Steerage Report Stirs Ocean Steamship Lines – 1909
Scenes of the Steerage. Top Left: Trying to Keep Clean Under Difficulties; Bottom Left: Mother's Effort to Guard Child Against Vermin; Top Right: A Happy Family Group; Bottom Right: Sick Women Without Attendance. The Home Missionary, January 1908. GGA Image ID # 1467c7ae14
London Agents Call the U. S. Commission's Findings "Absurd" and "False."
DENY MISTREATING ALIENS
The Immigration Commissioner Here Thinks Some of the Charges May Be Exaggerated.
Special Cable to The New York Times.
LONDON, 14 December 1909. — The United States Immigration Commission report on steerage conditions has caused a sensation here. It is met by emphatic denials from the steamship companies.
The White Star Managers say the report is surprising and ridiculous so far as their boats are concerned.
The Cunard Company says the charges are absurd; the Anchor Line " a piece of sheer nonsense;" the Canadian Pacific "void of all foundation," and the Allan Line says there is not a word of truth in the report so far as It is concerned.
Col. Swan, the American Consul at Southampton, emphatically says the allegations don't apply to the British-American lines. The report emanating from Washington, published yesterday morning in this city, describing the insults, bad treatment, and immorality in the steerage of Atlantic liners, created considerable discussion in the offices of the steamship companies. Each agent emphatically denied that his lines could be the one referred to and wondered which company it could be.
Officials in the Custom House and the Immigration Bureau at Ellis Island said that abuses did exist on certain lines, chiefly in the Mediterranean service, but that in the North Atlantic trade the immigrants were well taken care of, especially on the American and British steamships, because as a rule, they carried a better educated and cleaner class of people.
The report, it was said, had evidently exaggerated the evils, and was presumably written by a woman who had never mixed with the poorer classes of humanity to see how they lived.
"It seems to me," said Immigration Commissioner Williams, "that there Is possibly some exaggeration in the report. The handling of the Immigrants on vessels as to treatment and air space is within the province of the Collector of the Port.
We have nothing to do with the immigrant until he is delivered on Ellis Island. As far as their treatment is concerned on board ship, we rarely have any complaints from aliens. Still, if one is made, an investigation is started, and if a wrong has been done, it is remedied."
Under the United States laws, every adult immigrant must have 18 clear superficial feet of deck space on the main deck, or first deck below it, and 20 feet of space on the decks below.
Steamship agents violating this law are fined $50 for each passenger more than the number the vessel has been licensed to carry by the United States Steamboat Inspectors.
The companies are also required to see that the proper sanitary conditions are carried out. If the ship should arrive at Quarantine in an unsanitary condition owing to want of cleanliness on the part of the officers and crew, a fine may be Inflicted in the United States Federal courts.
Collector Loeb said he had not had time to go thoroughly into the question regarding the charges that the steamship companies did not give proper treatment to aliens on their way to the United States, but he Intended to investigate it.
If he found that Captains and agents were slack in carrying out the regulations demanded by the United States laws, he would bring them up with a round turn, he said.
Recently one company was fined $800 for carrying six passengers more than the number allowed by law, and a strict watch is kept by the Inspectors who board the liners at Quarantine, according to Mr. Loeb.
If a vessel arrives there with immigrants on board in an unsanitary condition, the Inspector reports the matter to the Surveyor of the Customs, who in turn reports to the Collector, and from there it goes to the Law Department of the customs, where it is finally passed along to the United States District Attorney's office for action.
Concerning the neglect of sanitary regulations, the Collector said he believed that such a state of affairs existed in some of the Mediterranean lines. Still, a great deal of the fault rested with the aliens themselves. In most cases, he thought that the immigrants were better treated and fed than in their own homes, especially in Italy, Austria, and Greece.
The head of one of the best-known Atlantic lines, who did not wish to be quoted, said it was a great pity the report from Washington did not go further and mention the lines which had come under the ban of the special Commissioners, as it was unfair for a statement to be made which might be taken to implicate the whole of the immigrant carrying Atlantic fleet, about seventy-five vessels. He said:
"On all the big liners today the women are berthed in closed cabins at one end of the ship, while the married couples and the single men are quartered at the other end so that it would be impossible, with the vigilance of the ship's police and matrons, for them to get to the women's quarters.
"The aliens are furnished with bedding and eating utensils and have the use of a bathroom with hot and cold water, which the majority of them have never seen in their lives.
All kinds of moderate comforts are provided for the immigrant; although you may provide soap and water, you cannot make them wash, especially those from Southeastern Europe."
"When they arrive from their overland journey at the port of embarkation in Europe, the immigrants are put through a cleansing process such as they have never experienced before.
Their clothes are steam cleaned and fumigated, and the alteration in their appearance is so great that when members of a family reunite in the big waiting room after the cleaning up, they are hardly able to recognize each other."
The charges of immorality made In the report were received with skepticism by the steamship agents.
"Steerage Report Stirs Ocean Lines," in The New York Times, 15 December 1909, p. 3.