, picturing the people, natural phenomena, and animal life in all parts of the world. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society
- Caffin, Dorothy, "The Stranger within our gates", The Public health nurse. v.11 no.9 (September 1919). Published 15 years after it was taken, this journal's use of the photo simultaneously shows the persistence of Sherman's work and yet another genre of uptake. It is an alternate (re-touched) photo of the same group of 13, one not preserved elsewhere.
2 In 1920, the New York City News Association hired Remsen Crawford to literally "...'cover' Ellis Island as one who could interpret that institution and its mission." See: "Contributors' Gallery" Outlook, Vol. 142 (April 7, 1926), 533. Available via HathiTrust.
3 I subsequently found there were a number of circus performers and animal trainers among other attempted migrations of East European Roma to the U.S. via South America; this included other parts of the Estevanovich family. With massive exhibits such as Hagenbeck's Zoological Paradise and Animal Circus, the 1904 World's Fair would have put their skills in demand. However, transcripts from the Estevanovich hearings indicate that all the adult males intended on performing manual farm labor once they got to St. Louis, as they had done in Argentina. A number of newspaper articles also indicate that the Fair was attracting Roma from all over the U.S. See: ROSS, Albert, Gypsies Around St. Louis. Reaping a Harvest. The World’s Fair Has Drawn Many Bands, in The Sun, Chanute, Kansas, 31 October 1904, p. 4.
4 From the late 1890s to the mid 1910s, LPC designations accounted for over two-thirds of all exclusions. See: PARK, L. (2011). Criminalizing Immigrant Mothers: Public Charge, Health Care, and Welfare Reform. International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 37 (1), 29.
5 FILE 46,584, Estevanovich; 4-Families-appeal; Records of the INS Records of the Central Office, letters received (early immigration records) 1882-1906; Special Inquiry held at Ellis Island, N.Y., on July 24, 1904, "Case of Jeverem ESTEVANOVICH", Record Group 85; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
6 ibid. "Re-hearing in excluded case of ESTEVANOVICH, Andreas, 31 July 1904". It is possible the accusation that Andreas had unsuccessfully attempted to enter the U.S. in November 1903 had something to do with Sherman taking photos of the family in 1904. Two months after the Estevanovich deportation, U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration F.P. Sargent, requested that photographs of all debarred and deported immigrants from several categories (ex-convicts, anarchists, prostitutes) be sent to the Bureau of Immigration in D.C., apparently for redistribution to main ports (Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc.) so immigration officials there could use the photos to help to prevent the attempted re-entry of previously excluded individuals—exactly what Andreas was being accused of.
7 ibid. "Brief for Appellants (Nicholas and Andreas Estevanovich)", submitted by Wing, Putnam & Burlingham, attorneys for appellants, to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, 6 August 1904. The presumption by inspectors of the groups' ethnicity as 'gypsy' is implicit in questions like "Did your wife ever tell fortunes?" but nowhere in the hearings does an official ask the question "Are you a gypsy?" The Estevanovich attorneys actually deny that the family was gypsy and elsewhere say that "These Servians, instead of being an undesirable class, are a set of thrifty men." Ironically, being Roma in early 1900s should have put them in the opposite position as immigrants. According to the U.S. Immigration Commission's Dictionary of Races or Peoples, Roma were biologically considered of the "Aryan race...and therefore Caucasian" because of their Sanskrit-based language, but this would matter little in the face of the centuries-long, global discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller peoples. See: Folkmar, Daniel, and C. Folkmar Elnora. "Dictionary of Races or Peoples, Presented by Mr. Dillingham, Dec. 5, 1910." Reports of the Immigration Commission. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (1911). Available via Internet Archive.
8 ibid. "Departmental Letter No. 45,584", Department of Commerce and Labor, 18 August 1904
9 A number of other "Serbian gypsies" sailed from Buenos Aires to New York during the same time period, including: a group of 20 in August 1902, also from Šabac like the Estevanovich's; a group of 39 in November 1903—the group from which Ellis Island officials would accuse Andreas as having been a part of; a group of 15 in June 1904 that indicated the same final destination as the Estevanovich family, i.e. St. Louis, Missouri. Some members of the 1903 group—who had sailed on the Tennyson—were ultimately deported, while the 1902 and 1904 groups all apparently entered without incident. Others came directly from Europe and met with mixed success, such as a group of 50 who tried to enter in August 1901 but were all deported. Years later, in July 1909, a group of 25 Bulgarian Roma [Tanazoff and Petrovich families], who had left Buenos Aires on the Tennyson for New York but were originally from Thesolonika, were denied entry at Ellis Island. After five days of detention, the entire group was deported back to Argentina. All 25 were classified as LPC and deemed undesirable [i.e. "professional beggars"] by Ellis Island officials, even though they were healthy and carried over $1000 in gold. According to several newspaper reports, including a lengthy one in the New York Tribune, the group resisted deportation and violently clashed with officials. The reporting was more incredulous than anything, but the deportation was real and echos the Estevanovich story, which took place exactly five years earlier.
10 Details on most of the group's arrival and deportation can be seen in the Carpathia's manifest of alien passengers [image 176, 190-201, 205] and record of aliens held for special inquiry [image 338-341]. It appears they first assembled in London before departing from Liverpool for the U.S. Among them were Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Greek nationals; the last residence for most was given as Libau, Russia (i.e. Liepāja, Latvia). According to news reports, much of their detention was spent on board the Carpathia, due to an outbreak of measles which had stricken over 40 of the passengers. The children in particular were hardest hit and required medical treatment onshore at a hospital in Brooklyn. Five died during detention and even more on the ships that deported them back to the United Kingdom.
