- The American public were enthralled by the tribe from the Philippines who were put on show at Luna Park, Coney Island in 1905
- But behind the display there was a murky tale of theft, cruelty and exploitation that ended with the arrest of the man who took them there
- Claire Prentice’s new book uncovers the truth about the Igorrote tribe’s journey to America and asks who are the real savages?
The men crouched around the campfire, poking at the embers with a stick. They were barefoot and naked except for their breechcloths and the little basket hats in which they stored their smoking pipes and tobacco.
Their chests were covered with intricate tattoos – zig zags, barbed wire patterns and fine India-ink lines which arced up over their chests and down their arms.
The tattoos indicated the number of human heads they had taken. Every time the men took a head from an enemy village, the community celebrated with a month of feasting. Dogs were slaughtered and eaten as a centerpiece of the feast.
But this exotic display wasn’t being played out in the mountains of the northern Philippines where the tribe came from. It was all happening in Coney Island. It was 1905 and the Fililpinos were being put on show in a human zoo at the Luna Park amusement park.
Spectacular: The Igorrotes lived a ‘village’ in the middle of Luna Park, Coney Island, as visitors gaped at the ‘savages’ in open-mouthed wonder
Exciting: Visitors were invited to get up as close to the fearsome, head hunting warriors as they dared
Conman: Dr Truman Hunt brought the show to America. Later, when he began to take the villagers around the country, he stole what was owed them and treated them shamefully. He was eventually arrested by Pinkertons
On the other side of a high bamboo fence, a crowd of American men, women and children, wearing their Sunday best, clamored for the entrance. They handed over their quarters and surged inside.
The visitors stood in open-mouthed wonder. The Igorrote Village was an astonishing sight, even by Coney Island’s spectacular standards.
The tribal chief stepped forward and began speaking in a low, guttural voice. The rest of the tribe gathered round. They began to chant, quietly at first, before erupting into an animated dance, accompanied by the sound of their native gongs and tom-tom drums.
The village manager, Dr. Truman Hunt, welcomed his American visitors and invited them to get up as close to the fearsome, head hunting warriors as they dared.
The Bontoc Igorrotes – known in America simply as Igorrotes (sometimes spelt Igorots) – quickly became the hit of the summer season.
Reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Vogue flocked to interview them. They were visited by Broadway stars, anthropologists, and even Alice Roosevelt the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt.
The tribe’s success was fueled by the tall tales and publicity genius of Hunt who managed to plant stories about the ‘head hunting, dog eating savages’ in newspapers coast to coast. Before long the tribespeople were inspiring newspaper cartoons, poems and advertising slogans. The Igorrotes, it must be noted, hunted human heads, but did not eat human flesh.
But their summer of fame at America’s most famous amusement park was just the beginning of the Igorrotes’ adventure. Within a year they would end up testifying in an American court against Hunt who was accused of theft and treating them shamefully.
The story of Truman Hunt and the Igorrotes is told for the first time in my new book, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, which is published on October 14.
Hunt’s relationship with the Igorrotes began after he went to the Philippines following the 1898 outbreak of the Spanish-America War.
America won control of the Philippines and began sizing up the natives in her new territory, classifying them according to how ‘civilized’ or ‘savage’ they were. The Igorrotes, with their keen sense of humor, near nudity, head hunting and dog eating, quickly captured the imagination of the earliest American visitors to the Philippines.
Hunt, who had served in the medical corps, was made lieutenant governor of Bontoc and became a trusted friend of the tribespeople.
In 1904, the American government spent $1.5million taking thirteen hundred Filipinos from a dozen different tribes to the St. Louis Exposition.
Their motivation was political; by exhibiting the naive, ‘savage’ tribespeople, the government hoped to drum up widespread support for their policies in the Philippines by demonstrating that the people of the Islands were far from ready for self-government.
A hit: The tribe’s success at Luna Park was fueled by the tall tales and publicity genius of Hunt who managed to plant stories about the ‘head hunting, dog eating savages’ in newspapers coast to coast
Trapped: In the Philippines, the tribespeople were accustomed to roaming free in the Northern Luzon wilds; at Coney Island they were forbidden from leaving their enclosure
Imperial ambitions: In 1904, the American government spent $1.5m taking 1,300 Filipinos to the St. Louis Exposition to show why the US had to govern the Philippines. It gave Hunt the inspiration for his show
The display of people from far-flung corners of the globe in human zoos is rightly considered shocking and shameful today.
