Ellis Island was the gateway to America, but immigrants coming through Ellis Island were often received with suspicion and hostility rather than open arms, and the island became a symbol with contradictory meanings. To many it was the Island of Hope. To those that were turned away, it was the Island of Tears.
The process of inspection was nerve-racking. Immigrants with large families feared being separated from family members. The process included dozens of tests, questionnaires, examinations, and interviews. It’s was no wonder many immigrants identified Ellis Island with fear and agitation.
After they’d leave the ship, they’d enter the inspection station. They had to walk up a steep stairway, past staring doctors who occasionally wrote something in chalk on their coats. Those who were sick could be removed from the line and denied entry. Families with one sick member were separated, sometimes for weeks.
They then filed into a large crowded, noisy room, guided by railings. The first examination was for lice, and those who had them had their heads shaved. Then they were examined for skin disease, which meant that they had to remove their clothing. The eye exam was the most frightening, because the doctor had to flip back their upper eyelids with a hooked instrument. It took hours to get through the lines to the doctors who did the physical examinations, and more hours to deal with grueling legal and mental examinations. Most spoke no English and they had no idea why these things were being done.
Members of our family passed through this process. Anthony Bongiovanni and his father, Nicolina Nastasi and her mother, along with other family members including aunts, uncles and cousins all passed through Ellis Island.
Lucia and her father, Professor Angelo Colosi, did not endure this fearful and sometimes humiliating experience. They had the good fortune of bypassing Ellis Island altogether. They came with money in their pockets and enjoyed the second class accommodations of the SS Deutschland as they journeyed to America in 1907.
Most immigrants traveled in steerage. Those were able to travel first and second-class were processed on-board the steamships due to their improved financial risk and the decreased likelihood of having severe health issues.