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Immigration Laws in 1912 - Titanic
By: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

April was a fateful month in the life and death of the White Star Line's RMS Titanic . The order to proceed with construction had been signed April 30, 1907, construction completed on April 2, 1912, most of the crew hired on Saturday, April 6, and the ship departed from Southampton, England on its first and final journey at noon on Wednesday, April 10, 1912. In third class was Anna Sophia Turja, an 18-year-old Finnish émigré. She was one of 21 children from a small town in northern Finland.  She was traveling alone en route to a new life in America. One of her brothers-in-law had offered her a job and had paid for her passage on the Titanic . Rooming with two other Finnish émigrés in the women's section of steerage, Anna also met Mrs. Maria Panula (41), another Finnish émigré accompanied by her five sons: Ernesti (16), Jaakko (14), Juha (7), Urho (2) and William (1). They were traveling to join her husband, Emil, who was already in Coal Centre, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The ship stopped at Cherbourg, France, where it picked up additional passengers, including first class passengers Margaret (Mrs. J.J.) Brown , the Astors and the Wideners (more on them, later). It stopped again at Queensland, Ireland, to pick up even more. At 1:30 PM, Friday, April 12, it left Ireland for the open seas on its maiden voyage to the United States. It had 338 first class passengers, 279 second class passengers, 712 third class passengers, and a crew of 908, including eight Chinese seamen. According to estimates prepared by the ship's company, about 10 percent of the first class passengers, and 80 percent of the second and third class passengers were aliens, most of them intending immigrants like Anna, her roommates and the Panulas.

The Titanic hit the fatal iceberg at 11:40 PM Sunday night, April 14. Distress calls were sent from the Titanic , but help arrived too late. At 2:20 AM Monday, April 15, the Titanic went to the bottom in 13,000 feet of ocean. Finally, help did arrive, and between 4:10 and 8:10 AM, the Cunard Line's Carpathia rescued 705 Titanic survivors. The Carpathia arrived in New York City at 9:00 PM on Thursday, April 18. Anna was on board, but she never found her roommates. Maria Panula and her five sons all perished that night. Two days after the sinking, ships were dispatched back to the area to recover bodies. Eventually some 330 bodies were recovered: some were taken to North America, while others were buried at sea.

A detailed record was kept on each body recovered and some were identified , including those of first class millionaire passengers Col. John Jacob Astor IV and Harry Elkins Widener , and of third class passenger Alma Cornelia Paulsson , a 29-year-old Swedish émigré traveling with her four children to join her husband in Chicago. He had emigrated in 1910, and, after saving enough money, had sent for them to join him; Alma and all four children perished. Even in death, the recovery and return to America of some of the bodies was controversial, as in the case of a wife and a sister-in-law fighting over custody of the body of second class passenger Stanley Hubert Fox ; coincidentally, he had celebrated his 36 th birthday onboard the Titanic on April 13 th .

When the Carpathia docked in New York, the Immigration Service's New York Commissioner of Immigration William Williams and his staff of Immigration Inspectors were on the scene “to receive [the] immigrants and supervise caring for them.” It is doubtful that the survivors were subjected to many immigration inspection formalities that night. At any rate, Commissioner Williams was under written instructions from U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration Daniel J. Keefe in Washington, D.C., to facilitate their landing and to “construe our [immigration] laws as liberally as possible” during any inspections process.

This directive was necessary because immigration laws required ship companies to produce detailed lists of all passengers, a process designed to identify and then prevent the admission of aliens “likely to become a public charge” or otherwise barred from entry under U.S. law. In this case, the obvious fear was that the ship's owner was not going to be able to produce the passenger lists required by immigration law and that foreign passenger-survivors – mainly immigrants coming to the United States – might not be able to prove that they were not likely to become a public charge. In addition, some people worried that many might be sick or injured and therefore potentially excludable on medical grounds.

In this context, the inspections process for the survivors of the Titanic took place as best it could. By April 25, most of the survivors, including Anna had gone on their way.

This story is the story of that arrival and their admission to the United States. It is also the history of immigration inspections law in the United States and its implementation by immigration inspectors of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.