11 See "Gypsies Detained at Island" New York Times. Sep 3, 1904, pg. 14. Available via Internet Archive.
12 Other NARA documents in the Estevanovich family case file indicate a much wider network of Serbian Roma existed in Argentina during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were more Estevanovich's from Šabac and surrounding areas (i.e. Mačvanski Prnjavor) and more Roma from the same broader area in Serbia that attempted to emigrate to the U.S., again on the S.S. Tennyson. The Estevanovich name persists to this day among Roma communities in Argentina as well as in Brazil, where relatives or decedents have led the Circo Le Cirque (Família Stevanovich) for over one hundred years.
13 From Geljan dade, a folk song as sung by Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008); translation from Romani to English by Ismail Filip Hromčík. Šaban Bajramović was a Serbian Roma vocalist and recording artist with a remarkable career spanning more than five decades. Geljan dade and its Serbian language counterpart Prokleta je Amerika, offer two different takes on early 20th century migration to the U.S. The same stanzas in the Serbian language version read: "Prokleta je Amerika, I zlato što sja. Šta mi vredi tvoja slika. Kada oca nemam ja...Ja te znam sa slika. Nemam uspomena." [Damn America, And the gold that glitters. What's your photo worth to me? When I do not have a father...I know you from photographs, I have no memories.]
14 Three weeks after the Estevanovich deportation, a few articles appearing in the Montreal Gazette [26-28 October 1904] and subsequently reported on in the U.S. press, are a likely source for Steiner's caption. They reference the initial U.S. deportation—despite the fact that these "gypsies" were naturalized U.S. citizens—the detention on the steamer Ionian, and that the prosecutor in the case "was in a position to show these immigrants belonged to a low and immoral rank of society. Their expulsion from Canada was a matter which concerned the welfare of the public...they should be subjected to a vigorous medical examination before admittance was granted." I've tracked down the ship's manifest of the Ionian and the group referred to in the article is not the Estevanovich family, but rather two families assumed to be from the large group of Roma that tried to enter the U.S on the S.S. Carpathia in September 1904. After careful review of the U.S. deportation records, incoming and outgoing U.K. passenger lists, it's evident that the two Roma families on the Ionian were not on the Carpathia, a reminder of the typically careless reporting of the day. In any case, considering their long detention on Ellis Island, it's unlikely that the Estevanovich family would have traveled back to Argentina, then boarded steamer for Canada. Before entering Port de Québec, their steamer would have made a stop at Ellis Island, where they would faced the same inspection regime as before. It should also be noted that in his book Steiner refers to Gypsies as "really a sort of parasite."
15 Long before Weiwei and other artists reimagined Sherman's images, newspaper and magazine illustrators during the early 1900s reworked his photos as well. One of the earliest was by Phillips Ward, a New York based artist whose work routinely appeared in Collier's, Harper's, and McClure's Magazine. Ward made a series of sketches drawn from Sherman's photographs, including at least one of the Estevanovich family. Copies of Ward's sketches were kept in scrapbooks by William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island at the time of the Estevanovich deportation, along with dozens of prints of Sherman's photographs. Beneath the Estevanovich photo, Williams pasted in a copy of a 21 July 1909 article from The Sun which covered the violent debarment and deportation of 25 Roma. Like the Estevanovich family, this group of Roma had also come to Ellis Island via Buenos Aires on the Tennyson, exactly five years later. Was it just a coincidence that Williams interchanged the stories? Both groups travelled the same route and met with the same fate.
16 See for example, an entry for the Estevanovich family living in Washington, Alameda county on a 1930 Census return. The census enumerator defined the area on Marsh Rd. that this family and over 75 others lived in as a "Gypsy Camp". Though the census records indicates otherwise, I've discovered that older members of the family were actually born in Argentina.
Immigrants’ photographic legacy
Examinations of contemporary immigration issues often reference the past, particularly from the age of mass migration (1850 - 1920), while intermittently dominating today's news cycles. In order to help visualize this turbulent era so that linkages to contemporary trends can be clearly drawn, much of the same photographic material that previous generations of journalists, historians, museum curators, and artists had at their disposal is often utilized. While such recycled or remixed works may be deployed in good faith, do we know all there is about the original works, including their subjects? Why were the photos taken? How have they been used? How did they become the photographic voice of a historical moment?
The photos and imagery presented in the following chapters trace and explore some of the visual vocabulary that viewers, past and present, have picked up and incorporated into their understanding of immigrants and migrants.
While scholarly publications and resources on the subject of immigration to the U.S. are unquestionably deep and rewarding, they're often slightly out of reach for non-specialists. Works devoted to the patterns, causes, effects, influences and repercussions of immigration to the U.S. fill the shelves of every self-respecting research library. Many studies capture factually (through legislative history, statistics, interviews, etc.) key aspects of the early 20th century immigrant experience and the best of them offer trenchant analysis from a variety of perspectives and modes. Taken as a whole, such writings continue to right historical wrongs by untangling racist fears and deconstructing popular prejudices; their authors are to be applauded for expanding our historical understanding of this crucial time period, which has resulted in much more nuanced and accurate narratives. Some extensive, recently produced online resources are also providing a basis for bridging gaps (historical, legislative) and drawing much needed attention to recurring patterns in arguments for and against immigration.1
Besides being less-widely consumed, many scholarly works on immigration to the U.S. also haven't focused much on the ambiguous role that deliberately constructed and deployed imagery played in shaping public opinion, pro and con, via media. By the turn of the 20th century, the then new technology of photography would be used to supercharge textual rhetoric in newspapers, magazines, books, and broadsides. Unfortunately, there is comparatively little non-textual material (e.g. photographs) in circulation that unequivocally capture early 20th century arrivals at immigration stations like Ellis Island or Angel Island who went on to become U.S. citizens.2 Even less visual material is paired with real-life stories; without having both in one breath the viewer is often stuck with incomplete or even false narratives.
