Tag Archives: Claireprentice

Published articles about Martin Couney ‘the incubator doctor’ of Coney Island

23 May 2016

How one man saved a generation of premature babies

Beth Allen and a picture of Martin Couney holding her as a baby


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?

Dr Couney's Exhibit
Image copyright Beth Allen


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.

A baby being placed into one of Dr Couney's incubators
Image copyright
Beth Allen


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.

Beth Allen's father took a number of pictures of her Couney's incubator facility
Image copyright AFP

Beth Allen: “Nobody else was offering to do anything to save me”

Beth Allen as a baby with one of Dr Couney's nurses
Beth Allen held by one of the incubator nurses
. Image copyright Beth Allen


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.

Martin Couney 1869-1950

Martin Couney holding two babies
Image copyright
New York Public Library


  • 1869 Martin Couney is born in Krotoschen, then part of Prussia
  • 1903 Couney marries one of his nurses, Annabelle Segner, in New York
  • 1907 His wife gives birth to a daughter, Hildegarde, born six weeks premature, weighing just 3lb – Hildegarde later trained as a nurse and joined her father’s business
  • 1950 Couney dies at the age of 80. His death is marked with an obituary in the New York Times


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.

One of Dr Couney's incubators
Image copyright
Beth Allen


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.

Luna Park, Coney Island, New York, 1890
Luna Park, Coney Island, New York, 1890. Image copyright Google 


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%.

“Martin Couney was an incredible man – he should be famous for what he did.”  Carol Boyce Heinisch, Incubator baby, born 1942


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.

Hildegarde Couney holds Carol Boyce Heinisch
Hildegarde Couney holds the baby Carol Boyce Heinisch. Image copyright Carol Boyce Heinisch 


“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.”

BBC Online click here


Bizarre tale of the Boardwalk babies: How thousands of premature infants were saved from certain death by being part of a Coney Island entertainment sideshow

  • Physician Martin Couney held a sideshow that featured the tiny babies
  • The Coney Island facility ran from 1903 to 1943
  • Punters would pay 25 cents to look at the babies – funding their care
  • Couney was shunned by the medical world for being a tasteless showman 
  • But he claimed to have saved a total of 6,500 premature babies 
  • The baby incubators feature as an attraction in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire 

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. 

Martin Couney, dubbed 'the incubator doctor' (pictured with a pair of premature babies) held a stall that displayed a genuine life and death struggle - and proved to be one of Coney Island's most popular attractions
Martin Couney, dubbed ‘the incubator doctor’ (pictured with a pair of premature babies) held a stall that displayed a genuine life and death struggle – and proved to be one of Coney Island’s most popular attractions


Behind the gaudy facade, premature babies were fighting for their lives, attended by a team of medical professionals (pictured are two of Couney’s nurse with 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.

One such baby was Beth Allen (pictured) who was born three months premature in Brooklyn in 1941


The incubators (pictured) themselves were a medical miracle, 40 years ahead of what was being developed in America at that time
The incubators (pictured) themselves were a medical miracle, 40 years ahead of what was being developed in America at that time



Couney's nurses all wore starched white uniforms and the facility was always spotlessly cleanTourists come in to gawp at the premature babies

Couney’s 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


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.

Allen said: ‘Without Martin Couney I wouldn’t have had a life.’


Stranger than fiction: The baby incubators feature in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, although it changes the location from Coney Island to Atlantic City (picture is Steve Buscemi looking through the window)
The baby incubators were incorporated into the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, which was set on the Atlantic City Boardwalk as opposed to Coney Island.

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.


Reviews of The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

Kirkus Reviews

THE LOST TRIBE OF CONEY ISLAND: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century by Claire Prentice

Published in Kirkus Reviews, 19 August 2014


This bright story of a shameless huckster evokes a unique bit of Americana at the turn of the 20th century, when the nation dabbled in empire-building and the display of human beings as objects of curiosity was a staple of show business.

