Name changes #names


People who have been reading these messages for more than two years may recall that just before the Covid pandemic began, I had made a request to NARA to locate a document, RG 85, 52.271/6.  NARA is now sufficiently open to have responded to my request; the document is still missing and they believe the various searches I suggested would be futile, i.e., they weren't about to undertake them.
That said, in the last two years, I have come to believe this document is a response from the Immigration Bureau's Washington headquarters to what Ellis Island did in the MaryJohnson/Frank Woodhull situation.  The missing document is dated Nov., 1908, mere weeks after Mary/Frank's arrival in early October, and it directs Ellis Island not to repeat what they did in that case: replace Frank's listing with Mary's name.  That much I suspect will be uncontroversial.
However, we should recognize that this directive will result in Inspectors telling any immigrant who reports that the name in the listing isn't his/hers that the error cannot be corrected.  That means the listing will continue to match any documents derived from it, including the landing tag and medical inspection card -- it's possible the reason for the directive was to make unnecessary any work involved in correcting these derivative documents as well.  I find it eminently credible that an immigrant who has been told that the name (s)he has seen on his/her medical inspection card, and on his/her landing tag, and that cannot be changed on the manifest will describe this as "We were told at Ellis Island that our name is ...," thereby giving rise to the belief that their name had been changed against their will.  There is no barrier, even theoretically, to errors being made in the writing of the manifests.
This regulation would have been in effect from 1908 to sometime before 1923 (The end date comes from the manifest for the ship that brought my father to New York, which had 51 listings corrected.  The actual end date may be as early as 1917.), years accounting for a significant fraction of all immigrants.  Educated guesses as to the ages of these arrivals suggest this generation would have died off during the 1960s and 1970s, when NARA reported receiving requests for documentary evidence for the name-change narratives.  In turn, these requests prompted a question to Marian Smith at a training event she conducted for NARA in the 1990s, to which she responded that no such documents existed.  I have queried her through various channels about whether her belief in the meme is based on researching the issue, but she has never replied.  I can't come up with a reason not to if she had actual evidence that the meme is correct.
The "no involuntary name-changes" meme appears to be derived from this answer, but that is the logical error known as an argument from ignorance, whose best-known form is "Absence of evidence is evidence of absence."  In our context, that would read, "Absence of documentary evidence of involuntary name-changes is evidence that such changes did not occur."  None of the other dozen or so "proofs" for the meme holds up any better.  What I call the "Demonicus Snotgrubber" argument, that the mechanism behind the involuntary name-change narratives was that inspectors looked at immigrants and arbitrarily changed names on the spot, giving people they liked nice names, while those they didn't became "Demonicus Snotgrubber," has never been more than a straw man.  That this mechanism is a crock doesn't mean other mechanisms don't exist.
There is no case supporting the meme that involuntary name-changes could not happen, and now we have a second mechanism for how they could.  (The first appeared in a flow-chart in my article in Avotaynu, Vol.~34, \#1, Spring, 2018, p.~34.)   I hope readers appreciate the irony that a missing document on which Edward David Luft relies to substantiate his belief in the meme turned out to be the key to demonstrating that it is wrong.  The emperor is naked after all.
Yale Zussman