Coney Island Babies: The disconcerting sight of Dr. Couney’s infant incubators on the boardwalk

Among the unusual delights of the Coney Island sideshows of the early 20th century were a row of premature infants, housed in glass boxes — almost like jewelry cases — monitored by attentive nurses. The women occasionally slipped diamond rings around the baby’s wrists to illustrate their charges’ small bodies.

Baby incubators popped up at World’s Fairs and fairgrounds across the country.  Why would such moments of such fraught circumstances — small infants fighting for their lives — be considered so ideal for places of marvel and amusement?

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney
How A Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies
Dawn Raffel
Blue Rider Press

Part of that has to do with the showman-like atmosphere of the late 19th century, when new inventions and technologies were debuted with flamboyance in order to seek wealthy investors. The baby incubators of Coney Island and the other American amusement districts were unique in that they too were essentially floor models for a life-saving technology. But these sideshows actually saved the lives of children.

The man at the center of this story — we’ll call him Dr. Martin Couney although he went by several names — is unusually elusive as he purposefully obscured portions of his biography. Journalist Dawn Raffel, in tackling this subject matter, crafts a fascinating and unconventional read, both an investigation into this weird world of carnival medicine and a personal narrative in uncovering the many surprising strands of Couney’s tale.

From the 1939 World’s Fair:

Museum of the City of New York

Raffel reveals the wonder of an invention — in a moment when infant mortality was high — and the mix of financial motivation and genuine care that went into promoting Dr. Couney’s incubator.

I once felt a sense of disgust when I looked at these early images of Coney Island’s incubators, steps away from lunatic rollercoasters and crowded beer halls. And the images from the World’s Fair were disconcerting. Were sick babies being used to promote corporate product?

But The Strange Case of Dr. Couney reveals that thousands of babies were saved with these devices, even in these chaotic places. Some of Dr. Couney’s subjects are still alive today.

Below: Dr. Couney’s daughter Hildegarde and two other nurses with premature babies at the 1939-40 World’s Fair

New York Public Library