December 13th, 2014

rotting doll.

Review: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century
by Claire Prentice

In the summer of 1905, entrepreneur Truman Hunt offered 51 members of the Igorrotes the opportunity of a lifetime: come to the United States and make a fortune teaching Americans about the lifestyle of a primitive tribe from the Philippines. They agreed, and in a few months the Igorrote group was a headline attraction in Luna Park at Coney Island. At first, things seemed to go well: the Igorrotes built a village like the one they’d left behind and performed the rituals of their tribe before an appreciative audience. But as time passed, it became clear that Hunt was exploiting the tribe, refusing to pay their wages and constantly uprooting them as he landed bigger contracts with other theme parks. After charges of bigamy brought the eye of the law upon him, Hunt split up the tribe and took their show on the road, often housing the Igorrote in appalling conditions. Fearing an international incident, the US government became determined to track him down, but Hunt proved to be a surprisingly cunning and slippery adversary.

The exploitation faced by the Igorrotes would be unthinkable today, and it’s shocking to read just how desperate their situation was. Not only were they unfamiliar with American manners and faced with the racism of 19th century culture, only one member of the tribe spoke English fluently. Hunt withheld their wages, claiming he would pay them when they were ready to return to the Philippines – but despite their desperate pleading he refused to arrange return passage for any of them. If they managed to hide some cash from him – visitors would often gift them with coins or pay them for small handcrafted goods – Hunt was not above beating the Igorrotes until he found their hidden stash of coins. Without federal intervention, he likely would have worked them to death, or abandoned them when their sideshow ceased to draw in the crowds.

Hunt himself seems to have been a classic huckster. Before he brought the Igorrote over to the United States, he had a great reputation in the Philippines. Hunt was known to be a benevolent doctor who helped care for the natives. But once he got them over here, he fed outrageous lies to the newspapers to drum up business for his “savages” and made a mockery of some of the Igorrotes’ customs. One of the passages that really stuck with me was one describing the Igorrote asking Hunt to please reduce the number of “dog feasts” that they must celebrate, as the frequency of the practice seemed disrespectful of their culture and they wanted to go back to their traditional diet. He refused because the dog feasts were a huge crowd pleaser. Worse, Hunt spent his money quickly and lavishly, and was often in debt. If he had wanted to pay the Igorrotes their wages, he lacked the financial means to do so, even though they were the most popular attraction on Coney Island and making money hand over fist.

The story of the Igorrote is largely forgotten today, but this obscure history makes for fascinating reading. A tale of true crime and cultural exploitation, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island it was one of the most interesting things I read in 2014.

5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Yellowcake: Stories by Margo Lanagan
2012: The Maid by Kimberly Cutter
2011: Fashionista Piranha Book Blog is on hold for a few weeks!
2010: Closing down for end of the year Festivus...
2009: Photos: Most Beautiful Libraries from Around the World
2008: Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel by Mary Shelley