Coney Island Amusements: Background information when reading Church of Marvels

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Church of Marvels

by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry X
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
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  • First Published:
    May 2015, 320 pages

    May 2016, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Coney Island Amusements

This article relates to Church of Marvels

Print Review

Coney Island, Brooklyn has long been known as a seaside vacation destination. As early as the 1830s, it was a retreat for New York City workers, and its attraction grew as it became more accessible by train, streetcar, and steamboat. Between the 1880s and World War II, Coney Island was the nation's foremost leisure area, with three large amusement parks in competition with each other, plus numerous smaller attractions.

Thompsons Switchback Railway Attraction at Coney Island Steeplechase Park, the first of Coney Island's major establishments, opened in 1897, followed by Luna Park in 1903 and Dreamland in 1904. All three parks suffered devastating fires (as did Phineas T. Barnum's American Museum in the 1860s), so the demise of the titular theater in Leslie Parry's Church of Marvels is wholly believable. The reports of the Dreamland fire, which left big cats wandering the streets, may have been a particular source of inspiration for Parry.

Early circuses and carnivals frequently highlighted human oddities such as Barnum's General Tom Thumb (more about him in The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb) and the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. One Dreamland attraction was Lilliputia, Samuel Gumpertz's miniature city inhabited by 300 little people. The park also displayed early incubators – not yet approved for hospital use – where premature triplets born into the sideshow owner's family were treated.

Myrtle Corbin Although "freak shows" are no longer considered politically correct, at the turn of the twentieth century they were still popular. For instance, Georgette, the four-legged performer in Church of Marvels, may be based on Myrtle Corbin (1868–1928), who had the legs of a dipygus twin dangling between her own. Nowadays, Coney Island performers are celebrated not so much for their physical differences as for superhuman feats. Many of these are traditional circus acts, such as sword-swallowing, breathing fire, and snake-charming.

Coney Island entered a decline in the mid-twentieth century, marked by the closure of Luna Park in 1946 and then of Steeplechase Park in 1964. New Yorkers were more likely to go to movie theaters or drive to local beaches than they were to travel out to Coney Island. However, the New York Aquarium, a museum, and various amusement parks have remained major attractions, and there is still a circus sideshow that runs from March to September.

Present-day Coney Island Skyline Other annual events include the New Year's Day polar bear swim, the Mermaid Parade, a film festival, a burlesque show, Nathan's hot dog eating contest, and a Halloween extravaganza. The island also plays host to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league baseball team. Parks and businesses suffered severe damages during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most reopened by the following season.

Now, as much as in the late nineteenth century, roller coasters on the outer New York City skyline define Coney Island in the national imagination.

Picture of Thompsons Switchback Railway by Yolan C.
Picture of Myrtle Corbin by Charles Eisenmann
Picture of present-day Coney Island by Boris

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Church of Marvels. It originally ran in June 2015 and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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