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Lost Tribe of Coney IslandIn 1905, when Coney Island had a trio of three grand amusement parks–Steeplechase, Luna and Dreamland–popular attractions included a scenic railway that transported visitors to the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon and Hades, and live shows such as a Midget City and Dr. Couney’s Infant Incubators. “None of this season’s novelties at Coney Island is better worth seeing than the Igorrote Village in Luna Park,” wrote a Brooklyn Eagle reporter of a brand-new attraction where nearly naked, tattooed tribespeople from the Philippines entertained the masses by performing dances and rituals. “For obvious reasons the surroundings of the Filipino headhunter are not so realistic as at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition last summer, but otherwise the exhibition has the same impression in its sheer contrast of savages with civilized people,” said the reporter.

Journalist Claire Prentice scoured innumerable archives to piece together and vividly bring to life this fascinating, long-forgotten episode of amusement park history in her new book The Lost Tribe of Coney Island. Touted as “headhunting, dog-eating savages” by the press, the Igorrotes were a show biz sensation and a gold mine for their increasingly unscrupulous manager Truman K. Hunt, the former lieutenant governor of Bontoc. He obtained permission from the U.S. government to bring the group to America after having managed the government’s own Igorrote Village at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The exhibits were “used to push the case that America had a duty to protect, educate and civilize such savage beings, and later, when the treatment they experienced became a national scandal, they were used to argue that America had no place in the Philippines at all,” writes Prentice.

Uncle Sam and Igorrotes

“Uncle Sam” and the Igorrotes at Luna Park, June 1905. The New York Tribune

Upon arrival at Luna Park in May, the Igorrotes energetically built and rebuilt the thatched huts of their Village and presented “an amusement park version of their daily lives.” Hunt staged sham romances and weddings and a fake dog-napping as publicity stunts. At home, the Igorrotes feasted on dog meat for special occasions but were forced to eat it daily in Coney Island to please the crowds. When the press asked if the tribe would be hunting human heads in America, Hunt replied “The only heads they will take in this country will be those of the goddess Liberty, inscribed on the good American dollar, at gay Coney Island this summer.”

The cast of characters including tribal chief Fomoaley Ponci, translator Julio Balinag and children Tainan and Friday are portrayed with great empathy. Among the sad realizations in this sad and astonishing story is that with the exception of their journey from Grand Central Station to Coney Island, the Igorrotes did not get to see New York City. While reporters asked them–What do you think of America?–Hunt kept them captive in their “Village” and even their requests to walk around inside Luna Park were rejected.

Igorotte

Igorotte Village at Dreamland, Coney Island. 1905. Library of Congress Photo

Before the 1905 season was over at Luna Park, the opportunistic showman had smuggled the Igorrote Village across the street to rival Dreamland, lured by a higher offer, and then to fairs and parks in far-flung cities. A government agent and Pinkerton detectives were on his trail following a report that the Igorrotes were being exploited and their wages withheld.

Prentice writes that during the summer at Coney Island, the Igorrotes were bringing in $20,000 per week (equal to about $525,000 today), but when they were finally sent home by the government in 1906, each one got just over $30. Though arrested and prosecuted, Hunt had squandered the fortune that the Igorrotes brought in, including their promised monthly wages of $15 each and the money they’d earned from selling souvenirs. An afterword provides information about what happened to the Filipinos after they returned home and the fate of the other characters in the book.

On December 10, the Brooklyn Public Library is hosting an author reading from 7-8pm, with a wine and cheese reception at 6:30pm at the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Admission is free. The Coney Island Museum will have an author reading and Q & A on December 13 at 1pm. Admission to the museum is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, kids under 12 and residents of zip code 11224. Free for Coney Island USA members.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century by Claire Prentice. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Hardcover, $26.00

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Time travel back to Coney Island at Night in 1905 and see a panoramic view of the magical lights of Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase. This early time exposure was made by pioneering filmmaker Edwin S. Porter, whose use of panning and the first after-dark photography can be seen in films of the 1901 Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo. The long, sweeping view of Coney Island’s three great amusement parks ends with the camera panning up and down the Dreamland Tower.

According to Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, Edison acquired “the exclusive privilege” for the 1905 season at Dreamland. Other subjects made by Porter under this contract are Hippodrome Races, Dreamland, Coney Island (June 1905), Mystic Shriners’ Day, Dreamland, Coney Island (July 1905), June’s Birthday Party (July 1905), and Boarding School Girls. In this version of the film, the young ladies of Miss Knapp’s Select School go on an outing to Coney Island where they pass through Dreamland’s Creation gate, frolic in the surf and ride Steeplechase’s camels and mechanical Horse Race.

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Die Cut Tag from Coney Island's Bostock Arena in Dreamland circa 1904. Courtesy of eBay Seller monsonantiques

We’ve been too busy to blog the past few days, much less browse on eBay. Luckily we found out about the auction of this century-old souvenir of Coney Island’s Bostock Arena via the blog ephemera. The circa 1904 tag depicts famed animal trainer and menagerist Frank C Bostock, whose show was a featured attraction at Coney Island’s Dreamland Park. The reverse side of the tag trumpets the 25-cent show as “Positively the Most Wonderful Wild Animal Exhibition in the World” and notes that “All Bostock’s Patrons Enter Dreamland Free.”

Seller monsonantiques has this rare item up for bid on eBay, where four bidders are vying for it in an auction that ends on Wednesday, March 23rd. The high bid is currently over $150, but that’s peanuts. We’ve seen tickets and advertising tags for Coney’s early rides and attractions sell for several hundred dollars. Good luck to everyone who plans to jump in!

Bostock was a third-generation showman who came to New York from his native England in 1893. He and his partners the Ferari Brothers first set up their carnival on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and then moved to Coney Island. The show featured animal acts, sideshow curiosities, concession games, and such early amusement rides as an English gondola and a carousel.

According to the University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive, “The elaborate carved fronts of the wild animal shows Frank Bostock brought from England, some of them made by Burton-upon-Trent company Orton and Spooner, served as the prototype for wagon-mounted show fronts on American carnivals for the next half century.” Since the company toured New England in 1896, historians credit Bostock and his partners with introducing the traveling carnival concept to America. As a former carny kid, this aspect of Bostock’s career holds greater interest for me than his exploits as the best-known lion tamer of his day or his many narrow escapes from death.

If you’d like to read an engaging biographical essay, we recommend “Frank C. Bostock – The Animal King of Abney Park Cemetery.” Bostock died of the flu in England in 1912, more than a year after the fire that destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland Park. His tomb at Stoke Newington in London is a magnificent marble lion.

UPDATE March 24, 2011:

The tag sold for $386.99 with the winning bid placed in the last few seconds of the auction!

Bostock Arena, Dreamland, Coney Island, N.Y. circa 1905. Library of Congress

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