Annie Moore of Ellis Island

Annie Moore

Immigrant Number One

In 1892, she was the first foreigner to arrive at Ellis Island. By 1893, she was an American mystery.

 

Annie surely knew to expect that other immigrant, the tall one from France. Not yet six years in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty was already famous, even as far away as Cork, for her inscription welcoming the wretched refuse if not for her cold, suspicious face.

What Annie wouldn’t have expected was Ellis Island. When her parents had come from Ireland four years earlier, they’d been brought to Castle Garden, which was neither a castle nor a garden but a scandal-ridden immigrant station at the tip of Manhattan. Maybe as Annie and her two younger brothers waited out their last frigid night on the S.S. Nevada—they had arrived in the harbor on the evening of December 31, 1891—someone explained to them that things had changed. They and the 145 other steerage passengers would be among the first immigrants sent to a new facility whose opening was planned for New Year’s Day.

How could Annie have cared about that? She and Anthony and Phillip had not left Ireland unchaperoned—had not endured the twelve dark and airless belowdecks days of the crossing, including Christmas!—to be the first of anything. They just wanted to see their parents and their older brother and sister, who by now were young adults of New York. To that end, the less attention the better. There were tales about immigrants being rejected for any reason, from a limp to a lie, and all three Moores, probably to save their father money on the passage, had understated their ages.

If Annie wanted to make as little of the big day as possible, the press had the opposite idea. Perhaps it was for the papers’ benefit that the two other ships whose passengers might have had the honor of inaugurating Ellis Island—the City of Paris and the Victoria—were overlooked in favor of theNevada. It sounded so American. And perhaps it was on the press’s behalf, too, that a “rosy-cheeked” Irish lass headed the line to get off the barge as it moseyed into its slip, amid foghorns, bells, and shrieking whistles. How perfect that it also happened to be her 15th birthday! (Too perfect: She’d turned 17 the previous spring.) But this was not the only detail the press seems to have invented. “As soon as the gangplank was run ashore,” the Times reported the next day, “Annie tripped across it.”

Maybe. Or maybe, as other versions have it, she was so visibly upset by the emotions of the day that the Italian gentleman who was actually first in line insisted she take his place. Or was it a German man, who was shunted aside in favor of the English-speaking youngster? Surely she would make a better ceremonial subject for the Treasury Department dignitary who’d come from Washington to welcome Ellis Island’s first immigrant. Nor was that the end of the pomp: A Catholic chaplain blessed Annie, and the island’s commissioner handed her a gold Liberty coin.

It seems doubtful that Annie said, as the Times also reported, that she would never part with the $10 piece, but would “always keep it as a pleasant memento of the occasion.” Is it more believable that, as family lore maintains, she barely kept it five minutes? Supposedly, her father, a longshoreman, took it for safekeeping—it was a week’s salary, a month’s rent!—and that night, to celebrate the reunion of his family, drank it away in the saloons of the dismal Fourth Ward, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Annie may have stepped off the boat and into American legend—the first of 12 million to pass through Ellis Island in its 62 years of operation—but as an actual person she seemed to dissolve the minute she reached Manhattan. No less than in Arizona today, immigration then held a complicated place in the developing country’s psyche: both romanticized as the source of American versatility and demonized as the source of, well, immigrants. Given that, Annie might understandably have preferred to be ignored. In any case, it wasn’t until decades later that the press looked her way again, and by then she was unfindable: “If she is still alive, she is 100 years old,” mused the Times in 1977. She had landed at the impossible intersection of several dead ends. The Ellis Island building she’d inaugurated in 1892 burned down in 1897, the Nevada was scrapped the year before, and if she had a grave, no one knew where. Still, as impossible as it seems that someone so lost to history could ever be found again, Annie Moore was not only found but found twice, in two different incarnations—and this past winter we even got to see what (some say) she looked like on the day she arrived.

If that image was until recently lost, others, largely fanciful, filled the void for the few immigration hobbyists and Hibernians who valued her. In 1986, one such image, on a Belleek commemorative plate titled “First Sight of Miss Liberty,” sparked the memory of an elderly woman named Margaret O’Connell Middleton. The bonny young Annie on the plate, Middleton announced to her family, was her mother: an Irish girl who had come through Ellis Island, moved to Indiana, and kept going west. In Texas, she married a man descended from the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Together, they were among the earliest settlers of Clovis, New Mexico, where they owned the town’s first hotel and where her husband died in 1919, a victim of the flu pandemic. Four years later, on a trip back to Texas, the feisty widow was mowed down by a streetcar, leaving five orphans, including the 10-year-old Margaret.

