Learn about Life in the 1920s


CRASHING America's back gate,"large numbers of unwanted aliens seek to enter the United States illegally every year, we read, and it is the business of the Border Patrol, "a small group of trained men, semi-military in organization, functioning under the direction of the Immigration Service," to oppose them. An adventurous life these officers lead. "Along river banks, in arid deserts, on wind-swept hills," writes Stewart Robertson, "they maintain their vigil, to halt and arrest men who may submit tamely to capture or fight desperately for freedom. The Patrol never knows which." As he tells us, "the most active area covered by the officers is undoubtedly District 11, embracing Detroit and its vicinity," and in the New York Herald Tribune he substantiates the assertion by reporting an interview with the Patrol's national supervisor, whose "territory runs from Blaine, Washington, to Eastport, Maine, with parts of the Atlantic coast, particularly Florida, thrown in." The Major, "a brisk military figure even in civilian clothes," called Detroit "the hot-spot of the entire stretch," and continued:

The reasons are that the adjacent Canadian area is easily reached by numerous railroads, and the terrain is flat, thereby presenting no geographical hazards.

"Concealment prior to the attempted entry is a minor problem, due to the many little foreign quarters, and if a man does slip through, he is quickly swallowed up in our still larger settlements. You must remember that most of these men are not native-born Canadians, but Europeans who have come to Canada to use it as a spring-board for their dive into the land of plenty.

"Now, take a look at the wide-open spaces on a map. An alien trying to get across from Alberta to Montana stands a fine chance of being lost or frozen. Furthermore, strangers are soon spotted in the sparsely populated provinces and States. The same holds good for the New Brunswick-Maine line, and where Manitoba and Minnesota come together.

"The Windsor-Detroit district offers no such handicaps. Here we have a situation that is unparalleled anywhere—a twenty-mile strip with Grosse Pointe, Detroit, River Rouge, Ecorse, and Wyandotte, separated by a narrow stream, the center of which is the international boundary, from Sandwich, Riverside, Ford City, Walkerville, Windsor, Ojibway, La Salle, and Amherstburg. The country is as flat as your hand, and as nature doesn't offer any help, we are dependent entirely on the human element for defense.

"We have to fight human nature as well. An alien may be caught and deported and, when he returns home, tell the story of his failure. But for each one who listens to him, a dozen will pay more heed to the rosy promises of the smuggler round-up."

According to the Major, "the most favored form of smuggling is to load the aliens in a boat and row them across." This method is preferred because it "enables the real smuggler to stay on land and hire some river-front tramp to handle the oars." Some especially prosperous smugglers "drive their own motor-boats, towing a boatful of the hopeful. In the event of a chase, the connecting rope is quickly cut and the speedboat heads for home, leaving the hapless foreigners adrift." The Major's account of the smuggling business runs on:

"There doesn't seem to be any fixt fee, as the aliens are sized up and charged accordingly. If some of them are foolish enough to show a considerable amount of money when paying for the trip, that's their hard luck.

"The smuggler, who isn't much of a sportsman, adopts one of two procedures:

He either robs them at the point of a gun before midstream is reached, or he lands at one of the numerous little islands that dot the river, goes through his quarry there, and then tells them that they are in the United States, anyway, and should be thankful. Needless to say, the forlorn passengers are spotted and arrested the following morning.

"Another popular method is concealment in freight-cars which pass through the Windsor-Detroit railroad tunnel.

"I remember half a dozen men who had been put in an empty refrigerator car in the Windsor yards. The smuggler had closed the doors and twisted a used car-seal through the hasps to make it look official. On arrival in Detroit one of our men went down the line pounding on the cars, and when he reached this particular one, he was answered with imploring yells. Opening the doors, he discovered some extremely frost-bitten specimens, as, altho the car contained no freight, the iceboxes at either end were filled to the brim.

"I've known aliens to come through the Detroit tunnel, the Ste. Claire tunnel at Port Huron, and even on the car ferries disguised as workmen, wearing overalls and carrying dinner-buckets.

"Airplanes are used, but not to any extent. Only a couple of passengers can be carried, and planes are not yet common enough to pass unnoticed.

"Taxi smuggling is often tried up around the Quebec-Vermont line. The driver, possessor of a bona-fide identification card which gives him permission to travel between the United States and Canada, will load up with some customers at Montreal. Shortly before reaching the boundary line, his passengers are told to get out, make a detour through some woods, and rejoin him at a point on the highway over in Vermont. Usually the aliens are discovered wandering dejectedly about, as the driver, receiving fares in advance, cares little about completing the bargain.

"I've seen Chinese mired in the middle of the Rio Grande waiting patiently for relief or capture," said Major Davenport, reflectively. "And I remember a Spaniard running aliens from South America to Marco, Florida, whose cargo wanted to cut him to pieces, and very nearly did. He had robbed them before landing, and then he was unfortunate enough to steer straight into our net."

