This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason

Donna Patricia Ward - February 25, 2018

“Without Martin Couney I wouldn’t have had a life.” Beth Allen was born premature. At the time of her birth in 1941, there was little hope that a premature baby would live beyond infancy. Some lived for a few hours while other languished in pain for several days, struggling for breath with undeveloped lungs. The common thought was that preterm babies were “genetically inferior” and medical intervention would prolong their inevitable death. These small infants, historically, were cared for at home. Mothers would keep their babies warm in a blanket and do their best to nourish them. Survival depended upon fate. Dr. Martin Couney believed otherwise. Medical intervention was available and all American hospitals had to do was use a medical device called an incubator. When they refused, Couney developed a rather unusual plan.

For 40 years, Couney encouraged people to visit his incubator display filled with premature babies at Brooklyn, New York’s Coney Island. Each baby was placed into an incubator and cared for by nurses and doctors. When successful, the babies gained enough strength to live outside of an incubator and to go home with their parents. For Beth Allen’s parents, and thousands of others, placing their infant on display was a better alternative than permitting them to die without any medical intervention. “The Incubator Doctor” saved thousands of very small lives.

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason
Dr. Martin Couney with premature babies. Wikipedia.

Preemies Left For Dead

Premature babies are generally those born before 37 weeks gestation and weighing less than 3 pounds. Until the mid-20th century, many infants born so small were simply left for dead. Not because no one cared, but because there were no treatments available to help such a small infant get well. Many parents of premature infants were instructed to prepare for a funeral instead of welcoming their newborn home.

When women gave birth to a preterm infant, the only viable treatments were to wrap their baby up in a warm blanket, attempt to feed them, and hope for the best. Often, babies born early lack fully developed lungs and the ability to suck, which makes nursing nearly impossible. Unless they learn how to feed, they simply cannot overcome their illness. Parents had no viable choices in the care for their small bundles of joy. That is until a French doctor visited a chicken farm.

Dr. Stephan Tarnier was intrigued by the incubators that farmers used to keep chicken eggs and young chicks warm. He thought that if humans could adapt the same technology for a preterm infant, they may survive. Inspired, Dr. Tarnier began experimenting with the chicken incubator to use for preterm human babies. His small container regulated an infants environment, somewhat simulating the warmth of a woman’s uterus. French hospitals began using the incubators, or isolettes, in the late-19th century.

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason
An early infant incubator, 1909. Wikipedia.

Excited by the new medical device, Dr. Pierre Budin, a French pediatrician, expanded upon the new technology. He believed that preterm infants also required breast milk and bonding time with their mothers. This, he advocated, would give the small infants the necessary tools to get well, as long as their bodies were equipped to do so. Again, French hospitals began to implement Dr. Budin’s treatment plans in combination with the isolettes for their smallest patients.

Dr. Budin had a Prussian-born student, Martin Couney, who wholeheartedly believed in the new neonatal treatments for premature babies. For him, it was imperative that medical professionals do as much as they possibly could to improve the survival rates of preemies. If French hospitals were able to implement the new treatment plans, why not the rest of the world? To demonstrate that preemies could survive, Dr. Martin Couney integrated his medical treatments with a popular mode of entertainment of the day; the Freak Show.

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason
Baby incubators at Coney Island. New York History Archives.

World’s Fairs and Freak Shows

As far back as the 1600s, people paid money to see unusual human deformities. This form of entertainment was taken to the extreme under the great showman Phineas Taylor Barnum. P.T. Barnum purchased a museum near Wall Street in Manhattan in 1841. His “Barnum’s American Museum” became a showplace for albinos, giants, little people, exotic women, magicians, and jugglers. Barnum created hoaxes to wow his paying customers. In one famous exhibit, he claimed that an 11-year-old boy was the “Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone.” In reality, he had trained a 4-year-old boy to play Hercules and Napoleon, and to drink wine and smoke cigars for the public’s enjoyment. And the public loved it and many other oddities.

Traveling shows that exhibited humans with physical and cognitive disabilities were wildly popular. Industrialization created a working class. These factory workers must have found comfort in paying to view people whose conditions seemed worse than their own. For a few pennies, a factory worker could take his family to a freak show to see conjoined twins, extremely fat men on bikes, dwarfs, people suffering from what appeared to be a shrunken head but was really microcephaly.

