In the last year, thousands of minors have been intercepted crossing the border with Mexico; none has been treated in the media like Benjamin Axelrod, my wife’s great-grandfather and possibly the most persistent immigrant in American history.
Axelrod was born in 1894 or 1895 in Russian Podolia (now part of Ukraine). He eventually operated a dishware business in Pittsburgh and retired to Florida, where he died in 1973 as a successful immigrant Jewish businessman, like so many others.
But when my mother-in-law began to research her family history last year, she discovered that his story was much more remarkable: Her grandfather had once been the famous “boy stowaway,” hailed in newspapers across the country for his relentless struggle to become an American.
On Dec. 3, 1907, The New York Times reported that Axelrod, then 12, was being held in the detention room at Ellis Island after making it to New York on his own for the seventh time. With no relatives in the United States to take him in, he had been deported back to Europe after his six previous stowaway trips, which added up to 13 journeys across the Atlantic in less than two years. Axelrod’s arrivals in New York had become so regular that Ellis Island officials reportedly greeted him as an old friend.
The officers on the Russian steamships on which Axelrod hid knew to look out for him. Even the laborers on the piers were said to be on alert. It made no difference. As soon as a steamship carrying Axelrod home made its first stop in Europe, he would hop off and sneak onto the next ship headed back to New York, sometimes hiding in the ship’s coal bunkers. “Back and forth he goes, a human shuttlecock between Rotterdam and New York,” one newspaper wrote.
Axelrod made his initial journey from the Latvian port at Liepaja on the Baltic Sea. Most of the many newspaper stories written about him between 1907 and 1909 suggest that he left home because his parents were too poor to feed a large family. One article describes Axelrod’s vision of America as a place where people were so rich they ate white bread at every meal. My mother-in-law’s research hasn’t uncovered the specifics of Axelrod’s family circumstances, but the brutal pogroms in Podolia at the time and the severe legal restrictions on Russian Jews would have been reason enough to flee.
Some of the articles about Axelrod include anecdotes that may well be exaggerated. One account has him locked in leg irons, diving out of a porthole in a failed attempt to escape another return trip to Europe. But there’s little doubt he suffered a great deal on his journeys. A June 1907 record from a Russian steamship listed Axelrod as a stowaway and added that he was “cruelly treated.” A 1908 newspaper report describes him being led off another ship shackled and half-starved.
Axelrod’s seventh trip to New York looked as if it would be his last. Just two days after The New York Times announced his arrival, The Washington Post reported that a New York tailor had agreed to take custody of him. But in February 1908, reports surfaced that Axelrod, now referred to as the “champion stowaway,” was back at Ellis Island. The tailor apparently found Axelrod “incorrigible” and turned him over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
That April the Sun newspaper followed up with a story noting that Axelrod had participated in a Passover Seder held for 36 Jewish detainees at Ellis Island. The would-be immigrants sat at a long table against the wall under a huge American flag. Axelrod read the Four Questions “and the rabbi answered him with an intoned narrative of the deliverance from Egypt and the long, wearisome journey to the promised land.” Two of the detainees wept, but, according to the article, by the end of the evening everyone seemed happy “except Benjamin Axelrod, who is to be torn again from the shores that he loves.”
Had Axelrod been 16, he probably would have been allowed to remain in America. Given how much attention his story received, it’s perhaps surprising that an exception wasn’t made, especially considering that Robert Watchorn, the commissioner of immigration for the Port of New York, had taken a personal interest in the boy stowaway. One article said Watchorn, himself an immigrant, even gave the boy an overcoat.
If Watchorn offered a sympathetic ear, he must also have regarded Axelrod as a headache. The policy was to discourage stowaways by deporting them. Axelrod was making a mockery of the law.
Sometime early in 1909, Watchorn sent Axelrod back to Europe, reportedly with a warning that he would never again be allowed to step foot on American soil. Watchorn should have known better. By March, the New York Herald reported that Axelrod had made it back as far as Canada and was heading to New York. “Watchorn in Despair” the article’s subheadline blares.
Axelrod’s stowaway story comes to a close on May 19, 1909. On that day The New York Times ran a brief under the headline “Can’t Keep This Stowaway Out.” A second article on the same page revealed that Watchorn had resigned over an unrelated investigation. Deporting Axelrod, who was by then close to 16, likely wasn’t a priority for the new commissioner.
On June 6, 1919, Axelrod became a U.S. citizen at a moment when Jews in Podolia and surrounding areas were being murdered by the tens of thousands. He would go on to run the Dorlexa China Co. on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh. One of his seven great-grandchildren recently argued and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
My favorite of the boy stowaway articles is a 1907 editorial that ran in the Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper. Headlined “We Need Boys Like Benjamin Axelrod,” it paints his attempts to sneak into the country not as a flouting of the law but as a profound testament to his belief in America and its institutions. More than a hundred years later, that perspective feels strangely new.
Sam Apple teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps” and “American Parent.” A version of this article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.