As a historian interested in popular culture and public amusements, I’ve always been fascinated in Coney Island lore. I am grateful that I was able to make it to Coney Island in the summer of 2008, right before it closed up for good. I got my bones rattled by the Cyclone, rode in a rusty gondola on the Wonder Wheel, shrieked on the haunted house dark ride, and traversed the boardwalk while eating authentic Italian Ice. I saw the painted murals for the freak shows, but sadly, nothing appeared to be operational (well except for the “Shoot the Freak” attraction, but this didn’t have an actual “freak” involved). It was wonderful to see and experience the things I have only read about in books, and viewed in photographs. So much of that world was gone by the time I got there though, and that will always make me sad.
Today I was taking a breeze through the incredible Coney Island History Project’s online digital collection, and found a ton of interesting artifacts from when Coney was in it’s heyday. Among them was a fascinating booklet authored by the Chamber of Commerce from sometime in the 1930s titled This Coney Island: America’s Incredible Carnival. Aside from the fabulous vintage art and period photography, I was intrigued to see a mention in the guidebook to an attraction labeled simply “Baby Incubators,” next to a large ad for the Wonder Wheel. Huh? Whuh?!
Then I found this photo in their collection, which explains things a bit more:
Beth Allen was born 3 months premature in 1941, weighing 1lb 10oz. Desperate to save her and with few other options – hospitals of the day had no facilities for premature infants – her parents placed her in the care of Dr. Martin Couney, a neonatal pioneer largely responsible for the now widespread use of incubators. Couney was also a controversial figure, a physician outside the mainstream who for decades operated his neonatal care facility as a 10¢ sideshow in Coney Island. In this interview, Beth Allen recounts her origins as an “incubator baby” and her family’s relationship to Dr. Couney.
According to other sources, Dr. Couney made this practice his entire career, as he exhibited premature babies at world fairs, expositions, and amusement parks from 1896 until the 1940’s. He was apparently the first American doctor to offer specialized treatment for preemies. This article, “Incubator-Baby Side Shows” by William A. Silverman, M.D. gives some more details about Dr. Couney’s operations. Apparently he had simultaneous shows at both Luna Park and Dreamland within Coney. When Dreamland was devastated a huge fire, the babies were able to be rescued and transferred to the Luna Park facilities. Whew!
He really looks like a carnival barker in this early shot: