I'm hoping that someone reading this can help solve a history mystery. January 1 will be the 118th anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island, the place that has come to represent the American dream of the millions of immigrants who have journeyed to our shores. The first to arrive that day was an Irish teenager named Annie Moore, and her statue now stands at both Ellis Island and in Ireland at her point of departure.
Some years ago while working on a documentary, I discovered that another Annie Moore had usurped the true Ellis Island Annie's spot in history. The one whose go-West-young-woman tale was being told had been born in Illinois, so clearly didn't immigrate. Finding the truth was a needle-in-a-haystack situation, so in 2006, I blogged a contest offering $1,000 for the first proof of the real Annie. An enthusiastic group of genealogists tackled the mystery and the result was a family reunion and front page New York Times article.
Today Annie's saga continues in another New York Times article by Sam Roberts, "Relatives Say Photos Depict Ellis Island's First Immigrant." Now we can finally see what the first to arrive at Ellis Island looked like. It took some time, but two of her relatives from separate branches of her family tree both found photos of Annie within the last few months. Pat Somerstein, a great-niece, and Maureen Peterson, a great-granddaughter, each found a photo of her - one from the late 1890s, perhaps six or seven years after her arrival, and another probably taken within a few years of her death at age 50 (Incidentally, as I wrote a few weeks ago, Annie was really 17 when she arrived; it was not her 15th birthday as was reported at the time).
But there's still a bit more to the story, and that's why I'm issuing this plea for help. Michael Shulman, Annie's great-nephew, found yet another photo - and it appears to be Annie and her brothers at Ellis Island. The problem is that while there is plenty of evidence to support this belief, we can't prove it, so I'm seeking assistance to determine once and for all whether this third photo is Annie.
Michael Shulman found the photo in question at the Ellis Island library. According to Shulman, the photo was among others donated by descendants of John B. Weber, the first Superintendent of Ellis Island. That alone is significant since Weber only served at Ellis Island until April 1893, which considerably narrows the timeframe for any photographs that might have been in his possession. Other reasons to suspect this is Annie include the following:
- The photo shows a girl of roughly the right age flanked by a pair of boys of approximately the right ages to have been Annie's brothers
- According to photo expert Maureen Taylor, all three are dressed in a manner appropriate for Irish immigrants in that time period
- Taylor also noted that the trio has been set apart from a crowd of travelers who are all gazing at them, which strongly suggests a special event
- The girl in the photo matches physical descriptions taken from newspaper accounts of the day ("bareheaded," "woolly sack (jacket) buttoned closely about her," "buxom")
- The other travelers in the background in the hall are dressed in longer, heavier clothing, which would be expected as Annie and her brothers were three of only eight Irish on a ship of 127 passengers who were mostly Russian
- The somewhat delicate benches in the photo are in good condition, suggesting that it could have been opening day for the hall, and the benches had not yet been subjected to the wear and tear of travelers and their luggage
- The slightly peculiar beams in the photo match those in a detailed 1893 sketch of Ellis Island
Perhaps most telling is the fact that the girl bears a marked resemblance to the confirmed photos of Annie in later years.
In terms of conflicting evidence, there are two points to consider. An Irish World article about the opening of Ellis Island included a purported sketch of Annie that doesn't look anything like the girl in the above-described photo. However, the sketch seems to be an exercise in wishful thinking, showing a tall, slender, older woman dressed in better attire than most immigrants could afford. It's also hard to avoid noticing that the woman in the sketch also bears no resemblance to Annie in the pair of verified photos.
The other point is that Ellis Island sources deny the photo is Annie and her brothers. They could be right, but the only substantiation I've heard to date is an assertion that the photo shows an anonymous trio of immigrants taken at the Barge Office in 1890. Those who have seen the photo at Ellis Island, though, state that while it's included with 1890 Barge Office photos, it stands out as being different from the others and is unmarked. And it there's any chance it could actually be Annie in spite of appearances to the contrary, I think it's worth checking and double-checking.
So is this other photo Annie and her brothers arriving at Ellis Island or not? There's much more to the research than I've summarized here, but I'd like to think that the answer is out there. Maybe someone has another photo of Annie, interior images of the Barge Office or Ellis Island (before the 1897 fire), or some other insight or piece of information that will solve the mystery. If you're interested in joining the research effort, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps the same virtual team approach that unearthed the true Ellis Island Annie in 2006 will work again.
Follow Megan Smolenyak on Twitter: www.twitter.com/megansmolenyak