Early Ear Tunnel Design Precursors

I’ve sort of gotten hooked on reading these old patent records related to body modification, and just came across one that surprised me because of how ahead-of-its-time it was. In early 1875, Albert S. Baker of Somerville, MA filed a patent for what he called an “Imrpovement in Ear-rings” (US Patent #161,853). The patent is for a small gauge flanged tunnel to be worn in the earlobe — he explains,

“It is well known that in the use of ear-rings, as ordinarily constructed, the wires frequently tear out or cut the ear, and when not made of proper materials poison the parts with which they come in contact, thus sometimes causing great injury to the wearer. My invention is designed to obviate these difficulties and objections.”


He goes on to describe the device (which he calls a “spool” at times), which he instructs should be made of high quality gold, thus eliminating materials reactions such as nickel allergies. In addition, because the device is larger gauge than the fine wire that often makes up the hook of an earring, it reduces the chance of the jewelry pulling through. What, you thought Todd Bertrang was the first person to tell the world these things? Still, I was pleasantly surprised to see these concepts tossed around in detail nearly 140 years ago.

Many later jewelry designs also presented similar ideas (his appears to be the first hollow tunnel that was patented), but I will just very briefly mention another one of them, a patent filed in 1976 by Mary C. Ivey of Atlanta, GA (US Patent #4,067,341). Her concept is almost identical, and she explains it very similarly in her application, but adds that her design both allows the secondary jewelry more freedom to move due to the tunnel being larger, and also suggests taking advantage of advances that have been made in materials sciences (specifically plastics) to improve the design. Unfortunately she’s vague on many aspects (as is frustratingly common in patents) and does not however come out and say the actual diameter of the tunnel — as pictured I’m guessing in the realm of 8ga.


As you can see in those illustrations, the visual effect of someone wearing these tunnels — or “pierced earlobe protector” as Ms. Ivey titles it — is very, very close to someone wearing a small gauge tunnel of the sort we see all the time walking out the doors of your friendly neighborhood piercing studio. The one thing that neither Ivey nor Baker mention in their patents how the piercing is to be done, which I’m curious about, especially with Ivey’s, which seems to be getting too big to just shove into your average hole*. The only such insertion-method explanation I stumbled across regarding this style of jewelry was one filed in 1949 by Robert W. Spicher of Havre, MT (US Patent #2,568,207) for a “Surgical Piercing Device”.


The jewelry itself is superficially similar in design and intent to the others in this entry, but it also includes a sharpened taper that can be tightly fitted over the tunnel, either creating the new piercing hole or squeezing into an existing one, and then expanding that hole. The particularly creative part is that he then uses a syringe to blow air into the tunnel to make the taper pop off like a champagne cork — hopefully not shooting like a tiny bullet into the wearer’s neck! — to be replaced with a cap that keeps the tunnel from falling out.

* “that’s what she said”

The Early History Of The Ear Piercing Gun

This morning I was reading old patents (yes, this is what I do for entertainment) and came across an interesting one from way back the last time piercing was überpopular over 130 years ago — filed May 10 and patented July 13, 1880 by Edward Seyfarth in Illinois (US Patent #240,073). As you can see, the design is not that much different from the piercing guns used by disease spreading hacks ^H^H^H^H nostril mutilating morons ^H^H^H^H I mean beauty salon “piercers” even to this day. The patent application reads in part,

“Be it known that I, Edward Seyfarth, of Lanark, in the county of Carroll and State of Illinois, have invented a new and useful Improvement in Ear-Piercers … The object of this invention is to furnish ear-piercers so constructed that the puncture can be made in exactly the desired spot and so quickly as to be painless … The invention consists in constructing an ear-piercer of a pair of bars hinged to each other at one end and provided at their other ends with sockets to receive blocks to be pressed against the ear, the tube having a cap upon its outer end, the needle having a disk and a notch, the spiral spring, and the catch for holding the needle when drawn out, so that the ear may be pierced while being compressed.”

“In using the piercer the blocks (D) are placed upon the opposite sides of the lobe of the ear in such a position that the hole through the blocks (D) will be directly over the spot where it is desired to puncture the ear. The arms (A and B) are then pressed together to numb the part of the ear between the blocks (D). The catch (K) is then drawn back to release the needle (G), which is forced forward to make the puncture by the elasticity of the spring (H), thus making the puncture without causing pain. The needle (G) is then drawn back, the instrument is removed from the ear, and a wire or thread passed through the puncture in the usual way.”


I’ve often heard the urban myth that the ear piercing gun is directly based on or evolved from the tool that places tags in animal ears — it wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve even written that at times. Even the extremely qualified and knowledgeable Elayne Angel says this in her recent book on the subject “The Piercing Bible” (which reminds me, check out her excellent piercing blog at that link), writing “these gadgets were originally invented for tagging cattle and other animals, and later adapted for use on humans”. But it seems this is a misleading statement, arguably false — at best the two tools co-evolved. More likely when we’re talking about piercing tools of the “gun” type that’s most common, one should more accurately argue the evolutionary process is actually the other way around, with a number of patents for animal tagging tools going to far as to explicitly refer back to this very ear-piercing gun patent by Edward Seyfarth! On the whole though I think it’s more realistic to say that the vast majority of animal tagging tools come from the same design family as modified pliers like riveting tools and leather punches, without that much overlap with the design of piercing guns (with a number of notable exceptions). But I’m beginning to digress.