Some Greeks, working sponge fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, perfected what the Major calls "one of the neatest schemes we uncovered." He said:

"It appeared that the fishing fleet ranged all over the Gulf, and at certain points Natives of Yucatan and Central America would come out in fruit boats to be taken aboard. In turn they were transferred to the supply boat or to small sloops which landed them in the vicinity of the Grand Pass, in Louisiana. From there they would make their way on foot through the rice-fields of Plaquemines Parish to New Orleans.

"So you see," concluded the Major, "that it is a matter of unceasing vigilance with us. Yet we meet opposition from within. Some manufacturers want hordes of cheap labor; mushroom towns, through their chambers of commerce, cry for more population, and, strangest of all, many of our educators, paid from the public purse, champion the cause of all and sundry who knock at or crash our gates. A study of a half dozen of our deportees might open their eyes more than a little. We have no time to engage in Utopian theory when we are dealing with actualities."

The Major was entirely right, thinks Mr. Robertson, who tells us:

The average catch stacks up as pretty poor stuff. The offscourings of a dozen nations, the worst types from Southeastern Europe and Western Asia, many infected with foul disease, are returned to their land of origin during the course of a year. And the criminal element comes ready-made, for certain countries in the south of Europe give lawbreakers the option of imprisonment or leaving the country, and there isn't any doubt which they will choose or where they will go.

Steamship companies have been suspected of aiding these thugs to get away, and many a foreign liner in an American port is sure to have a cluster of rowboats hovering around it. It would be difficult to estimate how many criminals have squirmed through portholes and slid down ropes in order to be rowed to safety.

The most colorful smuggling episode was that engineered by Tong Nan, steerage steward of the President Lincoln. Ten Chinese came aboard at Hongkong, but no one knew it. The Orientals were concealed in coffins and drest in their best robes of flowered silk. Once afloat, the supposed corpses took turns at getting a little exercise, but one of them was a bit slow in hurrying back to his wooden kimono when Tong Nan sounded the alarm at Honolulu. Consequently, the ten voyagers spent a year in an Hawaiian prison and were then sent back to China. Tong Nan is still a guest of the Government."

After his talk with the Major, Mr. Robertson interviewed George T. Montague, assistant superintendent of the Border Patrol for the Detroit district, who had this to say:

"Charlie McCarthy was one of our most important prisoners. He had his hangout over in Windsor, and naturally had come to the attention of our undercover men there; in fact, he was a public character. Nothing covert about McCarthy. He swaggered around town drumming up business, but nobody could get anything on him. One day the Windsor Chief of Police had him in his office for questioning, and I happened to drop in. As soon as he spotted me, McCarthy, who was over six feet and a 200-pounder, began to brag about his success at running aliens.

'I've been dodging you guys for a long time.' he said, and last year alone I made $18,000. If you crowd me, I'll shoot my way out, and you'll never take me alive.'

"Well, I let him talk, but one of our men trailed him all that day and sent over word that two aliens, just off the Toronto train, were hiding in McCarthy's shack on the waterfront. He had also discovered the address of the house where they were to be delivered on West End Avenue in Detroit. I had the place shadowed, and received a call when the party arrived, so I went down there and found a taxi with the motor idling out in front. That looked like a quick getaway was on the cards, so I sneaked through the alley and came in. at the back door. I heard a voice or two, and I tried not to make any noise, but the door hinges were loose, and all of a sudden it swung open. Four men were sitting at a table, and one of them was Mac. He jumped all of a sudden and grabbed his gun, but I flashed mine first.

"I threw him a pair of bracelets and told him to put them on while I covered the others. Then he started to crawfish. 'Don't make me do that,' he begged. 'Be a good fellow and give me a chance. Let me run and then shoot at me.' There was nothing doing on that, and I handcuffed myself to him. You see, I figured he might start something yet, and if so, he'd have to settle with me first or drag me along with him. Sure, we got the aliens easy enough. They weren't armed and just stood there looking on. They're mostly like that, once they're caught—kind of dumb and sheeplike. Charlie's down in Leavenworth now, doing two years."

Another case—that of the aviator, Virgil Simmons:

" Simmons made quite a splash for a while, being free from suspicion, as he was manager of Packard Field, an aviation depot about five miles inland from Grosse Pointe.'

"However, our Inspector Adams began to work on the theory that he was transporting aliens from some point in Canada, far away from the river. When the trail got hot we were tipped off, and Packard Field was put under surveillance. Adams finally located the starting-point in Ontario, and after hiding in a water-filled ditch for most of the night, he sent word that a blue plane was coming across.

"We were waiting for it. When it landed, out jumped Simmons, followed by a white man and a Chink. These two beat it for a car that was waiting and driven by a fellow named Lewis Stewart, but our boys climbed on the running-board and grabbed the three of them. I chased Simmons, who ran into one of the hangars. When I caught him, he flashed a deputy sheriff's gold badge. It was his own and perfectly good, but it didn't get him anything."

Mr. Robertson wanted to learn the Patrol's numerical strength, but got no information on that point, and concluded that a larger force was needed. As he puts it:

"The quotas may be full, but a whisper spreads through the underworld like widening ripples. Led by the smuggling rings, a new army of undesirables is quickly formed and advances to the attack."

Source: The Literary Digest, October 1, 1927