But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, human zoos were a hugely popular form of entertainment throughout America, the UK, Europe and Japan. Their popularity peaked during the age of imperialism.
Truman Hunt was put in charge of the Igorrote Village at St. Louis. The Philippine Reservation was one of the most popular features of the St. Louis fair and the Igorrotes drew the largest crowds of all.
Hunt came up with a plan. He would return to the Philippines and gather his own Igorrote group. He would take them to America and exhibit them at fairs and amusement parks across the country.
In Manila, he put his proposal to Dean Worcester, Secretary of the Interior and one of the most powerful men in the Philippines. Worcester loved the idea.
Hunt hired a young Filipino named Julio Balinag to act as his recruiter, assistant and translator. He agreed to pay him $25 a month. Balinag was ambitious and educated and had been in the original group who had gone to St. Louis. He had fallen in love with America on his first visit and dreamed of building a future in the Promised Land for himself and his wife, Maria.
He took great pride in his appearance and was always impeccably dressed in an American suit, and highly polished leather shoes.
Hunt was offering $15 a month to every man, woman and child who agreed to go with him to America – a life-changing amount for the Filipinos. Hunt was inundated with volunteers and he selected a group of 50 to travel to America.
The oldest member was a man in his sixties named Falino Ygnichen; the youngest was seven-year-old Friday Strong, who stood less than four feet tall and was an orphan.
Strong was a member of a different tribe from the others; he was a Negrito, the Philippine aboriginals who the Americans regarded as among the most savage of all the Islands’ tribes.
It is impossible to imagine what it must have been like for the tribespeople, who had no words for many items in modern culture, including shoes, trousers, chairs or books, to be thrust into the archetypal metropolis, New York.
From the moment the Igorrotes arrived at Coney Island, their every waking moment was lived out under the gaze of the public.
Exotic: The Igorrotes, with their keen sense of humor, near nudity, head hunting and dog eating, quickly captured the imagination of the earliest American visitors to the Philippines
Trapped: In the Philippines, the tribespeople were accustomed to roaming free in the Northern Luzon wilds; at Coney they were forbidden from leaving their enclosure
Fierce: Igorrote head-hunting axes. But they didn’t eat human flesh, instead celebrating with dog feasts
In the Philippines, the tribespeople were accustomed to roaming free in the Northern Luzon wilds; at Coney they were forbidden from leaving their enclosure. When the crowds finally left each day at midnight, the Igorrotes were locked inside their village.
Their village consisted of huts with thatched roofs which they had built themselves using straw, mud and bricks. Inside the huts were cramped and dark, with dirt floors.
Behind the huts was a huge tower. This, Hunt explained, was the native watch tower. There was one of these at the entrance to every Igorrote town or village, said Hunt. The Igorrotes climbed them to look out for approaching enemy head hunters.
The tribe had been baffled as to why they needed to build one in a country where the law didn’t permit them to hunt heads but Balinag understood it was all part of the show.
Day after day, visitors came to Luna Park in their thousands, and often tens of thousands, to see the Filipino ‘wild men and women’ up close. They watched wide-eyed as the scantily-clad tribespeople sang, danced, and held elaborate dog feasts.
At home, the tribespeople only ate dog on special occasions, like weddings and after a successful head hunting foray. But at Coney the dog feasts were so popular that the Igorrotes were made to eat the canine flesh every day.
The tribe’s culture and rituals were distorted in other ways too. Under instructions from Hunt, the Igorrotes performed burial rituals, and war dances, when no-one had died or gone to war. Couples who had no intention of spending their lives together were persuaded to take part in mock weddings, complete with elaborate feasts. The men held sham battles, and described their head hunting expeditions.
As the weeks passed, the Igorrotes’ fame spread across America, and all the way to the White House. Visitors came from all over New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and beyond. They brought American clothes for the g-string wearing tribespeople, along with gifts of candies, cigars and even offers to adopt the Philippine children.
