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For 'Boardwalk Empire'-era Atlantic City, babies in incubators were a sideshow attraction

For 'Boardwalk Empire'-era Atlantic City, babies in incubators were a sideshow attraction

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In the premiere episode of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," actor Steve Buscemi, as quasifictional Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson, peers into a Boardwalk storefront window and watches a small, premature baby being weighed by a nurse.

It may have been difficult for anyone who knows Carol Boyce Heinisch to not immediately think of her when they saw that scene. The 68-year-old Heinisch, a Margate native who now lives in Absecon, was one of many babies who were cared for in an incubator facility that was once on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

A 1979 article in The Press of Atlantic City reports that a plaque once hung in the former Holiday Inn at Boardwalk and Arkansas avenues, across from the Million Dollar Pier, that said: "At this location from 1902 to 1943 stood the Premature Infant Exhibit operated by Martin A. Couney, who was known affectionately as ‘The Incubator Doctor.' Dr. Couney was the first person in the United States to offer specialized care for premature infants."

The metal plaque is currently housed at the Atlantic City Historical Museum on Garden Pier, which is temporarily closed due to storm damage.

Couney was a German doctor who developed the unorthodox practice of exhibiting the premature babies in incubators. Records show Couney never charged parents to care for the babies, relying instead on admission charges and donations paid by others to see them. Couney had another incubator facility in Coney Island, N.Y., and he also brought exhibits of incubator babies to world fairs. Along the Boardwalk, barkers would invite people to see the tiny babies.

"It bristles me that some people think it was a carnival-like atmosphere," said Atlantic City historian Allen "Boo" Pergament, of Margate. "My conclusion is that he had expenses and nurses around the clock, so he put his exhibit in places where masses of people would see it in a good atmosphere. I think he certainly had the best interests of the babies in mind."

Heinisch, a legal assistant for Farley Fredericks & Ferry in Ventnor, was born prematurely in 1942, weighing 4.5 pounds. She eventually dropped below 4 pounds and stayed in the incubator facility for two months. In fact, one of her nurses was Couney's daughter Hildegard, who was a registered nurse.

The oldest of five children and the only one born prematurely, Heinisch, of course, has no memories of the incubator facility but remembers her grandmother talking about it.

"My grandmother and grandfather would stand there and look at me and wonder if I would ever open my eyes," said Heinisch, who has two children and two grandchildren. "And when I got home, they weren't sure if I would ever shut my eyes."

Technology has vastly improved since Couney's incubators, but Heinisch feels fortunate for the care she received. She said many premature babies who were subjected to incubators lost their eyesight because they were given too much oxygen.

"I feel I am very lucky," Heinisch said. "My grandmother told me that my other grandmother bought a white dress ‘just in case something happened.' Nine months later, my picture was taken in that dress."

Heinisch said she cherished the "Boardwalk Empire" incubator scene because it gave her a visual of what it must have been like. However, she said she could do without all of the cursing, violence and nudity in the series.

Although Heinisch wishes she had photos that showed more of the interior and exterior of the facility, she still possesses the pink-and-white beaded necklace with her name on it that was given to her at the facility, as well as the knitted hat she wore home.

She also wishes she had asked her parents more questions.

"I don't even know if my mother held me until I got home," Heinisch said.

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