Healing History

Healing History

A 10-year project reveals the untold story of Ellis Island's hospital and the experiences of immigrants treated there.

In 1921, 19-year-old Australian salesman Ormond Joseph McDermott arrived at Ellis Island, bent on learning the “motor car” business at the South Bend, Ind., Studebaker factory. But he forgot his passport on the Wandilla — a mistake that, along with his temporary worker status, aroused the suspicion of immigration officials. After nine days of detention in the crowded passenger dormitory, he came down with scarlet fever and took a bed in the island’s Contagious Disease Hospital. Six days later, he was dead.

“I have a son Ormond’s age. I kept looking at his records thinking, I have to find his face,” says Lorie Conway, a film producer who stumbled across the doctor’s report while researching the immigrant hospital on Ellis Island.

A New York Times Magazine article about “the other Ellis Island” had caught Conway’s eye in 1998. The 22 hospital buildings on the island’s South Side saw tens of thousands of patients from 1902 through the 1930s. At the state-of-the-art facility, a staff of 300 intercepted an array of diseases such as trachoma, diphtheria, consumption and favus before they could reach American shores. But while Ellis Island’s Great Hall was renovated into a stunning museum, the entire South Side lay abandoned.

“As a granddaughter of immigrants who came through Ellis Island, I was astonished to find out there was untold history of this place we thought we knew everything about,” Conway says. She called the National Park Service, owner of Ellis Island. No one had ever produced a film or book about the hospital.

Conway received open access to the buildings. “They were a wreck,” she says bluntly, describing crumbling asbestos, flaking paint and infiltrating poison ivy. “With them, stories were being lost.” For the next 10 years, she researched, applied for grants and created Forgotten Ellis Island, a book (Collins) and documentary <www.forgottenellisisland.com> (set to air on PBS in 2009).

She aimed not only to explain the hospital’s significance, but tell the stories of the patients, doctors and nurses who spent part of their lives there. “It was important that I put a human face on the story, that it wasn’t just about an institution.”

But she had to do it without some important records. “A librarian at a federal facility in Louisiana thought she had seen the patient records, so I filled out a Freedom of Information Act request and someone went to the basement and checked.”The papers were those of WWII soldiers treated at the hospital, not of immigrants.

Conway holds hope the missing records will turn up. “I was told they existed before the restoration of the Great Hall began … that there were boxes and boxes and boxes of paper in the hospital building. At some point during the restoration, millions of cubic feet of paper were removed. And they could’ve been destroyed, but I think they were placed in some federal facility.”

In fact, no central repository holds the hospital’s records. Starting with Harlan Unrau’s 1984 Historic Resource Study of the island, Conway moved on to the New York Public Library’s scrapbooks of Ellis Island commissioner William Williams; staff memos and annual reports from the Public Health Service archives; and old manuscripts from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services historian. She tracked down two former patients and walked with them through the hospital corridors.

Unexpected pay dirt came from researching illnesses. “If you know your grandfather had trachoma or diphtheria or what have you, for many of these diseases, there are files at the National Archives with case studies from the hospital,” Conway says.

She learned about the painful treatment for the eye infection trachoma: scrubbing the inner eyelid with a steel brush and silver nitrate. She found a doctor’s photographs of “feebleminded” immigrants (as indicated by their facial expressions). In oral histories, women patients described the embarrassment of undressing for examinations; hospitalized children recalled the trauma of separation from their parents. “All these elements had to be woven into the story,” Conway says. “The hospital was both a line of first defense against diseases and a place designed to heal people.”

That healing side of the hospital’s mission revealed itself, too: Photos show patients smiling outdoors, browsing books in the on-site Red Cross library and clutching donated Christmas presents. In 1921, Ukrainian immigrant Bessie Cohen Akawie raved about the food and spoke fondly of “Miss Hannah” as “a nurse you can dream about.”

Ormond Joseph McDermott’s medical charts rewarded Conway’s determined search. Over the 10-year project, his is the only complete set of Ellis Island hospital patient records she found, tucked into his immigration file because his father requested an investigation into his death. With help from genealogists, Conway located McDermott’s modern family — and his portrait — a month before her Forgotten Ellis Island manuscript was due at the publisher.

The death of “Little OJ” had caused lasting pain: His parents broke down and relatives helped raise his nine siblings. “To have his story finally told, beginning, middle and end,” Conway says, “was very gratifying for the family.”

Coming Back to Life

Judith McAlpin is on a mission to “restore all of the story.” As president of Save Ellis Island <www.saveellisisland.org>, she’s found Americans are largely unaware the island is still full of abandoned buildings that played significant roles in US history.

Except the Baggage and Dormitory building on Ellis Island’s North Side, the group has seen to stabilization of all 30 structures it looks after. This step — what McAlpin calls “buttoning up the buildings” — keeps out the elements and dramatically slows deterioration.

The restored Ferry Building, where processed immigrants left for Manhattan, opened last year with an exhibit about Ellis Island’s hospital. Interior work has begun on the Laundry and Hospital Outbuilding, which will open access to the South Side through a corridor from the Ferry Building. Plans for other structures are in various stages of development with the National Park Service. Eventually, McAlpin says, some hospital buildings will be part of a conference center; the Recreation Pavilion will host events.

Where does the money come from? Grants such as Save America’s Treasures <www.saveamericastreasures.org>, corporate efforts including Phillips-Van Heusen’s We Are Ellis Island campaign <www.weareellisisland.org>, government funding and individual contributions.

McAlpin’s vision includes history and cultural programs, some of which already exist in the education-oriented Ellis Island Institute <www.ellisislandinstitute.org>. “Making Ellis Island come to life and be meaningful for today’s audience,” she says, “is of critical importance.”
From the November 2008 Family Tree Magazine 

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