- Historic Sites
“damned Plague Ships And Swimming Coffins”
On the long voyage from Bremen to America, the promised land, emigrants from eastern Europe endured a cramped, dangerous, and disease-haunted pilgrimage
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
The committee also investigated “shocking immoralities said to be practiced on board of passenger ships,” and they recommended that ships in future be built with two hatchways, so that quarters for males and for females could be kept separate and still be properly ventilated. But, what is to be done with the ships now in the passenger trade? To this question the committee can find no satisfactory answer. In coming to this conclusion the committee feel great regret, as they in common with all well-thinking persons, view with a feeling amounting to disgust and horror, the improper intercourse said frequently to exist, not only between passengers of different sexes, but between the crew and female passengers, whose situation renders them accessible to the advances of the dissolute and unprincipled.
The committee recommended that passenger compartments be well ventilated and regularly aired; that there be a law prohibiting the use of the orlop (lowest deck) for sleeping, since it could not be washed for fear of damaging the cargo stowed beneath, and since rats often swarmed up to this deck out of the hold. One privy for every 100 passengers was deemed inadequate; and separate privies for females were prescribed. “Shipowners should be made responsible to the extent of the passage money in the event of death during the passage.”
The arrival of insane, helpless, or criminal immigrants was a great problem in American ports. In 1847, one town in Hessen-Darmstadt had even hit upon the scheme of emptying its prison and almshouse by paying the passage of every occupant to New York. In spite of the help of the New York German Society and other charitable organizations, most of these people spent the rest of their lives in New York workhouses. Finally, in 1854, the Bremen Senate passed a law barring such persons from emigrant ships leaving its shores, and in 1882 the United States Congress passed another prohibiting undesirable immigrants from being received.
By 1855, Bremen, which by now had been nicknamed “Der Vorort New-Yorks” (the suburb of New York), was shipping more immigrants to the New World than any other port in Europe. (It retained the lead for many years.) Every detail of the process of immigration was now organized with the efficiency of a Chicago cattle yard. No longer were would-be emigrants stranded in Bremen and left to the charity of the city because they had been robbed or had missed their ships. Licensed agents saw to it that the emigrant arrived in Bremen with money and belongings intact, and licensed shipbrokers saw to it that local hotels, guides, porters, and shopkeepers did not cheat him.
For ten pfennig, the emigrant could buy the Deutsche Auswanderer Zeitung , published twice a week in Bremen. At the head of each issue, in large type, was a notice adjuring readers to go at once to the Information Bureau on arrival in Bremen, and on arrival in New York “ AT ONCE to the German Society, 85 Greenwich Street. Avoid private agents with the GREATEST POSSIBLE CARE .” Unfortunately, many immigrants could not read; and if an official-looking person with an authoritative manner told them to hand over their luggage or their money, or to buy a bogus railroad ticket to a city that later turned out to be nowhere near a railroad, they were quite apt to do so. The Deutsche Auswanderer Zeitung contained news of arrivals of ships in the United States, of ships sighted at sea, and, occasionally, of tragedy: ”… the Beauty , out of Kingston, Jamaica, passed on 9 November at 40° an overturned lifeboat marked ‘Lyonnais, Havre.’ Inside was a lifepreserver marked ‘Havre,’ a white shirt and a white handkerchief embroidered with the initials ‘F. E.’ ” There was also information about various immigrant colonies in the New World: “Warning Against the Peruvian Immigration Project, by a Man Who Has Been There” “The Terms of the Minnesota Landverein , at New Ulm.” Then there were cautionary tales for immigrants: “A German immigrant in Chicago was first made totally drunk and then robbed of $1,000 by a scoundrel by the name of Dunn Kerch. Kerch stole the German’s money belt”; and bits of practical information: “Chicago in 1823 was a small village of 60 inhabitants. Now it is a mighty city of 100,000.” “The most important nursery and greenhouse business is Ellwanger and Barry, Rochester, New York, who employ 300 men in spring and 60 all summer.” “Providence, Rhode Island, has 56 factories, and employs 1,400 jewelry and gold workers.” Occasionally, a sort of public thank-you note would appear, which one hopes was not contrived by a public-relations man: In our new homeland we the undersigned passengers of the Bremen ship Ohio offer our thanks for a speedy and fortunate journey and for wonderful care. We take this opportunity to recommend to our countrymen this ship and her captain, Herr Hermann Renjes, who ran this ship with good food and drink and good care for the sick; and the ship’s personnel earned our fond remembrances.
Ater the Civil War, the Auswanderer Zeitung began to carry advertisements from various American states and territories: “The agent of the State of Missouri for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland now has offices at 35 Langenstrasse, Bremen. Any information desired by those who wish to immigrate will be gladly and gratuitously answered.” “The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company offers for sale millions of acres of the best land in the wonderful farming country of Iowa and Nebraska.”