Tribal Headhunters on Coney Island? Author Revisits Disturbing American Tale
New book examines troubled history of Filipino tribe brought to America in 1905.
Transplanted from the Philippines to New York’s famous Coney Island amusement park in 1905, a band of Igorrote (Igorot) headhunters went on to tour the United States, performing mock tribal ceremonies and consuming dog meat for millions of curious and horrified Americans.
But, once a national sensation, the Igorrotes—and the doctor arrested for exploiting them—have been largely forgotten, writes journalist Claire Prentice in her new book, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century.
National Geographic recently discussed with Prentice how she pieced together the group’s turn-of-the-century odyssey and how some of the forces that brought the Igorrotes to America and obscured the truth about them may still be in play today.
How did you discover the story of the Igorrotes?
I had been living in New York and working as a journalist. I had a fascination with 1900s Coney Island and took trips there often. One day, I saw these pictures of the Igorrotes tattooed, in G-strings and, well, not very much else. The energy of the photos drew me in and captivated me.
I researched through big institutions like the National Archives [and] the National Library of the Philippines, and smaller places like the Bontoc Municipal Library in the Philippines’s Mountain Province. I found declassified [U.S.] government files, vital records, and newspaper articles that hadn’t been read for a hundred years. So I read about the terrible things these people suffered at the hands of a man they had trusted, someone who they thought was a protector in a strange land, and who had treated them abominably.
So let’s talk about the man who brought them here. Who was Dr. Truman Hunt?
Truman Hunt went to the Philippines at the outbreak of the 1898 Spanish-American War. He was trained as a medical doctor, and he stayed on in the country after the war ended. He was later made lieutenant governor of Bontoc, where the Igorrotes lived, and got to know them well.
In 1904, the American government spent $1.5 million taking 1,300 Filipinos from a dozen different tribes to the St. Louis Exposition as part of a scheme intended to drum up widespread popular support for America’s policies in the Philippines by demonstrating that the people of the islands were far from ready for self-government. Truman Hunt was made the manager of the Igorrote Village, which drew the largest crowds of all in the Philippine [part of the fair].
The enormous popularity of the Igorrotes gave Hunt the idea to return to Bontoc and gather another Igorrote group. He offered $15 a month to each Igorrote who volunteered to go to America with him and put on a show of their culture and customs. He planned to begin their tour at Coney Island and then move on to other amusement parks across the country.
You write that Truman Hunt was the mouthpiece for Igorrotes and the press just reprinted a lot of his tales. How difficult was it to find out what really happened?
To begin with, as a journalist, I didn’t entirely swallow the news stories, though Hunt knew how to spin a story. By the time I got the key bits of the story and read the government files about his wrongdoings, it was clear just how distorted the picture was and how spun it really was.
Some of the “factual” stuff was entirely made up. In the newspapers, Truman talks about one particular incident: a huge fight between the Igorrotes and the white residents of Coney Island that ends up with the two groups fighting and grabbing pitchforks. He presents this whole scene of a savage battle, and it was entirely made up. In another one, he set up the theft of a dog—he had someone bring in a dog, unleash it, and told the Igorrotes to chase it. But the newspapers printed it as the Igorrotes were savage and wanted to steal this dog.
This was a time when human zoos were something of a trend. Ethnic peoples were exhibited in similar spectacles from Paris to Tokyo. What was special about the Igorrotes?
They were hardly in clothes. Their bodies had tattoos all over them. They had hunted heads in their home—and the dogs. Dogs were brought from the New York pound, chopped up, and put in a pot, and then people watched the Igorrotes eat the stew. This behavior scandalized Americans but also captured their imagination.
But the zoo quickly came to be seen as shameful, and something Americans didn’t want to remember, that people were exhibited in this manner, so it was forgotten. There were other examples where people were coerced, cultures were distorted, but in this case, the U.S. government had given permission to exploit these people.They were directly involved.
How did the presence of America in the Philippines in the 1900s factor into the Igorrotes’ situation?
The U.S. backed the exhibition as a way to support their political goal of maintaining control over Philippine territory, by demonstrating that the Philippine people were far from ready for self-government.
Coverage of the Igorrotes was in the newspapers, daily. People were talking about it. It was very controversial and very topical, and people were reading about and had an interest in it. The fact that they were from the Philippines was definitely another layer of attraction.
But I don’t think Truman Hunt was trying to champion that cause. He was doing this out of his own interests. He was very charming, very opportunistic.
In your epigraph, Hunt is quoted in a newspaper saying, “I was healer of their bodies, father confessor of all their woes and troubles, and the final arbiter in all disputed questions,” yet he basically put the Igorrotes in the zoos. Do you think he cared for these people?
That’s something I thought long and hard about. Before he brought them to America, he did volunteer to work in a cholera hospital in Luzon. He genuinely did risk his life for his Filipino patients. The Truman Hunt at the end of the book wouldn’t have done that. I think he became very, very badly corrupted. They were objectified so much, gawked at daily, that I think he came to regard them distantly and as a commodity.
The question of authenticity comes up a lot in the book—the authenticity of the record as well as the authenticity of the display of the Igorrotes themselves.
I don’t think the display can really be considered authentic. The traditional ceremonies performed before head hunts and the other tribal dances—those were generally rare in real Igorrote life. Same with the eating of dogs. These things were ceremonial and so definitely didn’t occur every day. But Truman wasn’t bothered by authenticity. They were there to add a sense of drama to the show.
It seems abominable to us now that people were looking at these human zoos. But back then people went to ‘attractions’ like the Igorrote Village in the same way that they go to the movies today. They took their families. At the time it was mainstream entertainment.
You write that these zoos fulfilled a need for sensation and an ethnological obsession. Those needs don’t seem unique to the 1900s. I kept thinking about reality television.
We have certainly a variation on that today, [with] wealthy Western tourists traveling to see authentic shows of ethnic peoples in Africa and Asia. It’s a commodity. And absolutely, some of the TV shows today—you know, Beauty and the Beast types—are just awful. It’s obviously deep within human beings to want to look at people different from themselves. That’s just a fact.
There is a shred of justice administered at the end of the book. Truman Hunt is arrested. How did that happen?
The U.S. government’s Bureau of Insular Affairs, which [was] part of the War Department, received a tip that Hunt was not taking adequate care of the Igorrotes. There were other rumors that he had stolen their wages and that two men in the group had died on the road and that he had failed to have their bodies buried.
The government sent an agent to investigate the claims, and Hunt went on the run, taking a group of Igorrotes with him. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to help track him down. Eventually, he was accused of embezzling around $10,000 in wages from the Igorrotes and of using physical force to steal hundreds of dollars more that they had earned selling handmade souvenirs.
Finally, after a manhunt across the U.S. and Canada, the government arrested him in October 1906. He was sentenced to 18 months in the workhouse after an incredible trial in Memphis.
After Truman Hunt’s arrest, what happened to the Igorrotes?
In late July 1906, a couple of months after their contracts with Hunt expired, the government stepped in and sent home all of the Filipinos—except five who stayed on as witnesses in Hunt’s trial. The court cases dragged on. Five Filipino witnesses were kept in America until March 1907. On March 20, they too returned to the Philippines.
It has been difficult to discover a great deal about their lives after they returned to the Philippines because a huge volume of the Philippines’s vital records were destroyed during WWII. I have pieced together what I have been able to find and have included this in the Afterword. I hope that this book will lead to further discoveries about their later lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Read more about the headhunters of northern Luzon in National Geographic magazine.