Claire Prentice’s ‘Lost Tribe of Coney Island’

Source: NYT Book Review

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Claire Prentice’s ‘Lost Tribe of Coney Island’ – NYTimes.com

In 1904, two years after America’s victory in the Philippine-American War, the United States government tried to put the best face on its colonization of the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. Thirteen hundred Filipinos from a dozen tribes were put on display at the St. Louis Exposition, in replicas of their home villages, intended to reinforce an underlying message that our “little brown brothers,” in the words of William Howard Taft, were not ready to govern themselves. The most popular exhibit in this “human zoo” were the Igorrotes, who ate dog meat and hunted heads. The man in charge of the Igorrote village, Truman Hunt, had served as a medical doctor during the war and stayed on, eventually rising to become the lieutenant governor of Bontoc Province.

When the exposition closed, Hunt returned to the Philippines to audition his own band of dog-eating headhunters and bring them to America to tour venues around the country for a year. Comprising 51 men, women and children, the group eventually made its way to Coney Island, where they became the hit of Luna Park in the summer of 1905. The Igorrotes performed countless shows for thousands of day-trippers: mock battles, dog feasts, sham weddings, dances and craft displays, all in their makeshift compound, ruled by a chief appointed by Hunt, and outfitted with a “headhunters’ watchtower” and a quarters for a “medicine man.”

Hunt’s evil genius was in dreaming up one exploitive and sensational publicity stunt after another to keep a novelty-­addicted public titillated. He hatched a scheme in which the Igorrotes would throw a dog into their stew pot, to provoke his elephant companion to break her shackles and tear apart the village in a bid to save her beloved. The public didn’t witness the scene, of course, but the newspapermen who toured the aftermath of the destruction gladly sold it to them.

In the months that followed, Hunt made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Igorrotes — on top of ticket receipts, enthralled bystanders threw coins at the feet of the performers. Instead of allowing the Igorrotes to keep their tips from the crafts they sold, as he had promised, he insisted that they turn over the proceeds for safekeeping. He withheld their salaries as well.

What followed over the next year and a half, as chronicled by Claire Prentice in “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island,” was the enslavement of the Igorrotes by their self-­appointed benefactor. Ignoring the fact that they ate dog meat only under prescribed circumstances, Hunt insisted they slaughter dogs and eat them on a daily basis, which brought them to the brink of illness and despair. He split the group against their will and farmed them out to equally unscrupulous confederates across the country, moving them whimsically and forcing them to remain in America well past the year he had promised. Today, we would call it human trafficking.

In short order, Hunt grew increasingly violent, as his lavish spending and drinking diminished his fortune, and he took to physically attacking the Igorrotes and robbing them. In turn, they tried to hide their money, wadding it up and sticking it in their ear canals and between their buttocks. While this wasn’t the spectacle of the century, as the subtitle proclaims in carnival barker fashion, Prentice brings to life a shocking story of exploitation and degradation that should not be forgotten.

What’s best about the early chapters is the full portrait of Coney Island that emerges as backdrop to the Truman Hunt debacle. Less convincing are the author’s attempts to embellish emotions and motivations. The thoughts she attributes to the characters are so obvious (such as Hunt’s gaze following a pretty woman, or his desire for a drink after a difficult episode) that they read like an amateur fiction writer’s strained efforts at dramatic tension, sagging with flabby prose and the telegraphing of plot points: “Truman was about to encounter his nemesis.”

But the second half of the book is engrossing. We follow the determined pursuit of Hunt by the government agent Frederick Barker, assigned to track him, free the Igorrotes from their bondage and bring Hunt to justice.

Americans gone rogue, as Prentice puts it, have long been a part of the Philippines’ landscape, but Truman Hunt, an inveterate liar, a bigamist and a slave driver, seems nearly unparalleled as far as scoundrels go. In some sense, this slick-talking charlatan becomes a stand-in for America itself, or a certain version of America in its more opportunistic historical moments, blind to its own faults and willing to do anything to turn a buck. As Antoinette Funk, Hunt’s lawyer, declared at one of his trials: “The government set the example of exhibiting the people. The government was the first to bring them to this country for show purposes.” She had a good point, if not a defense.

THE LOST TRIBE OF CONEY ISLAND

Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century

By Claire Prentice

Illustrated. 388 pp. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.

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