Historically, the first ship arrival records were business records.  Lists accounting for merchandise shipped or received from afar were the original cargo manifests.  For example, a Roman ship of the first century B.C. carried furniture from a Greek workshop to a buyer who was most likely in Gaul.  After that vessel was wrecked and sank off the coast of France, only the record of what furniture was loaded would tell what treasures were lost.  It might or might not name the sailors who went down with the ship.

Business records—in the form of ship logs and cargo manifests—remained the primary source of information documenting the voyages of people and goods for centuries thereafter. Records might also be prepared in connection with taxes, duties, or levies imposed by kings, princes, or lords controlling ship wharves and docks.  These practices spread across the Atlantic very shortly after Christopher Columbus' 1492 discovery of the New World for Europeans.  Columbus himself wrote Spain's King Ferdinand about the need to regulate colonial commerce and recommended careful inspection of vessels at their points of both departure and arrival to ensure that all goods and gold were sent and then arrived without pilferage.

Documentation of passengers aboard the earliest ships to the New World is less complete, probably because the landing of people incurred no tax or levy.  Many “passenger lists” of the earliest arrivals from Europe are compiled from various sources such as journals, diaries, or accounts written many years later.  For example, available lists of the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were created using documentation surrounding the Winthrop Fleet and the 1633 sailing of the Mary and John .

As immigration increased to British North America, colonial legislatures faced the fact that they needed immigrants to increase their populations but did not desire the importation of criminals and paupers. By the late 17 th and early 18 th century, the colonies of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware had imposed reporting requirements, typically requiring the master of any vessel to deliver a list of passengers to local authorities.  That list or manifest could then be used to calculate the amount of bond required to land certain passengers who might be barred from free entry into the colony.  For example, the colonial legislature of Delaware passed an act which required a passenger list “for the better discovery of such convicts, and poor and impotent, or idle, or vagrant persons, who shall hereafter be imported into, and shall be likely to become chargeable to, the inhabitants of this government. . . .”  In 1740, Delaware collected a fee of five pounds for each convict admitted.

After independence, many state legislatures continued to require lists of passengers arriving at ports within their boundaries and to collect fees (termed “head taxes”) or bonds for the admission of some or all immigrants landed. In addition to names, early passenger list usually required inclusion of each passenger's age as well as “character and condition.” As early as 1788, the New York legislature passed similar laws, required reports to be filed within 24 hours of arrival, and imposed a fine of twenty pounds for each passenger not reported.  Such records were important to states like New York and Massachusetts, where they were used to collect state “head taxes,” which were then used for the relief of poor and indigent immigrants and to help fund state immigration bureaucracies.

By 1830, Massachusetts also required information on the port of departure for all passengers listed on the manifest, and in 1835 required each person's “age, name, calling, trade or employment; their prospects and intentions within this Commonwealth, and intended place of future residence, and . . . the circumstances under which such passenger departed from any foreign port or place . . .” (Mass., 1835 act, sec. 3).

To enforce their various immigration laws, states receiving the bulk of immigration established boards, agencies, bureaus, and commissions.  Laws also might direct ships to land passengers at certain docks or wharves for inspection. By the mid-19 th century, arrivals at the port of New York became so numerous that the New York Board of Emigration Commissioners took over Castle Garden , a state facility on the Battery, and converted it for use as an immigration station.

Meanwhile, the federal government began to legislate on the subject of immigration.  In a law designed to improve crowded and unhealthy conditions aboard ships, the Steerage Act of 1819 included the first federal manifest requirement. Beginning in 1820, and in addition to any state reporting requirements, each captain or master of a vessel had to submit a list of passengers to the U.S. Collector of Customs upon arrival at a U.S. port. The lists were to include each passenger's name, age, sex, occupation, and nationality. Once each quarter, Customs Collector made copies or abstracts of the lists and forwarded them to the U.S. Secretary of State for the compilation of national immigration statistics. Within a decade, Great Britain passed a similar law for the protection of immigrants to Canada and other British ports.

States like Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts continued to carry out immigrant inspection duties and to collect head taxes. But as early as 1824 the constitutional question arose whether regulation of immigration was a state or federal power. The Supreme Court decided in 1876 that such regulation is a federal matter, and denied the states any right to collect the head taxes that funded their immigration bureaucracies. This began the shift from state to federal regulation of immigration.

