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Seldom written about are the occasional deaths of detainees at the immigration station. Individual files contain varying amounts of information about the end of a life and the procedures that follow. The two individuals whose cases are summarized below died without the comfort of family and friends. They were buried far from home: one at an undisclosed location; the other at the cemetery belonging to the Marin County Poor Farm. Much of the correspondence in the first case highlights the efforts of immigration officials to notify family members and to return personal effects. The second case reflects the starkness of dying alone and role of the Methodist Deaconess Katharine Maurer to bring a measure of dignity at the end.
In early 1914 a number of laboring men who had been working on the construction of the Panama Canal (which opened in August that year) arrived at the Port of San Francisco, hoping to find work in the United States. The canal project had attracted workers from around the world, including Spain and Italy. Accounting for a large majority of the work force were Afro-Caribbeans. One of these workers was 32-year-old John Henry Stevens, until 1907, a native and resident of Antigua in the British West Indies. Though in Antigua he had been a landscape gardener, “on the Isthmus I am a pit-man and was pit-foreman; can operate a diamond-drill and a steam-shovel, firing and so forth.” This work placed him among a group of highly skilled laborers in the Canal Zone. However working and living conditions were harsh; mortality rates high. Many of the former Panama Canal workers, including Stevens, who arrived at San Francisco were infected with “uncinariasis” caused by the hookworm, a parasite which was widespread in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including the American South. At this time it was classified as an excludable disease, but immigrants could apply for hospital treatment, which, if effective, permitted entry into the country.
Treatment required a $50 deposit. Fortunately Stephens had brought $55 with him and his treatment in the end cost $8.75 (seven days at $1.25 per day). However his stay in the immigration hospital turned out to be far more costly. He, along with Spaniards Jose Gutierrez and Miguel Gonzales, on the same ship from Panama, was “placed in the hospital for hookworm treatment in the same ward from which [another immigrant with hookworm disease] had been taken, the ward having meanwhile been disinfected.” The original occupant of the ward, a Japanese resident of Los Angeles, Honda Suichi, returning from three months in Japan, in the course of being treated for the hookworm parasite developed “epidemic cerebro spinal meningitis” and was taken to “the isolation hospital” in San Francisco, where he subsequently died. Stevens and his Spanish shipmates also became infected; two weeks after arriving at San Francisco, Stevens died. (Gutierrez and Gonzales recovered.) What an ironic turn of events: after surviving for seven years in Panama, in an environment with a high worker mortality rate, Stevens succumbed to an infection at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
As a result of the deaths San Francisco Immigration Commissioner Backus removed “all inmates of the detention buildings, about 150 in number, to the quarantine station for fumigation of both their persons and belongings, and in their absence have sealed all the buildings and given them a thorough fumigation.” He also stressed the need for an isolation hospital building at the immigration station, which “several times [has been] recommended.”
The subsequent correspondence between immigration officials and between them and members of the Stevens family reveals the efforts and the difficulty of notifying the family of John Henry’s death and the care taken in making sure that the remainder of the $50 deposit for hookworm treatment and personal effects (baggage and bedding) were returned to the legally appropriate person. At each stage the San Francisco commissioner had to ask officials in Washington, D.C. for directions about how to proceed, suggesting that he is unaware of a protocol to handle the death of detainees. A small human drama unfolds on paper. (One notices inconsistencies in names and spelling throughout the correspondence. Only part of the problem, however, can be attributed to the stenographer at the Board of Special Inquiry hearing who was relying on his shorthand notes of oral questions and answers; staff also made careless mistakes.)
During the course of interviewing John Henry Stevens two family members were identified, “Emmie Louise Stevens,” his wife of five years living in the city of Colon in Panama, and “a step-brother in Seattle,” named John Irish; he is also referred to in the transcript of the BSI hearing as simply “my brother” and “your brother.” Addresses were provided for both individuals. Even before Stevens died, Commissioner Samuel Backus attempted to communicate with the closer relative by a telegram to the Immigration Services at Seattle asking staff to “notify relatives” at the provided address. Unfortunately he described the relative as a “half brother” and did not name him, leaving Seattle staff to conclude that they were looking for a brother with the name of Stevens rather than Irish. Their attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.
Four days after Stevens’ death Acting Commissioner Edsell wrote to his wife (“Emma Louise Stephens”) in Colon with the sad news and asking her to advise about the disposition of her husband’s belongings. A month later his letter arrived back at the immigration station, stamped “return to sender.”
A luggage tag with the proper name and address of John Irish eventually turned up, and further help from the Seattle Immigration Station was sought and obtained. Letters go back and forth between San Francisco and Washington DC seeking and providing direction about how to proceed since no family member had responded. Finally in early May, the San Francisco commissioner, via the Seattle office, received its first communication from a family member, another Stevens brother (James), residing in Cristóbal in the Canal Zone, that he has learned about John Henry’s death through the wife of John Irish. Finally “Mrs. E.M. Stevens” also learns of his death, from a telegram from John Irish. She wrote that she “had been waiting to hear from her husband not knowing that he was dead.”
On June 4, the acting commissioner sent letters to both claimants. To Mrs. Stevens he wrote that “you do not state your relationship to Mr. Stevens and it will accordingly be impracticable to forward his belongings to you. . . . If you are the wife of the deceased, as appears probable, it is suggested that you execute the papers mentioned and obtain the consent to Mr. Steven’s father, mother [who appear never to have left Antigua], and brother, to transmittal of check to you. In any event, you should get into communication with Mr. James M. Stevens and come to a mutual agreement as to who should receive the property of Mr. John H. Stevens and the papers mentioned should be executed by the person who is to receive the property.”
