“Rosy Cheeked Girl the Cause of It All”: The English Teenager Who Nearly Toppled the Southern Immigration Movement


Vince Lowery

      On October 2, 1906, English teenager Hilda Barnes boarded a train in Charlotte, North Carolina, bound for Washington, D.C.  Stranded and penniless when she arrived, the local press publicized the plight of this innocent immigrant lost in a foreign land, but Barnes’s story changed frequently as local law enforcement officials scrutinized her claims.  The investigation into her travels resulted in the trial of three mill managers and their representative, all accused of violating alien contract labor laws by recruiting Barnes and roughly eighty other English men and women to work in textile mills in North Carolina.  In prosecuting these mill officials, the federal government challenged the various public and private campaigns to recruit foreign laborers to the South in the early twentieth century, threatening the southern immigration movement just as it reached its climax.[1]

The Washington Post published a series of articles about Barnes’s ordeal shortly after she arrived in the city.  She claimed that she had traveled from Manchester, England to New York City with her mother.  They searched for an uncle, but they did not know his address.  According to the teenager, they met her cousin, John Barnes, who convinced her to join him on a trip to Charlotte.  He abandoned her at the train station when they arrived in the Queen City.  Filling her story with colloquialisms that delighted the Post reporter, Barnes explained that “a bobby” paid for her ticket to Washington; the officer apparently assured her the metropolitan police department could help.  After she arrived in the nation’s capital, a police officer took her to the city’s House of Detention, a facility for women who had been “deserted by husbands or friends who may be for the time being within the District.”  The English teenager described her troubles to officials at the detention center, but they doubted her story.  They suspected that she had been “abducted and brought to America by someone who wished to realize on [sic] her abilities in a circus.”  According to the Post, Barnes previously performed an equestrian act in a circus that toured England, but she opted for more respectable employment in a factory.  While the newspaper expressed concern for her well-being, questions lingered.  A final admission prompted a federal investigation into her travels:  Barnes confessed that her name was in fact Edith Goode Elliotte (identified as Edith Good on the passenger list of the R. M. S. Carmania, which arrived at Ellis Island on September 20, 1906, and identified as Edith Goode in all subsequent reports) and that she had been recruited to work in a mill in Gastonia, North Carolina.[2]

Ill. 1: Postcard of the S.S. Carmania from the Maritime Digital Archive Encyclopedia (http://www.ibiblio.org/maritime/media/displayimage.php?album=10856&pid=31547#top_display_media).”

Federal officials suspected that Goode was one of “as many as 1000” English immigrants contracted to work in southern factories by labor recruiters.[3]  The Alien Contract Labor Law (1885), also referred to as the Foran Act, “made it ‘unlawful’ for any individual or firm to import or otherwise arrange for the importation of workers.”  The Knights of Labor had pressed for this legislation in 1885, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) lobbied for additional restrictions to protect native workers from foreign competition in the early twentieth century.[4]  In 1906, the AFL asked the Department of Commerce and Labor to investigate possible violations of the alien contract labor law by North Carolina mill officials and South Carolina’s Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Immigration, which pre-paid for the passage of 480 German and Belgian immigrants who arrived in Charleston one month after Goode appeared on the streets of the nation’s capital.  The State (Columbia, South Carolina) suggested that the English teenager was responsible for this “mighty row about the violation of immigration laws in North and South Carolina.”  Although South Carolina officials were absolved of any wrongdoing, the AFL continued to demand action to cease the importation of foreign labor by southern states.[5]

In November 1906, the Department of Justice received a Bureau of Immigration report implicating English mill worker and labor agent Thomas Costello, D. A. Tompkins Company’s general manager, Sumner B. Sargent, and Chadwick and Hoskins Mills president, E. A. Smith, and its secretary and treasurer, E. C. Dwelle, in a scheme to recruit English laborers illegally.  The Department of Justice charged these men with conspiring to circumvent alien contract labor laws.  When the trial began in February 1907, defense attorneys claimed that “hundreds and thousands of spindles [were] idle solely because labor could not be found to operate them,” conditions under which federal law permitted the recruitment of foreign labor.  Testifying on behalf of the prosecution, labor leaders, including United Textile Workers president John Golden, argued that qualified, native-born workers were readily available if mill owners paid proper wages and maintained safe working environments.  Despite these claims, the prosecution conceded the point to the defense.  Sargent advised his employer, immigration advocate Daniel Augustus Tompkins, that the government’s case had become “a hopeless wreck,” and the Department of Justice soon abandoned it.  Defense attorney Charles Tillett proclaimed that the outcome effectively negated alien contract labor laws and legitimized employers’ efforts to recruit workers abroad.[6]

