INS special boards

They were brothers from Lithuania, in their 20s, arriving in Philadelphia in August 1904 on the S.S. Friedland.

Joseph was 26, a farmer, and had been in the United States once before. Thomas was 22, and a laborer. Between them they had $15, and were headed to be with their brother Anthony in Connecticut.

One of them was admitted to the country. The other was not.

The reason: the younger, Thomas, had been diagnosed with trachoma. In the words of the immigration law, a “loathsome and contagious disease.”

He was deported on the 20th of August 1904.1

The Legal Genealogist has been talking this week about Boards of Inquiry, and we’ve been focusing on inquiries into disasters like shipwrecks and railroad bridge collapses2 and the horrendous loss of life from the failure of the South Fork Dam above Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889.3

But the story of the Wilkinson brothers comes from another type of Board of Inquiry — the Special Boards of Inquiry of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — the people who decided whether immigrants could be legally admitted to the United States… or not.4

And this is just one of the stories you can find online, set out in the Records of the Special Board of Inquiry, District No. 4 (Philadelphia), Immigration and Naturalization Service 1893-1909.5

INS special inquiry

The Special Board of Inquiry was set up first in 1882 as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act,6 to determine the eligibility of Chinese merchants who’d been in the country, gone back to China, and now were returning to the United States. Three-member boards appointed by the local INS commissioner to do the review, and here’s how it worked:

… The detained was called before a table, or bench, behind which the members of the board were seated; placed under oath; and subjected to questioning by the chairman of the board. The first phase of the interrogation was routine. Basic facts were put into the record: age, birthplace, port of departure for the United States, destination in this country, amount of money in possession, trade or calling, and purpose of migration. The chairman then began to ask questions, usually confining himself to the facts for which the alien had been detained. Any documents that the alien may have brought with him were examined. …

Witnesses who came to testify on behalf of the detained were secluded in a separate room. They were not called to testify until after the detainee had completed all of his/her testimony. During the hearing the chairman had before him a card on which was indicated the causes for which the alien was held at the primary inspection. The board had no records of the questions and answers at the primary inspection, nor did it have before it the manifest, which was present at the primary inspection. The whole case was reviewed again usually without reference to any new information presented to the board at the hearing. The interrogation process denied the detainee right to due process, for he was considered guilty until proven innocent. Counsel was not permitted and did not appear on behalf of aliens. Accordingly, there was no crossexamination of the detainee. Only if an order of exclusion was signed was the detainee entitled to employ counsel on his own behalf.

Usually the decision was rendered immediately at the end of the hearing. Two out of three board members prevailed. If the decision was to admit, the alien was immediately released from detention. If the decision was to deport, the alien was kept in detention until deported or until an appeal was completed. …7

Not all the records of all the Special Boards of Inquiry survive. Of those that do, not all have been microfilmed. And of those microfilmed, not all have been digitized. But some are available; FamilySearch has digitized four sets:

• Minutes of boards of special inquiry at the San Francisco immigration office, 1899-1909, from NARA microfilm publication M1387.

• California, San Francisco, Immigration Office Special Inquiry Records, 1910-1941, from NARA microfilm publication M1388.

• California, San Pedro, Immigration Office Special Inquiry records, 1930-1936, from NARA microfilm publication M1852.

• Records of the Special Boards of Inquiry, District no. 4 (Philadelphia), Immigration and Naturalization Service 1893-1909, , from NARA microfilm publication M1500.

Other records may be held in the regional NARA branch nearest the port of entry, or at Archives I in Washington D.C., in Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and any court challenges to an immigrant’s status would be in Record Group 21, Records of the United States District Courts. In many cases, all that’s left to work with is the List of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry included in the passenger manifest or immigration record of the arriving vessel.

Not easy records to work with, for sure. There’s lots of jargon used so understanding what the terms meant is important. Fortunately, the JewishGen website has some great resources: a walkthrough of one entry on a List of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry8 and its list of “Causes (Grounds) for Exclusion Noted on BSI Lists, ca. 1903-1924.”9

But working with them gives us the stories…

Of 11-year-old Samuel Freedman, arriving from Austria without a penny in his pocket who’d been a schoolboy at home and had no idea what his life in America would be. He was held from August 7 to August 25, 1904, in part to observe a medical condition for his eye. He was finally released on August 25 when his brother Jacob came in, vouched for him, and said he was going to send Samuel to school there in Philadelphia.10

Of 18-year-old Morris Gross, a tailor headed to stay with his father in Philadelphia, but denied entry because of trachoma and ordered deported as of the 18th of August. The entry for August 20, 1904 reads: “This immigrant escaped from the hospital this morning…” 11

Or of the Brennans, 33-year-old Kate and her seven-year-old son Patrick, who had no idea why they hadn’t heard from husband and father John for more than four years. Kate’s brothers thought it was best she come to her husband so paid her way. John did show up to vouch for them, and when asked if there wasn’t some reason why he hadn’t written to them responded, “Nothing on my part.” He said they could still live happily together.12 You have to wonder about that part…

Nope, not easy records… but worth the effort.


SOURCES

  1. Proceedings as to Joseph and Thomas Wilkinson, 14 August 1904, Records of the Special Board of Inquiry, District 4, Philadelphia, vol. 28, p. 72; digital images, “Records of the special boards of inquiry, district 4, Philadelphia, 1893-1909,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 31 May 2018).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Inquiring into the inquiries,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 May 2018 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 31 May 2018).
  3. Ibid., “Not the same, but…,” posted 31 May 2018.
  4. See generally National Archives Microfilm Publications, Pamphlet Describing M1500, Records of the Special Board of Inquiry, District No. 4 (Philadelphia), Immigration and Naturalization Service 1893-1909 (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Administration, 1987).
  5. “Records of the special boards of inquiry, district 4, Philadelphia, 1893-1909,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 31 May 2018).
  6. “An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese,” 22 Stat. 58 (6 May 1882).
  7. NARA Descriptive Pamphlet M1500, at 5-7.
  8. Records of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, JewishGen.org (https://www.jewishgen.org/ : accessed 31 May 2018).
  9. Ibid., “Causes (Grounds) for Exclusion Noted on BSI Lists, ca. 1903-1924.”
  10. Proceedings as to Samuel Freedman, August 1904, Records of the Special Board of Inquiry, District 4, Philadelphia, vol. 28, p. 59.
  11. Proceedings as to Morris Gross, August 1904, Records of the Special Board of Inquiry, District 4, Philadelphia, vol. 28, p. 60.
  12. Proceedings as to Kate and Patrick Brennan, August 1904, Records of the Special Board of Inquiry, District 4, Philadelphia, vol. 28, p. 75.
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