A month later, obviously in the hands of legal council, Amie Louise Stevens (who earned her living as a seamstress and laundress), sent copies of her marriage certificate and an affidavit stating that not only is she the wife of the deceased but also “that there are no other person or persons having priority claim in said matter.” Even with these documents in hand the San Francisco commissioner still found it necessary to ask Washington “whether or not it would be proper to refund to her the unused balance of the hospital deposit.” Finally on July 28, exactly five months after the death of John Henry Stevens, the commissioner was able to write Mrs. Stevens that her late husband’s belongings would be “forwarded, free of charge” and he enclosed a check for $41.25. The saga ended for the immigration officials with the transfer of Stevens’ belongings from their custody to that of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, the owner of the ship that brought the young man to the United States. For Mrs. Stevens, however, the appearance of her husband’s effects likely made her loss much more real, marking the beginning of a new chapter in her life.
Ship’s cook William Sienang (he always signed himself as Willie) arrived on October 10, 1917, as an “alien enemy,” subject to interrogation and detention under the “President’s Proclamation of April 6, 1917.” He was among 250 or so German crewmen removed from German merchant and American ships and detained at the Immigration Station after the United States entered the war, which had engulfed Europe since August 1914. He understood and spoke English and wrote it as well, albeit awkwardly. Excerpts from documents in his file provide information about his background and the last few months of his life. (Willie’s spelling has been corrected.)
The reason for leaving the German-Ship [in September 1916 in Mexico], was bad treatment and sickness. The condition on Ship was unbearable, so I deserted the Ship without any pay. I lost about 400 dollar. Soonest I get acquainted with American-custom, I made up my mind to become a American-citizen and settle down here.
Willie Sienang stowed away on an American ship, arrived for the first time at Angel Island and was admitted the next day. For a year he then worked aboard American ships along the West Coast.
October 15: “Q. Are you now, or have you ever been, connected with the German army or navy? A. No, I ran away before they got me. Q. How old were you when you left Germany? A. . . . I was about 18 when I left first. Q. Do you consider yourself now a German subject? A. No. I got nothing to do with the German army or navy. Q. Have you ever declared your intention to become a citizen of the United States? A. Yes, I applied but could not get my first paper. I tried in June this year . . . they said it was too late.” The board determined that Willie was “admissible so far as the Immigration Law applies, but you are excluded as an alien enemy. . . .”
Also on October 15, Sienang applied to enter the country under a special provision of the President’s Proclamation to make “the United States my permanent home, reshipping if permissible, or otherwise securing employment on shore.”
November 9: Today I am interned on this Island, for the last four Weeks; and I haven’t heard from this Department . . . for what reason I am interned on this Island. Alls I know of is that mentioned to me that my case has to be sent to the Authorities in Washington, D.C. for decision. If there has come an answer from [the] mentioned Department, please be so kind and instruct me. Further would I like to know the reason why I am arrested.
November 27: I am [now] here for about 7 weeks and heard today [that] my Application is denied. . . . If not possible to obtain Liberty, I wish you would deport me back to Mexico, because I can’t stand to be without work.”
December 20, 1917: The Department of Justice has been communicated with regarding the proposed deportation of the alien William Sienang, and states . . . that there is no objection to his being sent to South America at this time.
January 8, 1918, A.A. Surgeon of the U.S. Public Health Service: I respectfully advise you of the death of William Sienang, 16581/1-1, Interned German, which took place in this hospital at 8:10 p.m. January 6, 1918. The immediate cause of death being acute dilation of the heart, of which the contributory cause was chronic inflammation of the kidneys, which was undoubtedly a sequel of an attack of scarlet fever one year ago.
February 5, 1918, San Francisco Commissioner to the Commissioner General: All the alien’s effects, consisting of one razor, one stick shaving soap, one pocket knife, two postal cards, one account book, two suit cases, and $4.85 in money, were delivered to Dr. F.E. Sawyer, Coroner of Marin County, with the body, and the interment was made by the Coroner’s office at the County Farm of Marin County, San Rafael. No relatives or close friends of the deceased could be located by this office, but Miss Katherine Maurer, Deaconess [in charge of social work at the Immigration Station], and Rev. G.A. Wassa, both of the Methodist Episcopal Church, San Francisco, conducted a short funeral service in the Coroner’s office at San Rafael.
John H. Stevens (File 13241/1-1), RG 85, National Archives, San Bruno, California.
Paul C. Diebold, “Labor Issues During the Construction of the Panama Canal” (May 2, 2013). Young Historians Conference, Paper 2. http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/younghistorians/2013/oralpres/2
William Sienang (File 16581/1-1, RG 85, National Archives, San Bruno, California.
Maria Sakovich, “When the ‘Enemy’ Landed at Angel Island” in Prologue, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer 2009).
Maria Sakovich is a public historian and independent scholar who researches, writes, and develops exhibits in the areas of immigration, family, and community history. She has written articles on Methodist women including Deaconess Katharine Maurer, a beloved social worker at the Angel Island Immigration Station, and “When the Enemy Landed at Angel Island,” from the National Archives and Records Administration’s website.
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