The Uprooted: A Century of Immigrants…and Scandal


Meantime at Ellis Island, probably early 1900s. —– New York Public Library

If 2015 was, sadly, the Year of the Migrant and Refugee, it’s worth pausing to remember the epic era of immigration some 100 years ago, and a shameful if long-forgotten history captured in the Baruch Library Archives. We’re talking about the Ellis Island Investigating Commission and a scandal within a scandal, as revealed by a chance encounter with some yellowing scrapbook pages…

Preying on victims of war and poverty, we see, long predates the modern-day evils of human trafficking.  Indeed, Ellis Island, a onetime naval arsenal and ammunition dump in New York Harbor, had barely been reconfigured as an immigration reception center in the 1890s and rebuilt in 1900 after a fire when the scandals proliferated. “The management of the Ellis Island business has been rotten,” complained President Theodore Roosevelt, shortly after the assassination of William McKinley thrust him into the White House in 1901, according to a lavishly illustrated album, “Ellis Island” with archival  photographs assembled by Wilton Tifft and text by Thomas Dunne (W.W Norton, 1971) in the Baruch Library’s Seymour Durst Collection.

New arrivals were robbed in the halls, shortchanged at the currency-exchange windows, and overcharged in the restaurant and railroad ticket booths. Agents took bribes to let the unfit pass or avoid questioning. Dishes weren’t washed between meals and the floors were littered with bones and food debris.

To set things right, Roosevelt appointed a young Wall Street lawyer and veteran of the Spanish-American War, William Williams.


On Ellis Island: Teddy Roosevelt greets his new Commissioner of Immigration, William Williams (far right) in 1903. — New York Public Library

Williams, who ended up serving from 1902 to to 1905 and again 1909 to 1913, proved a worthy reformer, posting notices that began: “Immigrants must be treated with kindness and consideration…” But he also ran afoul of anti-immigrant lobbies and endemic abuses, according to another history in the Durst Collection, “Ellis Island: A Pictorial History” by Barbara Benton (Facts on File, 1985).


New York Public Library

And another scandal was brewing.

We came across it by chance while examining old scrapbook pages in the Library’s IPA Collection, specifically the part dealing with the forerunner of the Institute of Public Administration, the Bureau of Municipal Research.

FullSizeRender (3)

As recounted in numerous earlier posts, the Bureau was chartered in 1907 by a trio of Progressive Era reformers to constrain the bossist sway of Tammany Hall by inventing a new science of efficient, effective, honest and accountable government, administered by trained professionals. Its quick first  success was the ouster of the patronage-dispensing wastrel Manhattan Borough President, John F. Ahearn.


What caught our eye in two boxes of files from old BMR scrapbooks was this brochure from 1913 in which the Bureau appeared to be objecting to some kind of coverup of food conditions by the Ellis Island Investigating Commission. The tipoff was the reference to an attempted whitewash of Ahearn in 1907. We know how that came out.

BMR protest
With the help of archived articles in The New York Times, we reconstructed the sequence of events.

The government had dealt with the scandalous conditions at Ellis Island by bidding out food service, currency-exchange and baggage handling to private contractors. Until 1908, when the contracts came up for re-bidding, the food contractor, Harry Balfe, was paid by the steamship lines, 24 cents a day to feed each person at Ellis Island. Currency conversions to today’s dollars are imperfect but it might represent about $6.31 today. For those traveling out, he sold boxes of food for 50 cents or $1 ($13.16 and $26.32, respectively, today).

The new contractor was Fritz Brodt who was paid per person per meal, 6 cents for breakfast and supper (or $1.50 today) and 10 cents for dinner ($2.50). But in 1910 Brodt was accused of not living up to his contract; after trial, it was annulled and ordered rebid. One of the new low bidders was the former secretary of Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham (notorious for declaring that half the city’s criminals were Jews.)


Hmmm, anyone smell a rat?

It got worse. Food scandals at Ellis Island proliferated. By 1913 an immigration inspector was testifying to having withheld evidence of fraud and the Bureau of Municipal Research had taken an investigative interest. The Ellis Island Investigating Commission was taking testimony about impure milk destined for the immigrants.


