The Cork girl who was first through Ellis Island’s gates

Irish Connections: When the New York immigration facility opened in 1892, Annie Moore made history

Statue in Cobh, Co Cork, of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island, and her brothers: she settled in the Lower East Side of New York

Statue in Cobh, Co Cork, of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island, and her brothers: she settled in the Lower East Side of New York

 

There are many theories about how a young woman from Co Cork became the first new arrival ever processed at Ellis Island in New York, when the immigration facility opened its doors on New Year’s Day, 1892. Two German men had reportedly been at the head of the queue that morning.

Contemporary sources suggest the girl was pushed to the front by her brothers, after an Irish longshoreman shouted “ladies first”. Others speculate that, in a room heaving with Italians, Armenians, Jews and Slovaks, an English-speaking northern European was chosen to present a more acceptable immigrant face for the assembled New York newsmen.

Whatever the truth, the Cobh native, newly arrived as a steerage passenger on the SS Nevada, stepped forward, was duly registered and presented with a $10 gold piece by the island’s superintendent.

Family reunion

The girl’s name was Annie Moore. And many, many more were to follow in her footsteps. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million people passed through Ellis Island, seeking a better life in the New World, marking one of the largest migrations in human history. About one third of the 325 million people who live in the United States are descended from immigrants who first entered the country through those famous halls.

But what of the very first? A report in the next day’s New York World stated that Moore had travelled from Ireland with her brothers Joe and Tom and had arrived, by chance, on her 15th birthday.

Actually, her brothers were called Anthony and Philip and Annie was 17½ years old. Her parents, who were already settled in America, had probably lied about their children’s ages to get a cheaper boat fare. The New York Times quoted Annie as saying she would always keep the gold Liberty coin she had been presented with “as a pleasant memento of the occasion”.

In fact, experts now doubt she ever said any such thing. Indeed it’s believed her father offloaded the piece, worth about a week’s wages, almost immediately, and used the proceeds to fund a boozy family reunion celebration at their home in Manhattan’s Fourth Ward.

Eleven children

The accuracy of the news reports got worse. For years, it was written that Annie had migrated to Indiana, then went on to Texas, where she married a descendent of Daniel O’Connell and died in 1923, after being struck by a passing streetcar. Descendants of the Texan Annie Moore even took part in official commemorations, both in Ellis Island and Ireland.

But in 2002, Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist researching a PBS (public broadcasting service) documentary on Ellis Island, uncovered evidence that the Texan Annie Moore wasn’t an immigrant at all. She had been born in Illinois. It took the genealogist another four years to trace the real Ellis Island Annie Moore. And the truth, when it emerged, was a little less romantic than she might have hoped.

It turned out Annie Moore had never left the Irish slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She had married a German baker’s clerk and had 11 children, six of whom predeceased her. When she died of heart failure, aged 50, at her apartment on Cherry Street, she was said to have been so obese that firemen had to remove her body through an upstairs window.

Her unmarked grave, in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, was located and in 2008 a headstone was erected and dedicated to her. During the ceremony, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang and a letter from the then Democratic candidate for president, and “fellow Irish-American” Barack Obama, was read out to the crowd.

Annie Moore’s own life may have been tragic, but her gathered descendants, who included prosperous Dominican-, Chinese-, Jewish and Italian-Americans, were a testament both to the cultural melting pot of New York and to the American dream.

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