While a great number of photos of immigrants were taken at Ellis Island during the early 20th century, much of that work remains scattered across period newspapers, magazines, journals, books and reports—and is often laden with the harsh anti-immigrant sentiments and eugenic rhetoric so prevalent at the time.
Though less widely explored, there is a long history of documentary photography associated with San Francisco's Angel Island Immigration Station. After the passage of the Geary Act in 1892 and subsequent 1893 amendment, a number of onerous requirements were placed exclusively upon alien, native born, and naturalized Chinese American residents—groups who had already long suffered deep discrimination in daily life and been subject to appalling depictions in the press. After the passage of the act, now they alone (Chinese Americans) would be required to possess certificates of residence and certificates of identity, at all times. Such identity documents were to include photos, marking the first time the U.S. government required photos of citizens and/or residents in identity documents.3 Many of the original applications and related documents survive and include some stunning portraits of turn-of-the-century Chinese Americans.
However, some of the work of a few photographers in particular is anything but hidden away in the digital or physical world, though their origins and past applications have often at best been ambiguous. Regardless, 100 years and counting many of the images seem irrepressible and continue to turn up in unlikely forms and places.
Public murals, lithographs, sculptures, works on canvas, huge vinyl banners, collages, hand-colored prints, and digitally-colorized portraits are some of the mediums artists have recently used to re-imagine old photographs shot at Ellis Island. For years, some have also been available as postcards at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration gift shop. But in many instances so little is known about the source material, let alone the subjects themselves, that artists and re-mixers appear to have assumed they're working with with de facto immigrants that can be taken at face value. This has led to some unintended but deeply troubling ironies.
In some cases, however, a critical re-reading of a photograph, combining contextual elements previously ignored, can fundamentally change the way the work should be interpreted.
The SteeragePerhaps the most iconic "immigrant photo" ever made, and one of the most famous images of the 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage is a sublime but easy to misread photo. Stieglitz took the photo in 1907 with a Graflex, a simple single-lens reflex camera that would become a favorite of photo journalists and fine art photographers. He grabbed the camera in haste to capture a fleeting moment of human and mechanical convergence; by the photographer's own account the photo that resulted was an unplanned event. Stieglitz and his family were traveling aboard the 700-foot S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II on their way to a European vacation and, perhaps unexpectedly, with this one shot the artist was about to leap away from the highly-stylized, symbolist oriented photography that had brought him notoriety...and into modernity.
Until recently, The Steerage had been used numerous times in print and media as representative of the beginning of the classic immigrant journey to America. But when Stieglitz captured this iconic moment, the Kaiser Wilhelm II was actually steaming away from New York and heading towards Plymouth, England...or even already anchored at Plymouth. So the passengers (the people captured in the photo) were not emigrating to the to the U.S. but rather were a mix of return migrants, birds of passage, deportees, sojourners, or naturalized (U.S.) citizens returning to their homeland for a visit.
Two women on board wearing or holding striped shawls (i.e. tallits) were for decades assumed to be Jewish, but upon closer inspection the tallits turned out to be striped blankets probably issued onboard the steamship, thereby erasing the one marker that gave them a distinct ethnoreligious identity. Also, Stieglitz and his family were situated in luxurious first-class quarters of the mammoth North German Lloyd steamer, far removed from the below deck squalor, and by his own admission only ventured out of his comfortable surroundings by chance. Bored with the stuffy company in first-class, he decided to see how the other half were living below; that's the accident that prompted the photo. What resulted was a first-class view of the third-class masses.
Make no mistake, The Steerage is modernist masterpiece of photography and Stieglitz himself regarded it as his most representative work, but some of the facts behind the photo, often absent, are crucial to a better reading of the work.
With Ellis Island, however, two photographers in particular are primarily responsible for visually setting/framing contemporary perceptions of early 20th century immigrant arrivals: Augustus Sherman and Lewis Hine. Many of their several hundred surviving photos are accessible in digital collections on the web as well as in print.4 In fact, there is a certain ubiquity and multipurpose nature to their work—especially today—but if taken at face value, like Stieglitz's The Steerage, such images can mislead rather than accurately inform and educate.
Though his intentions might have been benign, Sherman's work in particular invokes the specter of eugenics while simultaneously disinforming the historical record.
Augustus F. Sherman (1862-1925)Augustus Frederick Sherman, a near-lifelong employee with the Immigration Bureau of Ellis Island, held a number of positions throughout his career that put him in close contact with immigrant arrivals at the busiest immigration station the world has ever seen. Most of this time was spent as an important clerk of various ranks, but whatever official duties he had in this capacity have left few traces in government archives or elsewhere. However, between 1904 and the early 1920s, Sherman made a series of stunning photographic portraits of Ellis island arrivals, many of whom were being held by U.S. immigration officials for special investigation, that are anything but forgotten.
According to all written accounts or retrospective studies I've encountered, photographing immigrants was not part of Sherman's official duties at Ellis Island but rather more of an periodic, spontaneous activity.5 Regardless, his work ended up having a remarkably long afterlife: over one hundred years and counting, Sherman's photos have gone on to become some of the most reproduced early 20th century U.S. “immigrant photos” on record, appearing in books, newspapers, magazines, congressional hearings, exhibits and more recently via web-based news and archival platforms.6
The United States' uneasy and predictably unoriginal struggles with who is and who should become a U.S. citizen have ensured that each "new" debate on immigration brings out the same restrictionist arguments and oftentimes the same old photos by Sherman and some of his contemporaries.
