How Morbid Curiosity (and the Free Market) Saved Infant Lives

Culture, Society

Think back to the late 19th/early 20th century. A time in which colonialism remained rampant, workers laboured long hours in factories, and entertainment constituted a trip to the nearest travelling freak show. Indeed, many critics of classical liberalism point to this time as evidence of the exploitation that goes on when the state doesn’t intervene.

By taking this period at face value, however, they ignore the multiple benefits and progressions which arose from it.

Undoubtedly exploitation and a disregard for general welfare went on at this time – this was, after all, still very early days for modern society.

However, one must ask themselves: where would we be without this period? Without the smog and pollution brought about by industry, would we have begun developing cleaner, more efficient systems? Does this period demonstrate the horrors of capitalism, or does it show the ability of the free market to constantly improve and better the world for all? Did people’s self interest ultimately benefit society as a whole?

Naturally, these are huge questions. So for the sake of keeping a short article, I shall demonstrate this point with one marvelous example from early 1900’s New York: how morbid curiosity and exploitation on Coney Island saved the lives of 6,500 babies.

Back then, people could go and see a whole plethora of morally questionable attractions, from: limbless women, four-legged girls and people with microcephaly to name but a few.

However, there was also one attraction which proved incredibly popular – Dr. Martin Couney’s Infant Incubator Facility. This sideshow cost 25¢ to enter, and featured prematurely born babies dressed in oversized clothing, with large bows to emphasise their minute size.

If you’re feeling disgusted and shocked, that’s probably normal. This attraction was, however, far from the shameless exploitation of sick infants for entertainment as it  seems.

In fact, this facility was fully staffed by medical professionals, all clad in white, with state-of-the-art incubators imported from France and everything spotlessly clean. Without Dr. Couney’s sideshow, there was little choice for the parents of premature babies but to wait and pray.

It cost $15 a day to care for the infants ($405 today), a sum which American hospitals viewed to be unaffordably expensive. This, coupled with other social and religious views on premature infants at the time, meant that the US was falling massively behind the rest of the world. By the time hospitals in the eastern states first started using incubators in 1939, Couney’s facility had been operating for 36 years. 

Well before his time, Couney realised that he could afford the staggering costs of caring for premature infants, simply through joining the market for sideshow attractions at the time and allowing patrons to purchase tickets to see the children.

No parents had to pay, no taxes had to be levied: every baby saved at Couney’s sideshow was saved through voluntary transaction and market forces. In fact, Couney’ attraction was so popular that he was able to pay his staff a living wage, as well as turn a profit.

Far from the typical circus ringmaster or carnival peddler, Couney ensured that his facility remained a medical institution, not a freakshow. He made sure the whole facility was as clean as a hospital, that his staff we trained professionals, and that the infants were cared for as best as possible.

Wetnurses were provided with healthy, nutritious diets, and were not allowed to drink or smoke, to ensure that the babies received nutritious milk. Couney also became something of a spokesperson for the prematurely born, travelling internationally and giving lectures on the topic.

Ultimately, through understanding the demand for morbid sideshow curiosities, mixed with true compassion, Couney was able to utilise the market of the time to care for sickly infants, without charging the parents a dime.

Through identifying a gap in the market, Couney was able to achieve an 85% success rate, saving  6,500 lives. Though some may call it exploitation, Couney was able to do something that hospitals would take another 30 years to achieve.

Couney’s story is but one example of progress and humanity arising from the free market. What appears at face value to be shameless exploitation is actually compassion and understanding.

So, when you next view a capitalist to be exploiting you, take a step back and think ‘but where would we be without this?’. The free market ultimately benefits us all, and it’s time we stop judging the capitalist book by its cover.

This piece was originally published on

Picture: Pixabay

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