We’ve all heard stories about family names that were “changed at Ellis Island” (where immigrants coming to New York were processed a century ago); allegedly, officials would change foreign-sounding names to something easier for Americans to deal with. Well, those stories are all the bunk. Philip Sutton, of the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy at the New York Public Library, has written an informative post on the subject, showing that “Names were not changed at Ellis Island. … Inspectors did not create records of immigration; rather they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship’s passenger list, or manifest. … The manifest was presented to the officials at Ellis Island when the ship arrived. If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists.” People sometimes changed their name before making the journey; “[m]ore commonly, immigrants would change their names themselves when they had arrived in the United States.”
But don’t just absorb that nugget of information and move on. The main reason I’m posting this is the astounding story of Frank Woodhull, told in the latter part of Sutton’s account. You owe it to yourself to read it. As Monk used to say, “You’ll thank me later.”


  1. Oh, that’s why today’s males feel effeminate when they gauge the amount of clothes they got 🙂 ! Thanks LH. All my relatives who wentthrough Ellis Island had their Jewish names tweaked, but exactly at what point in time, we are left to wonder?

  2. All my relatives who went through Ellis Island had their Jewish names tweaked
    Are these “Russian” names ? What makes them recognizable as “Jewish” ? Are they just Russian transliterations of “Goldstein” etc ? Was there in Russia something like the 19C Prussian Judenedikt ?

  3. Is that a sepia photo of two officials sitting with Frank in an office? There’s no caption, but it’s sort of implied.

  4. Maybe not, since the young person is clean-shaven. Woodhull wrote: “I came to this country a young girl and went west to make my way. For fifteen years I struggled on. The hair on my face was a misfortune.” Was Woodhull hirsuta et horrida ? Or does she mean that the lack of hair on her face was a misfortune ?
    Perhaps she was a man after all, pretending to be a woman dressed like a man. It is not explicitly reported that her claim was verified: “Woodhull told the surgeon ‘Oh, please don’t examine me!’ She pleaded. ‘I might as well tell you all. I am a woman, and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.'”

  5. Stu, I’m certainly no expert but surely -stein is originally German rather than Jewish? In other words the name was a German coinage that integrated (or distinguished) Jews in a German community of Zimmermanns and Schmidts. Names that were originally Jewish must be versions of the biblical ones such as Levi or Abraham.

  6. Crown, maybe “Goldstein” is a bad example. You tell me what counts with you as a “Jewish name” in English – supposing you do have such a category – and you’ll have what I’m asking about (or rather its Russian equivalent) !

  7. Oh no, I wasn’t criticising your choice. I was really just wondering about the origin & international history of what must have been a German coinage. I’m not sure if a transliteration of “Goldstein” exists in Russian. Off the top of my head I can think of Moses Ginzburg, the Jewish Russian Constructivist architect (who invented a genius apartment-building layout for which Le Corbusier usually gets the credit). Artur Rubinstein was Jewish and Polish (and Poland was in the Russian Empire at the time of his birth in Lodz).

  8. Mr Crown: There are rollover captions.

  9. marie-lucie says

    I don’t see why anyone needs to doubt that “Mary Johnson” was born female but developed some secondary male characteristics which made life difficult for her until she decided to pass herself off as a man, which she did quite successfully. “Hair on her face” does not necessarily mean a full beard. An amount of hair that would be considered sparse on a man’s face would be quite noticeable on a woman’s face. And if she was actually a man, why should she object to a doctor examining h., believing h. to be a man?

  10. Well, there’s certainly a Russian transliteration for Eisenstein.

  11. 1) I had long suspected that the Ellis Island story was at least partly bunk. Henry Ford wins again.
    2) Some years ago I saw a letter in one of the British papers from a chap complaining that his family’s name had been changed at Ellis Island, and that as an example of rampant anti-semitism it had been changed to “Fink”. A letter in reply was quite unreasonably courteous, but did explain that “Fink” was German for Finch.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Also, a man passing off as a woman would have had a very limited choice of jobs, and those poorly paid, as Mary found out. Frank was able to make a good living as a man, working in occupations which were closed to women. If this person was a man to begin with, what would be the benefit of passing as an unattractive woman for more than fifteen difficult years?

  13. Are these “Russian” names ? What makes them recognizable as “Jewish” ?
    They’re basically the standard “Jewish” names familiar all over Europe (and, of course, the US): Kantor, Shapiro, Kogan, lots and lots of names ending in -shtein, etc. etc. Russian Jews were (some generations back) Polish and Lithuanian Jews before the Russian Empire expanded to absorb them (and confine them in the Pale of Settlement).

