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Immigration Archives - The Treatment of Immigrants - A Summary of the Hardships Faced

The transportation of emigrants in those early days was attended with such cruel conditions that reviewing them now after a lapse of fifty years, it seems almost incredible that they should have been tolerated by any civilized nation. The ships employed in this service were only too often broken-down freight ships, in which merchants were unwilling to entrust valuable merchandise.

The humane provisions of modern times with respect to light, ventilation, and cleanliness were wholly unknown. More often than not the ships were undermanned, so that in case of a storm the passengers were required to lend a hand in doing the work of sailors. The provisions supplied were always uncooked, scanty.in amount, and frequently unfit for use. With favourable weather the voyage lasted from six to eight weeks.

Against head-winds and storms the old hulks were frequently from twelve to fourteen weeks on the way. With the emigrants already predisposed by famine and hardship, it is not to be wondered at that fever broke out on board ship and that many died and their remains were tossed overboard during the voyage. This was especially true in the British vessels, in which the death-rate exceeded that of the vessels of all other nationalities (see Kapp, "Immigration", p. 34).

As a result these emigrant ships on reaching the United States were in many instances little else than floating hospitals. When they arrived in port the shipmaster made haste to discharge his human cargo, and the sick and dying, as well as those who had survived unharmed, were put ashore on the wharves and public landing-places and were left to their fate.

Some of the sick, when they reached New York, were fortunate enough to gain admission to the Marine Hospital; others were carried to the sheds and structures which had been provided by the brokers and agents of the shipowners, under their agreement with the municipal authorities to provide for such sick emigrants as they might land.

But the treatment of the emigrants in these institutions was little less brutal than they had experienced on shipboard. The food there was often unfit for any human being, still less for the sick. Sanitary conditions were ignored, and medical attendance was rarely adequate to the existing needs. Not only the sick and the dying, but often the corpses of the dealt, were huddled together.

One instance is specified where the bodies of two who had died four or five days before were left unburied on the cots whereon they had died, in the same room with their sick companions (see Maguire, "The Irish in America", p. 186). So fatal were these conditions that it has been estimated by medical statisticians that not less than 20,000 emigrants perished by ship fever and in the various emigrant hospitals in American ports in the year 18.47 (Kapp, "Immigration", p. 23).

Those of the emigrants who survived tine hardships of the voyage and retained strength enough to go about encountered troubles of a different kind. Boarding-house runners, ticket-sellers, and money-changers swarmed about the landing-places. Boarding-house charges were fraudulently multiplied, money-brokers practised their calling at extortionate rates, while the selling of fraudulent railroad tickets was one of the commonest practices by which the poor immigrant was plundered.

As a result the able-bodied immigrant was compelled to remain in and around New York without means to help himself or his family, and thus oftentimes became a charge upon the charity of the public. So gross did these abuses become that a number of the most prominent citizens of New York applied to the Legislature for relief. Included in these were Archbishop Hughes, Andrew Carrigan, John E. Devlin, Charles O'Conor, James T. Brady John Mc- Keon, Gregory Dillon, and other men of Irish blood who were identified with the Irish Emigrant Society, which had been organized for the purpose of aiding the Irish immigrants arriving at the port of New York.

The result of their exertions was the creation by Act of the Legislature of the State of New York of the board generally known as the "Commissioners of Emigration", composed of men of the highest standing in the community, who served without compensation and to whom was entrusted the general care and supervision of the immigrants as they arrived.

Julian C. Verplanck, distinguished alike as scholar and public-spirited citizen of New York, served during twenty-three years as president of this board, and although not of Irish blood, his long and faithful service in behalf of the Irish immigrants ought not to pass without honourable mention in these pages. Under the watchful supervision thus established the evils complained of were gradually overcome, notwithstanding persistent opposition from shipowners and emigrant runners.

In 1855 the first state emigration depot was opened in Castle Garden at the lower end of Manhattan Island, and since then millions of immigrants have streamed through this gateway, under the inspection and protection of the officials, on their way to the various places throughout the land where they were to make their homes. In 1874 the Congress of the United States assumed control of the question of immigration, and the admission and supervision of the arriving immigrant are now in charge of a Commissioner General of Immigration appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury.

In 1884 a Home and Mission House were established in close proximity to Castle Garden for the protection of Irish immigrant girls. This institution was founded by Cardinal John McCloskey, with the co-operation of other prelates, and was placed in charge of Rev. John J. Riordan, a zealous Irish priest who gave his life in its service. The beneficent work of the Home in sheltering unprotected women, and in promoting their moral and material welfare, is universally recognized.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 8, 1913

 

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