Babies On Display: When A Hospital Couldn’t Save Them, A Sideshow Did

by NPR Staff, National Public Radio
July 10, 2015

Close to a century ago, New York’s Coney Island was famed for its sideshows. Loud-lettered signs crowded the island’s attractions, crowing over tattooed ladies, sword swallowers—and even an exhibition of tiny babies.

The babies were premature infants kept alive in incubators pioneered by Dr. Martin Couney. The medical establishment had rejected his incubators, but Couney didn’t give up on his aims. Each summer for 40 years, he funded his work by displaying the babies and charging admission—25 cents to see the show.

In turn, parents didn’t have to pay for the medical care, and many children survived who never would’ve had a chance otherwise.

Lucille HornLucille Horn was one of them. Born in 1920, she, too, ended up in an incubator on Coney Island.

“My father said I was so tiny, he could hold me in his hand,” she tells her own daughter, Barbara, on a visit with StoryCorps in Long Island, N.Y. “I think I was only about two pounds, and I couldn’t live on my own. I was too weak to survive.”

She’d been born a twin, but her twin died at birth.

And the hospital didn’t show much hope for her either: The staff said they didn’t have a place for her; they told her father that there wasn’t a chance in hell that she’d live.

“They didn’t have any help for me at all,” Horn says. “It was just: You die because you didn’t belong in the world.”

But her father refused to accept that for a final answer. He grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab and took her to Coney Island—and to Dr. Couney’s infant exhibit.

“How do you feel knowing that people paid to see you?” her daughter asks.

“It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was alright,” Horn says. “I think it was definitely more of a freak show. Something that they ordinarily did not see.”

Horn’s healing was on display for paying customers for quite a while. It was only after six months that she finally left the incubators.

scextra_sq-5cfe717b09977f0b6639ec42d28e09a0cb7c45ed-s300-c85Years later, though, Horn decided to return to see the babies—now, as a visitor. When she stopped in, Dr. Couney happened to be there, as well, and she took the opportunity to introduce herself.

“And there was a man standing in front of one of the incubators looking at his baby,” Horn says, “and Dr. Couney went over to him and he tapped him on the shoulder.

“‘Look at this young lady,’ Couney told the man then.

“‘She’s one of our babies. And that’s how your baby’s gonna grow up.'”

After all, Horn was just one of thousands of premature infants that Couney cared for and exhibited at world fairs, exhibits and amusement parks from 1896 until the 1940s. He died in 1950, shortly after incubators like his were introduced to most hospitals.

At the time, Couney’s efforts were still largely unknown—but there is at least one person who will never forget him.

“You know,” she says, “there weren’t many doctors then that would have done anything for me. Ninety-four years later, here I am, all in one piece. And I’m thankful to be here.”


The audio, produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris, can be heard here.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.


When I heard this story on the radio this morning, it seemed so bizarre, I couldn’t get enough. So I found this second story by Esther Inglis-Arkell:

Incubators, while standard in any hospital nowadays, were once untested technology. Their developers needed a way to prove their worth and get the word out. And that is how premature babies were put on display at Coney Island.

berlin7When it comes to medicine, people can’t always afford dignity. Certainly they couldn’t in the first few years of the twentieth century, when Dr. Martin A. Couney wanted to pursue his interest in working with premature babies. At the time, the babies had terrifyingly low survival rates, and yet there wasn’t much special equipment developed for them. Incubators had been put forward before, but who had the time and the money to care for them? Couney, knowing that people liked to look at the unusual, liked their heartstrings tugged, and liked to think they were doing good, came up with an idea.

He built an exhibit in which premature babies were displayed at amusement parks and fairs.

He briefly implemented the idea in 1896, in Berlin, where they were referred to as ‘child hatcheries,’ crossed to the United States, where he toured fairs, and then found a more permanent home in the amusement parks in Coney Island.

DreamlandInfantIncubatorsThe Baby Incubator exhibit started in 1903 in Dreamland, the more sedate amusement park on the island. The attraction resembled a normal hospital ward, with babies, nurses providing specialized care, and the doctor looking over everything.

