5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Ellis Island

On Nov 12, 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors. It had served as the reception station for more than 12 million immigrants to the United States between 1892 and 1924. Here are 5 things you probably didn’t know about this gateway for millions to a new life in America....


Pirates Were Hung There in the 1800s The island that was named after Samuel Ellis, its last owner, served as a spot where condemned prisoners were taken to be hanged in its early days. New Yorkers called it “Gibbet Island,” which was named for the metal casing that enclosed the bodies for display. The gibbet in question was erected in 1781 for Thomas Wilkinson, a convicted pirate who was actually hung on Windmill Island. His body was transported to Gibbet Island and hung as a display inside a metal framework. The idea of displaying the body was to dissuade other sailors from piracy, and the original framework can be seen by visitors to the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent.

Three Children Were the First to Pass Through as Immigrants The first immigrants to pass through the immigration station at Ellis Island were three Irish minors unaccompanied by an adult. Annie Moore was 15-years-old when she arrived aboard the steamship Nevada along with her two younger brothers, the youngest of whom was 7. To commemorate the occasion, she was handed a $10 gold piece by officials.


The Immigration Center Burned Down in the Late 1800s Because the construction of the original immigration center was Georgia pine, when it caught on fire on June 15, 1897, the whole building burned down. While there were no injuries, all the federal and state records from 1855 and before were destroyed. The new building, which was fireproof, was opened on December 17, 1900.

Some Arriving Passengers Could Skip Processing at Ellis Island Not all passengers had to submit to immigration processing at Ellis Island. The way officials looked at it, if immigrants paid for a first-class or second-class ticket, they probably did not have financial problems and were unlikely to be sick. This meant they would probably not be a financial burden for the rest of American society, so they were given a free pass into the country.

Suspected Enemy Aliens Were Detained There During Two Wars During both World War I and World War II, aliens who were suspected of being enemies were detained under custody at Ellis Island. During World War I, the inspection of immigrants arriving in the United States was conducted at the docks or onboard the ship, and those who were suspected of being radicals were kept at Ellis Island, with many of them being later deported. When World War II came along, merchant seamen who were thought to be enemies of the United States were kept in the dormitory and baggage building.