TABOO: 7 Tattooed Ladies Of The Past

Below is a brief history of several tattooed ladies from the past. All of them have interesting stories as to why they were tattooed in a time when it was so taboo.

1. Olive Oatman was taken in by the Mojave tribe after her family was killed. In 1858, the Mojave tattooed her chin to ensure her passage into the afterlife.

Oatman’s story began when she was kidnapped aged 13 by a group of Yavapais Indians, along with her sister Mary Ann, 10. Apart from her brother Lorenzo who was clubbed and left for dead, the rest of her family were murdered by their attackers in what came to be known as the ‘Oatman massacre’.

The girls remained with their by Yavapais captors for a year, during which time they were treated as little more than slaves and endured repeated beatings.

But their luck changed when a group of Mohave Indians arrived in their kidnapper’s village and persuaded the Yavapais to give up the girls in exchange for two horses and some blankets.

The pair were swiftly moved to a Mojave village on the Colorado River, where they were taken in by one of the village families and treated as full members of the tribe.

Although both girls were tattooed by the Mojave, Mary-Ann sadly didn’t live long enough to be photographed - dying of starvation during a famine that hit the region a year after their arrival.

‘She [Olive] was raised by Mojave Indians after her family was killed on a trip from Western Illinois,’ recounts Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies Of Subversion. ‘The tribe tattooed lines on her chin because they believed it would ensure her passage to the afterlife.’

Oatman remained with the Mojave until she was 19, when the authorities at nearby Fort Yuma belatedly found out that a white girl was living with the tribesmen.

A messenger from the Yuma tribe was sent to negotiate with the Mojave for her release and eventually, they agreed to part with her in exchange for horses and blankets.

At Fort Yuma, Oatman was reunited with her brother Lorenzo. Although she later married, to cattleman John B. Fairchild, she never had children although the couple did adopt a daughter, Marnie, in 1877.

After she died aged 65 in 1903, rumours surfaced of a previous marriage to a Mojave chieftain which was said to have produced two sons. But romantic as it sounds, the rumours were never substantiated.

Since Olive was given her tattoos in 1858, body art has become an ubiquitous part of modern life in the UK, with an estimated 20 million Brits believed to have one.

In this 1858 lithograph, Olive Oatman is seen being presented to the Mojave tribal council before being tattooed as part of a religious rite.

2. In 1882, Nora Hildebrandt was a canvas for her father when he wasn’t busy tattooing sailors. He was America’s first professional tattoo artist.

Nora Hildebrandt was America’s first professional tattooed lady. Her place in history is due mostly to the fact that her father, German born Martin Hildebrandt, was America’s first professional tattoo artist. Nora stood in as a canvas for her father when he was not tattooing sailors and soldiers from both sides of the Civil War.

Martin set up shop in New York in 1846 and Nora was born sometime in the 1850’s. Nora began to exhibit herself in 1882. By that time, she was covered in tattoo ink, neck to toe, with a reported 365 tattooed designs. She toured primarily with Barnum & Bailey Circus throughout the 1890’s. Initially, she borrowed heavily from the embellished origins laid out by the tattooed men of years past like John Rutherford and Captain Constentenus. In her fictional biography, Nora stated that she and her father were originally forcibly tattooed by American Indians. According to her story, she was tattooed daily for an entire year, while tied to a tree. At one point, she even claimed that Sitting Bull was involved in her torture.

3. Bertha Ritchie a.k.a. Princess Beatrice: After losing her family in a storm, she went slightly mad. Her late husband’s friend and her went to South Africa in 1903 and it was there when he started tattooing her.

Life was normal for Bertha until September 8, 1900 when what would be called the Storm of 1900 occurred and Galveston was changed forever. When the weather became threatening, Bertha would not relinquish Sam (her child) to his nanny, a strong black woman who had a better chance of protecting the baby than his frail mother. Instead, Bertha kept the baby with her and in the floodwater she was struck unconscious by debris. The baby was washed from her arms. Bertha was snatched from the water by her very long hair and pulled onto some floating debris where she managed to cling until the waters abated. The wind and water had torn off her clothing and she wandered the devastated streets of Galveston looking for family wearing only her corset.

The Storm of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Bertha saved her hair in bags for years and became hysterical during storms. For years, she looked in every baby carriage she passed to see if somehow Sam had been found and was still alive. His little body was never discovered and I don’t know if the bodies of her mother or sisters were either. They are listed under Annie Benn and Helena Ritchie in the roster of known deaths due to the Storm.

Annie Benn’s house was near the Gulf and the land it was built on was eroded during the storm. Bertha lost all her family and their property in the space of a day. At least her husband survived the ordeal and they had another child in 1902.

Their return to whatever kind of normalcy then existed in Galveston was short lived. Bertha was widowed in 1903. She never had to earn her own way and as a young widow, should have returned to live with her family. Her husband left her no money and all of her family was gone. Months later, an old friend of her late husband, John Clark (JT) came looking for him and found Bertha and her child in a bad state.

