THE LOST TRIBE OF CONEY ISLAND
Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century
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Entrance to Luna Park in 1905. (Copyright Library of Congress.)
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Here is the wonderful introduction to the book.
Sitting on my desk is a tattered black-and-white photograph of a group of tribesmen, women, and children, naked but for their G-strings. They are squatting on their haunches around a campfire. Several of them look directly into the camera. One points, another laughs and holds up a stone, as if pretending he is about to throw it at the photographer. Some of them are smiling, apparently sharing a private joke. In the background, a young boy and girl are making something out of bits of broken wood. Behind a low fence, a group of men in formal American clothes and derby hats stand watching the scene. If you look closely, you can see a few of them are laughing too. If it wasn’t for the observers in Western clothes, it could be a scene taken from an ethnographic journal. But this is no documentary image of a distant people unaccustomed to contact with the rest of the world: this tribe is very aware we are watching, and they seem frankly amused by it.
When I first came across this photograph, I knew next to nothing about it, but the energy of the tribespeople drew me in. I immediately knew I had to find out who these people were. Where and when was the picture taken? What became of them?
My quest to unravel the story of the tribespeople in the picture has taken over several years of my life. It has been an addictive, fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but always fulfilling journey.
Now I know that the picture is one of a handful of photographic relics of an extraordinary episode in American history. It was taken more than a century ago at Coney Island, ten miles from downtown Manhattan.
The tribespeople are Bontoc Igorrotes, who became known in America simply as Igorrotes, meaning “mountain people.” Fifty of them were brought from their remote home in the northern Philippines to America and put on show at Luna Park in 1905. They were billed as “dog-eating, head-hunting savages” and “the most primitive people in the world.” The tribespeople became the sensation of the summer season and were soon in demand all over the US.
Millions of Americans flocked to see the Igorrotes. The crowds were captivated by the tribe’s vitality, and thrilled and scandalized in equal measure by their near nudity, their dog feasts, and their tattooed bodies, which, the public learned, indicated their prowess as hunters of human heads.
As I study the Igorrotes’ faces in the picture on my desk, I have often wondered what it was that persuaded them to leave their homes to set up camp in America’s most famous amusement park. What did they think of America and Americans? How did they find life under the gaze of an audience? How did the freedom-loving tribe cope with being locked up day and night at Luna Park? Did they regret their decision? What did they tell their families about their adventure when they returned home?
It is impossible to imagine what it was like for these pre-modern people to be thrust into the heart of the quintessential modern metropolis, New York.
This story is set at a time when disagreements about the political future of the Philippines had created a schism in American domestic politics. America had taken control of the Philippines from Spain following the 1898 Spanish-American War. But far from being welcomed with open arms, the American occupiers were met by a rebellion of Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The US deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to the islands. The three-year Philippine-American War that followed led to the deaths of over 4,200 American and 20,000 Filipino combatants. Hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians were killed in the fighting, or died of disease and starvation in the famine that followed. America won the war but was widely criticized for using excessive force and brutality to overcome the opposition to her rule.
The assumption of American control over the overseas territory prompted deep soul-searching at home. Was it right for America to acquire an overseas empire? When, if ever, would the Filipinos be ready to take over the responsibility of governing themselves?
The Philippine issue was the determining foreign policy concern of the day, and the thread that connected the three presidencies of the early twentieth century. William McKinley reluctantly led the US into the war with Spain and won control of the islands. Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed the presidency in 1901 after McKinley’s assassination, had unsuccessfully coveted the job of governor-general of the Philippines, and dreamed of guiding the people of the islands toward self-government, while William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s successor as president, had previously served as governor-general of the islands.
The Philippine Islands were not just a concern for the upper echelons of the American government. Service in the Philippines united Americans from all walks of life: time and time again in this story we encounter men and women who worked in the islands, as government servants, police officers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, preachers, soldiers, and politicians, and who viewed their time there as a unique bond.
As America was taking control of the islands, she was also sizing up her new subjects. Ethnologists were sent into far corners of the country to assess and report on the country’s many indigenous tribes.
The islands’ people were then categorized according to their level of “civilization,” from barbaric to semi-barbarous to those deemed cultured and educated.
The earliest American visitors to the Philippines were particularly taken with the “savage” Bontoc Igorrotes. In his major study, The Bontoc Igorot, compiled in 1903, the American ethnologist Albert Ernest Jenks observed that, aside from cutting off the heads of neighboring villagers, the Bontoc Igorrotes were a peaceful, good-humored, honest, industrious, and likable people with low rates of crime. Jenks noted that they were true primitives who had no words for many items in modern culture, including shoes, pantaloons, umbrellas, chairs, or books.
In 1904, the American government spent $1.5 million taking thirteen hundred Filipinos from a dozen different tribes to the St. Louis Exposition. The Philippine Reservation became one of the most popular features of the fair, and the Igorrotes drew the largest crowds of all. By displaying the tribespeople in this manner, the US government hoped to gain popular support for its occupation of the Philippines by showing the American public that the Filipinos were innocents, a people far from ready for self-government, and in need of paternalistic American protection.
