Heritage

From Coney Island to Europe: How Igorot Tribes Were Displayed for the World in the 1900s

The journey of the Igorots who were put on display for the world to see.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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The government had to find a way to convince the American people that they were doing a good thing with their colonization of the Philippines. Their justification? They needed to civilize the Filipino savages. It was an act of compassion on their part, they said. Now they just needed proof. And what better way to gain public trust than to entertain them at the same time? This is where the World’s Fair in St. Louis came into play.

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, otherwise known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, spanned 1,200 acres and 1,500 buildings. The fair made use of 75 miles of roads and walkways. It showcased included 62 foreign nations and 43 states in its exhibitions.

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An Igorot woman smoking a pipe at the village of the Louisiana Purchase Expedition.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

One of those nations was the Philippines and this was where the story started.

'Human Zoos'

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Western countries were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Their advancements in technology made them feel superior in terms of civilization compared to the rest of the world. And boy were they eager to show it. Their proof was to bring the “uncivilized” natives to their countries, to be put on display.

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Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

As early as the 1400s, it was not unusual to bring people from conquered lands to the courts of kings and queens. For example, a man from Tahiti became a center of attention in the court of George III of England. Christian VII of Denmark, a king regarded in history as having mental problems and a childish disposition, also had an African page he used to play with.

From being attractions at court that only the nobles could enjoy, captives and slaves from other races were soon brought out for public entertainment. One of the most disturbing cases was of South African Saartjie Baartman, also known as Hottentot Venus. In 1810, she was brought to London to be displayed. Her point of interest? She had unusual-looking private parts, including buttocks that anthropologists described as similar to a mandrill’s.

Baartman’s private parts were displayed to the delight of the cabaret-going crowd in London and Paris. She later died in poverty and her remains were displayed in a museum in Paris.

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It wasn’t until P.T. Barnum that “human zoos” became mainstream. His exhibition of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker on February 25, 1835, changed showbusiness. 

More: Who Was the Real-Life 'Greatest Showman' P.T. Barnum?

Enterprising Westerners started to put on traveling shows featuring people from “exotic” locales. The public could now enjoy Hindu rope-dancers, Arabian camel-herders, Zulu warriors, or hunters from New Caledonia. The recreation of African villages also allowed Europeans a glimpse of "primitive" living.

So in Spring 1904, when the World’s Fair in St. Louis opened, people from faraway lands were an expected attraction. “Villages” from different nations were recreated including the Philippines.

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The "Igorrote Song"
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The U.S. government spent $1.5 million to import 1,300 indigenous Filipinos from different tribes to show the Americans the backward ways of the natives. Fairgoers were both shocked and fascinated at the cultural practice of the Igorots of eating dog meat. In the words of then U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft, their “little brown brothers,” were not ready to rule their island nation on their own. They needed guidance, they needed the Americans.

The Igorots soon became one of the most famous displays during the fair. The man in charge of keeping them in check was Truman Hunt, who served as a medical doctor during the war. Hunt stayed in the province after the way and soon became the lieutenant governor of Bontoc Province. 

Hunt saw firsthand how the Igorots were a hit among the Americans. This was how he got the idea to bring them back the following year, and this time, for his own financial benefit.

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At Coney Island

On May 15, 1905, the Igorots arrived at Grand Central Terminal. Newspaper reporters were eagerly awaiting them. The hype was high after their exhibition in St. Louis, with Hunt fanning the flames and spreading stories about their headhunting and dog-eating practices.

The press described the men “who looked the part of head-hunters with a vengeance.” They also observed how both 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 curious press noted how the women smoked big cigars and how one of them had two spools attached to large pieces of wire in her ears. They especially liked Fomoaley, the chieftain. Julio, an Igorot who learned English, translated for them.

“Both sexes wore large brass earrings which were remarkably suggestive of the dog tags used in this city,” they also wrote.  

Reporters wanted to know if they would be hunting heads in America. Truman was quoted saying, “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.”

