‘The Lost Tribe of Coney Island’ uncovers a wild, lost moment in Memphis history
It began as a respectable attraction, dignified as an exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair, but turned into a shocking sideshow that gave Memphis a starring role as host to a tribe of headhunting, dog-eating “savages.”
Few modern Memphians are aware of the tribe that became the biggest attraction in the fall of 1905 at East End Park, original home of the Zippin Pippin roller coaster. The 50-acre park on land just north of what is now Overton Square presented a tribe of Filipino natives as part of a hugely popular U.S. tour.
Their debut at the World’s Fair in St. Louis had turned the tribe — wearing little but loincloths and tattoos — into a major hit in 1904. They returned to the United States the following year, debuting as a “human zoo” at New York’s Coney Island, where they made a fortune for promoter Truman Hunt. A medical doctor, Hunt had risked his life to treat the tribe in the Philippines, but his newfound riches turned him into one of the era’s biggest wastrels.
After squandering his fortune on a lavish lifestyle, he robbed tribesmen of tips they had earned. Hunt’s greed led to a criminal prosecution in which the federal government learned that corruption in Memphis extended from the streets to the court system.
“The city was corrupt and no one tried very hard to hide it. Downtown, dice parlors, gin mills, pool halls and bawdy houses jostled for attention,” says a new book out this month, “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island.” In it, Scottish author Claire Prentice writes of a Memphis welcome to bribes, twisted loyalties among the powerful and a legal system that brought into question who was really civilized and who was savage.
Prentice, interviewed by phone from her home in Edinburgh, said she was working as a freelance journalist in New York when she ran across a photograph of the Igorrote tribe while researching another project. Igorrote means “mountain people,” and Prentice says she couldn’t get them out of her mind. “On one level, it was something about the picture. It seems abhorrent today that 100 years ago people were displayed in that way. And, as a journalist, I love a good story. It started an obsession for me that took over the next three years of my life.”
In the 388-page book, she writes that such human zoos were part of a long tradition of parading “exotic” peoples at fairs and expositions and before royal courts around the world. In the late 1800s, P.T. Barnum had held exhibitions of Zulu natives, Australian Aborigines and others, she says.
Part of the attraction for those who flocked to see the Igorrotes was that the tribe disliked American clothing. Their G-strings and loincloths meant an element of sensationalism and shock for crowds of up to 30,000 a day who paid 25 cents each to see the 50 tribespeople at Coney Island. An enclosure was set aside where they built a village of huts and performed tribal dances and native rituals, including feasts of dogs.
The crowds included Vanderbilts and Guggenheims. James A. Bailey of Barnum & Bailey fame visited along with Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Igorrotes were considered the most primitive tribe in the Philippines, which was occupied by the United States after its victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War.
The Igorrotes usually ate dog meat only at special feasts, but Hunt required them to slaughter and eat dogs every day to live up to their billing as “dog-eating savages.” Through a translator, one tribesman told a newspaper in 1905 that dogs “make us fierce and help us to hear, see and smell well.”
The tribe’s route to Memphis was circuitous. Hunt, originally of Iowa, was a medical doctor who enlisted in the Spanish-American War, then remained in the Philippines where he was appointed lieutenant governor of the northern province that was home to the Igorrotes. There he resumed his medical practice, treating the tribe for broken bones, performing dental work and, most notably, risking his life to treat them during a cholera outbreak.
While still in his 20s, Hunt was appointed manager when the Igorrotes were invited as an exhibit to the World’s Fair. In St. Louis, he saw the earning potential for a more commercial exhibition and arranged for it through the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs, which saw the exhibit as a way to help justify the costly colonization of the Philippines. With primitives, like the Igorrotes, it was obvious the Philippines wasn’t capable of self-government, the argument went.
Soon after their arrival at Coney Island, Hunt ran into personal problems that made him grateful to leave New York when he moved with the Igorrotes to Memphis. A showman, promoter and spinner of tales, Hunt was glib and easily made friends, especially among the Elk’s Lodge of which he was a member. In Memphis, the lodge had powerful members in the community.
The book calls it a “corrupt” city, but Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the history and social sciences department of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, goes further. “In the early 1900s, the city is basically run by several gangs, especially gambling interests and saloon owners. The state had made gambling illegal, but there was just a small fine. Essentially, it became a sort of tax. The city for the first time had money because of gambling.” In his book, “A Brief History of Memphis,” Dowdy says that anyone who ran for office had to make deals with saloon owners and gamblers because they controlled large blocs of voters.
