Stories have been passed down through the years about the horrors immigrants experienced at Ellis Island. The truth is, most passed through quickly without problems. That had to be the case when you think about how many passengers were processed through the country’s largest immigration station at the time. Those who could not pass the health checks were treated, either on the ship or after it was built in the Ellis Island hospital. For an excellent fiction portrayal of the Ellis Island hospital, see Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds.
But this doesn’t mean the health checks were pleasant. As my characters in Annie’s Stories explain, the eye examination for trachoma, while quick, was traumatic for many. In their hurry to complete inspections as quickly as possible and process thousands of immigrants each day, the Ellis Island doctors peeled back each person’s eyelids to examine them. A buttonhook was the instrument of choice to do this. What’s a buttonhook? We don’t use them today, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, buttonhooks were a common tool for fastening shoes.
Trachoma is a highly contagious eye disease that causes scarring under the upper eyelid but another sign is redness of the white part of the eye, which I imagine is also what the doctors looked for. I can only hope the doctors disinfected those buttonhooks after each inspection! Continued exposure to trachoma, or conjunctivitis, can lead to blindness, so it was understandably a dreaded disease at the time. If you saw Bob Costas during last winter’s Olympics, can you imagine him being subjected to an inspection with a buttonhook? Yikes!