The circuses of today are far different compared to the circuses of 100 years ago. Today, if you go to a circus, there are usually acrobats, animals, clowns, food, and almost everyone could qualify as the “fattest” man/woman on earth. Back in the day, the attractions were much more grandiose and had no regard for human dignity; obvious in the freak shows where deformities were exploited for profits. The biggest and best place for amusing entertainment was Coney Island. The boardwalk we know of today use to be a cornucopia of parks that would be visited by millions of people each year. If you had the right show, you could make a crap ton of money in a very short time span. Enter Truman Hunt and the book that profiles his side show, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice. Hunt was a doctor who served in the Philippians soon after they were acquired by the US in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Hunt thought it would be a great idea to bring native Fillipinos, known is Igorrotes (E-go-row-tays), to the US for display at Luna Park in Coney Island. The Igorrotes were a group of primitive tribes’ people who enjoyed simplicity, fellowship, hard work, and the occasional feast. Originally, they were brought to the US during the 1904 St. Louis Exposition and were the most popular attraction; they performed native practices and displayed their culture to a fascinated public. The success at St. Louis is what motivated Hunt to recruit 50 Igorrotes for a full year US trip in 1905. Hunt, made it clear that the tribes people would each be paid 15 dollars a month and could keep all money from homemade souvenirs they sold during shows.
The group was soon jettisoned (the journey took over 6 months) to Coney Island where they would build a replica of their village in the famous Luna Park. Hunt, being the showman he was, exaggerated the customs of the Igorrotes and fed the newspapers with several exaggerations of their “barbaric behavior.” The Igorrotes had the tradition of eating dogs during special occasions because it made them stronger and fiercer warriors. Hunt took this practice and made them eat dogs on a regular basis for the disgusted crowds. Additionally, Hunt exaggerated the headhunting rituals that young warriors had to perform before they were married-making people think the savages were apt to attack anyone at a whim. Hunt was a backstabber and he soon broke his agreement with Luna Park and took the tribes people to the rival park for more money. This would be the start of several months of moving the Igorrotes around the US and having them perform in conditions which were far from ideal. Eventually, Truman was pursued by the government for mistreatment of the tribe and was prosecuted for withholding all the Igorrotes pay, souvenir money, and personal belongings. Instead of a year in America, most the Igorrotes were forced to stay over two years performing against their will. In the end, Hunt was prosecuted by the government for stealing wages but was never sentenced because of corrupt courts that were racist (the trials took place in Memphis, Tennessee). The Igorrotes returned to the Phillipines with no money and a complete disdain for the greed of America.
The government originally agreed to have Hunt bring the Igorrotes to the US because they wanted people to see the barbaric state of the native Filipinos and thus justify the US control of the islands. The argument at the time for the US controlling the Philippines was that Filipinos could not govern themselves and imperialism was America’s destiny. This quote sums up one of the major problems with displaying the Igorrotes-“giving the people of the United States the idea that the majority of the people of the Philippines are similar to the Igorrotes…, in the same way as I would rather deprecate the idea of having Apachee Indians travelling around to represent Americans.” Sadly, many Americans believed the sideshow display was culturally accurate and hence propagated racism, scorn, and a general superiority towards Filipinos. The US eventually released control of the Philippines in 1946. This 48 year relationship is a main reason why millions of Filipinos live in the US today-one of them being my beautiful wife :). The story of the Igorrotes reminds us how far our society has come in respecting human dignity and the dangers of stereotyping whole groups of people.