Early news coverage of The Great Omi

One of the most famous “tattooed freaks” of the classic sideshow era — heck, of ANY ERA! — was Horace Riddler, better known as The Great Omi (read more on the BME wiki). I thought it might be interesting to share with you some of the very early news clippings about him — the very first I could discover was dated October 20th, 1934, and was printed in the Lethbridge Herald of Alberta, Canada. Since it’s more than a little hard to read (scanned from old microfiche archives), let me transcribe it:

MIRACLE OF TATTOOING GETS FINISH:The Great Omi, called the ninth wonder of the world, being completely tattooed head to foot. He designed the tattoo patterns himself and the work on his head alone took nine weeks to perfect. Prof. Burchett, shown completing this part of the job, considers it a masterpiece.

great-omi-news-clippings

A slightly later AP story expanded on those comments and was widely reprinted in papers across the nation (I happened to find it in the Galveston Daily News of April 7th, 1935). It reads:

TOTALLY TATTOOED: The Great Omi, who believes himself to be the only man in the world who is “tattooed all over,” explains it by saying, “I was penniless after the war and–well, I had to do something, so I decided it should be something never done before. It has taken me three years to be tattooed from head to foot–a dreadfully painful process. I suffered agonies. Moreover, it was meant sacrificing every social asset I had. Some people would say I look pretty terrible, but my wife has been wonderful about it. She assures me it is only a matter of getting used to it.” The Great Omi served during the world war as a major in the British army.

He quickly became the most famous sideshow performer of the time and people clamored to see him all over the world. For a time — especially in late 1934 and 1935 when his tattoo transformation was complete and his popularity exploded — his name became synonymous with tattooing, and if you were a journalist assigned to write about tattoos, odds were good you’d fill some column inches with The Great Omi’s story. For example, I was reading an interesting article about the 1934 Tokyo tattoo convention in The San Antonio Light‘s December 2nd, 1934 edition, and they actually spent more time talking about Omi than the convention itself!

Convention of Tattooed People, But the Champion Didn’t Attend

Despite the fact that it is a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment and fine, for a Japanese to have his person indelibly inscribed with the tattooer’s needle, a convention of tattooed people recently was staged in the city. The alert police did not molest the delegates to the conclave because every one of them was able to prove that he, or she, had not been tattooed within the past few years, since the ban has been in force.

As the photograph of some of the delegates shows, when an Oriental makes up his mind to get himself tattooed, he does a thorough job of it and covers himself with the sort of red and blue skin pictures that seamen carry around on their arms and chests.

But the convention was not all that it might have been because the grand champion of all tattooed men–a fellow who calls himself the Great Omi–either was unable to attend or just passed up the event as unworthy of his notice.

While the convention was in session and the human art galleries were getting their pictures in the newspapers of the Japanese capital, the Great Omi was touring the British Isles and astounding people who did not envy him in the least. Not for a million dollars would the average human being let himself be so “ornamented.”

The Great Omi is one of the few tattooed men in the world who has permitted the artists with the needle to work on his face as well as his body. As two of the photographs show, there is hardly a square inch of Omi’s head that isn’t covered with a design that makes him look stranger and more savage than the wildest of African medicine men, who go in for that sort of disfigurement.

Prof. Burchett, said to be the world’s outstanding expert in the art of tattooing, supports Omi’s claim that he is the most tattooed man in the world.

convention-of-tattooed-people

I have corrected Their Annoying Capitalization, but underneath the first photo of Omi it says, “The ‘Great Omi,’ most thoroughly tattooed of humans, who holds forth in London. He has spent most of his life decorating his skin with weird designs.” The rightmost picture of Omi reads, “The ‘Great Omi’ submitting himself to the needle to put the finishing touches to the bewildering decorations of head and face.” Finally, the central picture which is of the convention attendees reads, “Six of the many delegates to the convention of tattooed people recently held in Tokyo. These animated Japanese prints are covered with designs from their necks to their thighs but the ‘Great Omi,’ now traveling through the British Isles, found it inconvenient to attend the conclave and told spectators that he is the grand champion of all tattooed people, including the human picture galleries of the orient.”

In addition to being called “The Great Omi” proper, he was often colloquially referred to as “The Zebra Man”, and then as in now, when you become a pop culture icon, you can expect yourself to be referenced in the most unexpected places. For example, the September 17th, 1938 edition of the syndicated serial pulp comic strip “Ella Cinders” (running from 1925 through 1961), which I think is as good a place as any to end this entry. Zoom in so you can read the words clearly.

ella-cinders

The year 1890 in body modification

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.”

talks-with-her-arm

More stories continue after the break.
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