Land-sharks and their Prey

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER X (6) start of chapter

As voracious fish devour the smaller and helpless of the finny tribe, so did a host of human sharks and cormorants prey upon the unhappy emigrant, whose innocence and inexperience left him or her completely at their mercy; and scant was the mercy they vouchsafed their victims. These bandits—for such they literally were, notwithstanding that they did not exactly strike down their victims with pistol or with poignard—assumed many forms, such as brokers, runners, boarding-house keepers, commission agents, sellers of 'bogus' tickets, and others; and from their number and audacity they appeared to set all law and authority at defiance. To such an extent had their daring depredations been carried, that the Legislature, in 1846, appointed a Select Committee to investigate their practices. But, in their first annual Report, the Commissioners are compelled to acknowledge how little was the practical good resulting from the inquiry and its consequent disclosures; for they say—'It is a matter of almost daily observation by persons in the employ of the Commissioners, that the frauds exposed in the Report of the Select Committee, appointed last year to examine frauds upon emigrants, continued to be practised with as much boldness and frequency as ever. A regular and systematic course of deception and fraud is continually in operation, whereby the emigrant is deprived of a large portion of the means intended to aid him in procuring a home in the country of his adoption.'

To do the Legislature justice, it freely passed laws to guard the poor alien from 'those enemies of the emigrant' —agents, runners, forwarders, and brokers, and also invested the Commissioners with considerable powers; but the best intentions of the Legislature, and the most earnest exertions of the Commissioners, were baffled by unexpected obstacles; and it was not until after having encountered difficulties and borne with disappointments which would have daunted benevolence less courageous than theirs, that, in the year 1855, the Commissioners succeeded in securing the grand object of their persistent efforts; namely, the possession of an official landing-place for all the emigrants arriving at the port of New York. They were from the first fully alive to the importance of obtaining this landing-place; and in their second Report they express their regret that, being unable to obtain the use of a pier for this purpose, and consequently being unable to reach the emigrant before he falls amongst those who stand ready to deceive him, frauds, which formerly excited so much indignation and sympathy, are continued with as much boldness and frequency as ever.

The law also attempted to regulate the charges in boarding-houses, and protect the luggage of the emigrant from the clutches of the proprietors of these establishments; but it appeared only to render the lot of the emigrant one of still greater hardship; for what could no longer be legally retained was illegally made away with. In their Report for 1848, the Commissioners refer to the new system adopted in these houses:—'Of late, robberies of luggage from emigrant boarding-houses have become of frequent occurrence, so as to have excited the suspicion that in some instances the keepers of the houses are not altogether free from participation in the robbery. If the tavern keeper has reason to apprehend that the lodger will not be able to pay his bill, and knowing that the law prohibits his retaining the luggage, he may think it proper to secure his claim without law.'

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America