The only difference was that one side of the ward was glass, and all day long people paid their dime (or fifteen cents, as the years wore on and the prices went up) to troop through and look at the babies. The healthier and older babies were put in incubators along an open hallway, with a railing keeping the public back.

This was not a risk-free venture, publicity-wise. A disastrous early model of the exhibit, inspired by Couney’s success but set up under a different doctor in St Louis, did not have a glass partition separating the incubators from the public, and during one summer sickness epidemic, fifty percent of the babies died.

silverman1.f7The exhibit on Coney Island was a spectacular, and seemingly successful, affair. Outside carnival barkers (including a very young Cary Grant) pulled people into the exhibit. The sign over the entryway proclaimed, “All the World Loves a Baby.” Any child who was prematurely born in the city would be rushed over to Coney Island to be placed in the exhibit, including Couney’s own daughter, who spent three months there. Standards were kept high, and because of the paying customers, Couney never charged any of the parents a penny for the treatment their kids received—even with the cost of care per baby sometimes totaling fifteen dollars a day. There were a share of scares, though. The worst happened when Dreamland burned down in 1911, and all the babies in the exhibit had to be evacuated away from the fire, and a new ‘hospital’ built for them on-the-double in nearby Luna Park. Over time, the ‘graduates,’ of the program came back to visit Couney and look at the new crop.

In 1939, towards the end of the attraction’s run, an article in the New Yorker mentioned that a few of the male graduates became doctors themselves, and that, ‘prematurely born girls seem to get married as frequently as any other kind,’—truly a testament to the power of incubator technology.

In 1941, the exhibit closed down. After forty years, people were used to seeing the phenomenon of baby hatcheries, and more importantly, a preemie hospital ward finally opened up in Cornell’s New York Hospital. The whole venture remains one of the crazier chapters in scientific history. It also might be an inspiration for cash-strapped medical providers and patients. Would you endure being gawked at for a chance to try out a new, life-saving, and unbelievably expensive medical technology?


And this story, by the Coney Island History Project:

Dr. Martin Arthur Couney saved the lives of thousands of premature infants at his Coney Island baby incubator exhibit. It is hard to believe that incubators were not used or accepted by the medical establishment until the 1930s. Couney was forced to make his clinic into a sideshow exhibit. Although the exhibit was located in an amusement park, the atmosphere inside was solemn and professional. Couney never charged parents a fee for the care he gave their infants. His clinic was financed strictly through entrance fees.
tumblr_menankrqeQ1rw872io1_500Couney received his medical degree in Germany and studied with Dr. Pierre Budin, who had pioneered the theory of incubators. Couney had two exhibits in Coney Island, one in Luna Park from 1903 until 1943, and another in Dreamland from 1904 until the fire of 1911. His medical staff consisted of five wet-nurses and fifteen highly trained medical technicians including his daughter Hildegarde, a nurse. By 1939, he had treated more than 8,000 babies and saved the lives of 6,500. One of them was his daughter, who had weighed less than three pounds at birth.
Couney operated under constant criticism and numerous attempts to shut down his exhibit, which many considered to be “against maternal nature.” But Couney persisted and provided medical care for the children of parents otherwise unable to afford it. By the time his Luna Park exhibit closed in 1943, Couney’s methods were being used in mainstream hospitals. Couney retired and died alone at his home in Sea Gate in 1950.

3 Responses to “sideshow”

  1. 1 Frank Manning
    July 10, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Thanks, Dan, for sharing this story. I am from Coney Island and remember the sideshows that still flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s. We called them “freak shows” because most of the exhibits my friends and I saw were bearded ladies, three-legged men, people with diseases that made their skin look like fish scales, etc. Until now I had never heard of Dr. Couney and his incubators. How marvelous that an amusement spectacle that catered to morbid curiosity would wind up being so beneficial to so many people.

  2. 2 Simon
    July 11, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Good News: Judge releases ‘jailed’ kids, sends them to summer camp


  3. 3 Daryl Watton
    July 12, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Canada had its own version. Google “The Dionne Quintuplets”. Canada actually legally acquired the children as wards of the state in order to profit off their popularity.

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