Congress passed an immigration law in 1875 directing that immigrant inspection be carried out under the supervision of each port's Customs Collector.  In 1882 , another immigration act imposed a federal head tax of 50 cents on each alien passenger arriving in the U.S. from a foreign port and authorized the Secretary of Treasury to contract with the states for enforcement of federal law.  Finally, the Immigration Act of March 3, 1891 , canceled all contracts with the states and created the Bureau of Immigration in the U.S. Department of the Treasury to inspect immigrants and collect passenger manifests at each port.  By 1893, medical doctors of the U.S. Public Health Service joined the Bureau of Immigration in immigrant inspection duties.

At the same time, other nations also began to exert broader control over the movement of people across their borders.  As early as 1869, the Norwegian government regulated the sale of ship and steamship tickets to passengers leaving Norway. By 1890, Great Britain implemented laws accounting for the transmigration of European migrants across England on their way to new homes in North America, South Africa, or Australia.  British “inbound” passenger lists document the arrival of migrants from Europe and Scandinavia at eastern British seaports and their boarding of westbound trains.  British “outbound” lists record the same migrants' boarding of transatlantic steamships at large departure ports on the western shore, namely Liverpool and Southampton.

Under U.S. law, ships were responsible for ensuring that all non-U.S. citizens arriving in an U.S. port of entry (such as New York City) were admissible under U.S. law.  If they were not, the passenger could be excluded from entering the U.S., the ship company could be fined and then required to take the person back at its own expense.

To protect themselves, ship companies completed immigration forms using information provided by passengers as they purchased their tickets, and on the forms recorded answers to “a long list of questions taken from immigration law.  Alien passenger records contained their name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, last permanent residence, destination, names and addresses of friends or relatives at both the past permanent residence and destination, place of birth, and answers to legal questions such as ‘Are you a polygamist?'  These documents, the passenger manifests, were then certified by a U.S. Consul prior to embarkation from the foreign port and delivered to U.S. immigration authorities upon arrival” (from Marian L. Smith, “The RMS Titanic passenger manifest: Record of survivors – and revival of a record,” in Voyage (Journal of the Titanic International Society, Inc.), Volume 29 (1999), pp. 4-9).

Before leaving England in April 1912, the Titanic's Purser had undoubtedly checked each passenger against his detailed passenger list.  This list was required by United States law and served a number of functions.  It would first be used by Immigrant Inspectors when examining each applicant for admission, then used by clerks to compile statistics.  Immigration Service accountants would use the manifest as a basis for monthly “head tax” bills to the steamship lines or for the imposition of fines for immigration law violations.  Eventually, the Naturalization Service would use the records to verify legal admissions for naturalization purposes.

And so it was that the Titanic 's sinking on the night of April 14-15 broke a chain of immigration records tracing the movement of her passengers to that point. The Titanic passenger manifest, carefully prepared before sailing, went to the bottom with the ship.

April 1912

By 1912 ship passenger manifests were the primary tool used in federal regulation of immigration.  One indication of their importance is the fact that as the Carpathia steamed back to New York with Titanic's survivors, the rescue ship's Purser struggled as best he could to compile a passenger list that might meet the requirements of U.S. immigration law. Lacking enough official forms, using only a ruler and a pen, he attempted to recreate the same columns and information found on official U.S. passenger list forms.

Technically, because the steamship now carrying the aliens to a U.S. port belonged to the Cunard line, that steamship company was liable for the head tax on each passenger and for any fines resulting from any violation of the immigration law. Separate fines could be imposed for each passenger landed without an accompanying manifest record.  In view of this, just hours after the sinking of the Titanic , White Star Line's Counsel wrote to the Commissioner-General of Immigration in Washington, D.C, asking him to make “special arrangements …” and “extend such special facilities as are necessary …” to smooth the admission of the survivors into the United States (Smith, Ibid , at 4).  The Immigration Service [which by 1912 had been transferred to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor] took this request very seriously and eventually agreed.