This American story—plucky immigrant turned pioneer discovers wealth and dies picturesquely—hit a nerve. Once family members excitedly announced themselves as her descendants, and provided photographs and lore to annotate the tale, the Widow of Clovis took her place as an iconic American. An Irish-American group began raising money for a statue on Ellis Island, which now included in its materials her prototypical tale. Within a few years, Annie Moore was being celebrated in the names of pubs, in bronzes, in brochures, and even in song. “And the first to cross the threshold / Of that isle of hope and tears,” warbles Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, “Was Annie Moore from Ireland / Who was all of fifteen years.”

Fifteen, seventeen—what’s the difference? The girl arrived in New York closer in time to George Washington than to us. How much can you recall of your great-grandparents? Could you vouch for what you think you know?

When Geraldine Donovan heard about this New Mexican Annie, she told her relatives it was baloney. Her grandmother was the real Annie Moore, she said, and she’d never lived farther west than Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, a stone’s throw from where Geri herself still lived.

For it turned out that during the years of Annie’s obscurity, there was a private legend being kept alive by that invaluable fixture of every immigrant clan: the crazy maiden aunt. It was a difficult tale to pin down because this Annie had died before Aunt Geri was born. But Geri frequently visited Annie’s husband—no descendant of Irish nobility but rather the son of a German baker—before his death in 1960. Pop Schayer, as she called him, was a warm, dapper old man, with marvelous blue eyes, a neat bow tie, and, despite the waves of tragedy in his life, a happy disposition. He was full of funny stories, like the one about his wife’s getting a gold coin at Ellis Island.

Geri wrote to churches and the Irish Echo, trying to set the record straight. But she was a woman of little means for whom the Internet didn’t exist—and it did not help her credibility that she also insisted that Pop Schayer’s father, Simon the baker, had invented the macaroon.

Meanwhile, the Widow of Clovis reigned. It would be fifteen years before anyone questioned her story. But when Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, a professional genealogist whose double last name is the result of her marrying a tenth cousin, was researching Annie Moore for a 2002 PBS documentary, it became clear that something didn’t match. Document after document showed that the widow wasn’t an immigrant: She was born in Illinois. Smolenyak contacted Ellis Island, which is run by the National Park Service, and a historical society in Ireland, but they were, she says, uninterested: “They probably thought I was crazy.”

The only solution was to find the “right” Annie Moore—though, to a genealogist, hers was a wretchedly common name. Without knowing whom she married, it was needle-in-a-haystack work. Smolenyak dropped Annie from the documentary and put the matter aside but remained troubled. It was one thing for there to be no Annie Moore, quite another that a false one was still being promoted. In 2006, she took to her blog and issued a challenge to the “genie” community: $1,000 to the first person to figure out what really became of Ellis Island’s inaugural immigrant.

Even if she’d read blogs, it was by then too late for Aunt Geri. She had died in 2001, still frustrated that the truth—her truth—was unknown by the world and would probably always remain that way.

That truth was a harsh one. The five-story brick tenement at 32 Monroe Street to which Aunt Geri’s Annie Moore was taken after arriving in Manhattan sat at the center of a one-eighth-square-mile rectangle in which, having traveled 3,000 miles to get there, she would spend the rest of her life. The Fourth Ward was at the time “one of the oldest and worst sections of shantytown in the city,” as Caleb Carr described it—the home turf of dozens of Irish gangs named for the very streets Annie would live on, shop on, pray on. They make a litany: Water Street, where her parents soon moved. (It was common for tenement renters to change locations every May Day, when many leases were up.) Batavia Street, “the most Dickensy street in New York,” in one contemporary description, where Annie probably met her husband, who lived above his father’s bakery there.James Street, where in 1895 she married him at St. James Church—surely the only beautiful place she’d ever know in the neighborhood. Rutgers Street, where the couple set up home and where their first known child, William, died at age 20 months in 1898. New Chambers Street, where the 1900 census found them living with daughter Catherine and son Joseph Jr. Oliver Street, their home for more than a decade, where Theodore and Julia were born and Winifred, Walter, and Edward died at, respectively, 3 months, 3 years, and 3 days of age. Finally, Cherry Street, where Mary Anne was born; where Henry, Annie’s last known child, died in 1919; and where Annie herself died in 1924—so fat, says a family story, that firemen could not carry her down the stairs. They had to haul her out the window.

She was 50, and is it a surprise that the cause of death was listed as heart failure? This was no glamorous pioneer lady, hit by a tram, no slim and highbred colleen as the drawings and bronzes suggested. She had spent nearly every year of her marriage pregnant with, giving birth to, or burying a child. Three of the survivors would go on to have children themselves, but only one—Geri’s mother, Catherine, known as Kitty—would outlive their father, who continued to work at the fish market nearby and never remarried.