Speaking of ear piercing guns that look more like animal tagging tools, there’s Francis X. Xavbet’s “ear piercing pliers” filed December 3rd, 1880 (US Patent #250,121 issued November 29, 1881), a simple clamp-like device. Xavbet’s design, unlike Seyfarth’s which only creates the hole, uses sharpened jewelry to accomplish the process in a single step as the tool places the ring. His patent reads in part,

“The object I have in view is to produce simple and convenient means for piercing ears, in which the ear-ring itself can be used as the piercing-point, and will be released by the instrument when the hole is formed, so as to remain in the ear till healed.”

“The ear-ring (F) … has a sharp-pointed wire (g). It is grasped by the clamp (A), in the position shown in Fig. 1, the plate (E) is then pushed toward the socket (D), and the lobe of the ear is introduced between such plate and the point of the ear-ring. The pliers are then forced together and the ear pierced, when the chain (B) draws back the dog (B) and the clamp is released. The instrument can now be removed from the ear and leave the ear-ring in position. The sharp point of the ear-ring can then be cut off; but this is not necessary, if the ear-ring is provided with a closed keeper, such as is used on safety pins.”

“When it is desired to place in the ears earrings not provided with sharpened points the removable cutting-points (h), Fig. 6, are used. These can be detached from the wires of the ear-rings after the holes are formed.”


I want to mention one other piercing tool that I dug up, filed just after the Seyfarth design by James McAlpine, on May 20, 1880 with the patent issued November 30th (US Patent #234,881). It deserves mention because it’s by far the simplest — not much more than a holder to help shove a short needle through the lobe with your thumb — he even suggests piercing both ears at once, as the tool is designed to be one-handed. The patent reads,

“The invention consists, mainly, in certain peculiarities of construction … [a] means of which the instrument is adapted for use with one hand, in consequence of which it is possible, by applying an instrument to each ear and operating them simultaneously, to pierce both ears at the same time.”

“The operation is substantially as follows: The jaws having been opened, the set-screw being loose, the bearing-faces may be adjusted to the lobe of the ear, and then be held in the proper position simply by tightening the set-screw. By means of the stop projection and pin the jaws are prevented from being brought together too closely. An instrument being thus attached to each ear, as indicated in Fig. 7, and the piercers being inserted in the tubes, the operator, by means of his thumb and finger, simply presses the piercer toward the button, in consequence of which the lobe is pierced. The hands being used simultaneously, both ears are pierced at once.”

“Some of the advantages are as follows: The use of two instruments at once for simultaneous action is desirable, because, first, a saving of time is effected, and, second, the pain and difficulty resulting from two distinct operations are avoided.”


The above designs are some of the earliest piercing tools of their respective families that I have been able to find to date — although I’m still searching and I strongly believe there are earlier ones in the patent archives that are still to be dug up. I don’t know for certain whether the first one is the earliest patent on a “true piercing gun” and whether Mr. Seyfarth can be credited as the concept’s overall inventor (I doubt it), but it’s certainly very early and you can still see its influence in ear piercing guns in use around the world.

As you may have noticed from these three Victorian patents, at this point there wasn’t a standardized design for the initial jewelry such as the ubiquitous butterfly-back that is still common today. However, browsing other early patents you start to see hints of this line of thinking, and definite precursors of designs that are still in use. From left to right below are US patents 216,954 (filed May 1, 1879 by Lois Heckman), 269,383 (May 8, 1882 by John Caldwell), and 320,991 (May 1, 1885 by Charles Westcott) — what is it with piercing inspiration and the month of May by the way?


All three of these designs use some variation on the backing lightly clamping into place on the bar, the first two being aesthetically closest to modern salon-style jewelry. The third one caught my eye though, because although it is functionally similar to the first two, visually it is identical to the barbell jewelry popularized in the body piercing world by Jim Ward in the 1970s…

When I have more time I will do additional patent research on this subject, both on the early history of body modification, and on some of the more recent patents, which have the advantage of being far more hilarious. For example, I was just reading a silly patent on a line of tongue piercing jewelry that contains a receptacle to release “a substance such as a chemical, breath freshener, pleasant flavor, or medication into the mouth of a wearer” (US Patents 6,675,613 and 8,006,516). The concept works just as you’d expect — a hollow bar to hold the substance, which is then released through holes in the beads. Anyone who has ever brushed plaque off of a tongue barbell can imagine just how disgusting this jewelry has the potential of becoming!!!

The History of Play Piercing 1885-1940

Here’s an article I never thought I’d be writing — the history of play piercing and human pin-cushions, from 1885 through 1940, as collected from archival news clippings. I have spent the better part of the day reading story after story in historical archives about both sideshow performers who did play piercing, and people who seemed to do it for fun — sometimes with hilarious results — as well as the different ways that play piercing percolated into the mainstream via fictional prose and cartoons. It has been interesting to say the least. With the exception of cartoons, which I have placed at the very end of this article, I am presenting here, in chronological order a number of stories that caught my interest. You’d be amazed how many brief mentions and repetitions I’ve skipped over. I never would have guessed at how much the media of the time loved writing about this subject. It absolutely fascinated them! For all of these stories, if you want to see more than the excerpt that I have transcribed, just click on the scanned headline that starts the story to be taken to the original news clipping.

I hope you will find comfort and enjoyment in the fact that many of these stories could easily have been published today. We often fool ourselves into thinking we are the first people to have a set of unusual experiences, but a careful examination of history shows that even the oddest seeming things repeat themselves over and over ad infinitum.


