Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Troubling History Lesson from Mr. Coney Island

It is easy for those of us who love Coney Island to fall into the trap of over idealizing Coney Island's heyday. In reality, there were many deeply problematic aspects involving the legendary amusement parks of Coney Island. The Coney Island History Project's 'Ask Mr. Coney Island' recently delved into one such episode, in response to a question from a UC San Diego PhD student studying indigenous Latin American communities:

The Bolivian Indian Village exhibit was located on Tilyou Walk at the Ocean, at what would now be West 16th Street. Indigenous natives were common attractions at Coney Island at the end of the nineteenth century, and the humane treatment of the odd visitors became a cause for reformers who monitored the shows for abuses. American Indians, Philippine tribesmen, and Eskimos were among those displayed in re-creations of their native habitats.

This zoo like treatment of indigenous peoples was of course all of a piece with Dreamland's Lilliputia (an artificially constructed community of little people), and the display of sideshow 'freaks,' such as conjoined twins, the obese, giants, tattooed ladies, and people with various abnormalities.

According to the Coney Island History Site, the mastermind behind both Lilliputia and the importation and display of many non-white/non-American people (from places such as the Philippines, Somalia, Burma, and Borneo) was one Samuel W. Gumpertz. Then there was the famous P.T. Barnum, who simply passed off a local black Brooklynite as the 'Wild Man of Borneo.'

Ask Mr. Coney Island: Indigenous Communities [Coney Island History Project]

- post by Ben Nadler

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