Those who manned Atlantic sailing ships were obviously not all villains, despite the existence of no small number of disreputable characters.
On the John Dennison the capt., though he kept a lucrative grog shop & overcharged his passengers in the matter of the Am. "hospital tax," was found to be "always attentive to our comfort." It is recorded similarly of Capt. Blake of the Brunswick that, "from the moment of our embarkation at Cork to the night of our departure from his ship, his attention, not only to the cabin passengers but also to the humblest individual in the steerage, evinced a disposition highly creditable to himself & honorable to his profession."
- Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 99-100
Frauds were practiced. Ships which left port after a satisfactory inspection by the government inspector would proceed to a remote spot on the coast & pick up more passengers. Upon arrival they would avoid regular ports, dumping the unfortunate immigrants upon some unfrequented shore of New England, Cape Breton, or the lower St. Lawrence. Laws might be passed by Parliament, but masters, when well out to sea, observed the laws perfunctorily, if at all.
- Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times, p. 34-39
A rich philanthropist, Mr. Vere Foster, embarked incognito as a passenger on the Washingtonin 1850... On the 1st day of the voyage the 900 passengers were mustered on deck for their water, but while it was being pumped into their cans the mates cursed, abused, cuffed, & kicked the people without provocation, & served only 30 of them. The others had to go without. In spite of the contract, no provisions were served on that or the following day, and, as many people were almost starving, a letter of complaint was written to the capt.. The man who wrote it was knocked down by a blow from the 1st mate. The next day 1/2 rations were served, the supplied being given out raw. To get near the fires, many people bribed the sailors, & those too poor to offer money managed to obtain a turn only once in 2 or 3 days.
Dr. Poole, Inspecting Physician at Grosse Isle, stated that, while there were plenty of seaworthy vessels, the worst ones only were used in the emigrant trade; & that the brokers & ships' captains disregarded legislation. ...misrepresentation of the length of the voyage was another common fraud, most masters of Irish vessels advising emigrants that 3 weeks or a month would be sufficient. They then extorted as much as 400% on the cost of supplies, knowing that from 6 to 9 weeks would elapse before debarkation. Dr. Poole also found that where provisions were served out daily to the emigrants, short rations, bad quality, or dishonest weight were common frauds... The surgeon in charge of the average emigrant vessel was usually a mere apprentice or apothecary's assistant... It was impossible to rely upon a surgeon's statement, for upon inspection dozens of cases of typhus were sometimes found in ships certified as free from disease.
- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great M., p. 18-19
...no law, the English emigration commissioners admitted, could stop the frauds practiced on Irish emigrants who suffered from organized racketeering...
The Liverpool correspondent of Dublin's Freeman's Journal said, "From the very first application (the Irish) make relative to their passage to the moment of their setting foot on Am. soil, those with whom they have to deal, with perhaps some few exceptions, make it a point to gull & deceive them." The same gantlet (gauntlet?) of swindling was resumed in Am..
- Patton, The Golden Door, p. 140-41
May 5, 1847 - Abuses & lack of supervision of incoming immigrants lead to the State assuming responsibility. The new law created a Board of Commissioners of Emigration, consisting of 10 members - 6 appointed by the governor, the mayors of N.Y. & Brooklyn, & the presidents of the German Society & the Irish Emigrant Society. The Board 1.) inspected incoming ships, 2.) gave advice, aid, & employment opportunities to immigrants, & 3.) supported immigrants who became public charges within 5 years after landing.
Under the new law the master of each ship must file complete data for each voyage in the mayor's office, [and] shipowners had to give bond for each passenger, or he could pay $1.00 for each person. In 1867 this was fixed at $2.50 after several raises. After a few years the Board became political (appointees by governor were uninterested), & the maintenance of German & Irish interests was left largely with the German & Irish members. There were many abuses & criticism was kept up against the Board by the Irish-Am. press.
1855 - Castle Garden converted into a landing depot for immigrants - things were much better - runners were eliminated - tickets to the interior sold by officials, not shysters; baggage officially weighed & correct freight charges made. This reform relieved the overtaxed benevolent societies of much of their burden.
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Because of the abuses & exploitation of immigrants the Board of Emigration Commissioners was set up. The bill was passed through the legislature through the efforts of Archbishop Hughes, Thurlow Weed, & other eminent citizens.
Weed had his attention called to the evil by personal knowledge of a specific case. He exposed the "ring" & its operators in his newspaper. He was immediately set upon by the "scalpers" & was deluged with lawsuits & threatened with personal violence. After 8 mo. effort by himself, he enlisted the help of Robt. B. Munturn. They found that "Castle Garden" could be bought on reasonable terms. They drew up a bill moderately increasing the "head-money tax" & providing for appointment of the Emigration Board. The Assembly appointed a committee to investigate abuses:
"As soon as a ship loaded with emigrants reaches our shores it is boarded by a class of men called 'runners,' either in the employ of boarding-house keepers or forwarding establishments, soliciting customers for their employers. If they cannot succeed in any other way in getting possession & control over the objects of their prey, they proceed to take charge of their baggage, & take it to some boarding-house for safe-keeping, generally under the assurance that they will charge nothing for carriage, hire, or storage... The keepers of these houses induce these people to stay a few days, & when they come to leave, usually charge them 3 or 4 times as much as they agreed or expected to pay, & exorbitant prices for storing their luggage; & in cse of inability to pay, their luggage is detained as security... Your committee have been shocked to find that a large proportion of the fraud committed upon these innocent & in many cases ignorant foreigners are committed by their own countrymen who have come here before them; for we find German preying upon German, Irish upon Irish, etc..."
The bill became law May 5, 1847.
Another bill soon was passed designating Castle Island as the Emigration Depot where emigrants must be landed.
The speculators transferred their activities to Albany, where transfer was made to the Erie Canal, & to Europe. Immigrants began to arrive with worthless RR tickets bought in Europe,
for which they had paid 2 or 3 times what a real ticket would have cost. To combat these abuses, the Emigration Board was granted further powers & they sent an agent to Albany & one to Europe with endorsement from the State Dept. He (Mr. Robert Murray) visited England, Ireland, France, Belgium, Prussia, Italy, & Holland, & in each of these countries, through his efforts, measures were taken which dealt a final blow to the business of swindling emigrants.
urlow Weed Barnes, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Vol. II, p. 138