“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, 1883.
Despite Lazarus’ idealized portrayal of America’s welcome toward immigrants, there has always been a fair amount of suspicion toward the most recent wave of newcomers, and concern that they would take away jobs from American citizens or require public assistance. Any family historian who has ever studied a passenger manifest from the early 20th century has seen the columns in which immigrants were required to verify that they were in good mental and physical health, that they were not deformed or crippled, that they were not anarchists or polygamists. Immigrants could be sent back home for any number of reasons, and although only about 2% of Ellis Island immigrants were actually turned away, many of our ancestors were subjected to a more detailed physical exam or a special hearing prior to admittance.
Consequently, many of us have discovered evidence in our own family trees of immigrants who were detained for a hearing with the Board of Special Inquiry. In my family, my great-grandfather’s brother, Franciszek (Frank) Zieliński, was one such example. Franciszek arrived at Ellis Island on 7 April 1907, and his passenger manifest is shown here on the Ellis Island site (free) or via Ancestry, here (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Extract from passenger manifest of Franciszek Zelinski (sic) from the S.S. Breslau, 7 April 1907.1
Franciszek appears on line 11, a single, male farm laborer, age 26, not able to read or write, which was not unusual for men living in Russian Poland at that time. His last permanent residence was noted to be Sochaczew, Russian Poland. Franciszek did not have a ticket to his final destination and he had only one dollar to his name, but he was reported to have paid for his ticket himself. Franciszek and a traveling companion, Aleksander Winnicki, were both going to join the brother-in-law of a third companion, Walenty Jankowski, who reported that he was from the village of Czyste, which is near Sochaczew. Walenty’s brother-in-law, Antoni Bejger (?), was living in Buffalo, New York. Although this manifest page is genealogical gold, it tells only half the story. As evidenced by the “SI” notations and subsequent “Admitted” stamps, all three of these men, along with four others on this page, were flagged for detainment and a hearing with the Board of Special Inquiry (SI).
These Records of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry appear as separate documents that usually constitute the final pages of the ship’s manifest, or possibly the first few pages of the manifest, as some manifests were microfilmed in reverse order. It’s common for a search on Ancestry to reveal one of the manifest pages for a particular immigrant (the main manifest page or the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry page), but not both. However, you can always browse manually to find the additional page if there is reason to suspect that it should exist. Figure 2 shows the page from the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry where Franciszek Zieliński was mentioned.
Figure 2: Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, Franceszek Zelinski (sic), S.S. Breslau, 7 April 1907.2
The left-most columns on this manifest confirm the data found in the original manifest entry for Franciszek, indicating “26m” for a 26-year-old male, followed by his name. The next columns report group number and page number on the manifest where he was originally recorded. There is a column for number of persons held, which was only one, in Franciszek’s case. However, other entries note larger traveling parties, such as the group of 8 recorded further down on the page — a mother traveling with 7 children, who was detained as a Likely Public Charge (L.P.C.). The next column reveals the reason for Frank’s detainment, “C.L.” This notation stands for “Contract Labor,” and Franciszek’s traveling companions, Aleksander Winnicki and Walenty Jankowski, were detained for this same reason.
Apparently, Franciszek and the others were suspected of immigrating in violation of the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885. This law was intended to discourage the practice among American companies of promising jobs to immigrants upon arrival, bringing them in under contract, or prepaying their passage. In addition,
The law aimed at reducing immigration to the country and supplying the workforce with better skilled trained craftsmen. The act prohibited all companies and individuals from bringing immigrants into the United States under contract or through indentured servitude. A less overt purpose of the law was to raise the quality of new immigrants by excluding people who could not pay their own way to reach the United States. Immigrants who could afford to travel to the United States on their own income were most welcome.3
The next columns on the manifest report the name of the immigration inspector, Leonard, and the actions of the Boards of Special Inquiry. In the case of Franciszek and his friends, the hearings took place on that same day, 7 April (reported in the “Date” column), and a transcript of the proceedings was recorded by the secretary “Lov” on page 10 of the stenographer’s notebook. One such transcript can be found here, although the transcript from Franciszek’s hearing would not have been preserved because he was ultimately admitted to the United States. The only records that were not destroyed were for cases in which the BSI judged in favor of exclusion an immigrant, and the immigrant appealed the decision. The documents surrounding those appeals are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and additional information about obtaining them can be found here.
The final columns on the far right side of the page are also interesting, in that they provide a tally for the number of breakfasts, lunches and dinners the detained person or party received while in detainment. The cost of these meals was billed to the steamship company. Unfortunately, the top corner of the original page was torn prior to microfilming, so this information is not available in Frank’s case.
Ultimately, Frank was admitted to the U.S., possibly because he was able to persuade the BSI that he did, in fact, pay for his own ticket as he reported on the manifest. Nevertheless, these Records of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry provide fascinating details to add to our understanding of our immigrant ancestors’ stories. So the next time you see an “admitted” stamp on a manifest next to the name of an immigrant ancestor, be sure to dig a little deeper in the manifest to uncover the rest of the story.
For further reading:
Grounds for Exclusion noted on BSI lists: http://www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/manifests/bsi/causes.html, and
Interesting story about an immigrant whose admittance was denied by the BSI, but who gained entry upon appeal:
1 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image), Ancestry.com, (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2003), Record for Franciszek Zelinski, S.S. Breslau, 7 April 1907, list 10, line 11, accessed 8 October 2017.
2 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image), Ancestry.com, (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2003), Franceszek Zelinski (sic) in Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, S.S. Breslau, 7 April 1907, page 121, accessed 8 October 2017.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017