Perhaps this is understandable. Shot with subjects facing forward or in three-quarter profile, the 200 or so photos that have survived are indeed striking, mostly well-composed portraits that capture an old world/new world convergence, along with some degree of America’s expanding ethnic diversity. However, Sherman's portraits never really escape the junk science of racial categorization/hierarchy that was growing increasingly commonplace during the early 20th century; there's good evidence to suggest that this mindset provided the context for Sherman’s non-clerical activities. Because reproductions of his photos often lack adequate or proper context, viewers can easily be led to believe that the subjects were typical immigrants to the United States; they were not. Many if not all of the subjects captured in Sherman’s portraits were individuals that had been detained upon entry at Ellis Island for legal or “medical” reasons and some would have been denied entry and/or deported.
Unfortunately, Sherman did not record the names of most of his photographic subjects, making research into the context of their emigration and ultimate fate near impossible to determine, but it’s reasonable to assume that individuals with congenital deformities or conditions (e.g. microcephaly, dwarfism), or individuals from exotic lands where a zero-immigration policy was in place (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa, China, etc.) did not go on to become U.S. citizens. In fact, some were in reality performers contracted to tour with U.S. circuses. In later chapter, I explore the journeys and lives of a few of Sherman's subjects I've succeeded in identifying.
Remarkable as some may be, Sherman’s photos are not necessarily representative of immigrants who went on to naturalize as U.S. citizens and settle permanently. Though they were presumed to be essentially documentary photography at the time—and even perhaps today—many of the photos are exploitative and/or imbued with a eugenic (visual) rhetoric that highlights race, disability and otherness.7 The racism and bad science that allowed such ideas and images to be readily consumed had long been resonating in popular culture and academia, and it was writ large at Ellis Island, Angel Island and other immigration stations. In a way, the photos serve(d) as a kind of warning to non-immigrant America (e.g. they're not like us and here they come...) while simultaneously providing a window for curious onlookers to peer through.
The most extreme examples of Sherman's work (those that display pronounced human disability) are not part of the New York Public Library's digitized collection of his photos, nor included in an earlier online collection made by the U.S. National Park Service.8 Largely unseen today, these photos are just as relevant to establishing context as the more widely distributed ones, perhaps even more so because they illuminate hidden aspects of Sherman's motivations as a photographer.
Through the sieve...During his lifetime, many of Sherman's photos were used in publications that showed the “new immigrants” as more of a menace and threat to proper Anglo-Saxon America than a benefit; only a few offer marginally sympathetic portrayals in accompanying texts.9 Despite the wide-scale use of his photos, Sherman's name was rarely attributed to his work until well after his death in 1925.
Sherman's earliest photos date from 1904 and were quickly utilized by different media until the 1920s. Besides receiving broad print syndication, his photos were also featured in government documents like the Annual report of the Superintendent of Immigration to the Secretary of the Treasury, and through extended features in National Geographic, The New York Times, as well as in denominational newspapers and trade publications.10 The wide and near-simultaneous deployment of his photos indicates a coordinated, deliberate distribution—perhaps coming from whatever passed for a public relations division of the federally-controlled Ellis Island Immigration Station—in conjunction with the Commissioner General of Immigration.
By the 1910s, Sherman's work had also made its way into the permanent collections of museums and missionaries. Such collections were not made for posterity but rather to serve as photo stock for future applications e.g. educational purposes...with an agenda.
Extending the hand of fraternal helpfulnessDuring the 1910s and 1920s, Sherman and Hine appear to have shared (or sold) negatives of their work with the Methodist Church Board of Missions, complete with log notes, captions or annotations. In 2019, the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church made available a massive photo collection that includes dozens of uncredited works by Sherman and Hine, some of them unique or with unique annotations, offering new insight into both photographer's work.
Why were these photographers mixing with Methodist Missionaries working out of Ellis Island? It seems an unlikely pairing at first, but closer study reveals parallel trajectories: influencing public opinion.
Missionaries were reliable fixtures at both Ellis Island and Angel Island for decades, providing education, advice and care to immigrants—especially ones in detention or perceived to be wayward. Throughout their lives, both Sherman and Hine interacted with different secular and religious-based organizations who were interested in how photography could be used to support or visually legitimize their assistance to arrivals at Ellis Island. The photographic works procured by organizations such as the Methodist Church Board of Missions was in turn stored for future use in lantern slide presentations for fellow missionaries, or for use among their congregations, public lectures, or in denominational newspapers.
Besides simply wanting to help those in need, missionaries at Ellis Island naturally had other motives for their work. "What if warm-hearted messengers of Christ were there to give them [i.e. Christian immigrants] welcome and counsel, and direct and in some way follow them to their new home?", asked a Presbyterian minister in 1904 as he envisioned how the "evangelization of foreigners" might begin at Ellis Island. Another missionary observed that "The socialization and Christianization of these aliens ought to be very much easier because of the way in which we have touched them at the Island." Based on some telling traces in various books and periodicals from 1905 on, Sherman appears to have been tasked with the onboarding of multi-denominational members of the faith who assisted immigrants at Ellis Island, as well as public school teachers who worked at Ellis Island to "bring the torch of education to foreigners" in detention.11
Besides uptake by missionaries with an interest in Ellis Island arrivals, at least one well-known New York museum acquired some of Sherman's work during the photographer's lifetime. A dozen or more hand-colored lantern slides made from some of Sherman's earliest work are owned by the American Museum of Natural History. The precise reason why they appear in the museum's vast holdings—as a collection that was lendable to New York schools—remains unclear, but their inclusion indicates yet another level of the dissemination of Sherman's work.12
Controlling the visuals behind the face of early 20th century immigration to the United States, selectively using them for pedagogical purposes, would, perhaps wittingly, help shape and bolster the increasingly restrictive immigration narrative of the time.