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It was on Saturday, May 20, that the Igorot Village opened to the public at Luna Park, Coney Island. 

Luna Park in Coney Island.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The village was based on the Igorot settlements except for the huts, with their thatched roofs where they could hang their rice and corn to dry, were made taller to accommodate the American visitors. Hunt also added white wooden shutters and a front door to the usual bare structures.

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Hunt also built a copper-smelting plant across his hut, which the Igorots could use to make their trinkets they could sell to visitors. Each Igorot was already making $15 under their agreement with Truman. Their sales from rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, textiles, spears, and shields, they could keep for themselves.

A ritual sacrifice of a hen was one of the first controversies that the village faced. The American Humane Association demanded an explanation from Hunt, who justified that it was part of their culture. Just a few days later, a woman came forward, claiming that the Igorots killed and ate his missing dog Prince. Hunt made a spectacle of searching the village and finding what seemed to be dog’s bones in one of the native kettles.

Cartoons and newspapers soon depicted the Igorots stealing dogs. “Chain up your dog,” one of the headlines stated. No one seemed to have noticed that the woman was the wife of an employee of Coney Island and a friend and neighbor of Hunt. The publicity stunt seemed to have done its job. Truman even spread the rumor that the Igorots preferred puppies of four years and that they would usually serve them with boiled sweet potatoes. More visitors flocked to Luna Park.

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The practice of dog eating, now widely reported in the press, took its toll on the Igorots. Now, they were almost forced to eat dog meat almost every day. In fact, they only ate the special meat during special occasions like weddings, funerals, and after head hunting. The crowd, however, wanted to see this morbid spectacle. They complained about it to Hunt, saying the performance undermined its cultural significance. Their bodies couldn't digest the tough meat on a daily basis.

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The practice of eating dogs.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

An agreement was reached that they could eat other food and the show went on. They were visited by millions of everyday Americans but they also attracted anthropologists, linguists, famous singers, and actors. One of their famous visitors was Alice Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter.

Visitors returned several times, giving gifts to “favorites,” most of them children. They gave money, clothes, candies, and even cigars. Some of them even offered to adopt the children or fund their schooling.

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Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The Igorots were like celebrities. They were featured on a postcard with “Uncle Sam,” an out-of-work actor dressed in red and white striped trousers, a blue jacket, and a top hat. In the postcard photograph, looking up at Uncle Sam was an Igorot family. It became one of the bestsellers of that year.

A Competition 

Of course, Hunt’s days of monopolizing Filipinos for Western entertainment did not last long. Another Spanish-American war veteran and cigar entrepreneur, Richard Schneidewind, had the same idea.

Richard Schneidewind married a Filipina who died giving birth to their first son. It was reported that he grew close to the tribe and came to regard them as family. It was not surprising that a group of them agreed to join him in America as part of his own show.

In 1905, Schneidewind took his own band of Igorots to other parts of America —from the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, then on to Chutes Park in Los Angeles.

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The Igorots and their American spectators at the Lewis and Clark Exposition.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

To gain an advantage, Hunt needed to expand out of Coney Island. He divided the Igorots and different groups toured the country. Each group made dozens of stops that lasted from a few days to several weeks. By May 1906, Hunt and Schneidewind’s rivalry intensified.

That month, the two ended up at competing parks in Chicago. They did everything they could to bring down the rival exhibition. Hunt asked his newspaper friends to write erroneous reports about Schneidewind’s reputation. In retaliation, Schneidewind and his business partner, Edmund Felder, wrote to the head of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, the agency assigned to matters of new territories.

The letter stated that Hunt’s Igorot village at Sans Souci Park in Chicago was in terrible condition. It stated that 18 men and women in Hunt’s group were crammed into three small tents beneath the roller coaster. Though Schneidewind and Felder wrote “out of concern” for the Igorots, it is not unthinkable that they also did this so that Hunt would be investigated. In Hunt’s case, unfortunately, these accounts were true.