Note: This is a very long post, so it continues after the break. I hope it will be fun for history buffs, and that I have not made too many typos.

   Frank De Leon, a New York boy, is a human pin-cushion, and sticks 500 pins and needles in his breast without pain to himself.
      -Albion New Era, October 22, 1885

I have to admit that the humor in this next one is going over my head, but it’s illustrative of the fact that in 1885 the idea of “the human pin-cushion” was a part of the mainstream concept of the world.

   “Did you advertise for a fat man?”
   “Yes, sir.”
   “Well, I’m after a situation, and I guess I’m fat enough for you. What do you want me to do?”
   “It’s not a pleasant job, and I’m afraid you’ll not undertake it.”
   “Oh, yes, I’m ready to do anything. What is it?”
   “We want a man to act as a human pin cushion in our museum. The salary is a dollar a day, and you may have all the pins a liberal public sticks into you. Is it a go?”
   “Yes–I’m going.”
      -Steven Point Daily Journal, November 7, 1885

Note: I have to wonder if hte “Harry Leon” in this story is the same person as “Frank De Leon” in the earlier story? You will also note a trend in these stories, that of doctors having absolutely no idea what they’re seeing. Rather than just realizing that some people can handle needles, they look for problems in the nervous system or disease.

   An interesting exhibition of mesmerism or physical phenomena was witnessed in the parlors of the American House yesterday afternoon. A number of physicians and prominent citizens was present, among whom were Dr. C. D. Ellis, Dr. Peck, Dr. H. J. Herrick, Mayor Gardner and John Kingsborough. The mermeric tests were conducted by Professor E. G. Johnson, a young man, who amused and mystified the gentlemen present, and fully demonstrated that he has a wonderful command over the minds of a certain class of people. Traveling with the professor is a young man named Harry Leon, who is styled “The Human Pin-cushion.” He was born without the sense of feeling, and is impervious to pain. He was stripped to the waist, and Professor Johnson immediately began to stick needles into his body, and fifteen or twenty were placed in his breast and left there. His cheeks, ears and tongue were then pierced through, and large needles driven through the fleshy part of his arms. The young man never winced while going through this trying ordeal, and asserted that he felt no pain whatever. The physicians present made several tests and were satisfied that the man was a peculiar phenomenon. He is healthy and good-looking, but has never been subjected to pain since birth. The professor then gave an exhibition of his mermeric powers. [article continues] The next test was a peculiar one. A common sewing needle was produced already threaded, and the patient’s cheek, tongue and limbs were sewed together. The spectators shuddered at the sight, but not a muscle of the mesmerized man moved, and not a drop of blood followed the needle’s tracks.
      -Iowa State Reporter, December 24, 1885

   Louis J. Beck, a Newark (N.J.) butcher, aged 23, is the latest freak. He sticks needles through his cheeks, nose, tongue, lips, fingers and external tissues generally, making of himself a human pin cushion, without experiencing any pain or discomfort.
      -Boston Daily Globe, January 29, 1889

This next one is about the same person, but with a little more detail.

   Louis J. Beck, a human pincushion, recently gave an exhibition to a large audience in the office of a New York paper. He used two-inch needles, which he passed through his ears, cheeks, tongue, arms and legs. He then filled his breast with the needles. He shoves them into the very bone. The most remarkable thing about the performance is that little, if any, blood appears after the incisions. Beck is 23 years old and was born in Newark, N.J. He was formerly a butcher. His father is one of the largest wholesale butchers of Newark. The pincushion was finely attired in dark red costume and light leather slippers. He says that reputable physicians who have examined him say that he suffers from paralysis of the nerves. He has lost several needles while giving exhibitions, but they have all worked themselves out at different points of his body.
      -Indiana Progress, March 6, 1889

   Brief Excerpt: Another curiosity is a troubled looking young man who poses as the human pin cushion. He sticks numerous sharp needles into his face, neck and breast, and each particular needle stands on end “like quills upon the fretful porcupine.” He presents a very peculiar appearance when his countenance bristles with needles, but he says they don’t hurt him a bit. He can lie about as well as the adertising managers of the fair.
      -Bradford Era, September 9, 1889

   The town of Corinth, Penobscot County, is proud in the possession of a young man who may truly be called a human pincishion. The remarkable Corinthian sticks pins and needles all through his flesh and jabs horseshoe nails into his breast without apparent pain. He also sticks needles through his chest and pulls them out of his mouth. He does this sort of thing “for the fun of it,” and never saw a dime museum in his life.
      -Oelwein Register, March 27, 1890

As a point of trivia, best I can figure is that the address referred to in this next article is the current site of the National Education Association in Washington DC.

   The “human pin-cushion” is the rather suggestive title applied to William Dudley, a short, coffee-colored man, who resides at 1211 Sixteenth Street northwest. Dudley succeeds in capturing a good many pennies, nickels, and dimes during the course of the day by frequenting bar-rooms and other resorts and converting his wooly head into a veritable pin-cushion. He never uses less than a full paper of pins at one exhibition of his skill, and the bystanders are permitted to drive these up to their heads in his cranium. He claims that they penetrate his skull and clinch on the inside, much after the fashion of a wrought-iron staple. Dudley is proud of his prowess, and takes evident delight in giving exhibitions and talking about it.
      -Gogebic Advocate, July 16, 1892

   He inserts pins and needles into any part of his body without pain or inconvenience, and eays glass, tacks and oyster shells with perfect impunity.
      -Boston Daily Globe, May 28, 1893

   A drunken man arrested in Lawrence last night, surprised the police by telling them he was a human pin cushion. He had been amusing a crowd by sticking pins in his face. When taken in he had 25 sticking in his face, only the heads being visible.
   Several were put through his ears. On the neck a line of pins could be seen, only about a quarter of an inch being exposed to view. He was free from blood save one place on his right ear. Other pins were put through the skin on various parts of his face only the head and point being visible. He said he could “swallow horse cars, electrics, steam cars and crowbars.”
      -Boston Daily Globe, October 13, 1894

   Sheboygan Falls has a freak in the person of S. C. Plece, son of Levi H. Plece, an old resident. The young man calls himself the human pin cushion, and gives exhibitions of having needles and pins passed through his arms, legs and tongue and allowing his hands to be nailed to boards. He seems to suffer no pain and jokes and laughs while the experiments are made. Physicians are greatly interested in the case.
      -Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, January 6, 1899

This next story is quite disturbing, and I wonder what the truth of it is.

   Two Ways of Accounting for the Presence of the Needles, One Being That of Penitence for Sins, the Other Carelessness
   At least seven and probably more needles are embedded in the stomach of Lena Walshlaeger, aged 19, residing at 314 Center avenue. Her physician has already removed three needles from the young woman’s body, and another operation will be performed soon. The needles have, it is believed , been in the stomach for two years. The girl accounts for the presence of the bits of steel in an unusual way. She says that before her widowed mother left Germany some two years ago she put her in a convent. The young woman admits she was a rather unruly student, and says that as a punishment the priests told her to prick herself with needles. Not being brave enough to inflict this pain upon herself, the girl says she filled a belt full of needles and fastened it about her body in such a way that energetic movement cased the needle points to prick her. The girl believes that some of the needles from the belt entered her body and worked their way into the stomach. She ran away from the convent at last and followed her mother, who had come to Chicago.
   Put Her Under the X Ray: Miss Walshlaeger frequently suffered excrutiating pain and doctors treated her with no good results. A few months ago she went to live with the family of Dr. George M. Silverberg. He decided the pains came from a foreign object in the stomach and performed an operation. He was astounded to find a needle in the stomach. The bit of steel had turned black, but was not at all rusty. The pains continuing, another operation was performed last Monday and two more needles were removed. The young woman was then put under the X ray, and to the astonishment of all the negative showed five more needles, and when the negative was developed seven of the bits of steel appeared in the picture.
   Neighbors Doubt Her Story: Miss Walshlaeger has now recovered entirely from the operation and is ready again to undergo another ordeal. Mrs. Silverberg rather casts doubt upon the girl’s convent story. She says that if the young woman had used more care in pinning on her clothes she might not now be a sufferer. “I have to watch her closely even now,” said the doctor’s wife, “to see that the needles she uses in pinning on her skirts are placed so they will not enter the flesh.” Miss Walshlaeger is a well-appearing young woman with brown hair, good features and figure.
      -Waterloo Daily Courier, January 14, 1899

In this next case, it appears that a human pincushion put himself at risk because doctors assumed his ability to handle the pain of the needles came from leprosy! Not that doctors are terribly good at understanding body play today, but at least we don’t get accused of being lepers.

   It is reported here from Chicago, that Sydney Pierce [Great name -Shannon], the human pincushion, is believed to be a sufferer with leprosy. He is a former Sheboygan Falls young man and entered upon the career of making his living by permitting pins and tubes to be stuck into his body in this city a few weeks ago. He went from here to exhibit himself at a museum in Chicago. Physicians of this city seem to think that the young man has some nervous trouble, which caused him to be impervious to pain.
   The report is that the man’s arms turned black where they had been punctured and blood trickled from his face where the tube was inserted to burn the gasoline from his mouth. While here he gave only one exhibition a day and at Chicago he showed what he could do several times a day. It is claimed that Pierce now lies at the point of death in a Chicago hospital, where examinations of prominent physicians resulted in a belief that the patient is a leper.
   Before he left here he was told by doctors that the exhibition of his feats would in no way cause him injury.
      -Fort Wayne News, March 3, 1899

This is a follow-up.

   The parents of Sydney Pierce, the so-called human pincushion, deny that he is a leper. His home is in Sheboygan Falls and he is giving exhibitions of himself in Chicago. A letter from him says that the doctors are still at a loss to understand his absence of pain.
      -Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 4, 1899

This story reminds me a little of the “mystery needles” above, but in this one I’m quite certain it is a person who is play piercing in a traditional “self harm” context and afraid to admit it, and doctors not understanding the issue. Actually the size of their blinders are frankly hilarious.

   The medican fraternity of Elwood is greatly interested in a most unusual case, and is at a loss to satisfactorily explain its peculiar conditions. A young woman of that city has called upon surgical skill to have removed from her arm needles, pins and other small articles that have, during the past few days, worked their way to the surface, and the point that is causing all the conjecture, is how they got into her arm. She is the daughter of Mr. John Turner. She is about nineteen years old. Saturday morning Miss Turner called at the office of Drs. Newcomer & Dick and complained of the soreness of her arm between the elbow and shoulder.
   The physicians made an investigation and removed a needle. The pain was not alleviated, and Monday morning Miss Turner returned. Two needles were taken out, in the evening she went back and six more were removed. A hair pin and the tooth of a comb were also taken from the arm. Since that time the girl’s father has removed a brass pin, and there are indications that all of the articles beneath the surface are not yet removed.
   The young woman cannot throw any light on the manner in which the articles found resting places in her arm nor can her parents solve the mystery. It is possible that they might have been swallowed when she was a small child. This theory brings up the question as to how they passed from the stomach to the arm, and why all of them should work out on the same portion of the body.
      -Logansport Reporter, March 2, 1901