“We’ve always had rough edges. I doubt that Memphis will ever be a sterile environment,” says Dowdy.
At East End Park, the Igorrotes became the biggest attraction in the region. The park was built by the Memphis Street Railway system to attract Memphians to what was then the far reaches of the city, says Perre Magness, former history columnist for The Commercial Appeal. “The streetcar developer wanted people to take the streetcars and needed a destination for them to go to.”
At the University of Memphis, history professor Dr. Charles Crawford said the park was north of Madison between what is now Cooper and Rembert. A website, Historic-Memphis.com, says that along with the Zippin Pippin, the park had a lake, swimming pool, carousel, dance hall, roller rink and a vaudeville house built by promoter Col. John D. Hopkins, who became a partner to Hunt. The park flourished until Prohibition cut off the liquor supply and landed the park in receivership.
The Igorrotes performed at East End although they had lost faith in Hunt and suspected he was broke because of lavish spending. With a helper, he collected tips given to the tribe by spectators with no promise the money would be returned to them. In a contract signed by the Igorrotes before their journey, they had agreed to perform in the United States for one year with each tribe member promised $15 a month plus any tips they received and whatever they earned selling handmade jewelry and other souvenirs. Their transportation to and from the Philippines also would be covered.
Prentice says her research could not pinpoint reasons for Hunt’s Jekyll-and-Hyde change. He went from the doctor willing to risk his life to care for the Igorrotes in the Philippines to a man so greedy he resorted to beating two of the Igorrote tribesmen to steal money they had sewn into the seams of their loin cloths. He was a heavy drinker, but she said she found no evidence of mental illness. “I think he was corrupted by success and money. It really is a horrific transformation that we see. I think it’s heartbreaking.”
When the U.S. government learned that Hunt was mistreating the Igorrotes, it filed charges against him, choosing to prosecute the case in Memphis. Five tribesmen, including the two who were beaten by Hunt, remained to testify against him. In all, Hunt spent about five months in jail awaiting trial. His attorney, former newspaper reporter David Frayser, tried to paint the Igorrotes as godless pagans who lied on the witness stand and whose testimony was inaccurately translated.
Juries convicted Hunt on two robbery counts, but before Hunt could begin serving his combined sentence of a year and half in the Shelby County workhouse, Judge John Moss dismissed the jury verdicts, granting Hunt a new trial. Hunt beseeched Elk’s Lodge members to use their influence to free him while he awaited retrial. Finally, the new trial ended in a mistrial. By then, the War Department, believing it could not get a fair hearing in Memphis, filed charges against Hunt in New Orleans. Deputies arrested him before he could leave the courtroom, but Hunt’s attorney immediately appealed to a second judge, Jacob Galloway, to release Hunt so that he could await trial as a free man. Galloway at first denied the request, but Hunt’s attorney then met with the judge behind closed doors. Galloway then returned to the courtroom and inexplicably ruled that Hunt be released to await trial.
Hunt and a former partner quickly fled, hiding on the outskirts of Memphis to avoid being arrested. Before he could be tried in New Orleans, the War Department came under public pressure because of the more than $65 million annual cost to occupy the Philippines. It had cost more than $8,000 to investigate and prosecute Hunt and to send the Igorrotes back to the Philippines. Rather than spending even more on an uncertain outcome, the government dismissed the charges.
As an afterword in the book, Prentice briefly summarizes the fates of as many characters as she could verify. What came of many of the Igorrotes is uncertain because of destruction of documents in the Philippines during World War II. However, Hunt’s end was a karmic spiral that Prentice compares to a “voodoo curse.” He and his wife moved to Oklahoma, hoping to make money in oil exploration. It didn’t work out. Hunt returned to practicing medicine while he and his wife had four daughters, each of whom died in infancy or as toddlers. They then had a son who contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair. Hunt began to experience intense pain caused by Bright’s disease, a kidney inflammation. He moved his family to his native Iowa and began peddling “miracle cures” through a post office box, but he died at 49 with no assets and no means of supporting his wife and handicapped son.
Hunt “might have escaped the full force of American justice, but his final years were a kind of long, drawn-out punishment,” says Prentice. “I like to think his past caught up with him. It became very important to me to let people know that, while he got away with it, it wasn’t the end of it.”
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