Book review: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island
By Claire Prentice
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, by arrangement with Amazon Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-544-26228-7
Review copy purchased by reviewer

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

One of the advantages to living in Brooklyn, only a short subway ride away from Coney Island, is that you get to be a frequent visitor to the Coney Island Museum, located right above the Freak Bar on Mermaid Avenue, where they show movies on Saturday nights in the summertime (classics and B-movies, plus cinema suitable for MST3K fans). They also have private shows and book signings. One of these was held in December 2014, where a charming lady named Claire Prentice debuted her new book, “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island”. Being familiar with the Freak Show around the corner from the Freak Bar, I thought this book was about another of the curious peoples exhibited there. So I coaxed my husband to buy me a copy as an early Christmas present.

It turned out to be, in Ms. Prentice’s own words, “…a story about a group of human beings who were betrayed by the man who should have been their protector”. These particular human beings were members of a primitive tribe from the Philippines, called Igorrotes. In the spring of 1905, they were persuaded by a man named Dr. Truman K. Hunt to come to America with him, where he promised they would make a fortune exhibiting themselves at fairs and amusement parks. They made a fortune, all right, but when he finished squandering his share of it, he turned on these innocent, trusting people and stole the hard-earned money they had made putting on exhibitions of their native songs and dances, as well as selling handmade souvenirs.

This Truman Hunt was a real piece of work. If they ever make a movie out of this book, the part of Hunt should be played by Nathan Lane. A more charming, silver-tongued scoundrel I’ve yet to meet in real life. He first came to the Philippines in 1898 with the First Regiment, Washington Infantry, after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. He was a trained physician, assigned to the hospital corp. After being honorably discharged (probably the last honorable thing he ever did), he married his first wife, a German woman named Else (actually his second wife; his first wife died in America shortly after giving birth), and was elected lieutenant governor of Bontoc Province. During the course of his duties, he befriended the Igorrotes, a local tribe of headhunters.

Despite their fearsome reputation, the Igorrotes were really just simple, happy people who liked to party when they weren’t working in the rice fields or hunting for meat. The only heads they hunted were from rival tribes; anybody with tobacco or other trade goods could befriend them. Hunt won them over with his medical skills—much more sophisticated than the local shaman’s—as well as with tobacco and booze.

Some of the Igorrotes had already been to America briefly, long enough to develop a fondness for nice clothes and work that didn’t involve sweating in the sun all day. One of these, a local boy named Julio Balinag, only twenty-one and married to a local girl named Maria, aged eighteen, was determined to go back to America and get rich. So he allowed himself to be persuaded by the silver-tongued American, who convinced him to persuade his fellow tribesmen and women to come with them to America, to show people how they lived.

So a group of fifty Igorrotes, including Julio and his wife, some respected tribal elders, and even a couple of boys under twelve (both of whom were already smoking their long pipes daily, as per tribal custom), went with Hunt to the nearest city, Manila, a two-week journey on foot, to catch a boat to America. After entering our fair country by way of Vancouver, Canada, they took a train across the coast to New York City, where Hunt got them settled in Luna Park, Coney Island, in a miniature replica of their village.

Now, the Igorrotes were Filipinos, with dark brown skin, who wore simple clothing that clashed with the standards of modesty that prevailed back in 1905. They were not your stereotypical African savages who wore animal skins and bones through their noses. They spoke Spanish as well as their own native dialect; some of them could even speak English. But Truman Hunt made a fortune from them by making them act more savage than they really were. For example, roasted dog was a delicacy they enjoyed only on special occasions at home, like weddings and funerals and successful head-hunting forays. But Hunt made them eat it daily here, so that the tourists who paid to see them could watch them kill and butcher a hapless stray dog Hunt had brought in for them daily. Nothing, not even the protests of local animal lovers, the American Humane Association (predecessor of the ASPCA) or even the Igorrotes themselves (who would have preferred to eat chicken or pork with rice and beans like other Latinos), would make Hunter see sense.

Hunter also made up stories about them which he either told to local reporters who came for interviews, or leaked to the press to create publicity. One of the most outrageous was the theft of a little dog named Howard, who kept Judy the elephant company. Hunter had his hired thugs steal the little dog, then mess up the Igorrotes’ village as if a hurricane had hit it. He then told the press that Judy had broken her chains and gone lumbering over to the Igorrotes’ village to rescue her little friend, raising such a ruckus that for a while it looked as if some of the Igorrotes were in danger of being trampled underfoot by the enraged elephant. Happily, the little dog was restored to Judy, who took him and left with her trainer. This and other lies about the Igorrotes only added to the sensation of seeing these “savages” up close.

By the end of the summer, Hunter was dividing the tribe between himself and a fellow entrepreneur so that they could be shown at other fairs up and down the coast. He ignored the Igorrote’s complaints at being separated from family and friends; all he cared about was making as much money as possible off of them. The gentle, trusting Filipinos found it hard to have faith in their friend and guardian when he worked them harder than the dogs they ate, forcing them to perform past midnight after rising early and toiling at their looms and forges to make homespun cloth, long pipes for smoking tobacco, and other cheap souvenirs.

By the time they got to New Orleans, Hunt had blown so much money on liquor, fine food and fancy clothes for himself and his young bride Sallie (whom he had married in New York, without bothering to divorce his previous wife), he was desperate for money. So desperate that he and his assistant Callahan even strip-searched the poor Igorrotes and stole the little money they had hidden in their clothes, after he stopped paying them every week. This was the last straw, as far as Julio and his tribesmen were concerned. So when the law finally caught up to them, in the form of Frederick Barker, a government agent sent to investigate the treatment of the Filipinos, they were all willing to talk.

How this slippery son-of-a-bitch managed to escape justice and send the crestfallen Igorrotes back to their native land poorer but wiser is a tale best told by the book. Rest assured that racism, corruption and political connections played a big part in Truman Hunt’s successful acquittal on charges of unlawful detainment, embezzlement and fraud. “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island” is a book well worth reading, a blast from the past that shines a light on our attitude toward people from other countries, as well as our belief that American ways are best when dealing with simpler cultures and beliefs.