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23 May 2016
For years doctors in the US made little attempt to save the lives of premature babies, but there was one place distressed parents could turn for help – a sideshow on Coney Island. Here one man saved thousands of lives, writes Claire Prentice, and eventually changed the course of American medical science.
In the early years of the 20th Century, visitors to Coney Island could see some extraordinary attractions. A tribe transported from the Philippines, “midget villages”, a re-enactment of the Boer War by 1,000 soldiers including veterans from both sides, and death-defying roller coaster rides. But for 40 years, from 1903 to 1943, America’s premier amusement park was also home to a genuine life-and-death struggle, played out beside the surf.
Martin Couney’s Infant Incubator facility was one of Coney Island’s most popular exhibits. “All the World Loves a Baby” read a sign above the entrance. Inside, premature babies fought for their lives, tended by a team of dedicated medical staff. To see the babies, you paid 25 cents. A guard-rail prevented visitors getting too close to the tiny figures encased in incubators.
Why were premature babies, who would now be cared for in a neonatal ward, displayed as entertainment?
The man who ran the exhibit was Martin Couney, dubbed “the incubator doctor” – and although he practised in the sideshows, his operation was cutting-edge.
Couney employed a team of nurses and wet nurses who lived onsite, along with two local physicians.
In America, many doctors at the time held the view that premature babies were genetically inferior “weaklings” whose fate was a matter for God. Without intervention, the vast majority of infants born prematurely were destined to die.
Couney was an unlikely medical pioneer. He wasn’t a professor at a great university or a surgeon at a teaching hospital. He was a German-Jewish immigrant, shunned by the medical establishment, and condemned by many as a self-publicist and charlatan.
But to the parents of the children he saved, and to the millions of people who flocked to see his show, he was a miracle-worker.
The incubators Couney used were the latest models, imported directly from Europe – France was then the world leader in premature infant care with the US lagging several decades behind.
Each incubator was more than 5ft (1.5m) tall, made of steel and glass, and stood on legs. A water boiler on the outside supplied hot water to a pipe running underneath a bed of fine mesh on which the baby slept, while a thermostat regulated the temperature. Another pipe carried fresh air from outside the building into the incubator, first passing through absorbent wool suspended in antiseptic or medicated water, then through dry wool, to filter out impurities. On top, a chimney-like device with a revolving fan blew the exhausted air upwards and out of the incubators.
Caring for premature babies was expensive. In 1903, it cost about $15 a day ($405 or £277 today) to care for each baby in Couney’s facility.
But Couney did not charge the parents a penny for their medical care – the public paid. They came in such numbers that Couney easily covered his operating costs, paid his staff a good wage and had enough left over to begin planning more exhibits. In time, these made Couney a wealthy man.
Couney saw his job as not only to save the lives of the premature babies, but also to advocate on their behalf. He gave lectures reciting the names of famous men who had been born prematurely and gone on to achieve great things, such as Mark Twain, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton.
He maintained his facility for 40 years at Coney Island, and set up a similar one at Atlantic City in 1905, which he also ran until 1943. Over the years he took his show to other amusement parks, and to World’s Fairs and Expositions across America.
Although he made his name and his fortune in America, it was in Europe that Couney got his first taste of life as a showman. In 1897 he exhibited incubators at the Victorian Era Exhibition in Earls Court and they were a huge hit. Some 3,600 people visited the show on opening day alone, and the British medical journal, The Lancet, gave it a glowing write-up.
The following year, Couney made his American debut at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. Sensing the huge opportunities for someone like him to exhibit in America, where there was always a fair or an expo taking place somewhere, Couney immigrated.
From 1903, Coney Island was his main base but he travelled around the country as work demanded.
Couney’s techniques were advanced for the time, including his emphasis on breast milk and his strictness about hygiene. But some of his methods were unconventional. Most hospital doctors believed that contact with premature babies should be kept to a minimum to reduce the risk of infection. But Couney encouraged his nurses to take the babies out of the incubators to hug and kiss them, believing they responded to affection.
Eager to distance himself from Coney Island’s more freakish elements, Couney stressed that his facility was a miniature hospital, not a sideshow attraction. The nurses wore starched white uniforms. He and the doctors wore suits topped with physician’s white coats.
The incubator facility was always scrubbed spotlessly clean. Couney employed a cook to prepare nutritious meals for his wet nurses. If any were discovered smoking, drinking alcohol or snacking on a hot dog, he would fire them immediately.
Yet Couney was not averse to adopting a few showman’s tactics himself. He instructed the nurses to dress the babies in clothes several sizes too large to emphasize how small they were. A big bow tied around the middle of their swaddling clothes further added to the effect.
