Narrowing the Window of Escape

Written by Marvin Pinkert on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

On Aug. 19, Nicholas Fessenden delivered a lecture to a packed room of 83 attendees at the Jewish Museum of Maryland entitled “Immigration in the Age of Houdini: 1880 to 1924.” The lecture was held in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini.”

As museum board member Suzanne Levin-Lapides pointed out in her introduction of Fessenden, when Ehrich Weiss (aka. Harry Houdini) came to America at age 4, there were virtually no restrictions on immigration; but by the end of his life in the 1920s, strict quotas in place made it extremely difficult for others to follow in his footsteps.

Fessenden, who with his wife Brigitte co-founded the Baltimore Immigration Museum in Locust Point, covered the experiences of the three largest groups of immigrants to come to America during this period (also known as the “Great Wave”): Eastern European Catholics, Italians, and Eastern European Jews. He talked about the factors both “pushing” (persecution of minorities) and “pulling” (economic opportunities) these three groups. While both were a factor, he pointed out that within the Great Wave, immigration plummeted by one-third during an economic recession in the 1890s.

While Fessenden’s talk included the development of Ellis Island, he brought special focus to Baltimore and Locust Point as the starting point for nearly 1.5 million immigrant stories. He displayed an image of the B&O Railroad’s immigration pier — where passengers could disembark from their ships and (after inspection) directly board a train going west. He also had a map of Baltimore from the 1890s illustrating the concentration of immigrant groups in various parts of the city.

Perhaps his most interesting piece of documentation was a set of questions asked of newcomers to the United States, including, “Are you a polygamist?” and “Are you deformed or crippled?” Fessenden pointed out that there were also trickier questions, like: “Did you pay for your passage over? If not, who did?” These were calculated questions to ferret out potential contract laborers.

He also noted that while relatively few people were rejected (about 2 percent of those arriving at Ellis Island and 1 percent of those at Locust Point), the shipping companies were held responsible for paying for the return passage of those seen as unfit. This led to the companies pre-screening immigrant passengers at the docks in Europe and to the companies offering coaching on how to answer questions from the inspector. Fessenden also pointed out that only those in steerage had to go through inspection at Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers were simply admitted in this pre-visa era.

The final section of Fessenden’s talk dealt with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment during this period. While anti-immigrant vitriol had been an off-and-on part of American culture since the colonial period, it really took off with the formation of the American Party (better known as the “Know Nothings”) in the 1850s. At that time, however, immigration law was considered a matter of state jurisdiction.

The heavy participation of immigrants on both sides of the Civil War temporarily put aside anti-immigrant anger. However, in 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment in the West led to the first national laws restricting immigration. In addition to barring the Chinese, this law established that those with criminal convictions, mental illness, or lack of means to sustain themselves would no longer be admitted to the U.S.

At the turn of the century, “polygamists” and “anarchists” were added to those banned. Still immigration flourished, reaching its peak in 1914, just before WWI. After the war, anti-immigrant animus grew quickly — leading to a quota system in 1924 that brought Eastern European immigration down to a tiny fraction of its earlier numbers. It also marked the beginning of the Border Patrol.

During the Q&A that followed the lecture there were several questions about the relationship of the quota system and Jewish experience during the Holocaust, including the role played by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the State Department in not responding to an international humanitarian crisis.

“Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini,” continues through Jan. 21. For information on other programs accompanying the exhibit visit

By Marvin Pinkert


Marvin Pinkert is the executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. He has been active in museum management for nearly 24 years. Prior to joining JMM, Marvin was the creator and director of the National Archives Experience, the flagship museum of the National Archives and Records Administration; and before his work at NARA, he spent 11 years at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.