A tale of sex, greed and Filipinos on Coney Island

The World
The Igorrotes sitting around a campfire, and playing up for the camera, at Coney Island in the summer of 1905.

The Filipinos' private car rolled into the train yards just north of New York’s Grand Central Station. It was wet, windy, and not yet daybreak. The train slowed and Julio gazed through the rain-streaked window at the dark, foreboding sky, the cold glass numbing his cheek. Great plumes of smoke billowed out as the train squealed and hissed to a halt. Julio could just make out a group of figures moving around in the murk outside. He strained to get a better look. Suddenly out of the gloom a pale face streaked in oil and grime pressed up against the glass, almost a mirror image of his own.

(Note for readers: this is an excerpt from the new book "The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century" from journalist Claire Prentice)

The trainman couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He shouted to the other men working in the yard to come over. Within a few moments, a group had gathered around. They gawked through the window in slack-jawed amazement. Dark-skinned men and women wearing hardly any clothes peered back at them. One, a child with skin as black as coal, waved. Where, one of the trainmen wondered aloud, were they going? Madison Square Garden? To the port to catch a ship back to wherever they had come from? No, it must be Coney Island, insisted another, that was where the freaks of the world ended up. The trainmen would certainly have a story to tell their families that night. The foreman shouted at them to get back to work.

The engineer let off the brakes, and the train trundled down the track toward Grand Central. It was just before 5:15 a.m. on Monday, May 15, 1905, when the Igorrotes’ car pulled up to the platform, giving a jolt, which woke the handful of tribespeople who were sleeping under a pile of rough military blankets. Grand Central was accustomed to welcoming eight hundred trains and seventy-five thousand passengers daily, but it had never seen a cargo like this. The Igorrotes experienced a now familiar blend of excited bewilderment. They had journeyed halfway across the world, and had rattled across eleven US states, through wide-open plains and busy railroad junctions. They had grown accustomed to new sights and sounds but nothing could have prepared them for their arrival in America’s greatest city.

Outside, newspaper reporters and photographers jostled to get a view of the savages through the windows. They turned to each other as if to confirm what they were seeing. “The men looked the part of head-hunters with a vengeance,” observed one. “Both the men and women were tattooed from head to foot, the marks on the chest of some of the men indicating . . . that they were fully-fledged harvesters of heads. The women sat in the window smoking big, black cigars with great contentment, and one of them had two spools attached to large pieces of wire in her ears. Both sexes wore large brass earrings which were remarkably suggestive of the dog tags used in this city.”

Truman Hunt was usually cool under pressure. But today was different. After more than six months of planning, it was almost time for the show to begin. He could hardly wait. The Igorrotes were going to be the talk of Coney Island. No, of the nation. Before they left the train, he gave them a pep talk. Truman was an enthusiastic, if sometimes inexact, speaker of the Bontoc language. None of the tribe could mistake the energy of what he was saying but Julio had to step in from time to time to help when Truman couldn’t find the right words. The tribespeople were to be on their best behavior. Those who knew some English were permitted to speak to the reporters, provided they didn’t stray from the script they’d rehearsed with Truman and Julio on the journey.

Egged on by Truman, Fomoaley pushed to the front and puffed out his chest as he posed for the cameras. Around his neck the chief wore strings of beads decorated with what looked like human hair. Truman pointed out the tattoos on his body, which indicated his prowess as a headhunter. This was not the first time several of the photographers had stood this close to a murderer but, they thought, this one seemed remarkably good-humored. Hold up your spear and look angry so we can get a picture of you in a ferocious pose, shouted one of the photographers. Smiling graciously, the headhunter obliged.

Reporters crowded around the Igorrotes and began shouting out questions. What do you think of America? Is it true that you eat dogs? Will you be hunting human heads here in America? Truman had a well-rehearsed answer at the ready. “The only heads they will take in this country will be those of the goddess of Liberty, inscribed on the good American dollar, at gay Coney Island this summer,” he said.