Egged on by Hunt, the Igorrotes cavorted for the crowds who in turn threw nickels and dimes into the village as a sign of their appreciation. Hunt sent his right-hand man Callahan into the village to collect the coins. The showman said he was keeping the tips safe for the tribespeople, along with their wages and the money they made selling souvenirs — rattan rings, necklaces made from beads and copper wire, handmade baskets and woven fabrics.
By the height of the summer, the tribespeople had made Hunt a very rich man. He and his wife, Sallie, lived large, dining in New York’s finest restaurants and making sure they were seen in its most exclusive clubs. Sallie was eighteen — less than half Hunt’s age — and he spoiled his young wife with lavish gifts of fine clothes, and expensive jewelry.
At the end of August, Coney Island welcomed its first ever Igorrote baby. Hunt was on top of the world. His tribe had made it into the pages of newspapers from Massachusetts to Manchester, England. The showman felt invincible.
Late one night Hunt called Balinag into his office and told his assistant he was taking him and half of the tribespeople away from Coney. He didn’t offer any explanation. In the dead of night, they boarded a train bound for Memphis.
The tribespeople had never imagined that they might be split up from their friends and family in the group. The separation hit them hard. They were growing increasingly disillusioned with their life as part of a human zoo. Despite their complaints, they were still being made to eat dog meat every day and Hunt had yet to pay them a penny of their promised wages. Whenever they challenged Hunt, he grew irritable.
The Igorrotes were a hit in Memphis. Fueled by his success, Hunt’s plans grew more ambitious. As the summer season drew to an end at Coney Island, Hunt instructed Callahan to split the Igorrotes who he’d left behind in New York into two groups. Each group would tour the country, one with Callahan and the other with one of Hunt’s business associates.
Hunt’s three groups criss-crossed America, traveling from Arkansas to Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Kansas, stopping at more than fifty towns and cities.
Forgotten: The shameful episode, despite being so spectacular at the time, has faded from public memory
The Filipinos grew to detest life on the road. By the end of 1905, they had had enough of America and began begging Hunt to send them home. The showman promised to do so, just as soon as they had honored a few more bookings.
With their engagements lasting weeks and sometimes just days, the tribe’s villages grew increasingly basic. The Igorrotes’ discontent grew. They were worried about their families back home. Some of the men had wives and children back in Bontoc. They had left them with enough food and other supplies to last the year they expected to be away but these would soon be running out.
The year they had contracted to work for Hunt came and went and the tribespeople were still on show in America with no return date in sight. In May 1906, Hunt took eighteen of the tribespeople to Sans Souci Park on the south side of Chicago.
There they were crammed into three small A-frame tents in a muddy scrap of land underneath the trestlework of the roller coaster. One visitor was so horrified by what he saw that he wrote to the US Government to complain about the Igorrotes’ terrible living conditions.
The War Department sent one of their best agents, Frederick Barker, to Chicago to investigate. Hunt got word that he was coming and fled town.
What followed was an elaborate game of cat and mouse as Hunt dashed across America and over the border into Canada, taking the tribespeople with him. Pinkerton detectives joined the government search for Hunt.
There were rumors that Hunt had burned through his fortune. Word reached the US Government that he’d begun importing more Igorrotes and had mixed them up with his original group.
Whenever Barker and the Pinkerton men succeeded in tracking down Hunt, the showman promptly gave them the slip. In October 1906, Hunt’s luck finally ran out and he was arrested.
He was accused of stealing $9,600 in wages from the tribespeople, and with using physical force to steal hundreds of dollars more which the tribespeople had earned selling their handmade souvenirs.
Five of the Filipinos, including Balinag and his wife Maria, stayed on to act as witnesses in Hunt’s trial.
The American Dream had turned sour for the Filipinos. Despite the fame they had achieved across the US and beyond, the Igorrotes’ story was lost in the mists of time.
Throughout their ordeal the Igorrotes acted with tremendous dignity despite the most extreme provocation. Their story makes us question who is civilized and who is savage.
How could the people at the heart of the spectacle which gripped America have disappeared from public memory? One answer is that the Igorrotes were replaced by the next popular sensation. The other, equally likely explanation, is that the country was embarrassed by this shameful episode in her history.
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century by Claire Prentice is out on Tuesday 14 October, published by New Harvest. To read an excerpt, along with reviews of the book, and to see photos of the tribe, film footage of Coney Island in the early 1900s and to learn more about the Igorrotes and their story, visit claireprentice.org