From the moment the Filipinos arrived on American soil, they were the subject of endless newspaper articles drawing comparisons between their culture and that of their American hosts. Many articles focused on the Igorrotes’ disdain for Western clothes and what was portrayed as their insatiable appetite for that most domesticated of American pets, the dog. But the Igorrotes were also invoked in articles about premarital sexual relations, hard work, and the simple life versus the complexities of modern living, while their trusting and trustworthy nature often drew comment.
During this first visit to America by the Igorrotes, the Macon Telegraph provided its readers with an insight into the Filipinos: “The Igorrote is more honest and more honorable than the American. Knowing the value of money, he would not be tempted for one single instant to take that which did not belong to him, even if he were sure that his theft would never be found out. The property of another is absolutely safe in his possession.”
The Igorrotes were like a mirror held up to American society. America might be the more “advanced” culture, but while the host country took pleasure in patronizing the primitive tribe, it was not entirely immune to the idea that it might learn something from the Philippine visitors.
Displaying human beings for the entertainment and edification of the paying public seems shocking today, but “human zoos” were nothing new in the early 1900s. For more than four hundred years, exotic humans from faraway territories had been paraded in front of royal courts and wealthy patrons from Europe to Japan, and more recently at world’s fairs and expositions as far afield as New York, Paris, and London. But what happened in Coney Island in 1905 was the result of two modern forces meshing: American imperialism and a popular taste for sensationalism. The Igorrotes who were brought from the Philippines became caught up in the debate about America’s presence in Southeast Asia. They 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.
The other force was equally irresistible. Early twentieth-century America was addicted to novelty and sensation. The human zoo that came from the Philippines and unpacked its bags at Coney Island in 1905 became the most talked-about show in town. The tribespeople were gawked at by everyone from ordinary members of the public willing to pay a quarter for the privilege of seeing human beings in the raw to anthropologists, politicians, celebrities, and even the daughter of the president.
But there was another ingredient in this potent mixture, a volatile one that propelled the Igorrotes onto the front pages.
Sitting next to the picture of the Igorrotes on my desk is another photograph, faded and torn in several places. In it, a man in a panama hat and an expensive-looking three-piece suit stands with a fat cigar in his hand, smiling for the camera. He is surrounded by a group of bare-chested Filipino tribesmen. He is Dr. Truman Knight Hunt, a former medical doctor who met the Igorrotes after he went to the Philippines following the outbreak of the 1898 Spanish-American War. It was Truman’s idea to take the Igorrotes to Coney Island. There he transformed himself into one of the great publicists of his age, spinning a colorful web of stories about “his” tribe that the press and public lapped up.
No one could have predicted what would happen next.
In early American political, ethnological, and press accounts of the Philippines, Truman is a hero, revered by the Igorrotes for his strong leadership, his kindness, and his ability to heal their medical ills. Referring to Truman’s decision to leave America in 1898 to go and live in the Philippines, one newspaper article described how he “forsook civilization because he was disgusted with the shams and the pretense of the social world, and went to live among the simple, honorable, natural Igorrotes . . . The Igorrotes have learned that he is their friend, as just and honorable as they are.” By 1906, when the Igorrotes wind up as witnesses in an American court of law, the Truman we discover is a much darker, more complex character, accused of exploiting the tribespeople, stealing their wages, and treating them like slaves.
What had happened to the former physician and civil servant– turned–showman in the intervening years? Were the allegations made against him true? Did the fame and fortune he earned as a showman warp him, transforming an upstanding American citizen into a greedy, heartless man?
These pages tell a story of adventure, ambition, betrayal, triumph, and tragedy. Much of it is shocking and sensational and all of it is true.
The Igorrotes were a national phenomenon in their day, yet they have been all but forgotten by history. Why? Perhaps this is because the Igorrote exhibition trade came to be regarded as a shameful episode in US history and in US-Filipino relations. Or maybe the popular culture of the day simply moved on to the next big thing, erasing the Igorrotes from the public consciousness. More than a century on, this extraordinary episode in history is a story that deserves to be told.
Researching this book I’ve often felt like a participant in a long and elaborate treasure hunt. It has lead from large institutions like the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library to the cluttered, dusty archives of various county courts, member-run genealogical societies, nonprofit history and heritage centers, local newspapers, and small-town libraries, and on to The National Library of the Philippines and the National Archives of the Philippines in Manila, and Bontoc Municipal Library.
The search was complicated by the fact that the Igorrotes’ names were often mangled by the journalists, ships’ clerks, immigration officers, court officials, and police whom they encountered. Misspellings, phonetic approximations, and simple guesses mean that individual tribespeople were often called by several different names during their time in the US. Additionally, the Igorrotes didn’t keep track of their own ages and they frequently changed their names throughout their lives. Typically they were given only one name at birth and did not adopt a family name as was customary in the West. When they arrived in America, most of the tribespeople in Truman’s group were assigned a second name or simply plucked one from thin air.