“...no inherent right to come here”There is no shortage of alarmist, racist commentary on the "quality" of immigrants coming to the U.S. during the early 20th century—or any century—but the delivery isn't always straightforward. While the popular press of the day was often steeped heavy in unmistakably bigoted xenophobia, statements and publications from government officials and agencies sounded a more opaque approach to promoting restrictionist immigration policies. Sherman's photos were frequently deployed alongside both kinds of text. His work was the property of the Commissioner General of Immigration, so its dissemination could have only come through official channels. How did this come to be?
Sherman worked at Ellis Island during both of William Williams' terms as federal commissioner of immigration for the Port of New York from 1902-1905 and 1909-1913. During his tenure, Williams, who was in no small measure a restrictionist and nativist, kept a running collection of photographs (about 50 of which were made by Sherman), newspaper clippings, sketches, and letters pertaining to immigration that he would assemble in scrapbooks. The scrapbooks and other materials have been kept by the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library and form the basis of most of the digital remixing of Sherman's photographs.
In order to better understand Sherman's photos, his work should be seen in the context of the mediums they were featured, as well as within the larger context of the era of mass immigration and mass restriction. Williams frequently shared his thoughts on the matter, and, as commissioner of immigration, naturally had a lot to say. While he tried to maintain a veneer of impartiality regarding Ellis Island arrivals, he couldn't always contain his displeasure when it came to the quality of recent immigration of Southern and Eastern Europe, who made up the majority of arrivals at Ellis Island during the early 20th century. By his second term as commissioner (1909-1913), his public communications had turned less-guarded, as had those of a number of Ellis Island officials, and revealed his simmering prejudices. In his 1911 Annual Report, Williams wrote:
Although the precise reasons for doing so still remain obscure, Sherman started his photographic work at Ellis Island when the station was under Williams' direction. By keeping prints of Sherman's photos in his own personal papers, it's clear Sherman's portraits resonated with Williams and that he believed them to be representative of the "types" prescribed. How did he characterize them? We don't know, but through Sherman's portraits, Williams and his successors could control the visual vocabulary of the "backward races" passing through Ellis Island by deliberately supplying them to newspapers, magazines and other media outlets; that seems their likely purpose. What's absent is Sherman's own thoughts on the matter and it's unclear whether he was at least partially self-directed or was requested to make the portraits.
The new immigration, unlike that of the earlier years, proceeds in part from the poorer elements of the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe and from backward races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacity of assimilating with our people as did the early immigrants. Many of those coming from these sources have very low standards of living, possess filthy habits and are of an ignorance which passes belief. Types of the classes referred to representing various alien races and nationalities may be observed in some of the tenement districts of Elizabeth, Orchard and Rivington and East Houston Streets, New York City. [...] They often herd together, forming in effect foreign colonies in which the English language is almost unknown.13
Sherman's photos have continued to circulate in various formats over the years—exponentially so in the digital age—though with an altogether different subtext: this is how your immigrant ancestors looked before they came to the U.S.14 But the reality is much more complicated and ambiguous and should defy casual assessment.
Since Sherman's photos have come to light, few scholars have attempted any deep analysis of the photographer's work and life and most of the partial critiques available have mainly focused on their value as photographic documentary material—remaining unfortunately silent on some of the more incongruous and disturbing aspects of his work.
Sherman's photographs have been widely consumed for over one hundred years, but has the fuller context of their creation and contemporaneous use been adequately explored?
Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940)Between 1904 and 1909 and in 1926, photographer and social reformer Lewis Wickes Hine captured some 200 remarkable images of immigrants in various states of processing at Ellis Island.15 Hine sought to use photography as an educational tool in the service of reform and was a groundbreaking documentary photographer. But he took an unusual path, one that had a decisive effect on what fueled his relentless pursuits to, as Hine puts it, "show the things that had to be corrected...the things that had to be appreciated." After a humble start in Wisconsin and years working odd jobs (janitor, deliveryman), he eventually obtained degrees in pedagogy and sociology and became a teacher at the Felix Adler Ethical Cultural School as well as staff photographer for the Russell Sage Foundation in New York.
As far as photography goes, he was largely self-taught and spent years developing unobtrusive techniques to photograph subjects that were largely being ignored (child laborers) or had never been presented sympathetically (immigrants). While Hine's startling images of child labor were well-reproduced during his lifetime, his earlier Ellis Island portraits—or "photo-studies" as he called them—were not widely seen until after his death in 1940. Like Sherman’s portraits, some have gone on to become iconic images for documenting the millions of Europeans who passed through Ellis Island.16 Although the work of each photographer has been used indiscriminately over the years by historians and journalists alike, undeniable differences in why each made photo portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island have since emerged. Different motives set them on radically different paths and also affected who they chose to photograph.
But for a number of reasons, Hine’s portraits better represent typical early 20th century immigrants, many of whom we can assume went on to becoming U.S. citizens. As Klara-Stephanie Szlezák concludes: "Hine’s work was not a depiction of the stereotype of ‘the immigrant’ but rather of the plurality of immigrants, granting each of the subjects’ individuality in a unique scenery and situation, thereby suppressing established notions of the immigrants’ inferiority."17
Among other things, the first decades of the 20th century were characterized by intense discrimination of "new immigrants" from Italy and Southeastern Europe, who were seen by many as undesirable and often treated with scorn and derision by the dominant Protestant, Anglo-Saxon fueled ruling class. Hine thought this cruel and unfair, and he aimed to do something about it.