   The human ostrich is dead. He ate too many hat pins. A most interesting post mortem was held by the coroner. The “ostrich” was Robert Naysmith, formerly a peddler, aged thirty-four. For ten years he has been traveling as a sideshow freak, swallowing nails, glass, ladies’ hatpins, tacks, needles, and any old thing given him.
   A few weeks ago he had to go to hospital. There he died, and last week’s inquest showed that he had swallowed too many indigestible hat pins. Thirty of these and a few brass-headed nails were found in his liver and kidneys.
      -Washington Post, July 15, 1906

This story is not actually about a human pin-cushion, but it shows what an awareness of the profession there was at the time. Also pretty funny courtroom theatrics.

   A human pin cushion was on exhibition in Criminal court here recently when Martha Geyyer, suing the city of Pittsburgh for $10,000 damages [about a quarter million dollars in today’s money] because she fell through a board walk maintained by the city, was brought before the judge and jury by counsel, who proceeeded to run a needle through her flesh. The woman apparently felt no pain.
   A match was struck and a doctor was about to burn a blister on the arm when the court said he guessed that would not be necessary. A verdict has not been reached.
      -Advance Argus, July 25, 1912

   Sorry, I’m not transcribing this one because it’s very long but it’s a fictional story (many papers of the time included short fiction). However, I loved the description that starts it:
   It was plain to every spectator of the side show of the Collin’s Colossal Consolidated Circuses that Prof. Matt, the human pincushion, was greatly peeved about something. Instead of pushing the needle, hat pins and other sharp instruments into his arms, legs and face gently, as was his wont, he was jabbing them in viciously, as if trying to get even with himself for something. The side show manager made no attempt to stop him, because, if anything, it added interest and excitement to the act.
      -La Crosse Tribune, March 17, 1914

I’m sure the idea of piercing oneself over and over with random dirty needles brought in my complete strangers is absolutely horrifying to people these days!

   After traveling for years with Barnum & Baily, and being featured in the side show as the “human pin cushion.” Cornelius Shoep has come home to Grand Rapids, a physical wreck from the results of the peculiar stunts he did in his act. Shoep was accustomed to take pins from persons in the crowd in front of his booth and run them into his flesh until only the heads remained in sight. He evidenced no signs of pain and no blood followed the withdrawal of the pin. Shoep’s body is covered with dark scars. He was fequently compelled to take to his bed from sheer exhaustion, and now it is said blood poisoning has developed in a virulent form.
      -Coshocton Daily Tribune, June 3, 1916

This is a funny set of stories about a guy that must have been completely hilarious to deal with.

   Something wholly novel in the way of candidates for enlistment drifted into the Marine Corps Recruiting Station from Scollay sq this morning. He was a human pincushion from Middleboro, by name Artois Crawforiski, with emphatic red hair and an ardent desire to hitch a tin can to the ultimate and penultimate syllables of his label.
   Artois brought a hat pin up the stairs with him and handed it to 1st Sergi Doherty, with the request that his bullet proof qualifications be tried out.
   Sergt Doherty obliged. P-l-i-s-h! in a spot where nature had been bountiful to Artois [Please tell me is a euphamism for his penis! -Shannon], but no response from him save a low, satisfied chuckle. Then he volunteered to defy a bayonet, but Sergt Doherty threw up his hands and passed the applicant along to Dr W. Randolph Angell.
   The examining surgeon found nothing the matter with him but a heart which murmured too much. So Artois went away from there, headed in the direction of a nearby hotel, where, through some ingenious device, it was thought he might be able to effect the etymological change he so desired.
      -Boston Evening Globe, August 28, 1917

This is a funny expansion on the story you just read.

   “I’ve seen 60 Winters, but it seems like only 20 Summers, and they say a man is only as old as he feels,” he announced to Top Sergt Doherty, on climbing the stairs to the Marine Corps recruiting station yesterday afternoon and applying for enlistment.
   But the heartless top sergeant turned him down–politely, yet firmly–just as he did, a few hours earlier, a Middleboro man who announced himself a human pincushion and brought along a hat pin for the examiners to probe him with, when offering to defy German bayonets by fighting in the front ranks of “The Soldiers of the Sea.”
      -Boston Daily Globe, August 29, 1917

   Found: The human pin cushion!
   “I could lick Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion–if I were a heavyweight–and with a few months’ training I could lick Harry Greb, middleweight champion of the world.”
   Thus did Charles J. Adams, of Bridgeport, Conn., unburden himself here while he stuck heavy pins deep into his flesh–arms, legs, face and other parts of his anatomy just a little demonstration of his ability to take punishment.
   Being a little skeptical, the correspondent inspected the pins with due care and found them to be the usual variety. Adams asserted he has been able to stick pins into his flesh since early childhood.
   “Physicians say I am minus many of the nerves possessed by the average person that register bodily pain to the brain,” Adams explained. “I don’t know why it is, but I know I can laugh while my body is being tortured.”
      -Sandusky Register, October 27, 1923

   William Hume of Blyth, London is a human pin cushion. He can be stuck with pins anywhere without their hurting him. Pins can be stuck in his arms, his jaw, legs or ears, and he’ll keep them all day without them hurting. Doctors cannot explain his case, because he is said to have the same nerve system as an ordinary human.
      -Laredo Times, April 27, 1930

This story is interesting because not only is it a bio of a pin cushion, but it also describes the first reference to scarification in modern America that I’ve seen.