  14. They’re basically the standard “Jewish” names familiar all over Europe
    In the Pale, no surnames were recognized by the Russian Imperial govt. until 1860s, when everybody suddenly was forced to get a surname. Some took the historic names of famous Jews of the past or invented pretty noble-like names of the -schtein/-berg variety (as LH noted), others made their street names official, and a few holdouts refused to accept any name, and were officially named “Unknown” (like the ancestor of famous sculptor Ernst Neizvestny).
    But I meant _first_ rather than _family_ names being Americanized on arrival. Of the Minsk Bogins branch of my family, Motka/Mordechai turned Mark and Moshe/Moses turned Morris etc., and the family was like, “it wasn’t like these guys turned their backs on their heritage, it was all those pesky Ellis Island clerks!”
    “Mere” spelling changes were sometimes atrocious too. I’ve just blogged about a German family which immigrated to Texas in the 1840s – there the founder Nicholaus Zürcher is officially called Nic Zerger just 4 years later.

  15. > Motka/Mordechai turned Mark and Moshe/Moses turned Morris etc.
    Can’t help but think of the joke:
    Три еврея пришли к священнику менять имена. Священник говорит:
    – Ты, Мойша, будешь Михаил. И однозвучно и однозначно.
    – Ты, Борух, будешь Борис. И однозвучно и однозначно.
    – А ты, Сруль, будешь Акакий. Не однозвучно, но однозначно.

  16. Ha!

  17. John Emerson says

    I know a Thomas, a Phillips, and a McNellis of Russian descent. If the manifest list was in Cyrillic, maybe they just faked it. Only the Philips was Jewish.
    On the other hand, I don’t think that eny of the transport ships were Russian.

  18. I know what this reminds me of! John Kerry passing himself off as Irish.

  19. In a 2010 NY Times review of name changes “then and now”, you can find i.a. an anectode of Mr. Samuel Weinberg’s name change petition “because of the associated stigma” denied by a judge whose name was … Jacob Weinberg.
    Almost two million Russian subjects went through Ellis Island, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some of them whose name actually got changed there. But I guess it must have been a strong exception. In other popular emigration destinations of the time, though, the names of admitted immigrants had to conform, by law. In Argentina, for example. So I guess it was only natural for the new US immigrants to use the same explanation of their name changes, and to write back home that they changed names “because they were made to”.

  20. What’s the joke? GT says “monotonous and unambiguous”, which can hardly be right, can it?

  21. My ex-father-in-law, who was Jewish, and born and brought up in Vienna. was called Rosenthal, but trained as an actor and followed the Middle European theatrical tradition of taking a stage name, changing Rosenthal for professional purposes to Ranke. He fled Austria after the Anschluss and managed to get to Britain, where, asked by officialdom what his name was, decided to drop Rosenthal altogether, and replied “Ranke”. This was recorded as “Rank”, probably under the influence of the then well-known businessman J Arthur Rank, and that’s what he became. One of his other sons-in-law is the sculptor and medallist Ian Rank-Broadley, whose initials can be seen just under the bust of the Queen in the latest editions of British coinage.

  22. To my astonishment, dreaded USCIS website provides a selection of weird, funny, or simply instructive 1915-1917 name-correction document scans. Most of the letters leave it an absolute mystery how these names ended up being incorrect in the first place. “It just happened somehow that my Syrian client Sam, whose father’s surname was Amber, ended up recorded as Salim Bahash. Could you please correct this unfortunate mistake and make him Sam Amber?” – WTF?
    Asszony – Miazaroz
    Diamond – Cohen
    Zakotsky – Shukowsky

  23. I was once taught by a Professor Kemball. I assumed that his name had originated as a Morningside pronunciation of Campbell.

  24. Kimble/Kemble is an English locational surname from Kemble in Gloucestershire.

  25. What’s the joke?
    Three Jews came to the clergyman [not sure how to render this in this context] to change their names. The clergyman says:
    “You, Moishe, will be Mikhail. It sounds the same and means the same thing.
    “You, Borukh, will be Boris. It sounds the same and means the same thing.
    “And you, Srul, will be Akakii. It doesn’t sound the same, but it means the same thing.”
    The joke is that Srul (in fact a variant of Israel) sounds, in Russian, as if it’s related to срать [srat’] ‘to shit,’ and Akakii (in fact from Greek Ἀκακιος) sounds like кака [kaka], in Russian as in many other languages a childish word for ‘shit.’ (The name Akakii was immortalized by Gogol in “The Overcoat.”)

  26. Thank you, O Hat.

  27. “Kimble/Kemble is an English locational surname from Kemble in Gloucestershire.” Thank you, John. I promise to make no more bad jokes hereabouts. Until next time.