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There was another letter from a concerned member of the public that Hunt had stolen the Igorot’s wages and that two men in the group had died on the road. Hunt had reportedly failed to have their bodies buried.

The Bureau of Insular Affairs was deeply troubled by these accusations. In the first place, Hunt and Schneidewind were allowed to bring the Igorots to prove a point—and that is to sway public opinion towards the settlement in the Philippines. The strategy at St. Louis fair worked. Coney Island also worked. If the public somehow got wind of the Igorot’s maltreatment and living conditions, public opinion could turn against them.

The chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, Clarence Edwards, and his deputy, Frank McIntyre, immediately called Agent Frederick Barker to investigate these claims. Hunt received a tip off that he would be investigated and fled, taking some of the Igorots with him.  

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A manhunt followed, which also involved the famous Pinkerton detectives, Hunt’s personal creditors, and even a woman who accused Hunt of bigamy. They chased him down all over America and Canada until October 1906 when he was arrested on multiple charges of stealing from the Igorots. 

Hunt’s run as a show maker culminated in a widely-publicized trial in Memphis. He was sentenced to 18 months in a workhouse in Memphis. The rest of the Igorots were sent home by the government, save for five who stood witness at Hunt’s trial. On March 20, 1907, they were also sent home to the Philippines.

The End of the Road 

With Hunt out of the way, Schneidewind had bigger plans. In late 1906, he returned to the Philippines to collect another group of Igorots for a second tour of America. In 1908, they toured the country again. Three years later, Schneidewind wanted to replicate his success in Europe. So in 1911, despite opposition from the tribal leaders, Schneidewind brought 55 Igorots to Europe.

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They were exhibited in France, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Unbeknownst to Schneidewind, he was about to follow in his rival’s footsteps.  

The Igorots dressed in European clothing.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Unfamiliar with the European entertainment business, Schneidewind ran into financial difficulties just two years down the road. No one would have learned about it had it not been for a group of starving Igorots found wandering the streets of Ghent in Belgium. To make matters worse, it was discovered that they had not been paid for many months. Nine members of the group also died, including five children.

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Because of Schneidewind’s genuine compassion for the Igorots, reports indicated that this was not due to his greed but of mismanagement of funds. In fact, he offered them a raise if they stayed on with him until the 1915 San Francisco Exposition. Around half of the Igorots agreed but the U.S. government feared another public scandal. In December 1913, the U.S. consul in Ghent escorted the remaining Igorots to Marseilles, where they boarded a ship back to Manila. 

These series of unsuccessful ventures coerced the Philippine Assembly to take action. In 1914, as part of the new Anti-Slavery Act, they passed legislation that banned the exhibition of Filipinos abroad.

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Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The fates of the Igorots who lived and worked abroad as human exhibitions were unknown, especially since many historical records were destroyed during World War II. However, human zoos stayed on to entertain Western crowds until several decades that followed. Oddly enough, it was Adolf Hitler who first banned them. The last recorded human zoo was in Belgium in 1958, the same country where the Igorots held their final show before finally coming home.  

Sources:

The Igorrote Tribe Traveled the World for Show And Made These Two Men Rich https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/igorrote-tribe-traveled-world-these-men-took-all-money-180953012/

Tribal Headhunters on Coney Island? Author Revisits Disturbing American Tale https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141027-human-zoo-book-philippines-headhunters-coney-island/

Relics of the World’s Fair: St. Louis https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/relics-of-the-worlds-fair-st-louis-missouri

The Haunting Story of Filipinos Locked in a ‘Human Zoo’ https://filipiknow.net/filipinos-in-human-zoo/

Claire Prentice’s ‘Lost Tribe of Coney Island’ https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/books/review/claire-prentices-lost-tribe-of-coney-island.html

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A tale of sex, greed and Filipinos on Coney Island https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-13/tale-sex-greed-and-filipinos-coney-island

Human zoos https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16295827

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