On the Atlantic City boardwalk, somewhere between the Trump and the Tropicana is wooden cut-out painting of what the buildings in city must've looked like back in its infancy. At first glance, it's beautiful in things-were-so-much-better-back-then type of a way. If you've ever heard an old person say, "You should've seen this town back in the day. It was really something (Translation: There weren't any minorities)," then you could probably picture it.
At first glance, the cutout looks like a Norman Rockwell depiction of the shops on Main Street USA. But if you look a little closer, there's something very disturbing about the cutout. One of the buildings has these three high windows that are reflecting blue skies with puffy, white clouds. The windows have a number of things written on them but, unless you're up close, it's difficult to make out what's there.
What's written underneath the windows, however, is tough to miss. In big white block letters there are two words: LIVING INFANTS. True, it's less jarring than a sign promising DEAD BABIES, but still, it makes you wonder: "What types of businesses used to line this boardwalk?" A closer inspection of the small print directly on the windows gives you a little more detail about what this LIVING INFANTS business is all about: "Atlantic City's Baby Incubators" and "Come see babies that weigh less than three pounds!" reads the fine print on the windows. And underneath this one-of-a-kind offer is the price: "25 cents!" What a deal, right?
Can't you just picture an elderly man walking along the AC boardwalk with his grandson, grumbling about the outrageous prices that establishments were charging. "$3.75 for a goddamn slice of pizza?! That's a goddamn crime if you ask me," he'd say to the impressionable child. "Why, back in my day, we'd have a grand old time for just two quarters. We'd spend the first quarter tying a bit of a load on, you understand. Then, we'd pay a quarter to spend the afternoon walking through the Living Infants museum. These little bastards would fit in the palm of your hand, I tell you. Not a one of these sons' of bitches weighing more than three pounds. Quite a sight, I tell you," he'd say as his eyes glazed over with nostalgia.
How strapped were people for entertainment in Atlantic City back then that paying money to stare at tiny infants constituted a good time? Sure, today's Atlantic City is one of the most slimy, insidious places in all of the country, and there's a lot of freaky shit going on down there, but you'd still probably have trouble finding any businesses in the tiny baby-watching industry.
And where did all these babies come from? I envisioned a large man in a fedora, a soiled undershirt and dress slacks held up by suspenders. He'd have a cigar permanently propped in his mouth, a rolled up paper in his hand and he'd reek of cold cuts. Giuseppe they'd call him -- or Felix, and this bad man would wander from hospital to hospital searching for the smallest babies in land. Giuseppe or Felix would seek out weeping parents and make them an offer they couldn't refuse. "Look, this place can't do anything for your baby no more," he'd say while gently massaging a distraught mother's neck, "but my employer can." In this way, the world's largest collection of tiny living infants would be assembled and then prominently displayed on the Atlantic City boardwalk for profit. Indebted to the "employer" who kept them alive, these babies would eventually grow up to become sideshow freaks at traveling circuses in towns like Branson, Missouri and Keosauqua, Iowa.
I say "envisioned" in the past tense, because that's what I pictured before I did some digging. (No I don't watch "Boardwalk Empire.") As it turns out, the real story behind the LIVING INFANTS is way less interesting than the one I'd imagined.
See back in late 19th century and well into the early 20th century, premature births were a pretty big deal -- and doctors and hospitals did a really shitty job of keeping those little babies alive. Then this German dude, Dr. Martin A. Couney, comes along and invents the modern baby incubator -- which he uses to treat his own prematurely born daughter. He claims the incubator he's created can take care of the whole preemie death problems. But Dr. Couney's colleagues in the medical community think he's full of shit, the banks won't finance his incubator production and the hospitals don't want anything to do with the devices. So he does the only thing he can: He takes his show directly to the people.
Armed with a handful of tiny babies that some German hospital decided die anyway, Couney takes his incubator project to 1896 Berlin Exposition, where he charges admissions to help finance the the venture -- and ends up drawing huge crowds in the process. The whole thing is an overwhelming success, and all of the original babies skirt their death sentences. Before you know it, hospitals start referring parents of preemies to Couney for care -- care he administers at no cost to those parents -- and just like that these LIVING INFANT exhibits start popping up everywhere.
Eventually, the first permanent baby incubator exhibit winds up on the auspicious Atlantic City Boardwalk (right across from the Million Dollar Pier where this horse tried to commit suicide on a nightly basis) in 1902. Finally, in 2012, a slightly hungover Polish-American notices the cutout that pays tribute to the incubators, takes his picture next to it and writes a rambling, nonsensical blog post about the whole thing.