  28. Asszony > Miazaroz looks to me like a mistrading of European handwriting.

  29. *misreading

  30. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    not sure how to render this in this context
    Well, the version of the joke I’ve heard had it that the three Jews wanted to adopt Christianity: which is why they came to see the local pop rather than, say, a clerk at a registry office or smth.
    Anyway, a great many Russian and Soviet Jews (including e.g. both my grandmothers) changed their names to more Russian- or European-like ones without going to Ellis island or, indeed, ever setting foot abroad – just to try to make their life easier in a significantly anti-Semitic environment. Conversely, deciphering and exposing such assumed names – both real and imaginary – has always been a favourite pastime of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, from Serge Nilus to this day.

  31. Asszony > Miazaroz looks to me like a mistrading of European handwriting
    Hard to imagine… This Joseph Asszony b. 1883, resident of Passaic NJ (immigrated soon after his father’s 1896 naturalization at the age of 13) is attested in genealogy data, and his father seems to be Janos indeed (that would be John in the U.S.); their village seems to be in Hungary near Slovakian and Ukrainian borders. The etymology of the not-so-rare name is cool, meaning “Women” but apparently derived from Ossetian “Princess”.
    But there is no Miazaroz anywhere in the census data, nor any Joseph with any other last name born in Hungary with the right month of birth and living in New Jersey in 1900. Therefore I am not even ready to believe that the story told the truth and that such John Miazaroz ever existed in any documents. I suspect that the letter intended to cover up some other kind of irregularity, because in 1910, Joe Asseany b. 1883 is found in Passaic NJ, living there without family, but with immigration year given as 1904 rather than 1896.

  32. John Emerson says

    Many names that seem stereotypically Jewish to Anglophones, Russians, etc. are also German names. And even an American Jew might not know that Wiener and Herzog can be Christian names.

  33. @Dmitry Pruss: If your remarks are intended to contest my guess, I can’t follow them at all. But it certainly is cool the way these Sarmatian words get swept into central Europe. Can we be sure it’s not Iazygian, I wonder?

  34. So ‘Srul’ has nothing to do with the Russian name ‘Cyril’ then, Language?

  35. Nothing at all. (The Russian name is actually Kirill, which helps emphasize the difference.)

  36. David Marjanović says


    Nikolaus. Kappa and chi are only confused at the beginnings of words in German.

    But it certainly is cool the way these Sarmatian words get swept into central Europe. Can we be sure it’s not Iazygian, I wonder?


    So ‘Srul’ has nothing to do with the Russian name ‘Cyril’ then, Language?

    Speaking of kappa… Cyril is Кирилл, or in pre-1917 spelling Кѵриллъ.

  37. D.M. this “Nicholaus” might have a misspelling too but that’s how it appeared in the ship manifest – and btw he was French citizen, although obviously a German speaker.
    You mean Jassian doesn’t work as a source because they came to Pannonia too late?
    Roger C – sorry if my point didn’t get across. I was trying to show that Joseph Asszony was a real person who left a trail of records. And these records make me think that he made up the Miazoroz story because he wasn’t, after all, eligible for citizenship as a minor child of a naturalized immigrant.

  38. marie-lucie says

    This is not about a change of name, but still relevant, I think. Last year in researching some obscure details about my father’s family tree I was led to two persons who went (or apparently fled) to New York in 1906. There is at least one American website devoted to finding Americans’ immigrant relatives which shows scans of ship’s manifests. It is quite interesting to read those, and to see the type of information that passengers had to provide, plus sometimes other added details they volunteered to the ship’s personnel. Since the information was entered by hand, and sometimes corrected by different hands (as in the Mary Johnson-Frank Woodhull case), it is often difficult to decide on the correct spelling of names, even assuming that the passengers knew how to spell them in their own languages, something which cannot be taken for granted even if the words are written in the Latin alphabet.

  39. @Dmitry Pruss: Thanks. I was being dense, I guess.
    @David Marjanovic: Interesting. But I was thinking of the Iazyges who entered the Pannonian plain in Roman times, with whom these later people seem to have a doubtful relationship:

  40. marie-lucie says

    foreign names (not) changed at Ellis Island
    If foreign names were not in fact changed by the immigration officials at Ellis Island, it is still most probable that the names written on the ship’s manifest were read and pronounced by those English-speaking officials as best they could in front of the bearers of those names. Perhaps some of the immigrants who heard their names distorted assumed that those distorted names, “assigned by immigration officials”, were to be their own in the new country. This could explain why so many people later insisted that the officials were responsible for the changes, while records show that there was no policy to force people to change their names.

  41. An old acquaintance of mine whose surname is Shemitz (not this one) claims that whatever his original surname was, was lost due a transposition of the “Surname” and “City of origin” columns in a register, the latter being Chełmnitz.

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