Ellis Island Mental Exam

When researching Ellis Island or other history for my novel-in-progress, American Gold, I stumble across all sorts of things. I’m sure this happens to others who write historical fiction.

I knew medical inspections were done at Ellis Island, but I never thought about mental exams. In the early 20th century, testing a person’s intelligence was more of an art than a science and political correctness was unheard of.

During the year ending June 30, 1911, nearly 17,000 aliens were certified for physical or mental defect and over 5,000 of these were deported. (not necessarily for medical reasons alone). Of the 209 certified mental defectives, 45% were feeble-minded, and 33% insane.

In 1912, “men specially trained in the diagnosis of mental disorders” studied the use of modified Binet-Simon tests at Ellis Island. Could those tests help to determine a person’s mental age in relation to his physical age and to recognize “feeble-mindedness”? Those who fell below the test group of appropriate age were rated as feeble-minded, imbecile or idiot.

When differences in language and cultural experience made the tests useless, inspectors relied on the older methods. Facial appearance played a part. Did your eyes appear focused or dazed? Did you walk and behave normally? Epilepsy was also considered mental deficiency.

Translators were available for some languages. In this case, an official asked a few questions and judged if you answered appropriately. If language differences prohibited that, a cutout board with shapes such as a crescent, circle, square, etc., similar to what a child might play with, was used as a test. You were timed to see how quickly you completed the test.

One woman, insulted at being treated like a child, refused to do the board test until another immigrant in line spoke enough of her language to explain she might not be admitted if she refused.


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