This Simple Puzzle Test Sealed The Fate Of Immigrants At Ellis Island

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 18, 2017 8:25 am

A wooden puzzle in the silhouette of a human head might look fun if the stakes weren't so high.

Historians at Smithsonian Magazine say this simple puzzle containing facial features broken into pieces was administered to immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. The goal was to weed out the "feeble-minded" and ensure that a "better class" of foreign-born people was ushered into U.S. citizenship. The puzzle is currently housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Feature Profile Test — the formal name for this puzzle — sprang out of an idealistic policy that was supposed to be fair, writes historian Adam Cohen. A doctor named Howard Knox invented it after officials struggled to administer IQ tests to immigrants because of issues with language and literacy.

"This was in some ways a progressive reform," Cohen says. "The idea that this would be a puzzle that no matter where you were born in the world, where you came from, people generally had the idea of what a face looked like, so it had a kind of democratic impulse behind it."

At the same time, the eugenics movement was informing U.S. immigration policy. Cohen says the eugenicists were worried the wrong types of people were coming into the country.

"They believed that in various ways we had to test and weed out the people who would bring the wrong genes," Cohen says. "That included trying to have fewer people from countries that were deemed to have worse genes, and then also using tests like this to at the individual level weed out people who were unintelligent, feeble-minded, unfit."

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It might look like fun if you didn't know the stakes were so high. A simple wooden puzzle forming a silhouette of a human head, the facial features broken into pieces - forehead, nose, mouth. But historians at Smithsonian Magazine say this simple puzzle was administered to immigrants on Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and the goal was to weed out the feeble-minded and make sure a better class of foreign-born people were ushered into citizenship. Journalist Adam Cohen writes about this for Smithsonian Magazine. He's here to talk more. Welcome to the program.

ADAM COHEN: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So this puzzle had a formal name, The Feature Profile Test. I have like - I don't have the puzzle, but I have some cut outs in front of me to simulate it. And I have to tell you, it was not as easy as I assumed it would be when I started putting it together. Can you describe what it looks like?

COHEN: Sure. It's kind of like a smushed up Mr. Potato Head made out of thin wood, seven pieces - an eye, a nose, a mouth and then an ear that's broken up into four separate pieces. And you have to assemble all these different parts. And you said it wasn't so easy, but you even were able to do it without having just come across the ocean in steerage. You speak English. So you can imagine for somewhat traumatized immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island what this puzzle might have meant.

CORNISH: And you write that this sprung out of an idealistic policy that was supposed to be fair. How did the inventor of this puzzle, a doctor named Howard Knox, believe it would work?

COHEN: There were good aspects to this and bad. Yet the good aspects were that prior to this, they had actually been doing IQ tests of immigrants and that was difficult because it required some facility either with English or with literacy in general, familiarity with answering direct questions and so forth. So yeah, this was, in some ways, a progressive reform - the idea that this would be a puzzle that no matter where you were born in the world, where you came from, people generally had the idea of what a face looked like. So it had a kind of democratic impulse behind it.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the context for all of this is the eugenics movement, right? You talk about how this actually informed American immigration policy at that time - in what ways?

COHEN: Well, so eugenics was the idea - eu genes a, from the Greek, a good birth - trying to use birth and selection of who reproduced to make a better human race. This was really the rage in the 1910s and 1920s. It was in magazines and newspapers. And states around the country were passing eugenic sterilization laws - forcible sterilization of people who were deemed to be unfit.

Immigration was another major focus of the eugenics movement. They were afraid - the eugenicists - that the wrong type of people were coming into the country. And they believed that in various ways we had to test and weed out the people who would bring the wrong genes. That included trying to have fewer people from countries that were deemed to have worse genes and then also using tests like this to, at the individual level, weed out people who were unintelligent, feeble-minded, unfit.

CORNISH: Now, this puzzle was administered as a test for just a few years, and you say what followed would be far worse. What did you mean? What period are we talking about?

COHEN: What happens later is this eugenics movement - it grows stronger, and it is more focused on immigration. And they actually succeed with other anti-immigrant groups in getting Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1924. That's the major law that governed immigration to the United States in the 20th century, and it specifically was aimed at cutting off immigration from Eastern Europe, particularly Eastern European Jews, Italy, Asia. Their genes were not as good, people thought. And this was all talked about in Congress. The bill was talked about in eugenic terms. So what that meant actually is that people didn't get a chance to take a test like this. They were just not let in the country.

So the 1924 Act, of course, came at a very bad time for Jews in Eastern Europe. The Nazis were rising. And when they wanted to flee to America, that was the law that kept them out. So as terrible as this test was in many ways and the impulse behind it, there are many people in Eastern Europe fleeing the Nazis who would have welcomed the opportunity to take this test because at least it was a chance of getting in.

CORNISH: Journalist Adam Cohen is the author of the book, "Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, And The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck." His article on the jigsaw puzzle is in smithsonianmag.com. Thanks so much.

COHEN: Thank you.

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