Partly inspired by the work of Jacob Riis, pragmatists, and Progressive Era reformers, Hine’s photographs succeed in humanizing the "poor huddled masses" and help contextualize—through images alone—a key phase of the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. This was already evident in his earliest photographic work at Ellis Island, works which would first appear in the influential but often anti-immigrant social work journal, The Survey, in April 1909.18
But by 1914, both Hine and Sherman's Ellis Island portraits would be used in comprehensive and decidedly racist tomes tackling the "immigration problem." One such work is E.A. Ross' The Old World in the New. In it, Sherman and Hines' works were featured together in a book that lamented the coming race suicide and the potential "triumph of the low-standard elements over the high-standard elements." The book is filled with enough racist fearmongering to make a Madison Grant or Lothrop Stoddard smile, both of whom had far more influential works about to be published. Despite such placement, and the explicitly anti-immigrant positions of the majority of Progressive Era thinkers and reformists, we know from Hine's personal letters that he was deeply sympathetic towards his subjects, whether they were child laborers in South Carolina, coal miners in Pennsylvania, or detained arrivals at Ellis Island. However, there is some ambivalence in his writings towards the larger issue of immigration, an approach shared by many of his fellow progressives.19 Mostly, Hine is simply silent, and so in order to help fill in the blanks, a number of Hine's commentators have relied on texts that imply a more pro-immigration stance for Hine. For example, in a 1938 letter from Frank Manny, Hine's former mentor who sometimes accompanied him on trips to Ellis Island, Manny asks Hine:
Hines' Ellis Island portraits offer a deeply empathetic look at the so-called new immigration of the early 20th century, (mostly) free from the eugenic undertones of Sherman’s photos and carrying an altogether different subtext: photography as social criticism.
Do you recall our talking about a Pilgrim Celebration and a little Russian said he was thankful that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock? I said I wanted the children of later days to feel equal regard of Castle Island and Ellis Island. [...] you were the only one who seemed to see what I was after.20
Notwithstanding, Hine’s photos are more than sympathetic portraits of immigrants; they are also products of a complex and uneasy time where numerous aspects of citizenry were institutionally racialized. As Leslie Jennifer Urena has pointed out: "While Hine may have gone to Ellis Island with the intention of creating pedagogical tools designed to draw support for new immigrants, he returned with photographs that also facilitated the denigration of immigrants."21
Hine’s racialized subjects ironically served the dual purpose of appealing to both reformers and restrictionists alike. They also, in the main, continue the pattern of Sherman’s anonymous, racial typing as well as exclude immigrants from other parts of the world that settled in the U.S. during the early 20th century, e.g. South Asia and much of the Middle East.22 It's also worth noting that during his lifetime, Hine's Ellis Island portraits would be used in a number of publications that sought to undermine the “new immigration” that was rapidly striking fear and loathing in a variety of intellectual and political circles.23
Julian A. Dimock (1873-1945)Besides Hine and Sherman, there are of course other photographers worth investigating who made portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island and elsewhere during the early 20th century.24
In 1907, the peak year for immigration at Ellis Island, Julian Dimock made a sympathetic and poignant series of portraits of arrivals, mostly in the station's detention room.25 Like Sherman and Hine, the photos' subjects remain largely anonymous and can only be minimally parsed with titles such as "Woman and girl in detention room", "Man from Holland (had wife and three children)", "Rumanian woman from Bucharest", or "Jewish man, Yiddish speaker".
While the composition of Dimock's photographs is certainly less ethnographic in tone compared to the work of Sherman, it is for this very reason that allows the photos to reveal something obvious: that typical arrivals at Ellis Island were not exotic specimens, nor anything like the crude caricatures depicted in many newspapers and magazines of the day, but rather more like us (i.e. good citizens) than not.
Dimock's own writing on the 1907 photo series mirrors the empathetic quality of his portraits:
During those two weeks in late 1907, Dimock captured more than 75 portraits. These much better preserved but less widely circulated photographs are imbued with the same sensitivity and compassionate eye that the photographer employed in 1904/05 during his trips to African American communities in the Deep South, just prior to the Great Migration. Both subjects are thus captured as they, or the communities they came from, were poised to experience momentous change.27
My work with the camera took many days [i.e. two weeks], for I was determined to have the chosen types representative. I tried to select an equal number of good and bad. For one whole day, I devoted myself to photographing nothing but the poorest specimens that I could find, resolutely leaving all the pretty girls and fine looking men out of it. After a week I gave up the attempt, for there were no bad types, or so few as to be negligible.26
A complete visual narrative?Remarkably, Sherman, Hine and Dimock all captured their photographs during a roughly contemporaneous period. For practical reasons, all three also spent most of their time with detained immigrants who could have been held on Ellis Island for days, weeks, even months before being admitted or deported. The three photographers easily could have bumped cameras with one another, although each of their finished products differ substantially. Does such work represent the photographic voice of a historical moment? A complete visual narrative? To some extent, yes, though their limitations have not yet been substantially addressed. Each photographer's work certainly reflects the uneasy times in which they were made, but what kind of human narrative actually lies behind the subjects of each photographer's work? I explore this question in the next chapter with a deeper study of a small portion of their work.
Deconstructing these photographic artifacts and reanimating the lives of the subjects captured may break the spell they've cast, but also has the power to fix the viewer's gaze on reality rather than false narrative.
Representation matters, especially for materials that are used to construct our visual public record. It is perhaps more important than ever to develop a visual literacy—one that peers behind both the photographer's lens and the subject's gaze—in order to see how yesterday's restrictionists allied with progressivism, junk science, and the popular racism of the day sought to secure the passing of increasingly restrictionist immigration policy, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924.
More than a hundred years later, unmistakable echos of early 20th century xenophobia and fearmongering against immigrants continue to reverberate. These echos have deep roots and parsing the sometimes coded, sometimes overtly racist language that obstructs meaningful reform and justice often leads back to the same tired rhetoric from the era of mass immigration and mass restriction. Even more disturbing is the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate violence taking place in plain sight, though often going under-reported or being carried out with smirking impunity.
