Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice

It's really hard when reading a book about an earlier time period, not to impose our modern feelings on any aspect that we find distasteful or inhuman. But while we cannot change our own feelings, we must try to read the book without too much judgment. That is indeed very difficult to do when reading Claire Prentice's impeccably researched non-fiction tale, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, about a tribe of Filipino people brought to the US and exhibited like zoo animals at Coney Island and across the country, a group of people who were treated appallingly badly, were lied to, were stolen from, were dismissed as ignorant savages, and to top it all off, were then failed egregiously in the American judicial system.

In 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair, a tribe from the Philippines called the Igorrotes were a wildly popular part of the exhibitions. In light of this, a former army officer who had spent time in the Philippines doctoring to the tribe and who had been a part of the group that brought the Bontoc Igorrotes to this country for the World's Fair, decided that he wanted to bring another group to the US to exhibit them around the country in a commercial venture. The US government agreed to his initial plan, giving him the right and responsibility for the well-being of the people.

Truman Hunt was initially benevolent and caring and the tribe members felt as if he was their friend. He personally chose the 51 members of the tribe who would be allowed to accompany him to the US, promising them monthly pay and the proceeds from any souvenir sales they made in return for a year in the US.  People flocked to him to be considered. Once he had assembled the group, they made their way to the coast and embarked for a long and ultimately horrific experience in the US. When they arrived, Hunt made a token effort to display the group in an educational manner as he had promised the US government he would but quickly backed out of that agreement and headed to Coney Island to Luna Park where the Igorrotes became the biggest, most profitable exhibit of the season. Billed as head-hunting, dog-eating savages, the Igorrotes settled into the boring mundanity of a life purporting to be faithful to their life at home but in actual fact without any real purpose. Right from the start, their usual way of life was sensationalized and exaggerated in order to draw people in and increase ticket sales. The Igorrotes wore very little clothing in comparison to the Americans gawking at them. They sported tattoos inked after taking an enemy's head, and they celebrated major events with a dog feast. In America, they existed mainly to be looked at and to eat dog at every opportunity, something that tribe members would tell the interpreter was disrespectful of their actual culture but which would not be remedied.

Hunt quickly changed from a considerate guardian of the people to an avaricious huckster, seeding the newspapers with false stories about the tribe, creating things out of whole cloth, and treating the Igorrotes as ignorant side show exhibits rather than as human beings. If that wasn't enough, Hunt became even more greedy and brutal, forcibly stealing the money that the Igorrotes had hidden from him as their trust for him deteriorated and compelling them to live in appalling conditions. Personally Hunt was in trouble as well, being charged with bigamy, a charge he evaded, and then tracked by the government, which had finally woken up to Hunt's abuse and misuse of the Igorrotes, a potentially charged political situation.

The treatment these people endured at Hunt's hands is atrocious. That the media aided and abetted Hunt by printing his assertions and tall tales without bothering to check into even one of them is reprehensible and the height of yellow journalism. That the judicial system valued fraternal connections over the truth is completely and indefensibly shameful. Prentice's careful and extensive research brings this forgotten chapter of our history to vivid and disturbing life. She tells the story as if it was fictional, allowing herself to discuss what the people involved were thinking or feeling at each stage and while this is often supported by quotes from the individuals in question, sometimes she goes just over the line in trying to develop a person's character. She has easily shown Hunt as the con man he was and the devious ways he found to exploit the Igorrotes for his own profit. The Igorrotes, though, remain much more mysterious as individuals, perhaps because so few of them spoke English and so there's little reliable record of their feelings on their experiences beyond the court records in the end. Prentice does offer as much information as she could uncover to tell readers what happened to many of the major players in the story and that is much appreciated. The tale as a whole speaks to our fascination, a fascination that unfortunately continues to this day, with "otherness" and to the way that we are nowhere near as civilized, caring, and compassionate as might be hoped.

For more information about Claire Prentice and the book, take a look at her web page or at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. Ooh, this sounds fascinating. Gotta love a book that shines light on a forgotten dark spot in history.

  2. "we are nowhere near as civilized, caring, and compassionate as might be hoped." I think that we often forget that the people of previous time periods are people just like we are today, and that we have a dark side of our own just like they did back then.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour for this fascinating book!


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