It’s been a very long time since I’ve done a historial “tattoos in the news” column, and I think perhaps it’s time to revive that. Today I shall cover a cross-section of mentions of tattoos and body modification in the news in the year 1890. In 1890 tattoos were already quite common and well known, and even a “trend” in some areas, among both the upper classes and among sailors, as well as there being wide awareness of body modification in tribal cultures. But I want to begin with my absolute favorite article of the year, which I read in the Acton Concord Enterprise of March 28, 1890 — although I should mention they were quoting The Philadelphia Inquirer and that this story was widely printed across North America. In short, a deaf-and-dumb girl is tattooed with the alphabet on her forearm, and learns to communicate by “typing” out words — and having responses typed back. Keep in mind that this was before ASL was standard, so there were many creative methods of dealing with deafmute communication — this is definitely one of the more interesting!
TALKS WITH HER ARM
Where a Deaf and Dumb Girl Carries the Alphabet and How She Uses It
“James V. Dorpman and daughter, Lodge Pole, Nebraska,” is written in a bold hand on the register at the Ridgway house. Mr. Dorpman is a tall, well built man of 60 years, with a long beard strongly tinged with gray. His daughter is about 18 years old. She has an intelligent, pretty face and the brightest and bluest kind of bright blue eyes.
When Mr. Dorpman and his daughter first came to the Ridgway house they attracted the attention and curiosity of the guests by their strange behavior. Whether in the parlor or in the dining room, Mr. Dorpman always sat on the left hand side of his daughter and tapped her left arm constantly with two fingers of his right hand, as though playing on a typewriter. His fingers skipped nimbly at random from the girl’s wrist almost to her shoulder and back again. At intervals he paused and the girl smiled, nodded her head or else tapped her left arm in the same manner with the fingers of her right arm, the old man closely watching their movements.
The strange actions of the couple were subjects of continual comment and speculation among tho guests. Finally Borne one noticed that the father and daughter were never heard to exchange a word. They always sat quietly when in each other’s presence, and were always drumming on tho girl’s arm as if it were a pianoforte. The girl kept away from the other guests of her sex, and was never seen in conversation with any one. At the dining table Mr. Dorpman gave the orders to the waiters both for himself and his daughter. When Proprietor Butterworth met the young woman on the stairs and said affably, “Good morning,” she never answered.
The strange actions of the couple occasioned such widespread comment and curiosity among the guests that finally Proprietor Butterworth approached Mr. Dorpman while he was standing at the cigar counter one day, and after a few minutes of general conversation asked him to explain the cause of his constant tapping on his daughter’s arm.
“So you’ve noticed that, eh?” said Mr. Dorpman with a laugh. “Well, that is how I talk to Hattie. Sho is deaf and dumb.”
Mr. Butterworth asked him how he was able to converse with bis daughter by simply drumming on her arm.
“You’ll think it is easy after I tell you,” he answered. “You must remember that we came from an obscure part of Nebraska, settled there with my wife a quarter of a century ago. Eighteen years ago, when Hattie was born, there was not a house within a mile of us, nor a city within sixty miles. As the child grew older we discovered that she was deaf and dumb. We were at a loss how to communicate with her. We were far away from a civilized community, and no one that we knew was familiar with the sign manual for deaf mutes, so that the baby grew to be a child before we could devise a scheme to talk to her.
“Finally my wife hit upon a novel idea. She got a clever young fellow who worked for us to tattoo the alphabet on Hattie’s arm. The letter ‘A’ began just above the wrist, and the letter ‘Z’ ended just below tho shoulder blade. Hattie was then 5 years old. In less than a year by this means my wife and I had taught her the alphabet.
“Then we began to spell out words by touching each letter very slowly with our fingers. As the child learned we became faster, and when Hattie was 12 years old we were able to talk to her as rapidly as a person can spell out words on a typewriter. Hattie, too, learned to answer us by drumming on her tattooed arm. Of course, for several years at first, when we wanted to talk to her, or she to us, she had to roll up the sleeve of her left arm. Gradually her sense of touch became so fine that she knew without looking just where each letter was located, and her mother and I, by constant practice, were enabled to strike these letters with her sleeves rolled down.
“The tattoo was not very deep, and by tho time Hattie was 16 years of age it had entirely disappeared, leaving her arm as white and spotless as a woman’s arm could be. But she knows just where each letter was, and so do I, for I have been drumming on her arm ever since she was knee high to a grasshopper. Of course, I am the only person alive able to talk with her, as my wife died about six months ago, but I hope to arrange so that she may be able to talk to others. While we are on east I am going to get some one to instruct her in the sign manual. She is bright and quick and will soon learn.”