   Remember that old corncob which used to nestle in the middle of your back when you slept on a dusk mattress? Remember the expression on needles and pins? Well, neither of these expressions has a meaning to Walter Easier, Venice boy, now of Lorain, who dropped into Sandusky for a visit with newspapermen this week.
   And–mosquito bites are not felt by this “human pin cushion”–as they call him in Lorain. He is pictured here with a hat pin stuck through his cheeks.
   Walter, as he introduced himself, is a brother of Clarence Easier, 1025 Jay-st, of this city. His parents, who have died since his birth in 1906, lived in Venice. Walter is at present making his home in Lorain with a sister, while a second lives in Cleveland. He can stick needles and pins into his anatomy waithout the slightest tinge of pain.
   Doctors who have examined Easier say that this strange ability of his is caused by what is known as sensory anasthesia–that is, the nerves which carry the sensations of heat, cold and pain to the brain do not function.
   “I surely spent a happy childhood,” Easier grinned. “I could do anything I wanted and get away with it because a spanking meant nothing in my young life. It didn’t hurt at all. One of my father’s greatest problems was to figure out ways to punish me other than the usual lambasting that the average father’s son receives for misbehavior.”
   Easier rolled up his sleeve to show to some of the skeptics that is true. The dim outline of the initial, “W. E.” could be seen. “These,” he explained, “were made in school with a penknife, just to show the kids that it didn’t hurt”–and he added, “I was expelled for being a sideshow artist during school hours.”
   He declared that an ice pick, when inserted into his body, draws blood, while a darning needle, or an object of like character, does not draw blood.
   Although at first this would seem to some to be a great favor, it also carries an acute danger with it–that of warning of appendicitis or acute indigestion in which cases of primary warning is great pain.
   He told of several times when he suffered injuries of which he was not aware until later when informed. Once a finger was cut and he was not aware of it until seeing blood. On another occasion he suffered a bad cut in his back that required several stitches.
   In both cases it was necessary for them to tell him he was injured.
   He also told of going to a circus and challenging one of the artists who was sticking pins into his body. Easier duplicated the feat and had a contract offered to him, but he refused, he said.
   He also appeared on the stage, sewing up his mouth with needle and thread. Several women fainted and the manager offered him a job but he refused, declaring he is not fond of performing. However, since the death of his mother he is considering going into the show business.
   Recently when representatives of the Universal News Reel Service company of Los Angeles visited Lorain they took pictures of Easier.
      -Sandusky Star Journal, July 20, 1931

This story is very funny!

   A Kiel young man who went on the stage at a carnival show at the fair last week to help demonstrate that a “pin sticking” act was not a “fake” fainted and had to be carried from the tent, according to Kiel reports.
   The Kiel man and a friend were spectators at one of the shows and watched a man billed as the “human pin cushion” jab pins into his arm. Apparently the crowd suspected a fake of some kind. The performer came down into the audience and the Kiel man volunteered to become part of the act to the extent of trying a few easy thrusts of a pin into the performer’s arm.
   Encouraged by the freak the Kiel man gave the pin a lusty jab and sank it in the performer’s arm. The volunteer does not remember what happened after that. When he came to he was outside the tent and his friend was fanning him with a newspaper.
      -Manitowoc Herald Times, August 29, 1935

Not sure how you can crucify yourself, even if you don’t mind the pain?

   George J. Timmerman, 39, had nail holes through his hands and feet today as the result of a “crucifixion” which Sheriff S. C. M. Thomas declared faked for notoriety or sympathy.
   Found by Friend
   The jobless bricklayer and carpenter who was employed until recently on the cross-Florida ship canal was found by a friend James M. White, shortly after dawn yesterday in a wooded section near where he lived in a housecar.
   Seemingly semi-conscious, Timmerman told a rambling story about being pounced upon by a group of men and nailed hand and food to an improvised cross.
   He stuck to that story through a day of questioning but investigators discounted his claims.
   “He is faking,” said Police Chief J. H. Spencer, “he is seeking either notoriety or sympathy.”
   Although in a hospital for treatment, Timmerman showed no outward signs of great pain from his experience which also included having his lips stitched together.
   No Bones Broken
   These was little blood on the makeshift cross when Timmerman was found, but police officers who pulled out the spikes said there was some bleeding from his hands. No bones were broken by the big nails which pierced his hands.
   White was held in jail for further questioning today. No charge has been placed against him.
   Officers investigated reports that Timmerman had given exhibitions of a “human pin cushion” allowing pins, needles and nails to be punched through his hands, lips and other parts of his body.
      -Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, March 19, 1936

   George J. Timmerman, 39, a jobless bricklayer, is pictured above at Ocala, Fla., his bandaged hands mute evidence of the nail holes in both hands and feet. Below is the crude cross on which Timmerman alleges a “gang” crucified him, an ordeal from which he was rescued by a friend. Police called the crucifixion a hoax, charging Timmerman is a “human pin-cushion.”
      -Sandusky Star Journal, March 23, 1936

Oops! That’s embarassing.

