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Coney Island: 1905

Luna Park at Coney Island circa 1905. Detroit Publishing Co. glass negative. Tonight only: "Infant incubators with living infants." View full size.

Luna Park at Coney Island circa 1905. Detroit Publishing Co. glass negative. Tonight only: "Infant incubators with living infants." View full size.


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Couney on Coney

"Growing Up On Long Island" is being presented at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook until the fall. Included is the story of Dr. Couney and the babies he saved at Coney Island. What a great presentation! Toys, games, child labor, celebrities, interviews, Bannister babies, and more. For info, call 631-751-0066 or email

Dying by degrees

Coney Island has been dying by degrees for decades. It lost a lot of the old luster when Luna Park burned down in 1945 and Robert Moses ordered the land rezoned for public housing instead of amusements (Moses apparently hated the area's "tawdry amusements"). In 1953 he had the whole area rezoned for public housing and announced plans to demolish all of the amusements. This was eventually fought and the area between 22nd and the Cyclone were retained as an "amusements only" area. The last of the three great parks, Steeplechase, closed in 1964 and was demolished by Fred Trump (Donald's father) before the site could be given landmark status. He wanted to build more low cost housing but couldn't get the zoning changed. Current efforts by a group called Thor Equities are responsible for the sale and closure of Astroland.


Coney Island seems to be closing for good. It's sad to think of the millions of people who had such fond memories there over the years. I guess it's true- Time eventually catches up with us all.

[Coney Island, which is a great big actual island, is not closing. Astroland, which is closing, is one of the amusement parks there. Two famous Coney Island attractions, the Cyclone wooden roller coaster and the Wonder Wheel at Deno’s Amusement Park, won't be affected. - Dave]

Man eating chicken

I do not intend to be in a world of my own, but these comments reminded me of the time our family was completely bamboozled at the State Fair of Oklahoma by a canvas sign at the sideshow proclaiming "See the enormous LIVE man-eating chicken" (yes, I know - everybody got it but us) and of course we all paid our quarter and went behind the stage to see just that, a very large man sitting at a table eating chicken! Boy, did we learn a valuable lesson. It was just a few years later that the fraudulent labels were prohibited in those shows but numbskulls like us have become much more cautious. Live and learn.

Thank you!

I was born premature myself, 10 weeks early, weighing only 2 pounds 6 oz, with a hole in my heart that required surgery - after which I weighed less than a pound.

It's thanks to the work of this doctor that I am alive today, and it's sad to read that after developing the technology that would save so many lives, he died forgotten.

Coney Preemies

This type of showmanship used to be common. As a former preemie (born in the '70's) it's interesting to know what came before.


I never realized that the technology that saved my twin boys' lives was pioneered in an amusement park. It would never fly today but thank goodness it did then!

Coney's Couney

The Coney Island History Project inducted Dr. Couney into the Coney Island Hall of Fame. "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." More here.

Plus some interviews with Couney's "incubator babies" and their relatives.

Medical History

The incubators were extremely important in drawing attention to premature infants - and in raising money to advance the research. Countless babies were saved by the facilities at Coney Island, and countless more saved afterward thanks to the research and effort Dr. Couney began.

As distasteful as putting infants on display may seem, I humbly bow to his memory. If he hadn`t taken the first steps, medicine may not have gotten up to the level it is today in that field. And my son probably wouldn`t be running around healthy after having been born at 14 ounces.

Did you have fun at Coney Island?

"Yeah, I spent all night checking out the babes."

Infants in Incubators

Sounds like something out of a Tom Waits song -- you know, along with Horse-Faced Ethel and the girl with the tattooed tear.

Coney Preemies

And Next to the Bearded Lady, Premature Babies (NYT)

The babies were lined up under heaters and they breathed filtered air. Few of them weighed more than three pounds. They shared the Boardwalk there on Coney Island with Violetta the Armless Legless Wonder, Princess WeeWee, Ajax the Sword-Swallower and all the rest. From 1903 until the early 1940's, premature infants in incubators were part of the carnival.

It cost a quarter to see the babies, and people came again and again, to coo and to gasp and say look how small, look how small. There were twins, even, George and Norma Johnson, born the day before Independence Day in 1937. They had four and a half pounds between them, appearing in the world a month too soon because Dorothy Johnson stepped off a curb wrong and went into labor.

All those quarters bought a big house at Sea Gate for Dr. Martin A. Couney, the man who put the Coney Island babies on display. He died broken and forgotten in 1950 at 80 years old. The doctor was shunned as an unseemly showman in his time, even as he was credited with popularizing incubators and saving thousands of babies. History did not know what to do; he was inspired and single-minded, distasteful and heroic, ultimately confounding.

More here.

Infant incubators

Were they space-age incubators designed to make super-babies? Or just run-of-the-mill babies for people who had never had one of their own?


This is such a good shot; long exposure with unearthly looking lights. Ric Burns did a superb documentary on Coney, the incubators were quite an attraction.

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