The best books about historic Coney Island

Who am I?

I’m the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. The “doctor” ran infant incubator sideshows for forty years at Coney Island (among other places) where the public would pay to view tiny preemies. Bizarre as it seems, and despite Martin Couney’s many fabrications, he was the rightful father of American neonatology, not only getting rich but also saving thousands of children when the medical establishment couldn’t or wouldn’t do it: Some of his patients are still alive. During my years of research, I needed to immerse myself in the history and culture of America’s trippiest, naughtiest seaside playground, with its amusement parks, freak shows, sideshows, hijinks, and hanky panky. (Sigmund Freud reportedly said that Coney Island was the only thing of interest to him in America). Along with many trips to Coney Island as it is today, including the Coney Island Museum, these were the books that really helped me feel it. 


I wrote...

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

By Dawn Raffel,

Book cover of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

What is my book about?

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious Coney Island doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred years ago and saved some seven thousand babies. Dr. Martin Couney's story is a kaleidoscopic ride through the intersection of ebullient entrepreneurship, enlightened pediatric care, and the wild culture of world's fairs at the beginning of the American Century.

The books I picked & why

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Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past

By Edo McCullough,

Book cover of Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past

Why this book?

First published in 1957 (and re-issued with a welcome epilogue by historian Michael P. Onorato), the book vividly portrays the storied seaside’s heyday. McCullough was Coney Island royalty: His grandfather was one of its earliest settlers, his uncle was among its greatest showmen, and his dad owned a dozen amusement-park shooting galleries. The family’s love of the place seeps through these pages (a sub-sub title reads “the most rambunctious, scandalous, rapscallion, splendiferous, pugnacious, spectacular, illustrious, prodigious, frolicsome island on earth”—which about sums it up).  Particularly moving is the heartbreaking fate of the show animals on the night of a tragic fire in 1911.

Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past

By Edo McCullough,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Good Old Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Coney Island is more than a national institution: it was probably the most celebrated amusement resort in the world. This book, by a man whose family helped to build the Island's fantastic reputation, presents its lively and nostalgic history. Touched with sentiment, occasionally with acid, it is frank, outspoken, sometimes biting, but always imbued with humor.
This new edition of McCullough's book includes an introduction by Brian J. Cudahy, who has written extensively about New York's waterways and subways, and an epilogue by Michael P. Onorato, a retired history professor whose father managed Coney Island's famed Steeplechase Park from 1928…


Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

By Oliver Pilat, Jo Ranson,

Book cover of Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

Why this book?

Known as “the people’s playground,” Coney Island was also affectionately dubbed “sodom by the sea.” This thick volume, published in 1941, offers a history going all the way back to 1830, affording a sweeping view of Coney Island’s risque, criminal, glamorous, delightful, glittering, and sometimes seedy past. It includes a splendid few pages about my subject, Dr. Couney, which were no doubt approved by the self-inventing showman himself—co-author Ranson was among his favorite newspaper reporters. 

Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island

By Oliver Pilat, Jo Ranson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sodom By the Sea an Affectionate History of Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sodom by the sea;: An affectionate history of Coney Island [Jan 01, 1943] Pilat, Oliver


Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

By Robin Jaffee Frank,

Book cover of Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

Why this book?

Created in conjunction with a 2015 exhibition, this volume is a visual feast -- a tribute to the way Coney Island inspired artists and endures as part of the public imagination. Paintings, drawings, posters, artifacts, and photographs spanning 1861-2008 fill its pages; artists include Diane Arbus, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Red Grooms, and many others. Accompanying essays explore the seaside resort’s cultural significance.

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

By Robin Jaffee Frank,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A captivating look at Coney Island and its iconic place in the history of American art

Called "America's playground," Coney Island is a world-famous resort and national cultural symbol that has inspired music, literature, and films. This groundbreaking book is the first to look at the site's enduring status as inspiration for artists throughout the ages, from its inception as an elite seaside resort in the mid-19th century, to its evolution into an entertainment mecca for the masses, with the eventual closing of its iconic amusement park, Astroland, in 2008 after decades of urban decline. How artists chose to portray…


Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

By John F. Kasson,

Book cover of Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

Why this book?

Crammed with delightful stories and images, Kasson’s book is particularly strong in conveying the way that early 20th Century Coney Island provided a refuge for the “million”: working class immigrants who spent all week cooped up in tenements and sweatshops could ride the new subway cars out to the ocean on the weekend. There, they found liberation not only from the confines of cramped spaces but from buttoned-up mores: “Various amusements contrived to lift women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing, while numerous others provided opportunities for intimate physical contact. Slow, scenic rides through tunnels and caves offered abundant occasions for ‘spooning’ and ‘petting,’ to use the language of the day. Other, more vigorous rides worked less subtly, throwing couples into each other’s arms.”

Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

By John F. Kasson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Amusing the Million as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Coney Island: the name still resonates with a sense of racy Brooklyn excitement, the echo of beach-front popular entertainment before World War I. Amusing the Million examines the historical context in which Coney Island made its reputation as an amusement park and shows how America's changing social and economic conditions formed the basis of a new mass culture. Exploring it afresh in this way, John Kasson shows Coney Island no longer as the object of nostalgia but as a harbinger of modernity--and the many photographs, lithographs, engravings, and other reproductions with which he amplifies his text support this lively thesis.


Coney Island: The People's Playground

By Michael Immerso,

Book cover of Coney Island: The People's Playground

Why this book?

Immerso’s book provided confirmation of a rumor I’d heard—that back in the late 1880s, the first thing a newly arriving immigrant making the transatlantic crossing would see wasn’t the Statue of Liberty—it was in fact Coney Island, and specifically the ridiculous edifice known as the Elephant Hotel. A bad idea from the get-go, the novelty, pachyderm-shaped hotel was converted into a brothel until even the hookers checked out and it burned to the ground.

Coney Island: The People's Playground

By Michael Immerso,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Coney Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Coney Island was the uncontested epicenter of America's emerging mass culture. It was the quintessential American resort: the birthplace of the amusement park, the hot dog, and the roller coaster. Its history is one of breathtaking transformation and re-invention. Celebrated for its glittering amusement parks and its enormous crowds, it was in times past a mecca of grand hotels, race tracks, beer gardens, gambling dens, concert saloons, and dance halls. A new mass culture began to take shape there. Its harshest critics decried it as Bedlam by the Sea, but others deemed it…


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