Fire flood and fury dangerous nature

As Richard Snow has noted, "Nothing stirred a showman more than a truly devastating catastrophe" (Snow 1984:46). The savvy architects of Coney Island were quick to recognize the lucrative potential of nature's capacity to shock and awe with stunning displays of spectacular power. Natural disaster exhibits were a favourite with Coney Island crowds from the beginning of the twentieth century, usually recreated with lifelike miniature models of famously doomed localities which were subsequently destroyed by fire, flood, earthquake, twister, or volcanic eruption to the appreciative gasps of spectators. Floods were a favourite subject. One of the earliest exhibits re-created the Galveston Flood, in which thousands of people perished in a hurricane-spawned tidal surge in the resort town of Galveston, Texas in 1900. The famously gruesome Johnstown Flood of 1889 was also captured in a Coney Island diorama. The 1902 eruption of Martinique's Mount Pelee, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the destruction of Pompei and the cyclones of Kansas also provided the basis for similar natural-disaster shows which demonstrated the awesome power of uncontrolled and uncontrollable nature.

In addition to those exhibits which re-enacted natural disaster as spectacle, Coney Island itself often inadvertently became disaster-as-spectacle, particularly when catastrophic fires broke out, drawing slack-jawed crowds from the local neighbourhood to gape at the futility of human intervention in that most mercurial of nature's forces. Devastating conflagrations swept through Steeplechase in 1907, Dreamland in 1911, and Luna in 1945, shortly before its permanent demise. Following the fire that destroyed the first incarnation of Steeplechase Park in 1907, owner George Tilyou, in a now-legendary attempt to turn a profit from misfortune, erected a sign in front of the still-smouldering ruins reading:

To inquiring Friends: There was a lot of trouble yesterday that I have not had to-day, and there is lots of troubles to-day that I did not have yesterday.—Geo. C.Tilyou

On this site will be erected a bigger, better Steeplechase Park. Admission to the Burning Ruins—10 cents.

Due to the large number of beasts often housed at the great amusements parks, the fiery demise of Coney's animals also often comprised part and parcel of the spectacle of disaster. In his online history of Coney Island, Jeffrey Stanton gives the following account of the agonizing public death of a lion caught up in the 1911 Dreamland fire:

The lion climbed up the incline of the railroad as two trainers followed the cat's bloody footprints in near darkness. They were followed by [owner] Ferrari, [lion-tamer] Bonavita and two armed policemen. They could hear the great cat's roars ahead, and they the trainers kept firing their blanks to keep the cat on the move. When they finally reached the top and the open air, Black Prince was standing, outlined against the sky. He made a splendid target and Ferrari gave the cops the orders to fire. They emptied their guns into them as thousands watched from below. He fell and still twitched. Someone threw up an axe and policeman Coots split open his skull. They found 24 bullets in the lion's head alone. The crowd below roared and Black Prince's body was dragged down the incline and into the street for display at 3:25 A.M.

(Stanton 1997b)

As with Topsy, even in death Coney Island could turn nature into gruesome spectacle.

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