Nonfiction by Dawn Raffel
In 1933, a twelve-year-old boy took the train from Milwaukee to the Century of Progress in Chicago. His name was Mark Raffel, and he would become my father.
The first I knew of this visit to the fair was almost seventy years later, after his death, when I opened a drawer in his study and found a half-dozen typewritten pages. This turned out to be an “autobiography” that he had written at the age of sixteen. The fair was mentioned almost as an aside, but it piqued my curiosity. I knew there was a world’s fair in Chicago in the 1890s. It was famous for its Ferris wheel. But in the 1930s?
The official 1933 program for the Century of Progress stated: “Individuals, groups, entire races of man fall into step with the slow or swift movement of the march of science and industry.”
From the opposite side of the atom bomb and the Holocaust, that notion was disturbing. Unable to let it go, I flew from my home outside of New York to Chicago. There, I spent hours in the History Museum’s research center, squinting at documents and sifting through photographs. The entire spectacle mesmerized me — science and industry as humanity’s driver. The magnificent Hall of Science, the airplanes and the automobiles, the Enchanted Island of rides for happy children, no few of whom would die in WWII.
But the image I couldn’t shake came from the midway: A body-to-body crowd appears in front of a building with the sign “INFANT INCUBATORS WITH LIVING BABIES.” It seemed to encapsulate everything about this fair: science and industry, married to commerce, bathed in voyeurism. The future generation as commodity. The doctor in charge was named Martin Arthur Couney, and he had impressive credentials. But who would allow their child to be exhibited this way? That a proven lifesaving technology existed but wasn’t available in most hospitals had never occurred to me, nor was I yet aware of the fair’s eugenics exhibit, the real purveyor of babies as product. The incubator show was among the most popular attractions of the entire fair. Even without yet seeing the full picture, it was easy to understand why. Who wouldn’t want to view the inheritors of the Century of Progress baking in their ovens? Given the chance, I’d have done it myself.
Back home, I stumbled across an item about the Coney Island Museum on Surf Avenue. Years ago, as a young woman transplanted from the Midwest, I’d screamed myself hoarse on the Cyclone, but I lacked the deep connection true New Yorkers have. (One man told me, “I loved Coney Island like a person. It had a smiling face.”[i]) Still, I thought the museum might give me some insight into early Twentieth Century midways. I persuaded a friend to join me, and on a bright summer day, we rode the F train underground and up again to its rattling end.
We found the museum across the street from the new Luna Park, with its whirling, lose-your-lunch rides and its whack-a-moles and its paper-cup piña coladas. Upstairs from the museum’s first floor “freak bar” were a couple of rooms full of artifacts from the heyday of America’s trippy playground. Photographs and reproductions. Funhouse mirrors. Now you’re fat, now you’re tall. You’ve lost all perspective. Something knocked me for a loop. Coney Island had an incubator sideshow. This wasn’t a special event like the Century of Progress. It lasted forty years, until 1943. How was that even possible? And then I saw the name of the doctor in charge of this thing.
It’s him again! I told my bewildered friend.
Excerpted from The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies by Dawn Raffel, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. ©2018 by Dawn Raffel.
[i] “I loved Coney Island like a person. It had a smiling facing”: Coney Island memorabilia collector Paul Brigandi, interviewed by the author June 15, 2015.