Ill. 2: North Carolina Mills Postcard (n.d.), Courtesy of “Cotton Mills in New South Charlotte” (http://www.cmhpf.org/educationtextilehistory.htm)

Although the Costello case ended favorably, southern immigration advocates still feared federal intervention. Responding to a request made by the House Committee on Immigration the day before the trial began, President Theodore Roosevelt instructed Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte to assess the legality of the Palmetto State program.  Just as the government’s case against the mill men collapsed in early March, Bonaparte announced “that it is unlawful for a state government to pay the passage of intending immigrants or to assist immigration otherwise than by advertisement.”  This decision prohibited the primary means by which agents lured European laborers to the Carolinas.  Alarmed by this ruling, North and South Carolina immigration advocates met with Roosevelt, Bonaparte, and Secretary of Commerce and Labor Oscar Strauss at the White House one week later.  These meetings inspired Bonaparte to reverse his ruling and permitted states to pre-pay immigrants’ passage, thus undoing what the “buxom, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, English girl” supposedly began.[7]

Krystyn Moon, Bluford Adams, and David Voelker generously reviewed earlier versions of this essay and provided important suggestions to improve it, and Renee Ettinger, Lindsay Hahn, Daniel Richter, and Tom Cole provided valuable research assistance.  Moon agreed to host the essay on the Southeastern Immigration Blog and steered it across the finish line, preparing it for public consumption.

