Saturday, November 5, 2016

Coney Island Miracles: Live Infants

The first time I saw the Coney Island attraction billed as "Live Infants", I thought I was seeing things. But it was true. Premature babies in incubators were once a popular attraction of Coney Island, as well as many world expositions including the 1933 World's Fair held in Chicago, Illinois. With mixed emotions, I began my research into how it came to be that people paid hard-earned money to see a human infant.

Luna Park at Coney Island circa 1905. Courtesy of

The man who created this popular sideshow attraction was Martin Arthur Couney, born in Krotoschin, Germany on the last day of 1869. He studied medicine with a specialty of pediatrics under the hand of Dr. Pierre Budin, a Frenchman who pioneered the use of the incubator for the treatment of premature infants. At that time in the late 1800's, incubators were being used for hatching poultry. Budin had a great idea, but hospitals were skeptical and lacked the vision to use this method of saving premature infants. 

To gain attention for his invention, Budin sent Couney to the 1896 Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin in the hopes that others would see the benefits. 

Baby Incubator Display at The Trans-Mississippi Exposition, 1898. Courtesy of

Six premature babies on loan from Berlin's Charity Hospital, under the auspicies of Empress Augusta Victoria, were kept alive by artificial means, which wowed the crowds who paid money to see the infants. Three years later at the 1899 Greater Britain Exhibition, however, Couney was unable to borrow premature British infants for his exhibit and was forced to bring in three wicker baskets full of infants from Paris. (Courtesy of
Baby Incubator on Display, Seattle World's Fair,
1909. Courtesy of Wikipedia

With crowds of amazed people at several world fairs and expositions gawking at the babies living in boxes, there was enough money for Couney to introduce the incubator to American hospitals. But the medical world still wasn't ready to accept the incubators. Parents, however, saw the incubators as a miracle and willingly handed over their preemies into Dr. Couney's care. He had already proved that the public was willing to pay for such an exhibit, and he knew that few parents could afford the medical bills of keeping their babies alive. Such an exhibit would also expose the public to the need for such an invention and perhaps enough people would goad the medical community into providing their own staff with incubators. 

With no shortage of preemies, Dr. Couney and his staff set up the permanent exhibit at Luna Park, Coney Island which you see in the photo at the top of this blog - the one that started me on this quest. And with trained staff ready to care for the babies on the road, and deal with the public, babies in incubators were exhibited in major fairs and expositions around the world until 1941. 

Baby Incubator Exhibit at the 1909 Seattle World's Fair. Courtesy of Wikipedia
But why would people pay to see babies? Consider this... in the early 1900s, most babies were still born at home with the aid of a midwife. If a doctor was available, he or she was only brought in for the difficult births - the ones we now call high risk. Premature babies weren't given much of a chance to survive and many were tucked into shoe boxes and placed on the oven door to keep warm, especially if the mother was fighting for her own survival. At the time, only 25% of premature babies survived. This was the reality of life. 

It didn't matter to the new parents that their baby would be on display in a sterile glass and metal box. What mattered was that their baby survived! 

In August 1901, the Scientific American Volume 85 Number 5 published the article, Baby Incubators at the Pan-American Exposition showing how the babies were fed through their nostrils with a gavage spoon. 

Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, 1901
Dr. Martin Couney closed his permanent exhibit at Coney Island and retired in 1941. At that time, New York's Cornell University had opened its own research and training center for premature infants. By the time he died in 1950, Couney had saved approx 7,000 of the 8,500 preemies brought to him for nurturing.

And what of the survivors? How did they feel about people paying to see them? That was the question asked of Lucille Horn in the interview, Babies on Display: When A Hospital Couldn't Save Them, A Sideshow Did. Lucille answered: "It's strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right." For the full interview including an audio version, click here

Another article with lots of photos is: Survivors Praise 'Incubator Doctor' Who Put Preemies on Display in Early 1900s.

Videos on the sideshow exhibit as well as the survivors are:

'Incubator Babies' Praise Doctor Who Saved Lives  (

Were Premature Babies Really Displayed in Coney Island? (

Also, the History Detectives TV show broadcast an episode called Sideshow Babies (Season 7, Episode 4), where the first segment is about a woman who was born prematurely and within days of her birth, the Chicago Board of Health took her away from her parents and placed her under Couney's care, where she was put in an incubator and displayed at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. She has in her possession a personalized souvenir cup commemorating the event. The history detective's quest is to find out if babies were really on display at this event. 

When I started the research, I was uncomfortable with the thought that anyone would make money off the exhibition of babies in a sideshow. I changed my mind however, when I read that Couney charged money so that the babies could be cared for and their parents didn't have to worry about the expense. To a Canadian, that's a big deal. The fact that all 4 of my babies were premature ranging from 4-8 weeks early helped settle it in my mind. I would have given everything I had if there was a chance to pull them through. I was blessed with doctors and nurses in NICU's that took my hand and pulled all of us through. Back in history, they did what they could as well. 

What about you? What went through your mind as you read this post? 


Anita Mae Draper's historical romances are woven under the western skies of the Saskatchewan prairie where her love of research and genealogy yields fascinating truths that layer her stories with rich historical details.  Anita's short story, Here We Come A-Wassailing, was a finalist for the Word Guild's 2015 Word Awards. Her novellas are included in Austen in Austin Volume 1, and The American Heiress Brides Collection. Readers can check out Anita's Pinterest boards for a visual idea of her stories to enrich their reading experience.  Discover more at:


  1. I was appalled at first. But, I guess at that time in history it made sense and he was doing the parents a great service. I still cringe when I think about those tiny bundles being on display(especially when I think about those who did not survive), but he did save a lot of babies. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're welcome, chappydebbie. Thank you for reading it through.

  2. That may not have been the ideal way of doing it, but he saved a lot of babies that way. I know that a lot of times you do what you have to do. If that was the way he could educate people and pay for the care then that was what he had to do. Imagine the number of babies that he saved not only directly but indirectly by doing that. We have certainly come a long way and I know a lot of it was a result of Dr. Couney's research.
    Thank you for sharing this. It was very interesting even it was a bit disturbing.

    1. You're welcome, Susan, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. You reminded me of when my own babies were in NICU's and how it all changed over the years. Back in 1978 with my 1st one, born 8 weeks early at 4 lbs 8 oz, they had her in an incubator, but she was in the same room with all the other infants and the display curtains were open for everyone passing by.

      By the time I had my last one in '98, born 7 wks early at 4 lbs 12 oz, he was in the NICU and there were curtains around each incubator. Normally the curtains were open, but the parents had the option to pull them closed when they visited their babies. And the only way family outside the NICU could see them is when the staff placed them in front of a window with a closed curtain that would open only to that family.

      Such memories. I am so blessed.

  3. Wow, I never knew about the incubator babies from back in that time. Interesting.

  4. Thank you for sharing this very interesting post.

    1. You're welcome, Melanie. Thanks for dropping by.:)

  5. What a fascinating story. I agree with you, Anita--the idea of displaying premature infants in incubators sounds alarming, but if I had been the mother of one of those babies and the incubator could save my baby's life, I would have done everything I could to ensure he or she received every effort to help them grow up. I was glad to hear the money was used to care for the babies, too.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. You're welcome, Susie. It sure makes a difference if you have a vested interest, doesn't it. Thanks for visiting. :)

  6. I think it's great that this man had such a vision and brought incubators to the forefront. And I should, because my mother went into labor and had me at only seven months' gestation. I lived because I was able to spend a full month in an incubator. Thanks for the great post!