JT had always considered Bertha a beautiful woman and after some discussion about the kind of life she could expect with him, they left for Johannesburg, South Africa. She would work with him side by side and they would earn their living by their wits, charm and talent. That they were married in Johannesburg and not before the voyage would have caused a scandal but who was alive to scandalize?

In Africa, JT proceeded to tattoo Bertha who was professionally called Princess Beatrice. She had George Washington on the front of her chest and the Last Supper on her back. Spider webs were on her shoulders and a memorial to her mother and sisters on an upper arm.

JT had tattoo shops in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg and also in Sidney, Australia.

Their only child, Francis John, was born in Johannesburg in 1906. Bertha had a good life in Johannesburg. They had colorful friends in related occupations and sufficient money to live well for the day.

4. Maud Wagner is the first known female tattooist in the US: circa 1911.

She received her very first tattoo from Gus when she met him in 1904 at the St Louis World’s Fair. She married him October 3, 1904. Her daughter Lovetta Wagner became a well known female artist as well despite having no tattoos herself.

She died on January the 30th, 1961 in Lawton, Comanche County, Oklahoma.

5. Betty Broadbent a.k.a. The Tattoo’d Lady was a popular act in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, circa 1927.

The beautiful Betty Broadbent was born in 1909 and during her childhood she was a rather innocent lass. She was rarely in trouble and was both trustworthy and kind. At the age of fourteen she was employed as a nanny in Atlantic City, New Jersey and took to wandering the boardwalk. It was there that she had a chance encounter with tattooist Jack Red Cloud and fell in love with the art form that would forevermore shape her life and future.

By 1927 Betty was well on her way to completing a tattoo body suit. Over 350 designs adorned her pinup model-like body, designs created and applied by notorious and revolutionary tattooists like Charlie Wagner, Joe Van Hart, Tony Rhineager and Red Gibbons.

Tattoos were not in vogue amongst women of the era. In fact, tattoos in generally were fairly rare outside of sailors and riffraff. It was even more unusual to find tattoos in such a high concentration on a single human being, never mind on a voluptuous and desirable female body fit for fantasy. While her body was nearly covered with ink, Betty’s beautiful face was completely untouched, as a result of this contrast Betty quickly drew a great deal of attention and opted to embark on a career of exhibition.

Betty’s first job was with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and almost instantly Betty fell in love with show business. Many women quickly grew tired of the rigorous carnival lifestyle. But Betty thrived in exhibition and she spent the next 40 years in and around the show business and circus scene. In fact, Betty flaunted her tattoos in every significant American, Australian and New Zealand circus the era had to offer. Betty was even a featured attraction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Betty retired from exhibition in 1967 and disappeared from the public eye for quite some time. She was rediscovered by tattoo enthusiast and historian Lyle Tuttle and it was revealed that she had retired to Florida where she became a tattoo artist herself. She spoke quite fondly of her role in tattoo history and her life as a living exhibit.

Betty Broadbent became the first person inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame in 1981.

She died in her sleep in 1983.

6. The Ainu people of Japan tattooed the lips and mouths of the single women.

The Ainu are a race of people living on the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. Until the 1920’s the lips and mouth of their single women was tattooed with broad blue bands that looked much like mustaches. The young Ainu women underwent this tattooing between the ages of 11 and 21. The lips were washed with a boiled solution of birch bark and clear water and the grandmothers or maternal aunts began the pricking with a razor sharp sliver of metal.

They wiped the blood away with a cloth saturated with the bark broth and rubbed birch wood soot from the bottom of the cooking kettle into the cuts. This gave the tattooing its blue color and, coming from the sacred fire, it was believed to protect the wearer from evils entering the mouth and nose. Although tattooing was banned in Japan in the 17th century, the people of pure Ainu strain ignored this law and continued this traditional tattooing.

7. Jean Furella was a bearded lady in the circus, but after meeting the man of her dreams she shaved it off and decided to become the tattooed lady, so she could stay in the circus: circa 1940.

FOR FIFTEEN YEARS John Carson and Jean Furella were in love. They would meet and sigh and part, broken-hearted, like lovers crossed by Fate through the ages. For there was a barrier between them that seemed insuperable. The barrier that kept the lovers apart was a long, luxuriant, dark, silky beard.

The couple discussed their plight one day with a mutual friend of long standing. The friend is Alec Linton, who is famous all over the United States and many foreign countries, where he has thrilled countless thousands with his artistry. Mr. Linton is a swallower of swords. He works in circuses and in carnivals. And Mr. Linton, miraculously, came up with a solution of the problem that had been sorely trying his two friends for so many years.

“Why not,” said Mr. Linton, “have your beard removed? You say that you want to stay in show business; well, suppose you remove your beard, and then, while it is being done, you get yourself tattooed.” Mr. Linton leaned forward in his seat, tense with the excitement of his inspired thought, but careful, nonetheless, of the wicked blade that he had been cleaning after his sword swallowing act. “Then,” he continued, “you will still be able to work in circuses and carnivals, because you will be just as great an attraction. A tattooed lady is an even greater rarity than a bearded lady.”

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