This Annie was not the kind of hero American stories are made of; no wonder the world seemed bent on wiping out any vestige of her. Even the tenements she lived in were cleared, to make room for high-minded mid-century projects like the Alfred E. Smith Houses. About all you can see of Annie’s life now is her church, though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone Irish inside.

Much of my family came through Ellis Island in the years immediately following Annie. So did much of America’s: Estimates say at least a third of the country can trace its origins through that bottleneck. For a fee, online ancestry sites help curious descendants open some of history’s archives. The results are sometimes a shock. In the 1930 census, I found my paternal grandmother disavowing her Lithuanian heritage. Elsewhere, I found my maternal grandfather living with more siblings than I’d ever heard of. And then I found something even more unexpected: U.S. patent No. 320,003, dated June 16, 1885:

Be it known that I, Simon Schayer, a citizen of the United States, residing in the city, county and State of New York, have invented a certain new and useful Article of Manufacture in Confectionary … My invention relates more particularly to that class of confections known as “macaroons” … My improvement consists in combining and arranging with such macaroons a filling or layer of fig preserve or paste, which in turn is provided with a filling of peanut or other nut candy or paste, the whole united and baked together … A most delicious and attractive article of food is thus produced, in which the different flavors of the ingredients are blended and combined, while the body of the cake is rendered soft, but tenacious and gummous, thus agreeably protracting the degree of mastication essential to its consumption … In order to enable others skilled in the art to make and use my improved articles of food, which I intend to designate as “fig-blossoms,” I herewith set forth the process of manufacture …

Maybe crazy Aunt Geri wasn’t so crazy.

Six weeks after Smolenyak issued her challenge, several keys, turned in succession, led to the “real” Annie Moore. One came from Brian G. Andersson, New York City’s commissioner of records; after reading Smolenyak’s blog, he tracked down the 1921 Declaration of Intent—part of the naturalization paperwork—of Annie’s brother Phillip. Thanks to information on that form, Smolenyak was able to confirm that this was the very Phillip she’d found in the 1930 census, living with a daughter named Anna. Anna’s listing in a subsequent death registry then led, after several false starts, to her son, Michael Shulman, who was in the phone book.

Shulman and his sister, Patricia Somerstein, believed all along that they were the great-nephew and great-niece of Ellis Island Annie. So when Smolenyak called, Shulman was delighted to tell her she’d hit gold; indeed, he shared the family tale of the $10 coin. But the clincher came when Smolenyak spoke to Somerstein, who recalled her mother’s stories of wonderful trips to the Lower East Side to visit Annie’s widower—a man who had once, she thought, lived above a bakery. Smolenyak asked his name, but Somerstein couldn’t remember. Then she suddenly blurted out “Gus Schayer.”

She had no idea that Gus was short for Joseph Augustus Schayer, or even how to spell the last name. Once Smolenyak figured that out, it took only a few minutes to unearth Annie from census records. Soon she had located all but one of her living descendants, and Commissioner Andersson had found a notation of the Schayers’ 1895 marriage in a ledger at St. James Church. Next, a death certificate in the Mormon genealogical archive in Utah led Smolenyak to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, where a disgruntled sexton provided a list of the names of the others buried with Annie in the unmarked grave. With one exception, the names matched those of her children.

The exception was a 1-year-old named James, whom Aunt Geri’s niece, Maureen Peterson, was able to explain. Geri had told her about a Mrs. Doherty, who lived at 86 Oliver when Annie lived at 90. “When the Dohertys lost their baby James,” Peterson recalls, “and were so poor they didn’t have any place to bury him, Annie offered her plot.”

 

In an age when the average life expectancy for white Americans was 47, and surely lower in the slums, Annie would have expected some children to die. Life was a cup of sugar: borrowed, replaced. Perhaps it didn’t grieve Annie the way it grieves us today. When Somerstein, who works in a pharmacy, asks me to read aloud the causes of death of Annie’s children as recorded in the Mormon archive—“aedema of lungs, exhaustion w/tubercular pneumonia”; “merasmus” (severe malnutrition); “diphtheria and broncho-pneumonia”; “haemophilia … bleeding from mouth continuously”: “enterocolitis for 24 days”; “chronic valvular disease”—she starts to cry.

“Diseases of neglect,” she whispers.

“Of poverty,” I suggest.

“Neglect,” she insists. “I hear that list and I think of Angela’s Ashes. I don’t want Annie to be an Angela! I think the Irish brought that kind of hard life with them. It has to do with the British presence. If you can have national low self-esteem and at the same time be very arrogant, that was Ireland.