   A man was “stuck up” at the Cass County Fair Wednesday. No crime was charged, however.
   “The human pin cushion” who entertains fair patrons by sticking pins in his face, yesterday injected a pin in a vulnerable spot on his cheek. The ensuing pain sent him rushing to the First Aid Bungalow of the Health and Welfare Association, where Mrs. Julia Haner, city nurse, and Miss Genevieve Shaw, county nurse, are in charge.
   Dr. E. A. Spohn, county health officer was present and treated the victim, assisted by the two nurses.
      -Sandusky Star Journal, March 23, 1936

And another oops! This was the 1937 version of “Jackass” I guess.

   Henry Harsch, mail room employee of the Daily Hawk-Eye-Gazette prided himself on one trick which he performed for the edification of his friends, whenever he could obtain the floor. It consisted of pushing a threaded needle full length into the fleshy part of his arm and withdrawing the same with the thread without shedding blood. The thread pulled out of the needle’s eye Sunday after he head performed the human pin cushion feat, leaving the needle imbedded in the flesh. He hurried to a hospital, where a surgeon in probing for the needle broke it off, and it was necessary to make an incision to find and remove the broken piece. It required 10 stitches to close the incision and Henry says the trick is “out” from now on.
      -Mucatine Journal and News Tribune, January 11, 1937

   Charles Pereckinsky, 23, of Old Forge, known in the circus and carnival world as the “human pin-cushion,” died at his home, following a short illness.
   Pereckinsky, who worked for shows under the name of Charles Perkins, and earned his livelihood by piercing his skin with needles and pins and sewing buttons to his flesh without evidence of pain, recently offered his body for sale to medical science. There were no takers of the unusual offer.
      -Chester Times, April 19, 1937

This next story flushes that out a little, explaining how much he was demanding for his body and how someone so young might have died.

   Charles Perechinsky, 23, “human pin cushion,” who recently offered to sell his body to science for $4,000, died Saturday.
   Perkins, as he was known professionally, was able to pierce his skin with pins and needles and sew buttons to his flesh without showing pain. A hip injury as a child resulted in 23 operations. He traveled with a sideshow until he became ill recently.
      -Titusville Herald, April 19, 1937

   A brief excerpt from this article describing the festival: The fourth act presented “Believe It or Not” stunts by Henry Chouinard who gave an amazing performance of hair-raising acts “read about but seldom seen.” He first represented a human pin-cushion, sticking hair pins from six to 12 inches long through all parts of his body; next the human volcano act, in which the young man devoured lighted torches; and the last feature, in which he swallowed knives and swords, some as long as 15 inches, and in which he chewed up razor blades and glass which he proceeded to swallow. Henry Chouinard is known to undergo three operations a year, for the removal of nails, spikes and other items from his body. On one occasion, a pair of shears was removed, after an act which has been performed by only one other human being, that person having died last year from the effects of the act.
      -Lowell Sun, July 25, 1937

“Got so hilarious” is a great expression for “trashed”. And you know what? I don’t think there is a cooler job description than “superintendent of speed”!

   James Upton, 22, of Detroit, who is appearing with the carnival at the fair as the “human pincushion,” can take a lot of self-inflicted punishment, but when he took a few drinks to shake off the gloom of Monday evening’s dismal weather, he got so hilarious that it became necessary to call county police. They said they found Upton attempting to ride away on a bicycle owned by J. Hiram Glass, the superintendent of speed. After spending the night in jail, Upton appeared before Municipal Judge S. J. Luchsinger on a charge of being drunk and disorderly this morning and was fined $10 and costs.
      -Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 27, 1940

And now to wrap up, below from left to right are some related comics of dubious humor level that may or may not translate across the ages — Mansfield News (January 18, 1902), San Antonio Light (December 4, 1939), Sioux County Capital (November 14, 1940), and Capital Times (January 19, 1941).

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.


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.


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.


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!

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.”


More stories continue after the break.

I found a great many news pieces describing cultures around the world, ranging from quite xenophobic to almost adoring. I’ll start at the less friendly end of the scale. This is from the Spirit Lake Beacon, March 21st, 1890 — of course, it is about cannibals, which really starts most people off on the wrong foot.

Things Told by Dr. Carl Lumholtz About Queensland Cannibals.

They tattoo their children in the crudest way, cutting parallel lines across the breast and stomach with sharp stones and clam-shells, and keeping the wounds from healing by filling them up with ashes or charcoal. The shoulders are cut in the same manner until they look like epaulets.

…and later on…

They frequently flog their wives brutally, and if she runs away to some one more kind, the husband is privileged to maim her when he sees her. This is what they call “marking” a woman.

A more neutral article about another cannibal group in the Congo also mentions tattoos, in this November 12th article in the Sterlin Illinois Evening Gazette.

Wonders of the Great Forests

There are many inhabitants in the region, but they could be classed into the tall inhabitants and the pygmies. The tall natives occupy the clearings; the pygmies are found in groups in the forests. The different tribes of each are distinguished by marks, some having tattoo marks on their foreheads, and others on their cheeks.

This mention of tattooing in Algeria, which I found repeated in dozens of papers, syndicated in their trivia columns was more neutral. This particular example is one of the earlier mentions, from the Salt Lake City Tribune on January 5th, 1890.

In Algeria every girl born of native parents is tattooed on her forehead between the eyebrows and just at the root of the nose with a cross formed of several straight lines of small stars running close together. Those tattoo marks are a a dark blue color. Algerian women ara also considerably tattooed on the backs of their hands, their forearms and chests, as well as on their shoulders, their wrists being especially adorned with drawings representing bracelets and flowers strung together As a rule, women are the operators, and it is principally on children between the ages of seven and eight that they have to exercise their art. They use sometimes a needle, but more frequently a Barbary fig-tree thorn. They employ kohl as a coloring substance. It is a kind of fine powder made from sulphur of antimony, which is also in great request by the Algerian women for the purpose of face-painting.

