The Coney Island Blog

Guest Post: Claire Prentice

Posted on October 29, 2014

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by Coney Island and its rich history. Several years ago, I took the train out to Coney for a day trip. While I was there I came across an old black and white photo of a group of tribesmen, women and children. They were barefoot and wearing g-strings. There was little in the way of information about who they were.

The minute I set eyes on them I knew I had to find out who the people in the picture were. When was the picture taken? Who and what had brought them to America? What had become of them?

I now know that they were Bontoc Igorrotes and that, in 1905, fifty of them were taken from their home in the far north of the Philippines halfway across the world, to America. There the tribespeople were put on show at Luna Park in Coney Island by their manager, Truman K Hunt, who promised to pay them each $15 a month to take part in his scheme.

Frederic Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy had opened Luna Park two years earlier. A fantasyland, lit by one million tiny electric lightbulbs and filled with domes, spires, minarets, lagoons, colonnades and castles, the park was an instant success. Thompson and Dundy were dubbed “the Kings of Coney” and were widely credited with rescuing the popular resort from its debauched past.

Even among Luna Park’s stunning rides and attractions like A Trip to the Moon, Fire and Flames and The Dragon’s Gorge which boasted a real polar bear and real Eskimos, the Igorrotes stood out.

The Filipino tribespeople were the hit of the summer season. At Coney they lived in a mock tribal village and performed a distorted version of their tribal customs. They sang, danced, held sham battles and spear throwing contests.

The Igorrotes on show at Coney Island, summer 1905

The Igorrotes on show at Coney Island, summer 1905

There were four things about the Igorrotes which fascinated the American public: they wore hardly any clothes; their bodies were covered in tattoos; they ate dog; and at home they hunted the heads of their enemies.

America couldn’t get enough of them. They were visited by millions of ordinary citizens, along with Broadway stars, anthropologists, and even the President’s daughter. Reporters wrote about them in newspapers across America. The Igorrotes inspired songs, advertising slogans and children’s toys. One man in San Francisco wrote to his local newspaper to complain that the Filipinos were invading his dreams.

But as the summer season draws to a close, the story takes a darker turn. Right before our eyes, Hunt, who poses as the Igorrotes’ friend, appears to undergo a transformation, from hero to villain. Even by Coney’s standards, what happens next is extraordinary. The story ends with a scandal, a manhunt across America and a sensational court case in Memphis. At its heart, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is a tale of what happens when two cultures collide in pursuit of adventure, opportunity, money and the American dream.

Biography: Claire Prentice is an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the BBC, PRI, The Times of London, The Smithsonian Mag, the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, The Guardian, Scotland on Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald, Marie Claire and Grazia. The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is her first book.

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