Not long after the United States took control of the Philippines, 50 members of the Igorrote tribe, indigenous to the mountains of Luzon, agreed to travel to America for a year with Dr. Truman Hunt to display salient features of their culture. The happy tribespeople’s native costume was smaller than a stripper’s final revelation, and they excelled in spear chucking and tobacco smoking. On occasion, too, they were headhunters and ready to feast on dogs. Fatherly Dr. Hunt booked his troupe into venues like Luna Park in Coney Island, where they continuously performed in G-strings for gawkers. They ate boiled mongrel until they were quite fed up with their canine diet. Managed by the ever demanding, ever drinking Hunt, the show was a great hit, playing in many cities across the continent. Of course, it was more fakery than ethnography. Journalist Prentice artfully reveals the growing mendacity of the promoter/doctor. The Igorrotes were degraded, robbed of their earnings and held against their will, unable to return home. Throughout their ordeal, the purported savages proved considerably more dignified and civilized than the many showmen charged with their care. In this nicely paced popular history, the author ably develops the diverse ancillary characters, such as the wives of bigamist Hunt, the promoters and the shady lawyers. Eventually, the government pursued the evasive Hunt. The tale ends, improbably, with strange lawsuits. Prentice presents the story of the innocent tribe with sympathy; in her telling, the Igorrotes charm and entertain us once again after more than a century.

The edifying, colorful adventures of headhunters captured in America by a sideshow rascal.

MORE REVIEWS OF The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is at once an engrossing portrait of the Igorrote people and a fascinating meditation on the dark side of the American Dream. Claire Prentice has a reporter’s nose for a good story, and a novelist’s flair for telling it.” —Karen Abbott, New York Times best-selling author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

“One of those books that is totally unexpected, and delightfully so. An astonishing story, beautifully and compassionately told.” —Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

“In her rich and absorbing account, Claire Prentice shines a bright light on the ‘primitive’ Igorrotes’ arrival in New York, and one opportunistic man’s quest to profit from a Western obsession with ethnological entertainment. Historically meticulous, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island provides a fascinating glimpse into the heart and soul of America at the turn of the 20th century.” —Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove

“Combining exhaustive historical research with rich novelistic color, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island thrillingly conjures up two long-vanished and equally exotic worlds. One is that of the ‘savage’ Igorrotes, a tribe of Philippine aborigines known as ‘a peaceful, good-humored, honest, industrious, and likable people,’ apart from their inveterate habit of ‘cutting off the heads of neighboring villagers.’ The other is turn-of-the-century Coney Island, a tawdry, titillating wonderland where respectable city folk flocked to ogle the ‘primitive,’ half-naked residents of the park’s ‘human zoo.’ At the juncture of both looms the larger-than-life figure of Truman Hunt, a quintessentially American huckster in the brazen mold of P.T Barnum. Like visitors to the old Luna Park, readers of Claire Prentice’s page-turning book can expect to be amazed, delighted, and edified.” —Harold Schechter, author of The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is the fascinating, true-life, more-amazing-than-fiction story of a group of Philippine tribespeople, brought from the Stone Age to the wonders of Coney Island in 1905. Absolutely enthralling.” —Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland and The Big Crowd

“In the annals of exploiting humanity as entertainment, not even Barnum or Ripley can compare to the audacity of Truman Hunt and his eager band of Philippine tribespeople who titillated American audiences in the shadow of Manhattan. Kudos to Claire Prentice for uncovering this overlooked bit of history and bringing it to life as a thoughtful page turner. Packed with a ridiculously robust cast of lively characters, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island manages to explore imperialism, sensationalism, greed, fame, and deceit, deftly capping it all off with a manhunt. Obsessively researched and written with vigor and compassion, the story of America’s taste for the exotic and illicit raises uneasy questions about who’s civilized and who’s savage.” —Neal Thompson, author of A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not’ Ripley

“The author tells a riveting tale of the American dream gone wrong . . . Without scholarly pretensions, Prentice has crafted an entertaining popular account likely to appeal to fans of true crime and social history.” Library Journal

When humans were put in a zoo

 The Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2014

Claire Prentice reports on the once-popular practice of putting people from exotic foreign lands on display

 Heading for home: a ceremony at the South African embassy in Paris to mark the return of the remains of Saartije Baartman Photo: REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE/AP

Heading for home: a ceremony at the South African embassy in Paris to mark the return of the remains of Saartije Baartman Photo: REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE/AP

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.”

On display: the Congo village or Kongolandsbyen at the World's Fair in Oslo in 1914

On display: the Congo village or Kongolandsbyen at the World’s Fair in Oslo in 1914

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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