It is in this environment that Dr. Martin Couney created an incubator display. This rather controversial move had his critics debunking his mode of treatments. While he studied medicine in Germany and France, it remains unclear if he was a doctor. There are some reports that he was actually a traveling salesman of medical tools. Regardless of his background, he found willing audiences in his freak show concept that married modern medical technology. His goal was to convince the public and medical community that preterm infants were worth saving.

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason
Luna Park Entrance. Wikipedia.

He began his odd marriage of freak show and technology at the Berlin Exposition of 1896. There he created a baby incubator exhibit that placed very small infants on display. People paid a fee and walked inside the exhibit where nurses were caring for the babies in electrified machines. Here the babies were growing right in front of the eyes of the paying public! The exhibit was very successful.

Dr. Couney continued displaying his baby incubators at the Earl’s Court Exposition Centre in London; the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898; The World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 and Buffalo, New York in 1901; and many more. Then fate called. Developers were building a new amusement park in Brooklyn. Dr. Couney did not let this opportunity pass him by.

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason
Human Freak Show. Wikipedia.

“All The World Loves A Baby”

Dr. Martin Couney opened a baby incubator exhibit in 1903 at Cooney Island’s newest seaside attraction, Luna Park. He hired several nurses and two doctors to lived onsite. These men and women were tasked with implementing the medical treatments. There were two wet nurses also on site who provided breastmilk when mothers could not. Additionally, Couney hired a cook to ensure that the best nutrition was getting to his staff and the babies. He also had janitors to ensure the entire facility was as sanitary as it could possibly be. Then, in what some considered to be controversial, he dressed the small babies into regular newborn-sized clothing to accentuated the smallness of his charges.

Visitors to the display paid 25 cents to view the incubator babies. Once inside, they observed the technologically advanced incubators with tiny infants inside. To ensure a zealous visitor did not get too close, a guard rail kept the public back. Critics claimed that Dr. Couney was merely a publicity-seeking man trying to make a fast buck at the expense of the small infants. The admission fee was used to pay for the medical care so that the parents would not have to.

Most of the parents that agreed to place their children display with Dr. Couney could not afford the medical costs associated with caring for a sick infant in a hospital. The ones that did have neonatal care required extensive staffing of highly trained medical staff, as well as uninterrupted electricity to power the equipment. This care could cost hundreds of dollars during the early decades of the 20th century. During a time when families were lucky to earn $5 per week, the cost was simply probative. Parents were desperate to save their newborns.

This Horrific Island Freak Show Displayed Premature Babies for this Macabre Reason
Martin and Hildegarde (daughter) Couney with boy looking at baby in incubator. NYPL Digital Collections.

In a New York hospital in 1920, Mrs. Horn gave birth to twin girls. Shortly after a premature birth, the first twin died. Mr. Horn refused to give up on his two-pound girl. He took his daughter, wrapped her in a blanket, hailed a taxi, and set off for Coney Island. Once there, his daughter, Lucille, was placed into an incubator. Over the next six months the little girl received medical treatment and grew well and strong. As an adult, Lucille was asked how she felt being placed on display. She responded, “It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right.” She returned to Coney Island’s incubator display as a young adult. While there, she watched a distraught father looking at his small infant. Dr. Couney tapped the man on the shoulder and stated, “Look at this young lady. She’s one of our babies.” Lucile Horn lived to be 96 years old, dying in 2017.

Dr. Couney’s baby incubator exhibit was one of Coney Island’s most popular exhibits. From 1903 to 1943, he had cared for over 8,000 preemies with 6,500 surviving. Just before his death in 1950, American hospitals began implementing the neonatal incubator because of Dr. Couney’s proven success rate at his Coney Island freak show. In 1960, America’s first neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) opened at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Martin Couney is credited with major advancements in neonatal technology.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Premature Babies Used to Be Put On Display At Hospitals Like Freak Shows,” Ranker.

“Babies on Display: When A Hospital Couldn’t Save Them, A Sideshow Did,” NPR StoryCorps, July 10, 2015.

“How One Man Saved A Generation of Premature Babies,” BBB Magazine, May 23, 2018.

Wikipedia: Dr. Martin Couney

Wikipedia: Coney Island

Wikipedia: P.T. Barnum