Tag Archives: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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The Commercial Appeal

‘The Lost Tribe of Coney Island’ uncovers a wild, lost moment in Memphis history Michael Lollar   It began as a respectable attraction, dignified as an exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair, but turned into a shocking sideshow that gave … Continue reading

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Booklist

Review Issue: October 15, 2014 The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled off the Spectacle of the Century. Prentice, Claire (Author) Oct 2014. 432 p. Houghton/New Harvest, hardcover, $26.   In the early … Continue reading

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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