A Century Ago: Tattoos as ID

I posted recently an interview with a soldier tattooing in Afghanistan, and we talked a little about the recent military bans and then un-bans on tattoos… I thought it would be interesting to share with you this story about the military use of tattoos from the April 17, 1895 edition of The Washington Post.

Identified by Tattoo Marks

Recruiting officers of the Army are aided greatly in keeping undesirable characters out of the service by the "outline figure" card record.

Under War Department oders issued in 1889, record is made by Army medical officers of indelible or permanent marks as may be found on the persons of accepted recruits for the Army. The information is forwarded to the Surgeon General of the Army. The object in view is to obtain evidence for the identification of men with bad records who have had previous army service. The system has worked great benefit to the service and is viewed by good soldiers as greatly conducive to their protection.

Speaking of using tattoos to identify people, here’s another story on identifying children, from the Twin-City News (Uhrichsville and Dennison, Ohio, October 19, 1899).

We are told that since the Clark kidnapping case many parents are having a hidden tattoo mark placed upon their children for purposes of identification. This is given upon the authority of the most noted tattooer in America, who furnishes a quality of strange and interesting facts in an article of "Tattooing and Tattoo Marks" to the October Ev'ry Month. The sketch is accompanied by photographs of the latest implements used in the art and some remarkable designs.

I have lots more stories about tattoos as identification, but I thought this next one was quite interesting, both the first part about prisoners avoiding tattoos, but more because of the part about the guy who went to prison in order to tattoo people. This is from the Wisconsin State Journal, November 29, 1899 (a reprint from The Milwaukee Sentinal).

Tattooing Out of Favor
The Bertillon System of Identification the Cause of it — Becoming Unpopular

...Since the introduction of the Bertillon system there has been a waning of the tattoo fad. There was a time when a tattoo mark was regarded as indispensable by men who made law-breaking their business. They considered it a sort of charm, and believed that to a certain extent the indelible figures that adorned their breasts or arms made them immune to arrest. But that day has gone by. The clever modern crook knows that the tattoo is a hoodoo. Under the Bertillon system of registration of the marks upon a man's body it is a certain clew to the identification of prisoners.

"There is one peculiar thing about tattoo marks," said a member of the state board of control recently. "Some time ago, when the board was hearing prisoners at Waupun, I took occasion to ask every man who came before as if he had any tattoo marks upon his body. Most of the men had, but I took notice that the real clever criminals had fewer marks than the buungling fellows. I learned that most of the prisoners had been tattooed by the same man. It seems that the fellow made a practice of securing short jail sentences in various places, and while in jail tattooed his fellow-prisoners, accepting whatever amount of money they were able to pay. You'll never see a flag design tattoo on a real touch man. For some reason the fellow who is vicious doesn't like to have the national emblem pricked into his skin. He much prefers an anchor or serpent."

Serpent you say?

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.

6 thoughts on “A Century Ago: Tattoos as ID

  1. “…the tattoo is a hoodoo.”

    I’ve never heard the word hoodoo before, but I’m going to use it as much as possible from now on.

  2. I think that its funny, tattoos of some sort for identification range all the way back to biblical times where tattoos where used to mark the Jews that were delivered from slavery.


  3. Pingback: Tattooing “666″ on a Baby | BME: Tattoo, Piercing and Body Modification News

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>