Thumbu Sammy, 1911

The SAADA 2020 calendar began January with a striking image. It was taken by photographer Augustus Sherman in 1911, part of a series depicting new Ellis Island arrivals. We don’t know much at all about the boy in the picture. Titled “Hindoo boy”, the subject is identified in Peter Mesenhöller’s “Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920” (c1905) p.94 from another print that bears a caption: Thumbu Sammy, aged 17, Hindoo ex SS ‘Adriatic’, April 14, 1911. 

Who was this boy, I wonder? He’s well dressed. Look at the gold-trimmed cap, the diamond earring, and the shawl wrapped about his shoulders. What would have sent a 17-year-old around the world on the SS Adriatic in 1911? Here was what happened in 1911 in his native India:

I wonder, was it plague that drove the boy? Or was he part of a resistance to British rule so he had to leave? Or was his wealthy family interested in sending him to an American university? And what became of him? Where did he go from Ellis Island in 1911? Where did he live and die? Is there anyone today who counts him among their ancestors?

So many unknowns. And a photographer who caught a face, a posture, and those remarkable details of clothing and jewelry and hair.

4 thoughts on “Thumbu Sammy, 1911

  1. It’s an incredible and incredibly uneasy story—one that speaks volumes to the racism and ableism of the time.

    Thumbu Sammy was born in Madras, India in 1895. Traveling with his brother Perumal, who had already been to the U.S. about 5 years earlier, Thumbu was making his first visit to the United States in 1911. But he and his brother were entering as “non-immigrant aliens”, not immigrants. There’s a reason for this: Thumbu and Perumal were under contract with Barnum and Bailey Circus to perform as “actors/circus freaks” for “exhibition purposes”. Barnum and Bailey also signed a $1000 bond for each of the brothers and three others traveling with them—guaranteeing that they would not become a public charge…and that they leave the U.S. before 12/31/1912. Their letter, sent to the Commissioner of Immigration just prior to Thumbu and Perumal’s arrival, states: “…these immigrants are coming here for a purpose distinctly apart from immigration. During their stay in this country, they will at no time be permitted to mingle with the general public. They will be housed by us and kept constantly under our supervision. We are prepared to execute any bond or undertaking that you may require and we will be prepared to furnish same immediately upon their arrival.”

    Thumbu and Perumal were detained and held for special inquiry at Ellis Island until representatives from Barnum and Bailey could vouch for the group and provide the bond agreements. After three days of detention, they were allowed entry to the U.S. on 17 April 1911.

    They stayed until November 1912, traveling around the U.S. for various circuses and sideshows. Perumal returned to the U.S. in 1914 and again in 1915, but it doesn’t appear that Thumbu accompanied him on these trips.

    Sherman made at least one more portrait of Thumbu at Ellis Island. In this photo, Thumbu stands with his brother and another member of their party.

    • Louis, thank you so much for filling this in for me. Can you give me references/sources for this incredible story ? I was moved and intrigued by Sherman’s photo but this account adds greater poignancy and raises even more questions.

  2. Yes, I’ll be happy to! I am working on a project that, in part, involves identifying some of the subjects of Sherman’s Ellis Island photos. Thumbu’s amazing portrait is one of the works that made me the most curious about who Sherman’s subjects were, why they were emigrating, and what became of them.

    5 April 1911 departure from the UK:

    14 April 1911 arrival at Ellis Island–



    Held for Special Inquiry (14-17 April):

    There are more photos and other documents that I can send to your email, if you like.

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