The Child Hatchery

In South Minneapolis, a last remnant of Dr. Martin Couney's freak show preemies

Couney's skill shows most in contrast to his rivals. Many promoters, in envy of his long lines and fabulous publicity, opened competing incubator exhibits. Without Couney's experienced touch, however, the tiny preemies died at alarming rates. When businessmen opened a competing exhibit in St. Louis, for example, fully half of the babies on display perished in the first three months of the venture.

Couney's career climaxed in 1939, when he spent lavishly to outfit a magnificent headquarters on the grounds of the New York World's Fair: a pink confection of a building with a well-appointed suite for himself, another for the inimitable Madame Recht, and one for Hildegarde, as well. He bought extravagant dinners for visiting physicians and showered his infant wards with prizes and publicity. His expenses set him back some $125 a day. By the time the fair ended, Couney was broke.

At the same time, business at Coney Island evaporated, along with interest in incubator babies generally. Simple boredom, perhaps, with yesterday's sensation. Or it may be that world events had satiated the public's interest in human tragedy. Couney quit in 1944 when New York City opened its first premature infant station in a hospital setting. Six years later, he died in poverty.

Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society


Minneapolis's Wonderland Amusement Park was a short-lived affair. In 1912, faced with mounting debts occasioned by two wet summers and diminished attendance, the park's backers pulled out. After just seven years, the thrill rides and amusements were all torn down: The Old Mill boat ride with its underground caverns; the scream-inducing Scenic Railway roller coaster, its scrims painted with Oriental landscapes, mountain ravines, and fiery caves; the House of Nonsense; the mythic city, crystal maze, and faerie theater--all were dismantled and sold off for scrap. The acreage was subdivided into lots and sold to developers. Only the empty Infant Incubator Institute was spared and converted to a rental property.

Not long ago I paid a visit to these apartments, hoping to find some trace of its unusual history. I discovered that the building, once the provenance of new life, had recently endured the opposite extremity with the death of the man who had been caretaker, longest occupant, and resident historian since the early 1960s. His mantle has passed to Betty Kersting, who moved into her apartment on the first floor in July of 1967.

A single woman of settled habits, Kersting is disinclined to move, although she's given some thought to the senior high-rise down the street. For nearly 40 years she's worked in a hospital: as a cafeteria worker, and then as an escort for patients needing x-rays. Perhaps because of this profession, she is a garrulous and plainspoken extrovert. When I arrived she relinquished her easy chair and flipped off a cowboy movie to walk me through her apartment while relating stories about the difficulties of removing its wallpaper, the joys of its backyard, the foibles of its coniferous arbor (savaged one winter for a Christmas tree), about her family, and her job. When the phone rang, she excused herself to answer. "Maybe that's my sister calling," she explained, "It's my birthday today." But the phone call was a wrong number.

Her apartment's simple decoration reflects the idiosyncratic tastes of a hard-working, single woman getting on in years. A twin bed, neatly made. Photographs of siblings and their children. Arranged on a table were quite a number of inexpensive stuffed animals. I was disappointed, however, that there were no signs of the old Incubator Institute, excepting a few initials scratched, perhaps by sweethearts, into the building's soft bricks. Kersting has saved a picture postcard dated November 1909 that depicts the front gates of the Wonderland all lit up against the nighttime sky. The postcard is creased and worn, and she keeps it in a little plastic sleeve. The note on the postcard is from a woman named Helga who writes that she purchased some theater tickets, and looked forward to the show. ("Haven't seen anybody today," Helga has written on the front of the card.)

Talking to Kersting brought to my mind the customers who provided the bulk of Couney's business. He called them "repeaters." Typically they were childless women who formed an attachment to one baby in particular and then came once or twice a week to check on its health. One woman visited Couney's exhibit on Coney Island once a week for 36 seasons, transferring her affections from one baby to the next, as each graduated. "Repeaters attend more assiduously," Liebling writes, "than most of the patients' parents."

I got to thinking about repeaters, while Betty Kersting continued her side of the conversation, and I tried to imagine the particular set of losses and desires they brought to the incubators, and I wondered what had happened to them when Wonderland closed down. I thought about the premature babies who had survived and grown, and about those who had perished in the machines, and I wondered aloud if Kersting's apartment might be haunted. She said, no, no. She'd never seen any ghosts in the building. Myself, I wasn't so sure.

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