“United by a Tattoo Mark”

Rebecca over at Modified News does an excellent job digging into current news stories, so rather than cover the same territory, I’ve decided to focus here only on news that is over a hundred years old. In part because then I don’t have to stress over copyright, ha.

This touching story is excerpted from the August 3, 1888 edition of the Washington Post (originally published in the St. Louis Republican).

A little over twelve years ago there lived in Smithfield, a portion of Belfast, Ireland, a family of two sons, two daughters and husband and wife. The husband’s name was John J. O’Brien, and he earned a livelihood for himself with a hammer and chisel in the capacity of stonecutter. His two sons, John and James, were taught the trade by their father, and at the age of fourteen and twelve years were handy with the mason’s tools.

John, the oldest son, named after his father, thought he would seek his fortune in the land of liberty, and a correspondence was begun by the father with some friends on this side of the water regarding a position for his son. It culminated in John leaving his home and native soil and landing in America as an apprentice to a New York employing stonemason. John was fourteen years old then, and for two or three years after his emigration kept up a rigid correspondence with his parents, brother and sisters. His letters gradually lost their length, grew crisp and sharp, few and far between, until finally they stopped altogether. That was nine years ago, and he as never received a letter from home since.

After serving his term as an apprentice he became a journeyman mason and worked in a number of places in New York. He married, and a few years ago came to St. Louis with his wife and children and secured employment with R.L. Rosebrough & Sons, on Twentieth and Olive streets. Five months ago James, the younger brother, determined to satisfy his desire to find his brother, and he came to America. He landed in New York and commenced the search. After four months’ investigation he found the place where his brother last worked, and was informed that he had gone West to Missouri. He them came to St. Louis, and arrived here about two weeks ago.

He visited many stone yards and quarries here, but no one he met knew John J. O’Brien. Last Sunday morning he left his boarding-house for a stroll, and without having any particular destination in view soon found himself standing in front of the Natatorium, on Nineteenth and Pine streets, and, after reading the signs, he thought he would go in and see what was inside.

A quarter was demanded at the door, a pair of trunks and a towel were placed in his hand and a state-room assigned to him. He was soon in the big tank, but not knowing how to swim, he remained in the shallow water and splashed around with the small boys to his heart’s content.

John O’Brien, whose scene of daily toil lies but two blocks from the swimming school, seldom visits the Natatorium, but last Sunday morning he felt a desire to take a plunge in the inviting basin. He left his home on Cozzens avenue, near Grand avenue, and entered the Natotorium about 10 o’clock. Like his brother, he does not know how to swim, and he consequently sought the shallow end of the tank. While plunging about he jostled against a big, brawny, muscular man like himself, and the excuse that he made for his rudeness led to a conversation. The stranger was waist deep in water, and while speaking, folded his arms across his chest. On the left arm between the elbow and shoulder and across a huge muscle John noticed the letters “J. O’B.” tattooed in India ink of red and blue.

“Those are my initials, too,” said John.

“And mine too,” said the other.

“What might your name be?” asked John.

“James O’Brien.”

“Your father’s name?”

“John J. O’Brien.”

“Of where?”

“Smithfield, Belfast.”

“Have two sisters, Kate and Mary?”


“And a brother, John?”


“Jim, I’m your brother.”

With this John sprang, grasped his brother’s hands, and the two embraced. They jumped out of the tank, surveyed each other from head to foot, saw their likeness in each other’s faces, and actually cried, but they were tears of joy they wept.

Anyway, I hope this new section helps give a different insight into tattoo history by sharing day-to-day “mundane” stories rather than focussing on the big names and better known stories. I’ll try and add to it every couple of days.

This entry was posted in ModBlog and tagged , , by Shannon Larratt. Bookmark the permalink.

About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by BMEzine.com LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by BMEzine.com LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

10 thoughts on ““United by a Tattoo Mark”

  1. This ties in with a project I just started of locating my family, I don’t know anything about any of them. Let’s hope there’s a few handy tattoos along the way to help me out

  2. “Jim, I’m your brother.â€?

    made me laugh.

    maybe it was just the way i was reading the dialogue

  3. I actually majored in history, and love tattoos (why else would I be here?) so guess how much I enjoyed this story :).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>