Friday, December 7, 2012
Conditions on board had been deplorable, but arrival would surely end their agony? Unfortunately a new one almost instantly began. Thousands of people jostled ashore. Rations would run short, children crying, weather conditions, whether too hot or too cold, making the waiting almost worse than steerage, and anxiety was high. Uniformed officials alarmed those who had escaped from a military regime back home. Often they were brusque and rude, shouting and swearing at the frightened immigrants. They too were tired, hot and hungry, as well as overworked, often having done a 12 hour shift on low pay. Patience was short.
Immigrants arrived laden with sacks, carpet bags, small trunks, rolled-up bundles tucked under their arm or balanced on their head. Luggage would be stowed on the ground floor while they proceeded up the stairs.
Everyone must first walk up the stairs to be inspected. Children over two had to walk unaided to prove they weren’t disabled. Anyone limping or short of breath was hauled out of line for further health checks. Anyone too carefully watching their step was suspected of having an eye problem. Fractious children or sulky teenagers could be pulled out of line and given a test for the feeble-minded. These stairs came to be known as ‘the six second exam.’
When they reached the top they would indeed catch their breath in amazement at what they saw. A huge, grand, high-ceilinged hall divided into railed channels along which they were herded like cattle.
There followed many more tests in which the immigrant would be asked for the details as outlined in the manifest:Name, age, sex, marital status, nationality, occupation, last residence, destination in America, how much money they had, and whether the immigrant could read and write. Also, had they paid their own passage, and did they have tickets through to their final destination. Had they ever served time in a prison or poorhouse, or suffered from any deformities or illnesses. A lone female, unless met by a man, would be returned from whence she came, although sexual favours could gain admittance to the US. If she was suspected of being a prostitute she would be forced to endure a bodily search by a female attendant.
There were any number of reasons for rejection. If the person failed any of these rapid and perfunctory inspections, or gave the wrong answer, a chalk mark was placed on their back. C for conjunctivitis; Ct for trachoma; K for hernia; L for lameness; Pg for pregnancy; S for senility; and many more. One in five failed. These people were pulled out of line, even if wrongly labelled, in a most callous and impersonal manner, and made to wait in a special holding area, namely a detention pen which was enclosed by wire screens. Then they would be sent back from whence they came, often alone, on the same ship which had brought them to America, and was now obliged to take them away for no extra charge.
Born in Lancashire, Freda Lightfoot has been a teacher, bookseller and in a mad moment, a smallholder on the freezing fells of the Lake District where she tried her hand at the ‘good life’, kept sheep and hens, various orphaned cats and dogs, built drystone walls, planted a small wood and even learned how to make jam. She has now given up her thermals to build a house in an olive grove in Spain, where she produces her own olive oil and sits in the sun. She has published 45 novels including many bestselling family sagas and historical novels.