Those who had ancestors who came through Ellis Island, or those who just find history interesting, might not expect that everyone who came through Ellis Island had to be meticulously inspected before being able to enter the United States as a citizen.
There were more than 12 million people who had hoped to make a better life for themselves in the United States during the years of 1892 and 1954. However, those people who endured the long journey to make it the United States wouldn’t be let through if they failed the inspections. And people who arrived sick had to be taken to Ellis Island’s hospital; those who died on the ship during the journey were taken to the morgue.
Today, Ellis Island is open for tours for those who want to learn more about their heritage and ancestors. Nearly 40% of tourists who visit the island are able to trace their lineage back to their ancestors who arrived there. The tourist attraction was briefly closed after Superstorm Sandy, but once it was cleaned up it was reopened for tours once more. While the inspection hall is open for viewing, the morgue and hospital remain closed. Until now, many probably did not even realize that Ellis Island had a hospital and morgue. Both places have been untouched since 1954.
More than 3,000 people ended up dying in the hospital, leaving those bodies to pass through the morgue. Sadly, the doctors who worked in the inspection hall for so long could identify certain diseases quickly. By 1916, doctors were able to give a six-second physical because of their having so much experience working there.
Interestingly, during the early 1900s, as more and more immigrants made it to Ellis Island, there was a higher demand for the building of more hospitals. Carpenters and builders had struggled immensely to keep up with the demands. During the immigration, there was a 22-building hospital that was built to hold all of the sick people. It was considered one of the largest health institutions in the United States. In 1914 alone the staff at the hospital treated nearly 10,000 people from nearly 75 countries.
In 1954, the 750-bed hospital and morgue was abandoned. They are still out of bounds and are not part of the tours for the more than three million tourists that travel to the island each year to view the historical site.
A photographer who took photos in 2008 said that while walking through each room – mental wards, infectious disease wards, the morgue, and the giant furnace room – he could feel how alive the rooms were because of so much history and experiences that had taken place in them.
According to documents, almost nine out of 10 patients were admitted to the United States after being treated. However, while sitting in the hospital those patients feared the worst – that they would have to return to their country after having traveled so far. A majority of the immigrants had their paperwork processed once they got to the island and a majority of those people had arrived in steerage. The wealthier passengers were able to afford to get a medical examination while they were still on the boat, so they knew they would be able to pass through the inspection at Ellis Island. It was believed if a person could afford a better class ticket, they’d be less likely to become a burden on the state; these were judged better able to make a good start in the United States versus other people trying to get in.
Most of the immigrants who arrived on the island had never been in contact with a doctor until this examination. Immigrants were forced to strip for the examination; then they were X-rayed and finally they had their heads measured, a nod to the doctors studying eugenics. During each examination, family members were briefly separated so that they could be examined one at a time. One immigrant, who came from France in 1929 and was only five at the time, said he had terrible anxiety from being separated from his family. He said that they were not told anything, only just separated for the examination. The main thing that ran through his mind was whether or not he’d even see his mother again.