Notes/Works cited1 See for example the University of Minnesota's #ImmigrationSyllabus, an excellent and exhaustive compendium of "essential topics, readings, and multimedia that provide historical context to current debates over immigration reform, integration, and citizenship." Created in January 2017.
2 There are even fewer films. The U.S. Library of Congress has preserved and made publicly available a couple of silent, grainy works that offer a moving glimpse of arrivals. Each achieves a degree of objectivity, but only at a distance. See: Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island (1903) and Arrival of immigrants, Ellis Island (1906).
3 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, 39.
4 Recent works in print include: (1) Sherman, Augustus F., and Peter Mesenhöller. 2005. August F. Sherman: Ellis Island portraits, 1905-1920. New York: Aperture. (2) Grzonkowska, Aleksandra, Justyna Wicenty, and Monika Bokiniec. 2017. Augustus Francis Sherman: atlas imigranta = Augustus Francis Sherman : atlas of the immigrant. Gdynia: Muzeum Emigracji w Gdyni. (3) Fuentes Santos, Mónica, and Luis Miguel García Mora. 2012. Lewis Hine: from the collections of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film. New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers. (4) Hine, Lewis W., Peter Walther, and Thea Miklowski. 2018. Lewis W. Hine: America at work. Cologne: Taschen.
5 Existing accounts of Sherman's professional activities don't indicate that he took photographs in an official capacity—no one at Ellis Island seems to have been doing so—but in a later chapter I explore the possibility that this might not have been the case. During his tenure with the Immigration Service at Large, Sherman worked at Ellis Island first as Private Secretary, then 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 served 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 See, for instance:
- Washington Post’s “What America’s Immigrant Ancestors looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island”
- The Guardian’s “Color portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island – in pictures”
- Time's "Colorized Photos From Ellis Island Reflect the Timeless Struggles of Immigrants"
- Steven Kasher Gallery: "Augustus Sherman: Aliens or Americans?" [3 November - 23 December 2016]
- Howard Greenberg Gallery: "The Immigrants: A Group Exhibition of Works by Select Photographers" [14 December 2017 – 27 January 2018]
8 Mesenhöller's book reproduces over 100 of Sherman's photos and includes a number of individuals that were not, in fact, immigrants but rather non-immigrant aliens contracted with circuses and sideshows. For example, photos of "Perumall Sammy" and "Subramaino Pillay and two Microcephalics" were recorded as "circus freaks" by immigrant inspectors on the 1911 ship's manifest that documents one of their several arrivals in the U.S. The two were traveling to work with a circus based in Zanesville, Ohio. Perumall Sammy would later make additional trips to the U.S., working at Samuel W. Gumpertz's Dreamland on Coney Island as well as touring with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
9 See Arnold, Kathleen R. 2012. Anti-immigration in the United States: a historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood Press, a 900 page, 2-volume compendium to the major categories of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.
10 See, for example, Grose, Howard B. Aliens or Americans? New York : Young People's Missionary Movement, 1906. Grose was the editor of the Baptist Home Mission Monthly, published by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Sherman's photos turn up in Grose's book and subsequently in the Baptist Home Mission Monthly, which regularly featured dispatches from Baptist missionaries at Ellis Island and articles on immigration. Available via Internet Archive.
11 For background on Presbyterian missionary efforts to bring Evangelism to Ellis Island arrivals, see Thompson, Charles. "Responsibility of the Church for the Evangelization of Foreigners" The Assembly Herald, v.10, no.5 1904. Available via HathiTrust; and Rueben L. Breed's Humane missionary work at Ellis Island" The Christian Century, v.30, no.38 Sept 25 1913. Available via Internet Archive. For an example of how public school educators were enticed to work at Ellis Island, which includes one of the few contemporaneous mentions of Sherman by name, see "Teachers on Ellis Island" School, Vol. xxvi, No. 11, Nov 12 1914. Available via HathiTrust. Besides selling/sharing prints of his work with the Methodist Church Board of Missions, Hine also periodically contributed essays to their publication, Missionary Voice.
12 According to the American Museum of Natural History Research Library's website, the reason for the lantern slide collection is as follows: "To expand the Museum’s educational mission beyond its walls, a lantern slide lending library was created and formed the basis of the Natural Science Study Collections which the Museum delivered to New York schools. The lantern slides, reproduced from the growing collection of photographs created and collected by the Museum staff, were originally used to illustrate lectures given to the public at the Museum. The lectures were so successful that a new and larger theater was constructed in 1900 to accommodate the growing crowds."
13 United States, and William Williams. 1912. Ellis Island affairs: annual report of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration for New York, in reference to Ellis Island affairs for the year ended June 30, 1911. [Washington, D.C.]: [G.P.O.]. 14-15. Available via Harvard Library. The Citizens Committee of Orchard and Rivington and East Houston Streets, New York City (representing about 7000 families, 90% of which were Jewish Americans) was incensed by Williams' comments, so much so that they sent an extraordinarily detailed and forceful rebuttal of his claims to President Taft, signed by hundreds of residents who thought Williams' comments were "interpolated for restrictionistic purposes." They demanded a retraction from Williams and their extraordinary petition was eventually entered as a Senate document. Williams was in turn furious at the response and demanded the Treasury Department furnish him with "certain information contained in the records of the revenue agent at New York relating to persons arrested for violations of the internal revenue laws in the City of New York", to help him craft his own rebuttal for his superiors. Williams received the information and sent a lengthy letter to the Commissioner General of Immigration, eventually reaching Taft. Williams never retracted his statements and doubled down on his anti "new immigration" rhetoric. See: Annual Report of the Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York, with Reference to Ellis Island Affair--Background Materials, Statements, Exhibits, and Drafts, 1911] Casefile 53294/8-B. [April-October 1912.] from: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Series A: Subject Correspondence Files, Part 3: Ellis Island, 1900-1933 [ProQuest History Vault].