But when the Commission ruled the charges of fraud unfounded, the Bureau was withering in its criticism, saying the inquiry “never found the facts anywhere about anything.”


In 1916 the food contracts were rebid again, with the low bidder asking 20 cents a day for steerage passengers (about $4.44 today) and 30 cents for cabin passengers ($6.67). The steamship companies, which would have to pay, protested it was too high.

Instead, the contract went to J.J. Lussier, operator of the Yates Hotel and restaurant at 43d Street on Times Square, (just up the street, as it happens, from The New York Times’s new annex headquarters at 229 West 43d Street). Instead of a fixed price per immigrant, Lussier agreed to cater all meals for cost plus a 10 percent contractor’s markup.



“Ellis Island”/Tifft/Dunne


Dirty Story

Dust Removal in St. Louis 3

Remember the Way-Cleanse Company of Sandusky, OH?

Neither did we.

But there was a time 100 years ago when the vacuum sanitation upstart was, uh, cleaning up, pledging to rid America of what it called “the Menace of Fine Street Dust.” As the company explained in its brochure:

“Way means Highway

Cleanse means cleaner than clean

Hence the name WAYCLEANSE”


The story is told in a fascinating report spotted recently by an eagle-eyed member of the Baruch Library Archives’s digitization team, Benjamin Long, engaged in preserving and promulgating records of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research (which became the hugely influential  Institute of Public Administration).

The report documents the Way-Cleanse Company’s 60 days of street cleaning tests by “suction street sweepers” in St. Louis  beginning June 1, 1916. You could say it dishes the dirt on a nation waking up to the hazards of pollution at a time when coal fires were filling the air with ash dust, and horses — not yet supplanted by the smoke-spewing engines of the automobile — were leaving their own odiferous imprint on America’s streets and roadways.

Dust Removal in St. Louis 1917 2

Dust Removal in St. Louis 1917

Everyone knew the problem of street litter, the company said. But few knew that “The chief danger to public health from street litter is in the fine, flour-like dust.” 




One scientific sample of street sweepings, according to Way-Cleanse, “contained 5,600,000 Bacteria per Gram.”

waycleanse report

Atypically for such reports in our collection, this one is silent on sponsorship and, in fact, nowhere names the Bureau of Municipal Research as its source. Verifying that took a little detective work. The slender report — illustrated with stunningly clear black and white photographs pasted in, along with a company brochure — bore only the signature of one R.W. Parlin. But through the wonders of the Internet, we were soon able to identify him as the Bureau’s chief engineer.


In the test, two gasoline-driven machines were deployed nightly, sweeping 200,000 square yards of St. Louis streets. One machine cleaned the gutters, the other the center of the street. The machines each cost as much as $10,000 then — more than $217,000  in current dollars. Both consisted of a tractor with the cleaning apparatus — a mechanical broom and a suction device — and a trailer that collected the dust and dirt. The street machine took two men: an operator and a collector who picked up or loosened the larger pieces of rubbish. The gutter machine often required a third crew member to help with the picking up.


The gutter machine covered 17 miles  in 7 to 9 hours, picking up from 2.5 to 5 cubic yards per shift; the street machine moved somewhat faster and collected between 2 and 3 cubic yards per shift.

No one would call it it glamorous work: “Whenever horse manure stuck to the pavement, it was necessary to send a man ahead with a scraper to loosen it; otherwise the machine broom was unable to remove it.” Another caveat: while the machines removed dust from smooth streets, it missed the dust in grooves in the pavement, manhole covers and trolley tracks.

Also on the day operations were observed, an accident disrupted the tests: “the gutter machine having been run into by a street car, one of the countershafts had been so bent that it caused the heating of a bearing, and after about 45 minutes this machine was forced to stop work.”

The Bureau’s verdict: except for the quibbles noted, “the work of the machine was very effective and the streets over which they [sic] had operated presented a very good appearance…”

So whatever happened to Way-Cleanse? Hard to say. The New York Times only mentioned the company once, in a brief list of Delaware charters on Nov. 22, 1917.