Despite his life-saving work, children’s charities, physicians and health officials accused the incubator doctor of exploiting the babies and endangering their lives by putting them on show. There were regular attempts to shut him down.
But as time passed, Couney’s track record of saving lives, and his evident sincerity, began to attract supporters from the world of mainstream medicine. In 1914, while exhibiting in Chicago, Couney met a local paediatrician, Julius Hess, who would go on to become known as the father of American neonatology. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and an important professional relationship. The two men ran an infant incubator facility together at the 1933/34 Chicago World’s Fair.
Some physicians began sending babies to Couney, a tacit acknowledgement at last of the quality of care the babies received in his facility.
In a career spanning nearly half a century he claimed to have saved nearly 6,500 babies with a success rate of 85%.
Hospitals in the US were slow to establish their own dedicated facilities for premature babies, though. The first on the Eastern seaboard arrived in New York in 1939, 36 years after Couney brought his show to Coney Island.
In an article reflecting on Couney’s long career in the New Yorker in 1939, the legendary journalist A J Liebling noted: “There are not enough doctors and nurses experienced in this field to go around. Care of prematures as private patients is hideously expensive… six dollars a day for mother’s milk… rental of an incubator and hospital room, oxygen, several visits a day by a physician, and fifteen dollars a day for three shifts of nurses.”
The best medical minds in New York couldn’t come up with a workable model to save these vulnerable babies. Yet, 40 years earlier, a young immigrant from Europe with little in the way of experience had done just that.
Today Couney’s legacy is being re-examined by doctors, and many of Couney’s “babies” speak proudly in his defence.
Carol Boyce Heinisch was born prematurely in 1942 and taken to Couney’s exhibit in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Martin Couney was an incredible man. He should be famous for what he did. He saved thousands of us,” she says. She still has the identity necklace made of pink beads, with her name in white beads, which she was given in the incubator facility.
“Nobody else was offering to do anything to save me,” says another of the babies, Beth Allen, who was born three months premature in Brooklyn in 1941. When a physician suggested her parents take her to Coney Island, her mother refused, insisting her daughter wasn’t “a freak”. Couney came to the hospital and persuaded her parents to let him care for her. Every Father’s Day, her parents took her to see Couney. When he died, in 1950, they attended his funeral. “Without Martin Couney I wouldn’t have had a life,” she says.
Today it would be considered unethical to exhibit premature babies and charge fairgoers to see them, notes Dr Richard Schanler, director of Neonatal Services at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York and Northwell Health. “But you have to think back to that time,” he says.
“Nowadays when new technology comes out we do randomised controlled trials. They didn’t do those back then so the shows were a way of demonstrating the benefit of using incubators… We owe a lot to Couney and the work he was doing.”
By Alexandra Genova For Dailymail.com and Claire Prentice
But few will be aware of one man’s sideshow that not only entertained but saved the lives of thousands of premature babies.
Shocking as it may seem now, physician Martin Couney, dubbed ‘the incubator doctor’, held a stall that displayed a genuine life and death struggle – and proved to be the one of the Island’s most popular attractions.
It also changed the course of American medical science.
At the time premature babies were considered genetically inferior, and were simply left to fend for themselves and ultimately die.
Couney offered desperate parents a pioneering solution that was as expensive as it was experimental – and came up with the very unusual way of covering the costs.
For 40 years, from 1903 to 1943, the Jewish-German physician held an infant incubator facility at the amusement park dubbed ‘All the World Loves a Baby’.
But behind the gaudy facade, premature babies were fighting for their lives, attended by a team of medical professionals. To see them, punters paid 25 cents.
The public funding – albeit via a crude transaction – paid for the expensive care, which cost about $15 a day in 1903 (the equivalent of $405 today) per incubator.
The incubators themselves were a medical miracle, 40 years ahead of what was being developed in America at that time.
Each incubator was made of steel and glass and stood on legs, about 5ft tall. A water boiler on the outside supplied hot water to a pipe running underneath a bed of mesh, upon which the baby slept.
A thermostat regulated the temperature and another pipe carried fresh air from the outside of the building into the glass box, that first passed through absorbent wool suspended in antiseptic or medicated water, then through dry wool, to filter out impurities.
While on top, a chimney-like device with a revolving fan blew the exhausted air upwards and out of the incubators.
Couney, who had been shunned by the medical world as a tasteless showman told interviewers he would give up his carnival display when there were decent medical alternatives.
At the time, American doctors mostly viewed premature babies as ‘genetically inferior’.
This meant that without intervention, the vast majority of babies were likely to die.
Having traveled over from Europe, following several prominent exhibitions, including the 1897 Victorian Era Exhibition in Earls Court, Couney made his name in America.