14 Swanson, Ana “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island” The Washington Post, October 24, 2015.
15 Many of Hine’s “immigrant photos” are available via The New York Public Library. They have also made the rounds on web-based news outlets:
- Washington Post's "This photographer wanted to humanize Ellis Island’s immigrants. His images are still powerful"
- Guardian's "The photos that changed America: celebrating the work of Lewis Hine"
- PRI's "2 eras, 1 dream: Photos of immigrants on Ellis Island and today's Syrian refugees"
- NRC Handlesblad's "Lewis Hine en de immigranten van Ellis Island"
17 Szlezák, Klara-Stephanie "The Ellis Island Experience: Through the Eyes of Lewis Hine” Aspeers: emerging voices in American studies (2 2009) 73.
18 See: Leonard, Thomas C. 2017. Illiberal reformers: race, eugenics & American economics in the Progressive era, 158-160. Leonard contends The Survey was "vigorously restrictionist" and that its editor, Paul U. Kellogg, the lifelong friend, employer and champion of Hine's work, unequivocally endorsed the conclusions of the 1911 Dillingham Commission, which recommended Congress implement far-reaching restrictionist policies and to require a literacy test for all would-be-immigrants. The target of such measures was to curb the flow of southern and eastern European immigrants, whom Kellogg and other Progressives believed were a threat to "maintaining American standards of living." Beyond this, The Survey also featured articles that encouraged collaboration between the charity organization movement and the Eugenics movement, as well positive reviews of Henry H. Goddard's intelligence testing work at Ellis Island—and contributions from Irving Fischer, who in one Survey article recommended that marriage laws should be enacted to "discourage or forbid the procreation of the unfit."
19 Progressive Era thinkers and reformers weren't a uniform block of well meaning do-gooders who defended, or even much empathized with, the "new immigrant" as they made their long journey to becoming U.S. citizens. Many were, in fact, unabashedly anti-immigrant in their rhetoric and aligned themselves with abhorrent notions of what the wrong kind of people (whether they be Southeastern Europeans, Jews, "hereditary inferiors", or feeble-minded) were doing to old, Anglo America; in their eyes, they were destroying what generations of the right kind of people had built up. Social scientists (e.g. economists, sociologists, anthropologists) at the time saw themselves as society's best-positioned combatants against the unfolding race degeneration and the coming race suicide that threatened America's future; some prescribed abominable eugenics-influenced solutions to America's immigrant problem—including forced segregation to isolated colonies and sterilization, in order to put an end to the mistake of letting undesirables into the U.S. in the first place. Thomas Leonard succinctly captures the disconnect between the reformer and those they might be attempting to reform: "Progressives didn't not work in factories; they inspected them. Progressives did not drink in saloons; they tried to shutter them. The bold women who chose to live among the immigrant poor in city slums called themselves "settlers," not neighbors. Even when progressives idealized workers, they tended to patronize them, romanticizing a brotherhood they would never consider joining." See: Leonard, T. C., 7.
20 Hine, Lewis W., Peter Walther, and Thea Miklowski. 2018. Lewis W. Hine: America at work. Cologne: Taschen, 14.
21 Urena, Leslie Jennifer Lewis Hine at Ellis Island: The photography of immigration and race, 1904–1926 (Doctoral dissertation) Northwestern University, 2009, 114.
22 Between 1908 and 1924, Hine worked as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). During this time Hine made some extraordinary photos for the NCLC, a number of which include immigrant children whose names and other details he did record.
23 Besides Ross' book and The Survey mentioned above, one of Hine's most famous photo-studies, "Climbing into America," was featured prominently in a decidedly anti-immigrant 1931 article titled "Birth Control and the Racial Future," by Frank H. Hankins for People, a short-lived periodical published by the American Eugenics Society. Nearly two decades earlier in 1912, one of Hine's Ellis Island portraits was featured on the cover of The Coming Nation: A Magazine for the Creators of the New Social Order, a popular American Socialist newspaper that adopted an ambiguous overall stance on "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe.
24 Earlier examples, published just before Sherman and Hine started their work, can be seen in Arthur Hewitt's series of photos featured in "Americans in the Raw: The high-tide of immigrants – their strange possessions and their meager wealth – what becomes of them." by E. Lowry. — World's Work, Vol. 4 Oct., 1902, p. 2644-2655. Available via HathiTrust. "Romances of New Americans" by Eleanor Hoyt —Everybody's magazine, Vol. 8, Nr. 5, May, 1903, p. 387-399. [photos by Joseph Henry Adams]. Available via HathiTrust; and in "This Year's High Tide of Immigration,” by Samuel E. Moffett, American Monthly Review of Reviews, XXVIII, No. 1 (July 1903), 50-58. Available via HathiTrust.
25 Dimock's Ellis Island series first appeared as "studies of immigrant types" alongside photos by the ubiquitous Underwood & Underwood in a magazine article written by Robert Watchorn, who served as Immigration Commissioner at Ellis Island from 1905 to 1909. See Watchorn, Robert. "The Gateway of the Nation." Outlook, LXXXVII (December 28, 1907), 897-911. Available via HathiTrust.
26 Dimock, Julian A., "Ellis Island As Seen By The Camera-Man," The World Today, Volume XIV, No. 4, April 1908, 395. Available via HathiTrust.
27 Robert Watchorn, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, 1905-1909, kept a series of Dimock's Ellis Island portraits among his personal papers, held by the Robert Watchorn Memorial Archive in Alfreton, Derbyshire, UK; other photos from Watchorn's time at Ellis Island are held by the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California. In much the same way, Watchorn's predecessor and successor, Commissioner William Williams, kept about 50 prints of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits among his private papers; see William Williams Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.