Google the name today and you get a list of products to clean out your digestive system.



Joisey City


It will come as little surprise to students of municipal corruption and Jersey City, New Jersey — but I repeat myself…

Which is to say that for well over a century, the two have been entwined in infamy. Jerramiah T. Healy, the last mayor of Jersey City, the Hudson County seat and New Jersey’s second-largest metropolis after Newark, was once photographed passed out nude on his stoop, insisting later that three young Hispanic girls had pulled his towel off and “started doing other stuff”…and — huh, what towel? Oh, never mind!


Does it mean anything that Healy was mayor in 2005 when Donald Trump unveiled his $415 million condo project in Jersey City, the tallest residential development in New Jersey? Given the city’s history, who knows? http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/23/nyregion/latest-trump-venture-is-in-jersey-city.html

On the subject, the first name that comes to mind, of course, is Healy’s notorious predecessor, Mayor Frank Hague (1917-1947) and we’ll get to him.



Hague’s multimillion dollar summer mansion in Deal, N.J., was paid for by his lawyer.

The point is, scandal has a long history in the Garden State, particularly this corner of the garden called Jersey’s gateway to New York.

We’re not even talking Bridgegate.

The great muckraker Lincoln Steffens nailed it as far back as 1906 in his book “The Struggle for Self Government”  http://www.amazon.com/struggle-self-government-American-political-corruption/dp/B00ADM24LS/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449676737&sr=1-3&keywords=The+struggle+for+self+government

He devoted two pungent chapters to what he called “New Jersey: A Traitor State.” Why traitor? Others states were crooked, too, Steffens wrote. But “New Jersey is selling out the rest of us.” It was chartering the trusts that were raping America. While Teddy Roosevelt was struggling to curb the monopolists, New Jersey was licensing corporations “to do in those other States what those States would not license; she licensed them to to do in those other States what she would not let them do in Jersey.” Translation: “New Jersey sold us out for money.”

Researching his iconic “Shame of the Cities,” Steffens went on, he found that most big cities had benighted satellite towns where the vicious could retreat to wait out periods of reform. St. Louis had East St. Louis, Philadelphia had Camden, and New York had Jersey City (as well as Hoboken, Greenwich and…Brooklyn?). It went way back to Alexander Hamilton, who chose Jersey Heights for his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, and enshrined the business class in the state.

During the Civil War, Steffens wrote, New Jersey alone in the north leaned south and didn’t let its soldiers vote in the field, so its electoral vote in 1864 went against Lincoln, for McClellan. By the 1870’s, Steffens wrote, the state government ended up representing not the people but the railroads, and New Jersey became “the State of Camden and Amboy”, ushering in a period he called “the most disgraceful in the history of the commercial corruption of American politics.”

The Republicans gerrymandered the Democrats out of Jersey City, creating a horseshoe-shaped district to contain the Democrats while allowing a Republican minority to elect the Legislature, which essentially turned the state over to the Pennsylvania Railroad. But the Democrats were just as bad. The cynical press asked: “Do the Pennsylvania people own the Legislature, or must they buy it?” Answer: they owned it but the corruption was such that they had to buy it over and over again.

It got so brazen that a lawmaker once rose, waving five $100 bills that he declared was a bribe for his vote. The House adjourned, a committee was appointed to investigate and reported back that it was all a joke. The laugh, alas, was on the people.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

As the 19th century neared a close, one-quarter of the state’s property was exempt from county and local taxation –property owned by the railroads and totaling what today would be in excess of $6 billion. As the twentieth century dawned, Jersey City’s Republican Mayor Mark Fagan tried his best at reform, Steffens found, but he was up against the Legislature. http://www.kean.edu/~NJHPP/proRef/muckrakers/pdf/muckrakersDoc3.pdf

Which is all to say that once again the Baruch Archives’s IPA Collection has important scholarly light to shed here too. Specifically, a 1913 report by the Bureau of Municipal Research on “the books of Jersey City, New Jersey.”

Pause for knowing laughter.

