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The Angels of Ellis Island

Molly's Ellis Island story reminded me of the power of family and gratitude.

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Getty Images

For most of us, Thanksgiving is typically a time to reunite with family and gain a few pounds from over-enjoying a table loaded with the requisite turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings. The day is also a highlight for football fans as well as signaling the traditional start of seasonal parties and marathon shopping sprees.

It’s quite a contrast from the holiday’s earliest beginnings when, in 1621, the Pilgrims of New England celebrated a day of thanksgiving in gratitude for their good health and harvest, prompted in part by the death of half the Plymouth colony from starvation and cold during the previous winter.

Even in our country’s more recent history, there are examples of Thanksgiving representing more than just the start of the frenzied holiday season — when it signified a defining touchstone in life, an inspirational reminder about those who overcame personal adversity and difficult challenges, and were grateful to have survived.

I recently spent some time with a friend who considers the Thanksgiving of 1907 as one of those historical milestones still celebrated by her family. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a special proclamation urging Americans to observe the day with prayer, his request even more significant because it also marked a year when over a million immigrants passed through the Great Hall at Ellis Island — a time when people from all parts of Europe came looking for a better life and a new beginning in a strange and wonderful country called America.

One of those immigrants was a woman named Molly. From her family records, I learned Molly was a slight woman and about 30 years of age at the time she made the crossing. She had lost her husband to cholera three years prior and, as a widow, she knew the transition to a new life in another country would be difficult. She would have to leave everything behind, sail across the ocean to an unfamiliar city without the promise of a job, a place to stay, or a single friend to help her get settled. And she would have to do it with her 7-year-old son, William.

For over two years, she had saved her money — enough to buy third class passage on a steamship. And right up until the day of sailing, her friends tried to talk her out of leaving. “Even the voyage itself will be a challenge,” they told her. Third class passengers (called steerage) were restricted to the bottom decks, where they often spent the majority of the two-week Atlantic crossing in their bunks, seasick and restricted from the open decks and fresh air.

But Molly was determined. She wanted to raise William where he would have the opportunity to obtain the education she never received, and to achieve financial independence equal to his efforts. She wasn’t making the trip for herself. She was making the change — the sacrifice — for her son.

Like the other steerage passengers, Molly and William boarded the ship and settled into the cramped public accommodations. They shared six bathrooms with 800 other people and waited in long lines for a meal of soup and stale bread — with Molly always keeping a watchful eye on William. At night, she told him stories about the school he would attend, the new friends he would soon have, and about all the wonderful things they would see and do together in a magical city called New York.

She planned to find work in the garment district. She had been told laundries and tailors were the best options for immigrants, and with her sewing skills, she hoped to find a job that paid well enough to afford a one bedroom flat in a boarding house on the lower west side. It was where the poor eked out a living, but it was a start. And that was all Molly wanted — a chance to provide a better life for her son.

Molly’s dreams of opportunity and success for William kept her motivated and focused during the difficult trip. However, the future she planned for William was one she would never see. On the sixth day of the crossing, Molly complained of headaches and dizziness. Three days later, she was dead.

It’s difficult to imagine the loneliness — the fear — that 7-year-old William was forced to endure. With no family or friends, he found himself abandoned and helpless. During my conversation with his granddaughter, she described it best: “It had to be hell on earth.” Reserved, in this instance, for the innocent.

Unfortunately, William’s situation was not the exception. Every year, thousands of orphans were shuttled from Ellis Island to waiting jails, almshouses, and orphanages to suffer an unimaginable childhood. Even as bad as those choices were, the alternatives were worse — living in the slums, on the street, or being turned over to the Children’s Aid Society to be shipped west on the controversial Orphan Train, where both boys and girls were indentured to host families who needed able-bodied laborers, regardless of age.

It was a far cry from the dreams Molly had held for her son. But it was William’s probable future.

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, William was herded off the ship and moved into the Great Hall. After a quick examination to confirm the absence of cholera or tuberculosis symptoms, he was transferred to the mainland terminal by ferry. Once inside, he was taken to a small room, its only window looking into a dimly lit hallway. Volunteers from the children’s mission usually made their pick-ups in the late afternoon, just in time for William to receive a late supper and bed assignment.

An hour later, William had traded the hard chairs for a place on the floor. Too scared to sleep, but too tired to keep his eyes open, he eventually dozed off, only to be awakened by the surprise of a hand lightly covering his. He looked up to see a young couple bending over him.

“My name is Betsy and this is my husband, Benjamin. What’s your name?”

William managed to whisper it before making his way to his feet.

“I’m going to make dinner in a few hours and I know you must be hungry. Would you like to come home with us?”

William barely nodded, but for Betsy and Ben Hansen, it was enough. A few minutes later, they were helping him into Ben’s supply wagon, making sure he saw the small bag of clothing they had retrieved from the terminal — the clothes Molly had packed for her son.

Betsy and Ben had found William just minutes before the missionaries arrived. Ben was in the terminal to make a delivery of steam pipe to one of the ships docked in New York harbor. On that particular day, Betsy had decided to tag along to have the rare treat of enjoying lunch with her husband. Married for eight years, they lived above the pipe-fitters shop that employed Ben.

Betsy and Ben had never considered themselves to be potential adoptive parents, and they certainly weren’t actively looking for a new addition to their family. They were already the proud parents of two girls, Sarah and Opal. But it didn’t matter. They made their decision spontaneously, without planning or concern for the additional burden another child would bring to their already tenuous economic situation, or the effect a new sibling might have on their daughters. They simply knew they couldn’t leave William in that room by himself.

That evening, William sat between his new sisters and ate his first Thanksgiving dinner in America. And although the menu was quite different from the traditional fare we enjoy today — a chicken took the place of turkey, and each family member enjoyed half a sweet potato — the table was overflowing with unconditional acceptance. Later that night, William slept on a small couch in the living room. But even in his fragile and confused state of mind, he somehow knew he was safe.

It was nearly a year before William made it through an entire day without missing his mother. And it was on that very same day that he called Betsy “Mom.” It happened while he was headed out the door on his way to school. Betsy waited until she was sure William was completely down the stairs before she let go of the tears she’d been holding back for over 10 months. Finally, she knew — William was part of the family.

Ben and Betsy Hansen raised two beautiful daughters and one fine son. A son who fought in WWI and was awarded the Citation Star for gallantry in action. A son who married his high school sweetheart and had three children of his own. A son who never forgot his first Thanksgiving in America, when one of the angels of Ellis Island reached down to take his hand and bring him home.

According to the national immigration records, over 50,000 orphaned children were received at Ellis Island. It’s unknown how many were “unofficially” adopted, but some estimates put the number at only six to eight percent. There were no lengthy forms to fill out or minimum requirements to meet. Most adoptions were as simple as William’s, done by extending an open hand, literally offering the gift of life to a frightened and lonely child.

So this year, as you gather around the table with your family and friends, be thankful for the blessings and fortunate happenstances that give your life meaning and substance. And then offer a special thanks to the thousands of people who, just like Ben and Betsy, perform miraculous acts of kindness and compassion every day, surely earning themselves a place with the angels.

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