A short distance from where the Igorrotes stood, the new season at Coney Island was already underway. The sweet smell of cotton candy mingled with the salty sea air. Ballyhoo men yelled, music blared, and men, women, and children swarmed off steamboats, trains, and open trams, dressed in their finery for the occasion and intent on having fun. They had come from all over New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

Coney Island was made of tall tales. The birthplace of the hot dog and the roller coaster, it was the poor man’s paradise, offering sensation for a nickel. By the early twentieth century, it was America’s most popular sea-side resort. On summer Sundays a quarter of a million people could be found in its three big amusement parks — Luna Park, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland. “If Paris is France, then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world,” declared Steeplechase’s owner, George Tilyou.

It was ten thirty in the morning and the park not yet open when the Igorrotes arrived. The tribespeople walked past the gates leading to a dozen other attractions, unable to read the signs announcing the thrilling rides and spectacles waiting inside.

Finally, on Saturday, May 20, 1905, a week behind schedule, the Igorrote Village opened to the public. Crowds thronged Stillwell and Surf Avenues. Sixty thousand people surged through the gates of Luna Park. Many made straight for the Igorrote Village.

The architecture of the village was very loosely based on the Igorrote settlements of northern Luzon. Igorrote homes in the Philippines were typically squat structures, too small for a full-grown adult to stand up in. They were dirty, dark, and damp with low thatched roofs and mud floors. Rice and corn hung from the roof beams to dry.

At Luna Park, Truman Americanized the design, making the huts taller and more spacious to accommodate visitors to the park and adding a front door flanked on either side by white wooden shutters to make them look more appealing to American eyes. These would help keep out Coney’s bright lights but did little to keep the resort’s noise at bay. Over the following weeks the Igorrotes would build and rebuild these structures, so that visitors could see them involved in constant activity.

The Igorrotes were miners and agricultural workers at home, renowned for their highly skilled irrigation and cultivation techniques, which enabled them transform even the steepest mountainside into thriving rice terraces. There was no room for rice terraces or mines at Luna Park, so Truman had them erect a copper-smelting plant across from the medicine man’s hut, which the Igorrotes would use to make their smoking pipes, along with jewelry and other trinkets to sell to their visitors. Under their agreement with Truman, along with their monthly wages of fifteen dollars each, they could keep all the money they raised from selling souvenirs — rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, textiles, spears, and shields. As the visitors milled around, Julio invited a group of American men to throw coins to a distance of about five yards from where several Igorrote boys stood. The men obliged. The boys took aim and fired their arrows at the coins. When one of them made a bad miss, laughter rang through the village as the others teased him.

Do the boys hunt heads? someone in the crowd wanted to know. But before Truman could answer, Fomoaley let out a yell. The Igorrotes laid down their tools. One by one they walked forward and began to form a circle around Fomoaley, who stood erect. Truman informed the crowd that this man was the tribal chief. Quietly at first, Fomoaley began to utter a stream of guttural sounds. Gradually his voice grew louder and more rhythmic as the rest of the tribe joined in his chant. Their chant turned to song and the Igorrotes began to sway in time to the beat of the tom-tom drums. Truman decided that he would let the strange scene speak for itself. He watched with a satisfied smile as the crowd of onlookers grew until there wasn’t an inch of standing room to be found.

Women pushed to the front of the crowd; children were lifted onto their fathers’ shoulders. A young Igorrote man struck a gong and the chief picked up a thin strip of bamboo. Another tribesman appeared carrying a live hen. Fomoaley lifted his hand and closed his eyes as if in silent prayer. What happened next led several people, men among them, to faint. With a flash, the tribal chief lowered his hand and began to beat the bird with the bamboo strip, first its wings, then its neck and finally its head, his strokes growing faster and faster.

Women threw their hands up to cover their eyes. Young boys looked on with morbid delight. The crowd gasped as the bird fell dead.

Fomoaley picked the hen up by its rubbery orange feet and held it over the fire, burning its feathers to a crisp and rubbing them off with sticks. Then, with one deft stroke, he sliced open its stomach and, with a flick of his wrist, ripped out the blue-green tangle of its guts. A young Igorrote man held out a small ceramic beaker to catch the blood. When enough of the dark red liquid had dripped inside, Fomoaley lifted the cup and, chanting quietly under his breath, walked over to his hut. There, watched over by the medicine man, he sprinkled a few drops of blood over the roof. One by one the men of the village came forward and took the beaker, each sprinkling the hen’s blood over a hut. It was exactly as they had rehearsed it. Truman spoke again, informing the crowd that this was a tribal custom intended to ward off evil. The onlookers stood in stunned silence.

