In the other hand, doctors would hold a little hook shaped implement, used as a buttonhook for shoes. They would use this hook to lift eyelids to look for trachoma, one of the most feared of eye infections that could cause blindness. Those unfortunates would be marked with a ‘CT’.
Immigrants marked with chalk were quickly separated from their families, and sent to the now abandoned hospital. Today, donning a hard hat and stepping behind the locked gate to the south side is a slightly peculiar experience – going from the huge crowds visiting the museum and Registry Hall to being suddenly isolated in a collection of abandoned buildings, just a stones throw from the school groups and tourists. In the early 1900s, it must have been overwhelmingly terrifying.
“They put us into lines…..if you had visibly something wrong with you…..like if they saw your eyes red…they’d put colour chalk on you….if you were with a cane….it’s another chalk and you go into a certain other line”, recalled Katherine Beychock, a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1910. “It had a terrible effect on me…we were scared of uniforms. It took us back to the Russian uniforms that we were running away from.”
Once in the hospital, the immigrants marked with chalk were subjected to more rigorous examinations. Some stayed just days or weeks before being allowed to join their families. Others were kept in quarantine for longer. Worse of all, some who were deemed incurable were sent back to their ports of origin.
Walking through the empty buildings today, one can almost sense the human anguish that happened here. The upheaval of leaving home, and making a trans-Atlantic voyage in steerage class to a foreign country must have been overwhelming in itself. To be suddenly separated from your family, often not speaking English, much more so.
Often those marked with chalk were children. The low levels of hygiene on the steamships, meant many caught measles, diphtheria or scarlet fever on the journey itself. Nurses working at Ellis Island were warned ‘do not kiss a patient’.
Perhaps more alarmingly from our modern point of view was the increasing evaluations of immigrants based on eugenics and mental health. You now might be marked with a chalk ‘X’, signifying a suspected mental disorder, or a circled ‘X’, for insanity. Given that some immigrants couldn’t speak English, or had lived their lives in basic rural conditions, judging what constituted mental impairments was a grey area. Ellis Island physician Dr. Howard Knox developed visual tests for immigrants – some as simple as the ability to draw a diamond or build a wooden toy puzzle representing the steam liner they arrived on – to gauge mental ability.