Sunday, 28 April 2013
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 would be a long wait in a queue, often for hours. Some would strike up music on an accordion or banjo, and do a little impromptu dance, while waiting. At the end of each line a doctor, dressed in the blue uniform of the US Health Service, carefully scrutinised every man, woman and child for physical or mental defects. Hair, face, neck and hands were closely examined, including the scalp for ringworm. Coats were unbuttoned to check for a goitre or tumour, or pregnancy.
There would follow 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.
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. 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 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 which was obliged to take them away for no extra charge.
Rosie Belsfield feels as if her life has ended when she is rejected from Ellis Island and has to return alone to England leaving her family behind. But having boarded the ship with one identity, fate decrees that she leave it with another. The promise of a new life beckons, one of riches and even a title in beautiful Cornwall, but it is also one fraught with danger as she becomes caught up in a web of lies not of her making.