The study was undertaken at the behest of the city’s Board of Commissioners and mayor Henry Otto Wittpenn, who also seemed a good sort. He married an heiress to the Stevens fortune and was not particularly tainted by scandal. https://www.njcu.edu/programs/jchistory/pages/W_Pages/Wittpenn_H_Otto.htm

But the city of 270,000 people was a mess, as the Bureau’s 1913 report set forth.


“The books of account contained so many errors of every kind that it was impossible for a staff of ten trained accountants, working constantly from ten to twelve hours a day for 17 days, to produce a statement in which the figures could be considered reliable.”

In fact, the report went on: “The accounts were so kept that the financial condition of Jersey City is not now and never has been accurately known.”

“As far as is known, the books have never been in balance.”

The city comptroller had last examined the books five years earlier when the accounts were found to be the equivalent today of $75 million out of balance.

Consequently, city officials were doing business with no idea of what the city owed or what funds were available. To redeem so-called sinking funds they were also keeping on hand the equivalent today of more than $15 million above what was needed — excess cash that increased the tax burden and invited misuse.

There were uncollected state and county property taxes of another more than $12 million in today’s dollars, just for 1906, 1907 and 1908.

Another part of the report dealt with Jersey City’s Street Cleaning Department, 1912.

Another pause for hilarity.

As illustrated by a remarkably clear set of black and white photographs, the stonework paving had no waterproof foundation or tarred or waterproof joints, investigators found. Hence the joints were being perpetually washed out “giving the street the appearance of a sea of billowy waves.”

The sweeping staff lacked uniforms and badges, making it impossible to know who was on the job when. Sweeping crews were deployed in wasteful fashion and the rickety horse-drawn wagons, bumping along the ill-kept streets, left “a tell-tale trail of litter”…

street cleaning

Alas, the report did not usher in an enlightened new chapter in Jersey City’s tarnished history. Frank “I am the law” Hague  took over City Hall in 1917, holding it for an astounding 30 years, hitching himself to FDR and becoming a byword for big city bossism while skirting prosecution. http://www.njcu.edu/programs/jchistory/Pages/H_Pages/Hague_Frank.htm

hague and fdr

Mayor Frank Hague on Roosevelt’s left aboard a campaign train in 1932

For one family’s embodiment of Jersey City’s rollicking renegade past, see Helene Stapinski’s  best-selling memoir, “Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History,” now being filmed for a big-screen documentary. /jersey_city_familys_unvarnished_history_headed_to_film_di_ionno.html


A Fungus Among Us?

Is anything scarier to archivists than...Eeeewwww!..mold!



Taking precautions: our man Soulieo Kirby inventorying sequestered items

Ever since we acquired the IPA Collection and Luther Gulick Papers a year and a half ago, we’ve quarantined several bins worth of books and papers that looked as if they might — emphasize might — be contaminated by mold. We even spent about $700 on an AllerAir 6000 Exec Air Purifier to make sure we weren’t inhaling any dangerous pathogens.


DSC04283 DSC04280 DSC04271

Cut to the chase: an expert conservator we consulted, Jennifer Sainato, examined the materials and assured us we were not dealing with any chemical or biological Armageddon. Still we needed to handle the items with care and do some further testing.

From the report:


There are about four plastic bins of materials with dry mold within the collection that were never processed due to safety issues. The materials were wrapped in zip lock bags to provide an extra layer of safety and include archival folders, books, reports, and some photographs…the materials are indeed safe to handle…

If there is mold on especially significant materials, the dry mold can be brushed off safely in house. Mold typically appears on the cover of the book. We may want to remove the cover, take an image or copy of the cover and then discard it. We can also use soot sponges and remove the mold carefully with masks and gloves in vicinity to our air purifier, which was purchased to filter out harmful particles in the air…

The good news is that the items are well worth preserving.


We found books by our namesake, Bernard M. Baruch, who worked alongside Gulick in mobilization for World War II.


Some were autographed by Gulick.



Others were autographed to Gulick by the authors.

DSC04277 DSC04276

We’ll keep working our way though the piles in search of more treasures.