The sacrifice of the hen brought the American Humane Association knocking on Truman’s door. They had received a number of complaints about the bloody incident and arrived at Luna Park to investigate. Truman put up a rigorous defense of the practice, explaining that it was an important Igorrote custom. As well as blessing their homes, Truman said that the bird’s slaughter was part of a sacred funeral rite, held to mark the sad passing of their tribal elder in Seattle, which the group had been unable to commemorate while they were traveling. After a few words in the right ears, the authorities accepted Truman’s explanation.

But the controversy surrounding the incident with the hen was nothing compared to that which would soon be provoked by another tribal ritual. Less than a week after the opening of the Igorrote Village, a woman turned up in a state of agitation, claiming her beloved dog, Prince, had been devoured by the Filipinos. According to Mrs. Mary Jackman, she had been visiting Luna Park with Prince and, after she was distracted by a circus performer, she turned around to find her pet dog had gone. At first Mrs. Jackman assumed the dog had found its own way home, but when she returned and discovered her house empty, she pointed the finger of blame at the Filipinos.

The Coney police were called in to question the Igorrotes, with Julio and Truman translating. When that failed to yield results, Truman promised to undertake his own investigation under the watchful gaze of the Coney crowd. With Julio in tow, he mounted a theatrical search of the Igorrote enclosure. The public looked on eagerly as the two men searched the Igorrotes’ homes, rifling through their possessions before emerging every now and again to show that their hands were empty. Then Truman went over to a native kettle, sitting beside the fire. When he peered inside it, he discovered a number of bones. Holding them up, he declared that they “may belong to Prince.”

This show served its purpose. Cartoons appeared in the newspapers depicting the Igorrotes stealing dogs from American homes. CHAIN UP YOUR DOG, screamed the headlines. No one seemed to notice (or care) that Mrs. Jackman was the wife of the proprietor of Coney’s musical railways and a neighbor of Truman’s. In every sense the disappearance of Prince was an inside job. The American Humane Association came calling again. Truman was ready for them and insisted the dog feasts were a vital part of tribal life and could not be stopped.

With combined glee and revulsion, the New York press reported that dog was the only meat the Igorrotes ever ate. In reality, the Igorrotes only ate dog meat on special occasions like weddings, funerals, and after a successful head-hunting foray, but Truman had a showman’s impulse not to let the facts interfere with a good story. He informed the public that young, short-haired dogs of around four years of age were regarded by the Igorrotes to be the tastiest and were typically served boiled with sweet potatoes.

The sacrifice of a dog was an important Igorrote custom and, though they were reluctant to say anything at first, some of the tribe felt the daily dog feasts at Coney were undermining their cultural significance. Not only that, but their bodies couldn’t digest all of the meat that they were being given. On behalf of them all, the tribal chief approached Julio with a request that they be allowed to return to a more varied and authentic diet of chicken, pork, fish, rice, beans, and vegetables, with occasional servings of dog.

Over the coming weeks, the Igorrotes cemented their reputation as Coney’s biggest attraction. The public couldn’t get enough of them. Those who could afford to returned again and again. Some visitors had favorite Igorrotes, typically children, for whom they brought gifts and money. There were offers of adoption, education, and patronage. They received parcels of clothes, candies, and cigars from all over the country.

Soon the Igorrotes’ fame spread across the country. Souvenir postcards had been popular since the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. By the time the Igorrotes arrived at Coney, stalls up and down the beachfront were selling hundreds of thousands of postcards each week, featuring photographs of the Eskimos, the Lilliputian village, and the big wheel. Vacationers scrawled messages on them boasting of the fun they were having and sent them to friends and family back home. One of the most popular postcards in the summer of 1905 featured a tall man dressed as Uncle Sam in red and white striped trousers, a blue jacket, and a top hat. There was nothing special about Uncle Sam, an out-of-work actor who strode the boardwalk all day, drumming up interest in Coney’s attractions. But surrounding him and looking up at Uncle Sam was a family of diminutive Igorrotes. The image symbolized an encounter between two worlds. Just ten miles from downtown Manhattan, metropolis of the modern age, Stone Age men and women were living in a village by the sea.

Excerpted from "The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century" (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest) with permission of the publisher. © 2014 by Claire Prentice.

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