As well as a facility in Atlanta, he also toured the country giving lectures about his work. He recited the names of notable figures born prematurely who had gone on to do great things.
Among those were Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Napoleon, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain.
Though the stall sat side by side with ‘freak show’ attractions, Couney ran a professional set up.
His nurses all wore starched white uniforms and the facility was always spotlessly clean.
An early advocate of breast feeding, if he caught his wet nurses smoking or drinking they were sacked on the spot. He even employed a cook to make healthy meals for them.
In a career spanning nearly half a century he claimed to have saved nearly 6,500 babies with a success rate of 85 per cent, according to the Coney Island History Project.
One such baby was Beth Allen, who was born three months premature in Brooklyn in 1941.
Though her parents initially refused to take their baby there despite their physician’s suggestion, Couney came down to the hospital and persuaded them.
Allen told the BBC that they eventually agreed, and every year since her parents took her to see Couney on Father’s Day in gratitude. When he died in 1950, they attended his funeral.
Claire Prentice has made a BBC Radio Documentary, Life Under Glass, and is the author of Miracle at Coney Island.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2014
Claire Prentice reports on the once-popular practice of putting people from exotic foreign lands on display
In 1976, the staff of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris dismantled an exhibit which had been on show since 1816 and dispatched it to the storage vaults.
The macabre display, which consisted of the cast of a woman’s body, her skeleton, pickled brain and genitalia, was all that remained of Saartjie Baartman, better known as the Hottentot Venus, a black woman whose “enormous” hips, “oversized” buttocks and enlarged labia had thrilled and scandalised Georgian London.
Baartman had been brought from her home in South Africa to England in 1810 and put on the Piccadilly stage wearing a flesh-coloured leotard, African beads and ostrich feathers. Scientists studied her voluptuous proportions and theorised about the voracious sexual appetites of “savages”, while the public paid a shilling to ogle and hurl obscenities at her.
The display of Baartman was one of the earliest and most famous examples of a phenomenon that became known as the “human zoo”.
Nineteenth-century Britain was fascinated by the strange and the exotic. Human zoos, which displayed people from far-flung corners of the globe in a “natural” or “primitive” state, became a popular form of mass entertainment. These ethnographic exhibits grew out of menageries and the cabinets of curiosities that flourished throughout Europe from the end of the Renaissance. They can be traced back through 16th-century royal courts to ancient Egypt, where black “dwarves” were exhibited from the Sudan. But it was during the age of imperialism that this new form of entertainment took hold.
Like many people, I had never heard of human zoos until I came across a black-and-white photograph of a group of tribespeople wearing loincloths, sitting around a campfire in a fenced-off enclosure, watched by white-skinned men in formal suits and bowler hats.
This chance discovery led me to write The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, which tells the incredible true story of the Bontoc Igorrotes, who, in 1905, were taken from their homes in a remote, mountainous region of the northern Philippines to America. There they were put on show at Coney Island and billed as “head-hunting, dog-eating savages”.
The Igorrotes (as they were known in America) met the president’s daughter, were studied by anthropologists, and courted by Broadway stars. Americans wanted to save them – visitors brought them clothes, offered to adopt them, and donated money to send the children to school.
Meanwhile the government, which had recently colonised the Philippines, hoped to drum up popular support for its policies by showing the American people that the “savages” were far from ready for self-government.
The Igorrotes’ story ended with a court case and public scandal after their ill-treatment and shameful exploitation by their American manager became known. But the Igorrote show trade continued for a decade, with tours to London, Edinburgh, Paris, Ghent and Cuba, before the US government eventually intervened, in 1914, and banned the exhibition of Filipino tribespeople.
The appeal of human zoos extended to every level of society, from ordinary working men and women to the aristocracy. In the US, the showman P T Barnum created the Grand Congress of Nations in 1884, presenting “strange and savage” tribes, including “ferocious” Zulus, Sioux Indians, a “savage” Muslim, a group of Australian Aborigines and a Nubian. Barnum spawned hundreds of imitators and toured extensively around Europe.
But it was London that emerged as the capital of the human zoo, playing host at international exhibitions, fairs and carnivals to troupes of Guyanese, Zulus, groups from Ceylon, along with Sami, Native Americans, Inuit, Bushmen, and Fuegians. In 1859 Charles Dickens saw a display of Zulus in London and was so inspired he wrote a pamphlet about them.
The growing popularity of human zoos in the second half of the 19th century led to the emergence of a new breed of showmen who toured Africa, Asia and other distant lands looking for novel and exotic human attractions.
Sometimes the people they brought back were exhibited alongside animals and “freaks” – from the bearded lady to Siamese twins. Others were displayed in mocked up tribal villages, where they lived in tents and huts, surrounded by “indigenous artefacts” – spears, shields, cooking pots and tribal masks.