If the Igorrotes’ names have at times been perplexing, I’ve frequently been struck by the irony of Truman Hunt’s name. Not only does Truman become the focus of an international manhunt, we are also in a sense hunting for the “true man,” the real Truman Hunt behind the fanciful tales and headline-grabbing exploits.
Equally striking is the decency of the Igorrotes who conducted themselves with incredible dignity during their American sojourn despite the most extreme provocation. Ultimately, this is a story of a hero turned villain that makes us question who is civilized and who is savage.
Excerpted from “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century” with permission of Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. © 2014 by Claire Prentice.
Igorrote tribe in a dog feast.
Igorrote tribe on display at Coney Island’s Luna Park.
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After reading the book I wanted to know more about Claire’s research and what she is doing now. I posed a few questions and her answers are posted here.
JIM: What was the original thought that prompted you to want to write this book?
CLAIRE: I had been living in New York, working as a journalist, and one day I took a day trip out to Coney Island, a place I’ve loved for a long time. While I was there I discovered an old black and white photograph of a group of tribesmen, women and children, barefoot and wearing g-strings. The moment I set eyes on them I knew I had to find out who the people in the photo were. Where and when was the picture taken? Where were the tribespeople from? And what had become of them? My research turned into an obsession which has taken over the last three years of my life. Originally I thought I might write an article about the tribespeople but as I uncovered more details about their incredible story, my research turned into a book. As I waded through thousands and thousands of newspaper articles, declassified government documents, ship’s passenger lists, diaries, and private and official correspondence, I gradually pieced together their story. I discovered that the people in the photo were Igorrotes, and that they were from the far north of the Philippines. In 1905 50 of them had been taken thousands of miles from their home to America where they were put on display at Coney Island. There they became a national sensation. They were written about in newspapers coast to coast, and visited by millions of ordinary Americans, along with Broadway stars, anthropologists and even the President’s daughter. My book tracks their trajectory from national sensation to national scandal and finally to a great American tragedy.
JIM: What unique situations from your research would you like to highlight for the readers of this blog? Is there any unique situation/event that you came across in your research that wasn’t included in the book but you might want to share with the readers?
CLAIRE: Researching this book, I read thousands of articles which had been published in newspapers across the US, and which had lain unread by anyone for more than a hundred years. I realized that I probably knew more about what had happened to this group of tribespeople than anyone else in the world. But there were still parts of the story which were proving elusive. I began to worry that, no matter how hard I looked, I might not be able to find every bit of the story. Shortly after that, I spent a memorable day in the New York County Clerk’s Division of Old Records in downtown Manhattan, an extraordinary resource full of old legal papers. At first the archivist couldn’t locate the files I was searching for. They were not on the shelf where they should be. My heart sank. This was a vital part of my story. I begged him to look again. He went off to continue the search. After an agonizing thirty minutes he reappeared carrying a box file and looking triumphant. It had been filed away in the wrong place. In the maze of shelves, it was nothing short of a miracle that he’d found it. I put on a pair of white archivist’s gloves and gingerly opened the file. Inside I discovered much more than I had dared hope for, including the first photograph I had ever seen of Truman Hunt, the Igorrotes’ manager who stole their money and eventually took the tribe on the run across the United States. It felt as though I had been sent that photograph to encourage me to persevere with my research until the very end. I don’t want to give to much away, but inside the box was also evidence that Truman Hunt was a liar and a cheat.
JIM: Have you written any other works that deal with Coney Island or unique places like CI in the UK?
CLAIRE: I haven’t had chance to write about Coney Island or anywhere quite like it (is there anywhere else quite like it???) before and I relished having the opportunity to do so in The Lost Tribe of Coney Island. I’ve always been interested in history and in untold, undiscovered, unusual and off-beat stories. And I’ve been fascinated by Coney Island and its rich history for as long as I can remember. The Lost Tribe of Coney Island combines many of my interests — human interest stories, anthropology, Coney, an undiscovered slice of New York and American history. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing the book, which is just as well given it took over my every waking moment!
JIM: What are you working on now that this book has been published?
CLAIRE: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island was an extraordinary story which was just waiting to be discovered. I think I’ve stumbled on another great story which I’m currently researching with the hope that it too will turn into a book.
Claire Prentice is appearing in conversation with Kevin Baker, the best-selling author of The Big Crowd and the City of Fire trilogy (“Dreamland,” “Strivers Row,” and “Paradise Alley”) at the Mid- Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library on Monday 1 December 2014 at 6.30pm. She is giving an illustrated talk at the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library on Wednesday 10 December at 7pm.
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Saturday December 13th at 1pm.
Claire Prentice is talking about her book at the Coney Island Museum,
1208 Surf Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11224
To purchase copies of the book go here.
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A review appeared in the November 16th issue of The New York Times Book Review.