[Marxism] Lost Tribe of Coney Island

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 16 09:41:38 MST 2014

NY Times SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW, Nov. 16 2014
Claire Prentice’s ‘Lost Tribe of Coney Island’

Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the 
By Claire Prentice
Illustrated. 388 pp. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.

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 

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.

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