Most historians view 1880 as the beginning of mass immigration of Italians to the U.S., when high taxes, unemployment, and poverty drove peasants from their homeland. However, evidence shows the exodus began in 1872, triggered by an international scandal requiring the intervention of the U.S. Secretary of State and the Italian Prime Minister. To ignore the early immigration of the 1870s is to miss how dramatic changes in Italy and chronic labor exploitation in the United States impacted the early first wave of arrivals.
It’s time to reconsider the start of mass immigration from Italy to the United States. A focus on the increase in immigration from 1879 to 1880 misses the broader picture. There was a large uptick in immigration in 1872, but then the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression significantly slowed worldwide migrations between 1874 and 1879. The economic recovery at the end of the decade resuscitated what had already begun earlier. To miss the dawn of the great movement out of Italy is to let slip a key period that ushered in one of the greatest migrations in United States history. But what pushed Italians of the early 1870s to abandon their native land on risky sea vessels?
With great expectation, the 1861 Unification of Italy launched a new European country promising to fulfill the dreams of millions of Italians. As the young Kingdom of Italy modernized, it ended feudalism, a move that opened many opportunities. But poor peasants found themselves cut off from the changed order and desperate to survive. And these were ripe fruit for unscrupulous steamship ticket offices all too willing to encourage emigration.
All regions of Italy were impacted by Unification, as new regulations and taxes hit the country. Heated protests condemned the macinato, or milling tax, really a tax on bread. But the South or Mezzogiorno, felt the new changes most. Peasants there lost customary rights to cultivate crops, graze their animals, or collect firewood from communal resources. These lands, which they didn’t own but had used for centuries, ended up on the new real estate market that ended feudalism. After unification, 25% of the cultivable area in the Mezzogiorno was privatized. But most people lacked funds to become landowners. Additionally, there was the onerous draft law. In the South, before Unification, compulsory military service was unknown. This new requirement was especially hated as it took much needed family members of military age off the farm for two years.
In this same period, other factors drove emigration from Italy, social chaos being one of them. Not surprisingly, many peasants, dispossessed from their ancestral fields, took to the hills to join brigands and former soldiers of the old regime. As briganti, they raided wealthy estates and attacked those most connected with the new government, the galantuomini or middle class. Reports of arson, kidnappings, and murder fed international press coverage of the turmoil in Italy. The government’s response was a harsh one. Thousands of troops occupied the South, shooting first and answering questions later.
Other drivers forcing Italians to emigrate included the backwardness of the South. Once the harvest was finished, a task that lasted about a month, little opportunity existed for work elsewhere. Even as late as 1890, most Southern communities had no connection to intercity roads, having to rely instead on mule and sheep paths. Although the Mezzogiorno boasted the first Italian railroad in 1839, by 1861 the South had only 7.2% of the country’s rail mileage.
In 1861, Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand defeated the formerly independent Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Now annexed to the new Kingdom of Italy, the South lost all its gold reserves to the new central banking system. At the same time, the defeated territory forfeited power to protect its industries from outside competition. With tariffs lifted on products arriving from the north, the Mezzogiorno saw its factories and workshops fail. This added to the population of “lazzaroni,” or beggars, filling Southern cities, especially Naples. The extreme poverty also increased the numbers of those desperate to emigrate.
November 8, 1872, was supposed to mark a new beginning for the S. S. Denmark’s 266 steerage passengers inbound to the US from Italy. A new future had been guaranteed them. It was only ten days later that the press acknowledged the dire predicament of the Denmark’s Italians, when the steamship Holland entered New York Harbor after a two-week sea voyage. Of the 789 passengers, 532 were Italians, most of whom had boarded at Le Havre. As soon as they disembarked, nearly three hundred of them converged on the Emigration Office at Castle Garden.
Superintendent Bernard Casserly could see that something was terribly wrong and, with the aid of an interpreter, he interviewed some of the newcomers. He persuaded five of them to file an affidavit at the office of the Commissioners of Emigration.
According to the affidavit, the immigrants accused ticket sellers of distributing handbills “in every village and hamlet in Italy promising that a great deal of money was to be made in the United States.” At Le Havre, travelers bound for Argentina were forced to board the Holland, which was going to New York. Refunds weren’t given for the shorter, cheaper trip and all of the arrivals were stranded at journey’s end with no means of support. Adding to their misfortune, it was soon apparent that the Italians were left with only the clothes they wore, as their baggage was headed to Buenos Aires. Sad faces reflected the overwhelming despair that had replaced the immigrants’ hopes and dreams. Had it not been for the promises of abundant wealth made by false advertising, the Italians from the Holland and the Denmark would not have come to the United States.
The Commissioners of Emigration were alarmed by the magnitude of the fraud, which was the most serious they had ever encountered. Casserly notified Italy’s Consul General in New York and the Italian Ambassador in Washington, but there was little else he could do to stop the perpetrators. Through 1872 and the following year, shipload after shipload of swindled Italian passengers would continue to disembark at New York. Not having a source of employment, thousands would be lodged on nearby Ward’s Island at government expense.
In the city shelter, the abandoned immigrants shared stories of finely dressed hucksters who had convinced them to leave for the Americas. Falsified letters of introduction and predatory loans constituted parts of the scam. The abuse mushroomed as subcontractors entered the picture who resold tickets to other speculators: These included school masters, civil servants, and even village priests. Italians desperate to leave their country took on predatory loans. For a bribe, town clerks and mayors doctored birth records to allow men of draft age to leave the country.
On the other hand, American industrialists would use the Ward’s Island refuge as a resource in their contention with American labor. The immigrants who had been liabilities were about to become assets. As the economy worsened, recruits from Ward’s Island were hired to replace native born and other laborers. In over 30 instances, Italians were employed as strikebreakers. This controversial entry of Italians into the workforce was met with resentment and violence. In New York City, work gangs of low paid Italians were used to replace Irish laborers. Along with Chinese, and African Americans, Italians fell into the class known as pauper labor. Additionally, large numbers of Italian immigrants were caught up in contract labor exploitation by padrones or labor bosses who garnished their wages in exchange for steamship tickets and placing them in jobs.
As immigration from Italy increased from 1872 to 1873, the American public followed these accounts of poverty, swindles, and widespread disorder taking place in the Mezzogiorno. Increasingly, they wondered how the United States would assimilate the oddly foreign Italians, economic refugees now spilling into the Port of New York. Unfortunately, it would take decades for these immigrants to earn the respect that they had always deserved.
Tucciarone and Lariccia’s newly released book, Italians Swindled to New York: False Promises at the Dawn of Immigration, is available online from the History Press and from other online booksellers.