Irish ghosts of America: Ghosts of Ellis Island

Ellis Island, haunted by the immigrants who never made it to America.

We think of Ellis Island now as an immigration station, the final moment between when people left someplace else and arrived here, and, since a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore set foot there in 1892 as the first immigrant processed on the island, that’s what it has been.

It was already thought to be haunted even then. I have a story from March of that year, published in the  Evansville Courier and Press, telling of terrified government employees besieged by supernatural doings on the island. At night, they hear moans and shouts. The story describes shadowy forms in tricornered hats clasping arms and marching around the island, perhaps the ghosts of Charles Gibbs and his compatriots, who were hanged on the island for piracy. (Although, were I to guess, I would place the ghost of Charles Gibbs at the museum of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, which inexplicably has his skull.) There was also a haunted well, which was abandoned after failing to find water, and where four workmen lost their lives after being caught in quicksand.

Almost a hundred years later, there were still tales of ghosts. Dean Garrett, U.S. Chief Park Ranger of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, himself descended from Irish immigrants, told newspapers in 1977 about his experiences on the island: “I heard the kids,” he said. “I heard the ghosts of Ellis Island.”

He was on Ellis Island in 1975 when he heard children’s laughter. He followed the sounds to the Great Hall, once called the Hall of Tears, as it was the place where new immigrants would sometimes be turned back, and were forced to part from their family. Some died on the island, too sick to be moved; 3,500 died there, including 1,400 children. Some grieving immigrants killed themselves.

The sounds of laughing children continued, and Garrett continued to follow. He never found the children, but continued to hear their laughter on the island for years after. He said other rangers reported hearing walking, doors shutting, and talking. When they would hear this, they would turn to each other and say, “The immigrants are here.”

Another former employee, George DuRan, also reported noises in 1977: footsteps from the Great Hall, and the sound of someone moving furniture. When he would investigate, there would be nobody who might cause footsteps, and no furniture that might be moved.

Phil Chevron, the recently deceased guitarist for The Pogues, wrote a 1988 song about Ellis Island called “Thousands Are Sailing,” which includes a conversation with one of these ghosts, an Irish immigrant who was among the estimated 30 percent who died on the voyage over. The dialogue between Chevron and the spirit is as follows:

Did the old songs taunt or cheer you
And did they still make you cry
Did you count the months and years
Or did your teardrops quickly dry

Ah, no, says he, ’twas not to be
On a coffin ship I came here
And I never even got so far
That they could change my name

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.