As New York's fascinating "mystery of Ellis Island's first immigrant" shows, we've (not) come a long way, baby: then as now, immigrants are "both romanticized as the source of American versatility and demonized as the source of, well, immigrants."
Jesse Green's piece unearths the mystery of Annie Moore, who, in 1892, enjoyed 15 minutes of fame as the newly-opened Ellis Island's first immigrant. Well, she wasn't exactly the first. Green clarifies:
Perhaps it was for the papers' benefit that the two other ships whose passengers might have had the honor of inaugurating Ellis Island—the City of Paris and the Victoria—were overlooked in favor of the Nevada. It sounded so American. And perhaps it was on the press's behalf, too, that a "rosy-cheeked" Irish lass headed the line to get off the barge as it moseyed into its slip, amid foghorns, bells, and shrieking whistles. How perfect that it also happened to be her 15th birthday! (Too perfect: She'd turned 17 the previous spring.) But this was not the only detail the press seems to have invented. "As soon as the gangplank was run ashore," the Times reported the next day, "Annie tripped across it."...Maybe. Or maybe, as other versions have it, she was so visibly upset by the emotions of the day that the Italian gentleman who was actually first in line insisted she take his place. Or was it a German man, who was shunted aside in favor of the English-speaking youngster? Surely she would make a better ceremonial subject for the Treasury Department dignitary who'd come from Washington to welcome Ellis Island's first immigrant. Nor was that the end of the pomp: A Catholic chaplain blessed Annie, and the island's commissioner handed her a gold Liberty coin.
There were photographers and press. A ballad was written. But after that, Annie Moore was consigned to obscurity - just as Ellis Island and the 12 million who streamed through it quickly lost their novelty for Americans. While half-hearted attempts were made to find out what became of this American Dream embodied, for years her actual fate was somewhat obscured: while an Arizona family claimed kinship, this turned out to be dubious. There was another claim, but no one took it very seriously:
When Geraldine Donovan heard about this New Mexican Annie, she told her relatives it was baloney. Her grandmother was the real Annie Moore, she said, and she'd never lived farther west than Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, a stone's throw from where Geri herself still lived...Geri wrote to churches and the Irish Echo, trying to set the record straight. But she was a woman of little means for whom the Internet didn't exist-and it did not help her credibility that she also insisted that [Annie's widower] Pop Schayer's father, Simon the baker, had invented the macaroon.
In time, years after her death, Geri was vindicated. (It also turned out that this guy had, in fact, invented the macaroon - or some variation on it.) But for those who cherished the ballad version of Annie Moore, the reality wasn't so pretty:
The five-story brick tenement at 32 Monroe Street to which Aunt Geri's Annie Moore was taken after arriving in Manhattan sat at the center of a one-eighth-square-mile rectangle in which, having traveled 3,000 miles to get there, she would spend the rest of her life. The Fourth Ward was at the time "one of the oldest and worst sections of shantytown in the city," as Caleb Carr described it-the home turf of dozens of Irish gangs named for the very streets Annie would live on, shop on, pray on...Their first known child, William, died at age 20 months in 1898. New Chambers Street, where the 1900 census found them living with daughter Catherine and son Joseph Jr. Oliver Street, their home for more than a decade, where Theodore and Julia were born and Winifred, Walter, and Edward died at, respectively, 3 months, 3 years, and 3 days of age. Finally, Cherry Street, where Mary Anne was born; where Henry, Annie's last known child, died in 1919; and where Annie herself died in 1924-so fat, says a family story, that firemen could not carry her down the stairs. They had to haul her out the window.
In other words, hers was an all-too typical immigrant story of poverty and obscurity. No happy endings, and certainly no American dream, as such. Or, as Green puts it, "Formerly one kind of symbol, Annie Moore is now becoming another." One could argue, of course, that the two are one and the same: the image we wish to have, cloaking the reality. And the most telling part of this story, for me, is not that the young girl was photographed and feted - but that she tried to hide from it.
Immigrant Number One [New York]