Immigrants Needing Protection from Themselves? The Padrone System in Boston’s North End

By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services

In the late nineteenth century the Reverend Gaetano Conte created a scrapbook about the founding of the Society for Protection of Italian Immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts. The scrapbook, titled Societies for the protection of Italian immigrants: documents and illustrations, 1894-1906,  is a unique collection of notes, letters, newspaper clippings, annual reports, and photographs kept by Conte during his years in Boston and through his return home to Italy.

Interestingly this organization was not formed with the intention of protecting the newly arriving Italian Immigrants from Americans or other immigrants, but from fellow Italian immigrants! Why was there such a need as described by the Reverend and the inhabitants of Boston’s North End? What were the Italian Immigrants exposed to that other immigrants were not? What was it that put fear and anger in the hearts of families and young men when they arrived on American shores? The answer to each question is the same: The Padrone.

The Padrone System was a network that began in the towns of Italy and spread to the cities and towns of America. The Padrone -from the Italian word for manager or boss- were labor brokers. These were men who victimized their fellow countrymen as they arrived lost and alone in a foreign land. The new immigrants were in need of guidance, guidance that the Padrones would provide…at a price. The Padrone would offer employment opportunities to young men in Italy, often promising them safe passage and housing. The Padrone also offered banking for the immigrants; providing them with a “safe” place to save the money they earned and a way to “send” money home to Italy. Other Padrone would simply solicit Italian men who were already in America with the prospect of a “great” new job; all they had to do was agree to go to Maine for a year…

The degree of corruption varied, but the Padrone always profited from the relationship. Passage from Italy was on ships owned by companies with whom they had contracts. Housing was poor tenement apartments shared among many immigrants in sub-human standards.  The jobs they offered in America were often extremely hard with very little pay. The Padrone “banks” would often make large portions of the immigrant’s savings disappear for various fees. The money the immigrants would try to send home to their families in Italy would often never arrive. And the “great” new jobs would often be far from their new homes in Boston, such as in the woods of Maine where they would labor endlessly under the Padrone, often without seeing the wages they had been promised. The Italian immigrants often found themselves lost and confused in this new country; they couldn’t speak the language, they didn’t understand the customs and they were often uneducated. So the services of the Padrone seemed the only choice they had to survive; they felt they had no one else to help them.

The Immigration Act of 1864, supposedly to encourage immigration, created the opportunity for Padrones in America; it allowed manufacturers to bring in a cheap foreign labor force under contract, hence needing a middleman or labor broker to negotiate between the laborers and the employers. Although largely unheard of, the Padrone Act of 1874 tried to stop the padrone system to protect immigrants from “involuntary servitude.”  

Rev. Conte came to the United States in 1893 to help his fellow Italians who had moved to America. Upon arriving in America and beginning his work here, the Reverend began to keep records of the social situation of the Italian immigrants. He found the Italian immigrants needed more than just their souls saved, and the Reverend was not going to allow his people to suffer. He became the superintendent of the Boston Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. He was also involved in the North End Italian Mission, the Association for Protecting Italian Workmen, and the Society for Protection of Italian Immigrants.

Rev. Conte’s work with Italian Immigrants in Massachusetts was pioneering and heroic. His notes are aptly named after the Society that he created. The revered was not only interested in protecting Italians from the Padrone; he also sought to improve schooling, housing and health care.  The collection here at the MHS covers many aspects of the immigrants’ lives, social, political, religious and moral. It illustrates elements of the social aspects of immigration and life in the North End along with observations of religious, moral and ethical issues. It also contains photographs, illustrations and legal records, annual reports and statistical information. Finally the collection has many newspaper clippings from both American and Italian immigrants portraying the victimization by the Padrone and the actions of the Societies for the protection of Italian immigrants.


Also in the collection are two versions of a memoir written by Conte and focusing on issues of Italian emigration to North American at the turn of the 20th century. There is a 1903 Italian-language printing, Dieci anni in America: impressioni e ricordi, and a 1976 translation titled Ten Years in America: impressions and recollections…  

Interested in U.S. immigration over the years? Try searching our catalog, ABIGAIL, for subject terms like United States Emigration and immigration