[1] On the southern immigration movement, see, for example, Rowland T. Berthoff, “Southern Attitudes Towards Immigration, 1865-1914,” Journal of Southern History 17, no. 3 (August 1951): 328-360; Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., “Strangers in the Southern Eden: The South and Immigration, 1900-1920,” in Ethnic Minorities in Gulf Coast Society, ed. Jerrell H. Shofner and Linda V. Ellsworth (Pensacola, Florida: Gulf Coast History and Humanities Conference, 1979), 1-24; Marcia G. Synnott, “Replacing ‘Sambo’: Could White Immigrants Solve the Labor Problem in the Carolinas?,” Proceeding of the South Carolina Historical Association (1982): 77-89; Erin Elizabeth Clune, “Black Workers, White Immigrants, and the Postemancipation Problem of Labor: The New South in Transnational Perspective,” in Global Perspectives on Industrial Transformation in the American South, ed. Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 199-228; J. Vincent Lowery, “‘Another Species of Race Discord’: Race, Desirability, and the North Carolina Immigration Movement,” Journal of American Ethnic History 35, no. 2 (Winter 2016): 32-59.
[2] “English Girl Is Stranded,” Washington Post, October 4, 1906, 10; “See Immigrant Plot,” Washington Herald, October 12, 1906, 3; “Was She Abducted?,” Washington Post, October 5, 1906, 4; “Girl Has Another Name,” Washington Post, October 7, 1906, 4; “Girl of Mystery Tells Her Story,” Washington Times, October 7, 1906, 10. On the House of Detention, see “The House of Detention,” Washington Evening Star, August 12, 1900, 12.  The Carmania’s passenger list has been digitized and made available on Ancestry.com.
[3] Washington Post apparently defied orders to withhold reports about Barnes’s story.  According to the Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury, federal officers feared that any public report would undermine their investigation into the southern immigration movement.  The Rhode Island newspaper suggested this apprehension was well-founded, announcing that “money has been sent to her in an effort to get [Goode] out of the reach of the authorities and put a stop to the investigation.” See “Washington Matters,” Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury, October 20, 1906, 4.
[4] On alien contract labor laws, see Charlotte Erickson, American Industry and the European Immigrant, 1860-1885 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 148-186; Gwendolyn Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 108-110, 194-198; Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 28-29; Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 194-196; Krystyn Moon, “On a Temporary Basis: Immigration, Labor Unions, and the American Entertainment Industry, 1880s-1930s,” Journal of American History 99, no. 3 (December 2012): 771-792.
[5] Although the AFL was primarily concerned with the influx of southern and eastern European and Asian immigrants, labor leaders’ hostility toward the northwestern Europeans in the Carolinas became evident as the cases unfolded.  On the AFL’s actions against the immigration work in the Carolinas, see “Federation of Labor Fighting Good Work,” The State, November 14, 1906, 1; “Much Ado about Immigration,” The State, November 19, 1906, 4; “Southern Immigration,” The State, November 27, 1906, 4; “Those English Girls,” Lumberton Semi-Weekly Robesian, December 21, 1906, 2; “Samuel Gompers on Immigration,” The State, December 21, 1906, 2; Zach McGhee, “Rosy Cheeked Girl the Cause of it All,” The State, March 10, 1907, 14; Samuel Gompers to Joseph Cannon, January 19, 1907, and Gompers to Theodore Roosevelt, March 6, 1907, both in The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 7: The American Federation of Labor Under Siege, 1906-1909, eds. Stuart B. Kaufman, Peter J. Albert, and Grace Palladino (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 154-155, 195-196.  On the federal review of the South Carolina program, see Berthoff, “Southern Attitudes toward Immigration,” 341; Synnott, “Replacing ‘Sambo,’” 79; Lowery, “‘Another Species of Race Discord,’” 35.
[6] “Those English Girls,” 2; “Cotton Mill Men Under Arrest?,” The State, November 29, 1906, 1; “Charlotte Men Acquitted,” Statesville Landmark, March 12, 1907, 1; Charles W. Tillett, “How the Celebrated Greensboro Case Against Certain Mill Men under the Alien Contract Labor Law Was Fought and Won,” American Industries, March 15, 1907, 9-11; “More about Those Immigration Cases,” Fibre and Fabric, March 30, 1907, 5; Sumner B. Sargent to Daniel A. Tompkins, March 7, 1907 (underlining in original), Daniel Augustus Tompkins Papers (#724), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC;  Lowery, “‘Another Species of Race Discord,'” 35, 53n15; The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 7, 186n14.  On Tompkins, see Erin Elizabeth Clune, “From Light Copper to the the Blackest and Lowest Type: Daniel Tompkins and the Racial Order of the Global New South,” Journal of Southern History 76, no. 2 (May 2010): 275-314.
[7] “Straus’s [sic] Reply Unsatisfactory,” Charleston News and Courier, February 27, 1907, 1; Samuel Gompers to Theodore Roosevelt, March 6, 1907 in The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume 7, 195-196; “Was Unlawful,” Wilmington Messenger, March 7, 1907, 1; “Immigration Gets a Jolt,” Charleston News and Courier, March 7, 1907, 1; “Held that State Cannot Pay Fare,” The State, March 7, 1907, 1; “State Passage for Immigrants,” Wilmington Morning Star, March 9, 1907, 8; “Foreign Labor for the South,” Wilmington Morning Star, March 12, 1907, 8; “State-Aided Immigration,” Wilmington Messenger, March 12, 1907, 1; “The President and Our Immigrants,” Charleston News and Courier, March 12, 1907, 4; “Immigration Question,” Wilmington Morning Star, March 13, 1907, 4; “Foreign Labor for South,” Wilmington Morning Star, March 14, 1907, 5; “Passage Money for Aliens,” Charleston News and Courier, March 14, 1907, 1; “New Competition for Negroes,” New York Times, March 26, 1907, 8.  Historian Rowland Berthoff argued that Bonaparte’s ruling forced “southern states … to abandon their fifty-year-old immigration campaigns” and that “the tightening of the contract labor law … killed the state governments’ programs for assisted immigration.”  The White House conferences, however, inspired the attorney general to reverse his decision against these initiatives.  See Berthoff, “Southern Attitudes toward Immigration,” 341, 358; Synnott, “Replacing ‘Sambo,’” 79; Lowery, “‘Another Species of Race Discord,’” 35, 44-45, 58n58.