Washed Up On Bedloe’s Island 1885

“Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base” — John Bowlby

On a summer day not unlike one in the late 1800s, my wife and I ascended the 354 narrow steps as young children brushed past to get to the top. As we continued along the arduous spiral staircase, we could hear parents yelling “slow down,” but what self-respecting five-year-old does not run up a flight of stairs? By the time we reached the crown, our clothes were drenched with sweat and humidity but we hardly noticed as we gazed at the scene below. Across New York harbor ferries were ferrying, tall buildings stood taller than the laws of gravity, and Ellis Island looked for all the world like a sentinel standing guard, as she had been for nearly sixty years.

Then the family with two children reassembled and peered at the view. Mom became all starry-eyed when she saw Ellis Island. She told the children in hushed tones, “your great grandfather came through here.” The children wondered, does that mean he came over on the Statue of Liberty?

Kids see things with preternatural wisdom. No matter where we are born or wherever we end, our lives begin — all lives for that matter — as immigrants in a strange place, and when we find the promised land nothing can stop us from racing up her stairs.

The steamship L’Isere

The image brought back a distant memory of blood, toil, sweat, and tears that came to our shores on June 17, 1885. Although France was known for fine linens, a woman looking tired and forlorn descended the gangplank and holding a torch in her right hand. The cause of her discomfort was the 27-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean through treacherous storms and dangerously high seas.

Her birth name was “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a collaboration between sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and framework architect Gustave Eiffel. The spark occurred nearly twenty years earlier when a French anti-slavery activist named Edouard de Laboulaye had the idea of making a gift to commemorate the Declaration of Independence (which influenced the 1789 French Revolution) and the end of slavery, which France earlier re-abolished in 1848. The two countries were partners in the concept of liberty, and as a symbol of the occasion, Bartholdi added a broken shackle and chain at her feet.

In 1871, Bartholdi completed the statue, and De Laboulaye convinced him to embark on finding a suitable site. After arriving in New York, the sculptor selected Bedloe’s Island, now called Liberty Island, and typical of Manhattan real estate, he chose it for the view. From her perch, he saw that it could watch over every ship that came to our shores, a “gateway to America.”

The Statue of Liberty was conveyed from Rouen to New York harbor by the steamship L’ Isere* with its three masts of 215 feet each and 30 feet of beam. She arrived like some families do at JFK, weighed down by luggage. In her case, there were 200 wooden crates, some of them 20 feet long, containing 225 tons of copper and metal waiting to be assembled. Liberty looked more like the parts of a carnival ride than an icon of freedom. At three times the heft of six 18 wheelers, the statue was overweight, but that was not her problem. Like most immigrants, she had no place to stay as we had not yet built the pedestal. (*The Isere would continue doing noble work until she was sunk in 1943 during World War II.)

Construction on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island. National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM.

On July 4, 1884, the completed Statue was presented to the U.S. minister to France then disassembled before being shipped to its final resting place. Two hundred wooden crates landed upon Bedloe’s Island with a thud like the flotsam and jetsam of a castoff shipwreck on June 17, 1885. Having delivered the bounty, the French felt it was now the United States’s turn to build a pedestal, but there was no budget. Like like all immigrants, she now looked for a way to make some money.

Emma Lazarus was already famous. She began writing poetry as a teenager when her father privately printed her first book of poems in 1866. Her works included translations of Goethe, Heine (still considered the best in English), Dumas, Hugo, and Schiller. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a close friend who influenced her and to whom her poetry is dedicated.

As a leading American poet of the nineteenth century, she also happened to be exquisitely pretty, smart, outspoken, influential, and rich — just the sort the committee had in mind. More to the point, Lazarus was known for compassion.

The Liberty Committee approached her about writing a poem. At first, she refused.

Lazarus was involved in raising awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, victims of Russian pogroms following Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. The brutal violence or pogroms that descended on Russian Jews was the cause she cared about most fervently. Some convincing and a bit of metaphorical logic made her realize that the same fate awaited immigrants who arrived without a helping hand. About 1881, with the wave of immigration to the United States from European and Russian ghettoes, Lazarus took up the defense of persecuted Jews. It began her work on behalf of immigrant relief. She wrote a book of poems to this cause, The Songs of a Semite, which included her sonnet “The New Colossus.” It was chosen to be inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, the monument it celebrates a powerful American ideal: “Give me your tired, your poor,” the sonnet concludes, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus’s iconic lines were written in 1883 and donated to the Bartholdi Fund for the Statue of Liberty, called out to the old world, “Keep your ancient lands, your storied pomp,” and beckoned immigrants to the New with a promise to embrace: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Lazarus divided the world into two; the old chained to status, the new chained to poverty. Yet it was it the latter to whom she gave hope. With her contribution to the fundraising, the pedestal was built.

In 1892, a fortuitous coincidence took place. America’s first national immigration center for Europeans and others venturing to the New World opened called Ellis Island. It was conveniently located near Bedloe’s Island (renamed Liberty Island in 1956), and for 62 years, Lady Liberty stood guard over the 12 million immigrants who sailed into New York Harbor.

Lazarus’s poem found its metier.

The story of Ellis Island deserves mention. Named for Samuel Ellis, the merchant who sold it to New York State and then the federal government, the Army attempted to use the island “for the convalescence of immigrants” as early as 1847. Our nation’s immigration laws were a jigsaw puzzle of obscure and bureaucratic regulation. Finally, on April 11, 1890, the government ordered Ellis Island to be named the U.S.’s first federal immigration station. Notables who have arrived through Ellis island include bodybuilder Charles Atlas, actor Cary Grant, mafia boss Joe Bonanno, and author Ayn Rand. The success of immigrants still depends on resilience, entertaining the locals, occasionally skirting the law, and shrugging while carrying the world on broad shoulders.

The postscript to Ellis Island was a war of words between New York and New Jersey. Both claimed a right to the venerable landmark. As the locals know, there is no love lost between the two states. In college, my Brooklyn roommate was a professional bowler. He told me that a strike from the right side of the lane is called a “Jersey Strike.” I asked what do they call it in New Jersey?

He said, a “Brooklyn strike.”

Author at Forbes Magazine reception with Rudi Guiliani

Since Samuel Ellis first built his tavern, the two states have vied over who owns Ellis Island. In what could be called a literal “landmark” decision, the Supreme Court deemed it belonged mostly to New Jersey. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York informed the world of how he felt: ‘’No matter what the Supreme Court does — and I have great respect for the Supreme Court, and this ends it as a matter of law — they’re still not going to convince me that my grandfather, when he was sitting in Italy, thinking of coming to the United States, and on the shores getting ready to get on that ship in Genoa, was saying to himself, ‘Thank God, I’m coming to New Jersey.’ ‘’

In 1887, Lazarus penned her last book, a series of prose poems published under the title By the Waters of Babylon, before dying at age 37 from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on November 19. We know little about her other than her talent and ability to inspire the better angels of our nature. She did not live to see her poem on the pedestal. She never knew the impact Ellis Island would have on immigrants or their descendants. However, her contribution to the Statue of Liberty marks one of the implicit gestures of pure generosity in the history of humankind.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes