Dioramas and panoramas, freaks and magicians, waxworks and menageries, obscure relics, and stuffed animals–a dazzling assortment of curiosities attracted the gaze of the nineteenth-century spectator at the dime museum. This distinctly American phenomenon was unprecedented in both the diversity of its amusements and in its democratic appeal, with audiences traversing the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and class. Andrea Stulman Dennett’s ‘Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America’ recaptures this ephemeral and scarcely documented institution of American culture from the margins of history.
Weird and Wonderful chronicles the evolution of the dime museum from its eighteenth-century inception as a “cabinet of curiosities” to its death at the hands of new amusement technologies in the early twentieth century. From big theaters that accommodated audiences of three thousand to meager converted storefronts exhibiting petrified wood and living anomalies, this study vividly reanimates the array of museums, exhibits, and performances that make up this entertainment institution. Tracing the scattered legacy of the dime museum from vaudeville theater to Ripley’s museum to the talk show spectacles of today, Dennett makes a significant contribution to the history of American popular entertainment.
“The book should prove interesting to readers of American social history, and particularly enjoyable for museum and entertainment professionals.”
“This book was a great read and provided the information I was hoping to learn about nineteenth-century dime museums. All the information on the subject seems to be scattered about and often lacking. This book ties it together in a succinct yet informative text.”
“Weird and Wonderful is a well researched and very readable account of the (mostly) 19th-century phenomenon commonly known as dime museums. While they were themselves short-lived, the influence of dime museums extends far and wide throughout our culture – from Discovery Channel programming and blockbuster museum exhibits to freak show revivals and viral videos.”
Wonder through the carnival grounds to the sideshow and feast your eyes on the amazing curious people that perform for your entertainment.
~ Jeff Krulik on Traveling Sideshow-Shocked and Amazed ~
I trace it all back to buying a paperback of Very Special People on a 7th-grade field trip. On the bus back to school, my classmates and I sat mesmerized by the human oddities within. Or maybe it was an animal freak show under a tent at the neighborhood carnival one year, with the five-legged cows and pickled pig fetuses on display. My Dad even collected stamps that were known as freaks, or oddities, that were just mechanical mistakes, and I of course followed suit at my junior stamp club. So maybe there’s something in my DNA that drew me to the Shocked and Amazed book series as a customer at Atomic Books in Baltimore, where I soon after made the acquaintance of one James Taylor since I felt confident we’d speak the same lingo. At this time in the mid-90s I was also winging it as a freelance producer after a multi-year stint on staff at Discovery Channel; I had wanted to get my hands dirty making TV documentaries instead of watching other people have all the fun (or misery), so I dove headfirst into the world of independent production, successful or otherwise. Cut to 1999 when James’ American Dime Museum opened up right next door to Atomic Books, and I showed up with my new camera to record what was unfolding. About this time, a benevolent friend (and the man who came up with Shark Week for Discovery Channel) became head of programming for Travel Channel, and I pitched the idea of taking “Shocked and Amazed” from the printed word to the TV screen. It worked. And a TV gig was born, modeled after my lifelong interest and partnering with James’ brand. It should have just been called “Shocked and Amazed!” but because Travel Channel was commissioning it the full name became “Traveling Sideshow: Shocked and Amazed!” Fine. We could live with that title compromise because here was a chance to go as far and as wide as we could on the subject of freaks and circus sideshows, hoping it could turn into a multi-part series. We shot glorious amounts of footage from road trips to the Sideshow Gathering in Wilkes Barre, to Manhattan and Brooklyn and Gibsonton, Florida. I kept thinking what we don’t use here will be for parts 2, 3, etc. Any production features many peaks and valleys and this one was no exception. Many of the high points are right on the screen, and additionally, I had enough foresight to save copies of all the footage. Most TV works-for-hire require all source material turned over, and I obliged. But not before making copies of everything, hence my ability to preserve Ward Hall’s roast at Inkin the Valley/Sideshow Gathering in 2002, as well as his tangential connection to the Rolling Stones, both of which I have posted on YouTube. But there were some disappointments too, including our very first ambitious crew shoot, a four-hour drive to Bloomsburg PA Fair to see the California Hell
Drivers, ruined by torrential rain. Or even more heartbreaking, my production assistant unable to rendezvous with Presto the Magician to reunite him with his Hubert’s Freak Museum colleague Hovey Burgess. Oh what could have been. And of course, the whole thing was shelved right after production because Travel Channel went in another direction (word had it that some hi-level suit took offense at the “Jim Rose Twisted Tour” series already being aired). Nothing personal but that’s showbiz. Our program eventually aired a few years later on a digital channel so obscure I can’t even recall by name, but I since took to sharing it online via YouTube, Vimeo, etc. which is how it continues to find new audiences today. There are a few people that need special mention, and I couldn’t have done this without them. My “with it and for it” coproducer Adam Eisenberg who turned over the bedroom in his house for an edit suite. And to the dear departed Kathleen Kotcher, James’ publishing partner who was such an asset to the production, as well as the preservation of sideshow history. My thanks and good wishes and I hope you enjoy Shocked and Amazed!
I can’t tell you when nor where I met Jeff Krulik, filmmaker to the real world, you know, the folks who seek the “other” showbiz, the other forms of education that come from discovering the strange, the bizarre, the weird, the odd and the unusual. All us oddballs. I’d known of Jeff for years c/o his cult classic, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” but no, I can’t say when nor where he and I first connected, but I can tell you what we talked about: We talked about sideshow. And “weirdness as entertainment,” to re-coin filmmaker Fred Olen Ray’s line.
And the topic of discussion between Krulik & me centered on the idea of a show that would air not as a single doc (which you’re about to watch) but as regular programming, airing weekly, a show that presented novelty & variety acts in all their glory, connecting all the talent across the broad spectrum of the “new” sideshow that was being ushered in at the beginning of this century. That was the idea, anyway, Jeff having crossed paths with my “Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway,” still the world’s only journal devoted to the history of novelty & variety exhibition; ok: sideshow. And Krulik was ready to rock & roll.
Sadly, we – Krulik, Kathleen Kotcher (my late partner and this documentary’s co-producer), and I – watched the project go from a proposed series to, well, this hour-long doc. Which wasn’t aired for nearly two years after production wrapped. But that doesn’t diminish the product one iota. Not one jot. You see, still, “Traveling Sideshow – Shocked and Amazed!” is one of a damn tiny number of essential documentaries on this end of the showbiz, picking up on the business at that seminal moment when the business, about to explode into the mainstream, was starting to boil up, attracting more & more talent into this strangest – but oldest, historically – form of distraction. Of amusement. Of entertainment. And while we were (and remain) disappointed that our dream of a series didn’t pan out, there’s this visual record of not only what was but what is, since the business we all love – in its current iteration – was birthed, as much as, in front of Krulik’s cameras. And we should all thank him for that.
Certainly one of the most interesting forms of popular entertainment America has experienced. Now – with the pandemic and final curtain call for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus…what is next?
Here is a wonderful excerpt from the American Experience special titled “The Circus”.
This four-hour mini-series tells the story of one of the most popular and influential forms of entertainment in American history. Through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential impresarios of the late nineteenth century, this series reveals the circus was a uniquely American entertainment created by a rapidly expanding and industrializing nation; that it embraced and was made possible by Western imperialism; that its history was shaped by a tension between its unconventional entertainments and prevailing standards of respectability; and that its promise for ordinary people was the possibility for personal reinvention. For many Americans, the circus embodied the improbable and the impossible, the exotic, and the spectacular. Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive and featuring a host of performers, historians, and aficionados, The Circus follows the rise and fall of the gigantic, traveling tented railroad circus and brings to life an era when Circus Day would shut down a town and its stars were among the most famous people in the country.
When you visit Coney Island USA you have an odd feeling you have stepped into another time. This ‘not-for-profit’ corporation is dedicated to ‘popular entertainment’ and like the rest of Coney Island, it means fun and excitement.
Dick Zigun is the founder of this wonderful oasis and has created a “Sideshow Hall of Fame” for all of us that are a ‘little different’.
Here he explains it all for you in this Vaudevisuals interview.
Just in time for Halloween, Dixon Place and Vaudevisuals present legendary punk rock magician Cardone in his vintage spookshow The House of Ghostly Haunts. The show will be performed for one night only on October 30, 2018.
A master magician with remarkable sideshow flair, Cardone moves seamlessly from magic to mentalism to ventriloquism, offering an unforgettable evening of astonishing illusions and a few spine-tingling scares. The show revives the spookshows of yesteryear for a 21st century audience, with Cardone swallowing razor blades, escaping from a strait jacket, and performing dangerous feats and astounding acts of prestidigitation before unleashing a parade of poltergeists in a spooktacular blackout finale.
Begun in the 1930s by the magician Elwin-Charles Peck, early spookshows turned spiritualism into and evening of entertainment. Instead of a serious attempt to communicate with dead loved ones, the illusions associated with spiritualism were presented as eerie tricks and harmless scares. Later, spookshows moved to movie theatres and started riffing off of B horror films and monster movies. Spiritualist hosts were replaced by mad scientists and spookshows became more gruesome with decapitations, limb severing, and impalement. By the 1960s the gimmicky tricks of the spookshow started to seem quaint, and after The Exorcist, the nature of horror movies changed dramatically. Audiences disappeared and spookshows vanished from popular entertainment.
Bringing back the spookshow tradition with The House of Ghostly Haunts, Cardone serves up a madcap night of macabre illusions. A hybrid of magic, horror, and sideshow banter, The House of Ghostly Haunts is a family-friendly interactive show full of chuckles and chills.
Cardone is an award winning magician, escape artist, and ventriloquist. The first person to perform the deadly Milk Can Escape at Coney Island USA, he was inducted in the prestigious “Order of Merlin” from the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
An artistic incubator since 1986, Dixon Place is a Bessie and Obie Award-winning non-profit institution committed to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theater, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, literature & visual art at all stages of development.
Vaudevisuals.com celebrates the eccentric performance arts and is led by Jim Moore an American photographer who has documented the variety arts since the 1970s. His photographs helped Philippe Petit plan his tightrope-walking stunt between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and were prominently featured in the Oscar-winning film Man on Wire. In November, “Vaudevisuals.com”, the chronicle of ‘eccentric’ performing arts will be 9 years old.
Coney Island has been a mecca for the popular culture for whatever era you were from!
Coney Island, 1945 (AP Images)
1937 Coney Island Aerial Shot.
In 1960 I won a trip to Steeplechase Park by selling numerous subscriptions to a newspaper. The trip was very special since the park was to be closed down in 1964.
“Steeplechase Park was an amusement park in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York created by George C. Tilyou (1862–1914) which operated from 1897 to 1964. It was the first of the three original iconic large parks built on Coney Island, the other two being Luna Park (1903) and Dreamland (1904). Steeplechase was Coney Island’s longest lasting park. Unlike Dreamland, which burned in a fire in 1911, and Luna Park which, despite early success, saw its profitability disappear during the Great Depression, Steeplechase had kept itself financially profitable. The Tilyou family had been able to adapt the park to the changing times, bringing in new rides and new amusements to Steeplechase such as the Parachute Jump.”
The amusement areas at Coney Island — Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Park — made it the largest amusement area in the nation from the end of the 19th century through World War II.
This photograph taken in May of 1943 show a couple riding the ‘steeplechase’ ride that was the ‘signature’ ride for the Steeplechase Park. None of the three original amusement parks are there anymore, thanks to several fires and closures. A new version of Luna Park opened in 2010.
August 1948 photograph and today the crowds are still there every summer.
The beach at Coney Island is particularly loved by all folks from all parts of New York.
The Wonder Wheel is the oldest ride in the area. It has been operating since 1918 and is now known as a National Historic Landmark.
One of the unique institutions still existing on Coney Island is “Coney Island USA“.
Still emitting that ‘old Coney Island’ feeling, this bunch of wonderful folks bring you many forms of entertainment.
I met Joe Smith (Feb. 16, 1884 – Feb 22, 1981) at “The Conference on Popular Entertainment.” (1978) a convention produced at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. Each day was devoted to a unique form of Popular Entertainment. Tent Shows, Burlesque, Vaudeville, etc.
I attended the Conference every day but was especially interested in Vaudeville since I was a big fan of Joe Smith and his long-time partner Charles Dale ‘born Charlie Marks’ (Sep 6, 1885 – Nov. 16, 1971) Joe Smith was the only remaining half of Smith & Dale still alive. Joe was 92 years old that day when he came out on stage and did an excerpt from the routine “Dr. Kronkheit”.
After the performance, I spoke to Joe Smith, and he invited me to lunch at his residence in New Jersey to talk about his days in Vaudeville. I drove out to the Actor’s Fund Home in Englewood, NJ the following week to have lunch with Joe.
I picked him up at home and, we went to a local diner. It was great to sit down and eat lunch with this wonderful, legendary comedian/vaudevillian. His stories were delightful and funny! His memories of working with the Marx Brothers and Sarah Bernhardt at the Palace were amazing in the detail and emotional context.
I invited him to attend an upcoming event I was producing. A Benefit to raise money for The New York Variety Arts Theater at Theater of the Open Eye. It was to occupy a theater at 42nd St and 9th Ave. Phase 2 of the ’42nd St Redevelopment Project’. It had started and was now ready to begin renovating more buildings further West. Our New York Variety Theater was to be one of them.
The Benefit was great! Joe Smith became the ‘Honorary Chairman’ of the project and commented on ‘how wonderful it was to see Vaudeville still alive’ as he watched the show.
I visited him several more times and we had lunch and talked about Vaudeville. He died in Feb 1981.
Ron Hutchinson from “The Vitaphone Project” was interested in Smith & Dale and came across their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1953. I would like to Thank Ron for getting me this DVD of the show. Featured on this show was their famous “Dr. Kronkheit” routine.
Also posted here is the “Fireman Sketch” from the 1950’s TV show “Cavalcade of Stars”. They also performed on various television shows of the time, such as “Window on the World” and “Toast of the Town”.
Not a great copy of the routine here but it is all the was preserved!
Smith & Dale vintage album cover with some of their routines.
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Some background on the Comedy Duo
Smith and Dale were the archetypical vaudeville male two-act. When one thinks of a “vaudeville comedy team”, one thinks of something like Smith & Dale. Neil Simon based his play The Sunshine Boys on their act, although their offstage relationship wasn’t as dire as depicted—that part was based on Gallagher and Sheen.
Joe Smith and Charlie Dale grew up in the Jewish ghettos of New York City. Sultzer and Marks met as teenagers in 1898 and formed a partnership. They named their act “Smith and Dale” because a local printer gave them a good deal on business cards reading “Smith and Dale” (intended for a vaudeville team that had dissolved). Joe Sultzer became Joe Smith, and Charlie Marks became Charlie Dale.
By 1902 they joined two singing comedians, Irving Kaufman and Harry Godwin in a team known as The Avon Comedy Four. The act became one of the most successful comedy turns in vaudeville. For over 15 years they were top-of-the-bill performers on Broadway.
Later, as Smith & Dale, the two used a heavy Jewish dialect, with Smith speaking in a deep, pessimistic voice and Dale in a high, wheedling tenor.
During the 1920s, they became famous for their signature sketch “Doctor Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient,” which like “Who’s on First?” for Abbott and Costello, became one of the famous comedy sketches of the 20th century. The name of the doctor is an inside joke: Smith and Dale, both being Jewish, named the physician Kronkheit, which is Yiddish (and also German) for sickness. Thus we have that very oddly named medical professional Dr. Sickness. Indeed a hospital in Germany is called aKrankenhaus, or literally a sick house.
Their act can be seen (to excellent advantage) in the feature film The Heart of New York (1932).
The partnership, known among entertainers as the longest in show-business history, endured until Charlie Marks’s death at age 89, on November 16, 1971. Sultzer continued to perform, mainly in guest appearances on television sitcoms, until his death on February 22, 1981, at the age of 97.
So close were Smith and Dale that they are buried in the same plot, with a common headstone. The gravestone notes the name of the three people buried there, Dale and his wife Mollie and the unmarried Smith. Smith is identified only by his show business name of Joe Smith, while his partner is listed as Charles Dale Marks and Dale’s wife is listed as Mollie Dale Marks. The larger printing higher on the stone says SMITH & DALE, to which Smith had added the words BOOKED SOLID. So even in death there is still seen their cleverness and humor.
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.
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.