The Titanic's 1,321 passengers were differentiated not only by accommodation and the kind of food they got on board, but also by the inspections procedures they would undergo upon arrival a U.S. port of entry such as New York City. Upon arrival in New York, immigration admission formalities for most surviving first and second class passengers were completed aboard the Carpathia , after which “a number of first class arrivals reportedly left the ship, got into their limousines or private rail cars, and got as far away from steamships as possible” (Smith, Ibid , at 6).

Had the ship arrived safely, officers of the New York Quarantine, the U.S. Immigration Service, and perhaps the Public Health Service would have met the Titanic in New York harbor.  First and second class passengers would have been inspected during the ship's arrival in port, while those in third class would have been disembarked and ferried to Ellis Island to complete the inspections process.  At Ellis Island, inspections formalities usually would have been completed within 2-3 hours – although by this time some 20 ships per day were landing passengers and immigrants in New York City.  Only those detained by the Immigration Service spent the night on Ellis Island.  After admission to the United States, they would leave to be met by relatives or friends or go to the transportation needed to complete their emigration journey to America.

As Ellis Island was already closed for the night when the Carpathia docked, and due to the condition of many of the survivors, Commissioner Williams, assisted by the Women's Relief Committee and other immigrant aide societies, supervised the transfer of the survivors to hospitals, immigrant homes, and waiting relatives or friends.  Approximately 100 survivors were admitted to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City. Between April 19 and 24, Immigration Inspector John M. Sullivan completed the inspections formalities for all 100.  According to one second class survivor, “There seemed to be no end to the questions we had to answer.” By April 25 most survivors were on their way.

Of the original eight Chinese seamen on board, six survived .  Under the United States' Chinese Exclusion Act, their arrival formalities were the responsibility of the Chinese Inspector in Charge in New York City.  The six Chinese seamen were interviewed on the Carpathia , and the next day, April 19, transferred as seamen to the British steamship Annetta , and left with it on April 20 – headed back across the Atlantic.

Anna Turja had left New York several days earlier.  She had been taken from the Carpathia directly to St. Vincent's Hospital.  There, because she was not ill but spoke no English, she was “tagged” by an immigrant aide worker and put on a train to her destination in Ashtabula, Ohio.  Upon her arrival in Ashtabula, she was already somewhat of a celebrity: a Titanic survivor.

Margaret Brown had also left, after establishing the survivor's committee and doing other good works that added – along with the vivid imagination of Hollywood story-tellers -- to her becoming “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.” (She never was called “Molly.”) Harry Elkins Widener's mother, Eleanor Widener had survived the sinking. She left New York in a private rail car – returning home to Philadelphia.  She later donated funds to Harvard to build a memorial library in her son's honor.

Meanwhile, Nils Paulsson in Chicago, and Emil Panula in Coal Centre, Pittsburgh, waited in vain for the arrival of their families.  Mr. Panula had just completed remodeling his house in anticipation of their arrival.

Due to the tragic circumstances surrounding Titanic survivors' arrival, the Government made no attempt to punish the Cunard line for incomplete or erroneous information on the manifest.  In fact, the Immigration Service's New York Port Commissioner William Williams congratulated the Cunard company for the Purser's efforts to record all survivors, an action that facilitated their admission to the United States.

Fast Forward

It is difficult to say whether information on the original Titanic manifest would have been any more accurate than the one hastily prepared aboard the Carpathia . Ship manifests of the early 20 th century tried to serve two separate, though related, purposes.  Like their counterparts in the 1800's, U.S. ship passenger manifests of the 1900's documented the steamship company's compliance with U.S. laws regulating immigration.  These regulations covered ticket sales, passenger accommodations, head taxes, medical certifications, and other matters.

But by the 1890's, ship manifests had also come to document individual immigrants' compliance with immigration law. Information regarding a passenger's age, literacy, available funds, or future employment all helped to determine whether he or she might be legally admitted to the United States.For more than 200 years the primary purpose of official passenger manifests was to regulate steamships, not individuals, and the method, or format, was not perfectly suited to obtaining accurate information about the passengers themselves.