As audiences grew more demanding, the human exhibits were pressed into performing native dances and religious rituals. They gave demonstrations – weaving tribal garments, cooking “authentic” dishes, and holding sham battles. Some gave birth on tour, others were married in staged events designed to drive up visitor numbers. They were often required to wear little more than strips of cloth to satisfy the curiosity of their visitors with an “authentic” flash of dark flesh.
As recently as 1914, at the World’s Fair in Oslo, 80 men, women and children, dressed in traditional clothes, spent five months living in palm-roof huts in a Kongolandsbyen or Congo village, where they were visited by 1.4 million Norwegians. Their exhibit was described by Norway’s newspaper of record, Aftenposten, as “exceedingly funny”, while the Norwegian magazine Urd reflected on the village and concluded: “It’s wonderful that we are white.”
Some troupes toured for years. Their appeal was not purely commercial. Anthropologists and scientists flocked to the villages to observe their exotic inhabitants. They studied their customs and language, took measurements of their bodies, heads and facial features. These statistics were then used to back up theories about the racial superiority of the white man.
But as time passed, scientists began to distance themselves from the ethnographic exhibits, due to increasing concerns over the commercialism and sensationalism of the shows.
Some of the human exhibits were coerced into appearing or even kidnapped. Others agreed to go on tour in return for a wage. As the trade grew, local middle men began working as recruiters. They negotiated terms on behalf of the “exotic peoples”, drew up contracts for them to sign and took a cut of the profits.
Sometimes the human exhibits were treated cruelly, and kept as virtual prisoners in cages or behind wire fences, where they were poorly fed and housed in inadequate accommodation which did little to keep out the cold.
There were health scares and epidemics, most famously an outbreak of smallpox among some of the human exhibits at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There were deaths and suicides, and stories of scientists being allowed to conduct experiments on the dead.
One of the most heart-rending stories is that of Ota Benga, a young boy from the Congo who was displayed in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Benga was described in the press as “a dwarfy, black specimen of sad-eyed humanity”. His teeth had been sharpened to points and Americans came in their hundreds of thousands to see him. He posed with them for photographs for 25 cents. A public outcry led to Benga being released from his cage and transferred to an orphanage. Eager to feel at home in America, the adult Benga had his sharpened teeth capped, and began to study English.
He moved to Virginia, where, despite his eagerness to be accepted by his new neighbours, he continued to be treated as an oddity. His life ended in tragedy – in 1916 he removed the caps from his sharpened teeth before shooting himself in the head. He died aged 32.
Most visitors to human zoos looked on with appreciative fascination. There was, however, a vocal minority who objected to the degrading displays. They included anti-slavery groups, intellectuals, religious groups and, in America, the Anti-Imperialist League. The case of Baartman was taken up by abolitionists in London who tried, and failed, to have her freed.
By the Thirties, human zoos had fallen out of fashion, replaced by other forms of mass entertainment such as television and cinema. As for Baartman, she was sold to a showman in France, where she began to drink heavily and died in December 1815. Even in death, she did not find peace: Napoleon’s surgeon, Georges Cuvier, carved up her body before displaying bits of it in the Paris museum. In 2002 her remains were taken back to South Africa and given a ceremonial burial. It marked the belated end of the trade in human exhibits.
Today we are intrigued by the thought that such displays were once thought acceptable. Artists Lars Cuzner and Mohamed Ali Fadlabi recently reconstructed Norway’s Congo village from 1914 as an art installation, using volunteers from around the world. And Exhibit B, a piece at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, presents 12 tableaux vivants, each featuring motionless, nearly naked African performers placed in settings inspired by real people and events. Attitudes have changed, but the fascination with this bizarre episode of human history remains.
Exhibit B is at the Edinburgh International Festival (eif.co.uk) from Aug 9, then at the Barbican, London (barbican.org.uk), from Sept 23. Claire Prentice’s book, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, is published by New Harvest in October
See the original article in the Daily Telegraph here
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The Arts Journal Three Stars Date: 28 August 2012 / Venue: Queen’s Hall Though not yet 30, pianist Francesco Piemontesi has scooped up numerous prizes, played with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, and appeared on famous stages … Continue reading
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The Arts Journal Five Stars Date: 26 August 2012 / Venue: Usher Hall From the intimacy of Bartók’s merrymaking peasants to the epic scale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme seemed designed to show off their many, … Continue reading
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The Arts Journal Four Stars Date: 25 August 2012 / Venue: Usher Hall For music which has brought joy to audiences across the globe, The Nutcracker was written amidst a good deal of heartache. When the choreographer Marius Petipa handed … Continue reading