1. It was used for pirate hangings in the early 1800s.

Long before it became a way station for people looking for a new beginning, Ellis Island—named for its last private owner, Samuel Ellis—was known as a place where condemned prisoners met their end. For most of the early 19th century, the island was used to hang convicted pirates, criminals and mutinous sailors, and New Yorkers eventually took to calling it “Gibbet Island” after the wooden post, or gibbet, where the bodies of the deceased were displayed. It reverted to the name “Ellis Island” in the years after the last hanging in 1839, and later served as a Navy munitions depot before being repurposed as a federal immigration station.

2. The first immigrants to arrive at Ellis Island were three unaccompanied minors.

Ellis Island accepted its first new arrivals on New Year’s Day 1892, when the steamship Nevada arrived with 124 passengers from Europe. The first would-be immigrant to set foot on the island was Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork, Ireland who had crossed the Atlantic with her 11 and 7-year-old brothers en route to reuniting with family in New York. A U.S. Treasury Department official and a Catholic chaplain were on hand to welcome Moore, and Ellis Island’s commissioner awarded her a $10 gold piece to mark the occasion. Today, a statue of Moore and her brothers is kept on display at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

3. The island wasn’t the first place immigrants landed when they arrived in New York.

While Ellis Island was the official entry point for immigrants to the United States, it wasn’t the first piece of American soil they encountered. The waters surrounding the island were too shallow for transatlantic ships to navigate, so most docked and unloaded their passengers in Manhattan. During the detour, American citizens and first and second-class passengers were allowed to enter the country after only a brief inspection, but steerage passengers were herded onto ferries and shuttled to Ellis Island for further processing. The stopover was occasionally clouded by corruption. Around the turn of the century, crooked immigration officials were known to take $1 or $2 bribes in exchange for letting immigrants get off in Manhattan without first going through inspection at Ellis Island.

4. Immigrants were subject to physical and mental exams to ensure they were fit for admittance to the United States.

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, immigrants were ushered into a room called the Great Hall and paraded before a series of medical officers for physical inspection. Most were allowed to pass by in a matter of seconds, but those whom the doctors deemed physically or mentally deficient were marked with chalk and taken away for additional screening. Questionable candidates were forced to submit to more detailed questioning and medical exams, and any signs of contagious disease, poor physique, feeblemindedness or insanity could see an immigrant denied admittance on the grounds that they were likely to become a ward of the state.

In later years, doctors at Ellis Island even devised puzzles and memory tests to ensure that certain immigrants were intelligent enough to find work. New arrivals could also face rejection if they were anarchists, had a criminal record or showed signs of low moral character. Despite the litany of guidelines for new immigrants, the number of people denied entry at Ellis Island was quite low. Of the 12 million people who passed through its doors between 1892 and 1954, only around 2 percent were deemed unfit to become citizens of the United States.

5. Immigrants didn’t have their names changed at the island.

American cultural lore is rich with tales of immigrants’ ethnic sounding names being Anglicized or shortened during their passage through Ellis Island, yet there is no evidence that such a practice ever took place. Immigration officials merely checked the person’s identity against the manifests of the ships that brought them to America, and there was no policy advising them to forcibly alter names.

Some immigrants voluntarily chose to change their names to help assimilate into American culture, but they did so before they left their home country or after they had gained admission to the United States. A notable exception to the name changing policy came in 1908, when a traveler named Frank Woodhull admitted that he had been born a woman named Mary Johnson and had spent the previous 15 years living as a man. After briefly detaining Woodhull, officials allowed him to enter the country—but not before changing his name back to Mary Johnson.

6. Famed New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia worked at Ellis Island.

Before he became the first man to win three consecutive terms as mayor of New York, the fiery and reform-minded politician Fiorello LaGuardia spent three years on staff at Ellis Island between 1907 and 1910. The son of Italian immigrants, LaGuardia was fluent in Italian, Croatian and Yiddish, and he served as one of the island’s many translators while attending NYU law school at night. LaGuardia would go on to represent many Ellis Island immigrants in deportation cases during his early years as an attorney.

7. It was used as a detention facility during WWI and WWII.

An immigrant family on the dock at Ellis Island, c. 1925. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Bettmann/Getty Images
An immigrant family on the dock at Ellis Island, c. 1925.

Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, the government turned a suspicious eye toward all German-born, non-naturalized citizens residing within its borders. Potential “alien enemies” were placed under harsh restrictions, and those suspected of harboring pro-German sentiment were rounded up and detained. Since immigration had tapered off World War I, officials designated Ellis Island as one of the main holding centers for would-be enemies of the state, and some 1,500 people were eventually detained there. The island’s double life as a prison later continued during World War II, when it was used to house suspected Nazi sympathizers.

8. It eventually became more famous for deportations than immigration.

Ellis Island’s role as a gateway for immigrants began to change in the early 1920s, when a series of federal laws ended the open door immigration policy and established quotas for the number of new arrivals to the United States. By 1925, the government had also shifted the inspection process from American ports to the U.S. consulates abroad, leaving Ellis Island to operate primarily as a detention center and deportation point for undesirable immigrants.

The island was used to imprison and evict suspected communists and political radicals during the Red Scare (anarchist Emma Goldman was a notable deportee), and later served as a detention center for communists during the Cold War. The government’s legally ambiguous detainment policies eventually spawned a series of high profile lawsuits that stained Ellis Island’s reputation with the American public. In November 1954, the port was closed for good as part of a federal cost-saving measure.

9. It wasn’t opened to the public until 1976.

When the U.S. government tried to sell Ellis Island in the 1950s, would-be developers proposed everything from a drug rehab facility to a resort marina and even an experimental “city of the future” designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. None of the schemes for private development got off the ground, however, and the “gateway to America” spent the next 20 years in political limbo.

The island was finally opened for tours in 1976, but plans for a historical museum or renovation didn’t come together until the 1980s, when automotive pioneer Lee Iacocca helped spearhead a fundraising project for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The restored island was opened to the public in September 1990, and it now receives around 3 million visitors each year.

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