A division of the manifest's dual purpose came with passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 and a new visa requirement for individual immigrants. On July 1, 1924, immigrant visas became the official immigration record collected and maintained by the government on each immigrant, and the record used as the basis for all immigration benefits.  The Immigration and Naturalization Service [by this time in the U.S. Department of Labor] continued to collect complete passenger manifests for each steamship arrival, and while these lists tended to become more accurate as many of the records were prepared with the aid of visa information, the lists once again became primarily a tool for regulation of the steamship lines and other carriers.

Other carriers eventually included airships and airlines.  Immigration law required passenger lists be delivered by “the master or commanding officer, owners, or consignees of the steamer, sailing, or other vessel, having said alien, United States citizen, or national on board.” (Immigration Act of 1917, 39 Stat 874, Sec. 12).  Thus the first aircraft passenger lists were filed with the INS in the 1920's. Among other vessels in the 1930's were the airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg . The latter began scheduled transatlantic flights in May 1936, landing passengers at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Hindenburg continued to file a manifest upon each arrival until May 6, 1937, when, like Titanic , the airship met its tragic destruction.

While transatlantic and transpacific air travel date from the 1930's, immigration by air became more common than by ship in the 1950's . As a result, INS and Public Health Service inspectors moved from the seaports to airports. Though the setting changed, the procedure remained the same--government officials met incoming craft and collected a passenger list before allowing any passengers to land. At New York, John F. Kennedy Airport has been called “the modern-day Ellis Island.”

As passenger traffic shifted from steamships to aircraft, passenger manifests underwent another change. Beginning in the late 1940's, both INS [now in the U.S. Department of Justice] and the U.S. Customs Service amended the manifest form to collect far less information about each individual passenger. As noted above, since 1924 the visa contained complete information on each immigrant.  By the mid-1950's ship and air passenger lists contained only a few facts about each passenger and served once again primarily as a tool to regulate the carriers rather than the immigrants.

Technological change also affects passenger list requirements and submission of the lists to U.S. Government agencies.  Automation of the travel industry, including computerized records of ticket sales and flight information, as well as automation of Government record keeping now allows for the submission of electronic manifests.  In this way, in the 21 st century, a passenger list may be submitted to a U.S. airport of arrival before an international flight takes off from the airport of departure.

U.S. law today requires manifests of passengers arriving in the United States. These lists are collected and maintained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service but also have importance to other federal agencies, such as the Department of State , Coast Guard , and Department of Transportation .


  • Soon after her arrival in America, Anna Turja met Emil Lundi, fell in love, married him, had seven children and, eventually, numerous grandchildren. Mrs. Anna Sophia (Turja) Lundi died in Long Beach, California, in 1982 at the age of 89.  She never did go to work for her brother-in-law.  She never did learn English.

  • In 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard led a team that discovered the final resting place of the Titanic and began periodic visits to the wreckage.   Now you can take a virtual tour of what the Titanic looked like then and now.

  • In terms of budget and staff, the Immigration Inspections program is the third largest program activity within INS [the largest is the Border Patrol while the second largest is Detention and Removal]. In FY 1999, its over 5,000 employees inspected over 525 million people at INS ports of entry such as those in the El Paso District Office . The INS Inspections program and the U.S. Border Patrol together comprise the INS Border Management Program– one of INS' core mission functions.


On the history of manifest information called for by colonial and early United States laws, see the Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965 by E.P. Hutchinson. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981, especially pages 394-405, and 534-543. See also Reports of the Immigration Commission [Dillingham Commission], volume 39, Immigration Legislation. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911.

For more information on the list of Titanic survivors created aboard the Carpathia , see “The RMS Titanic passenger manifest: A record of survivors—and survival of a record,” by Marian L. Smith. Voyage (Journal of the Titanic International Society, Inc.) Volume 29 (1999), p. 4-9.

For further reading about United States passenger arrival lists see:

The National Archives introduction to immigration records .

The Library of Congress' Immigrant Arrivals: A Guide To Published Sources

They Came in Ships: A guide to finding your immigrant ancestor's arrival record , by John Philip Colletta.  Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1989;  rev. 1993.

American Passenger Arrival Records: A guide to the records of immigrants arriving at American ports by sail and steam , by Michael Tepper. Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988.


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