“I guess I’m just comparing it to what happened to Jewish immigrants. My father, who was Jewish, was just as poor as my Irish relatives, but no one in his family died as a baby of malnutrition. The Jews created a lot of organizations almost immediately because no one helped them for thousands of years. The Irish trusted the church. What I don’t understand is how the church they were so loyal to betrayed them.”

This Annie was not the kind of hero American stories are made of; no wonder the world seemed bent on wiping out any vestige of her.

But perhaps the church didn’t betray them completely. How else but with its help could Annie, if not Mrs. Doherty, have managed to bury so many children?

The “wrong” Annie’s family, notified by Megan Smolenyak, was “cool about it,” she reports. They’d had a nice run for more than decade, being fêted and hobnobbing with the president of Ireland. It was all perfectly innocent: “You could say it was wishful thinking.”

The “right” Annie’s family had a more complicated response. They were fascinated to meet one another, for the first time, at a genealogical gathering in New York, and to discover how diverse the line had become, with Dominicans, Chinese, Jews, and Italians now among their ranks. They could not fail to note how much better off and better educated they were, too. Putting food on the table is no longer a top concern for any of them.

That a legacy has no monetary value does not, however, mean heirs won’t squabble over it. After Smolenyak split the $1,000 bounty between Somerstein and Commissioner Andersson, problems began. Both pledged their winnings toward the creation of a headstone to mark Annie’s grave in Calvary Cemetery, but by the time another branch of Annie’s descendants started asking Somerstein for her contribution, she and some other relatives had become leery of the whole hagiographic project. The design alone was budgeted at $12,000; it featured a Celtic cross in Irish blue limestone, Celtic knots, an Irish harp, two garlands of shamrocks, an etching of the $10 gold coin, and a sprig of cherry blossoms to represent Annie’s years on Cherry Street.

“I’m glad she didn’t live on Broome Street!” Maureen Peterson harrumphs. “Instead of such an exquisite headstone, a plainer one would have been appropriate, and then send some money for poor children here or in Ireland. To me, it’s just a weight on her chest.” As for Somerstein, she eventually gave her winnings to Jane Goodall’s foundation.

Nevertheless, the stone was dedicated at a ceremony in 2008. Among those in attendance was the tenor Ronan Tynan, singing the still-inaccurate ballad.

At a political moment in which new immigrants are welcomed with ever-higher walls, the competition to embrace Ellis Island’s first seems almost poignant. Formerly one kind of symbol, Annie Moore is now becoming another. But of what? The nearly bankrupt Save Ellis Island website lists a $500 membership level called the Annie Moore Society. A Gaelic phrase carved on the tombstone means “May their noble souls rest in peace.” “Some family members want everything to be holy,” says Peterson. “For them, she should have walked over on water instead of taken the ship.”

In truth, the Moore family story is not so noble; they were shanty, not lace-curtain, Irish, says Somerstein. Their story included, as many do, premarital pregnancy, heavy drinking, and, in the case of Annie’s mother, years in an institution. Or are those once-shameful facts now inseparable from nobility? “When she got off the boat, freezing her big butt off, her walk up Broadway was not to a fancy home,” says Shulman. “The great miracle is that starting with this totally down-and-out Irish immigrant, look what’s become of her family! And in a relatively brief period of time, compared with other countries. It’s the American Dream.”

It was Shulman who discovered one of the two pictures of Annie that are generally accepted as authentic. In his, she sits on a carved bench holding an infant—thought to be Kitty—whose coat is improbably trimmed with fur. The other photograph, found this winter in a scrapbook by Peterson, says “Mama Schayer” on the back, in Aunt Geri’s hand, and shows Annie years later, stout enough to fill a doorway, if not a window. She does not look the kind of person you would want to fight for a Fig-Blossom.

And then there is a third photograph, which Shulman spotted in Ellis Island’s archives. In it, a girl and two boys stand apart from a crowd at an immigrant station in the late nineteenth century. Though the Park Service’s archivists think otherwise, Shulman and Smolenyak believe the trio are Annie and her brothers. Shulman points out that the girl is the image of his mother. Smolenyak analyzes the woodwork in the background to support her case, and this March offered another $1,000 bounty to anyone who can prove her wrong. So far, no one has.

It would be nice to think she is right because it is a dour picture indeed, a corrective both to the former image of that first immigrant as a kind of Annie Oakley and to the later image of her as a singular Mother McCourage. The girl in the photograph is defiantly ordinary, and seems to stare down the national cult of exceptionalism. If she is really Annie Moore, she has no more of a smile to offer America than the Statue of Liberty offered her—but no less, either. She came, did the best she could with what she had, and left the rest to another time.

And if she isn’t Annie—well, she’s someone else, who did much the same thing.