I found an interesting and positive story about tattooing in Polynesia in the Oelwein Register called “Tattooing the Body”

Tattooing is by no means confined to the Polynesians, but the “dermal art” is certainly carried by them to an extent which is unequaled by any other people. It pervades all the principal groups of islands, and is practiced by all classes, though to a greater extent by the Marquesans and New Zealanders than any others. By the vast number of them it is adopted simply as a personal ornament, though there are some grounds for believing that the tattoo may, in a few cases and to a small extent, be looked upon as a badge of mourning or a memento of a departed friend. Like everything else in Polynesia, its origin is related in a legend, which credits its invention to the gods and says it was first practised by the children of Taatoa, their principal deity.

The sons of Taaroa and Apouvaru were the gods of tattooing, and their images were kept in the temples of those who practiced the art as a profession, and to them petitions are offered that the figures might be handsome, attract attention and otherwise accomplish the ends for which they submitted themselves to this painful operation. The coloring matter was the charcoal of the candlennut mixed with oil, and the instrument used was a needle made of fishbone, and a thread was drawn through the skin, after which puncturing the black coloring matter was injected with instruments made for the purpose. To show any signs of suffering under the operation is looked upon as disgraceful, and accordingly, in some of the islands, while the operation is going on the young man undergoing it will lay his head on the lap of his sister or some young relation, while a number of female friends will keep up a song, so as to drown the mumuring which the torture may draw from him inadvertently, and that therefore, he may not be demeaned in the eyes of his countrymen who are present as spectators.

Another little tidbit from the Dunkirk Evening Observer on October 6th, 1890 that caught my interest and then didn’t pay off. It describes a report on lectures given by a Dr. Talmage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on his journeys in the Holy Land. He describes the people he meets in Jerusalem — it is an unfortunately brief but tantalizing mention of these North African peoples.

Dr. Talmage Continues His Sermon On The Holy Land

Here wo meet people with faces and arms and hands tattooed, as in all lands sailors tattoo their arms with some favorite ship or admired face. It was to this habit of tattooing among the orientals that God refers in a figure, when he says of his church, “I have graven thee on the palms of my hands.”

Unfortunately that’s it. But I was happy to read an article in the Boston Daily Globe on August 24, 1890, in which the author — a Miss Grundy Jr — quite obviously fetishizes the exotic, although seems more open to tattooing than piercing. The article discusses how women around the world express beauty — here are a few excerpts that refer to body modification.

Pretty Ears of a Dozen Different Nations and their Adornments.

Two of the most beautifully formed women I have ever seen wore pointed out to me by the curator of the African exhibit, from a picture in the posession of the museum. They were young Kallirs, were about 15 years old and were fully developed. They were dressed in the costume.of that country. In other words they were perfectly nude with the exception of a belt of bark about six inches long about their waist. They have high shoulders, beautiful busts, plump forms and long lithe limbs. Their hair is curly and their noses are flat and I am told that in this flatness they find a part of their beauty. Mothers think that the flat nose is the only beautiful nose and they press down upon the noses of their babies to spread out their nostrils.

She has an idea that scars add to her beauty and you will notice that in many cases a Kallir woman’s arm from the wrist half way up to the elbow has natural bracelets of raised flesh. This is done by cutting the arm when the child is young and filling the wounds with ashes made of burned snakes.

Tattooed Beauties

These ashes produce to a certain extent the effect of tattooing and you will find the tattooed woman in nearly every country. Prof. Hitchcock, who has just returned from Yezo, the island which lies between Japan proper and eastern Siberia, has brough some photographs of the savage aborigines of that country. He says that the Aino women are beautifully formed, but that they disfigure themselves with tattooing. When the Aino wants to kiss he has to kiss inside the tattooed line which runs about the girl’s mouth. The probability is that he does not know what kissing means, for the Japanese do not kiss and they never shake hands.

This tattooed line is one of the Aino’s signs of beauty. It runs along the upper lip under the nose and between the under lip and the chin, and the two lines are united at the corners.

Some of the women unite the eyebrows by a streak of tattooing, and all the girls have tattooed bracelets around their arms.

This tattooing begins at the age of 5. The skin is punctured with a knife and soot is rubbed in. A great deal of tattooing is done in Alaska, and the museum has many examples of tattooed women of that country. They tattoo differently, however, from the Ainos and Lieut. Niblack of the navy, who spent some years in Alaska in the employ of the museum, has prepared a report upon this subject which is now in press. He says that the Haida tribe of Alaska have reduced tattooing to a fine art, and that the women frequently tattoo finger rings upon their hands and bracelets upon their arms.

Among some of the fashionable women of Japan — I mean English women living in Japan — tattooing has gotten to be quite a fad, and a man returned last week from the East, in showing me a red, white and blue design, which had been pricked by a tattooer upon his arm, told me that a half dozen fashionable women at Kobe, Japan had pictures made on certain parts of their bodies by this man. It is only the men among the Japanese who tattoo; the Japanese girl keeps her beautiful skin clean.

Ears Pretty and Otherwise.

The Venus of Burmah has naturally just as pretty an ear [as that of the Yum Yum women] but she ruins it by her ear plug. As soon as she reaches that age at which our girls begin to lengthen their dresses, her ear is bored by a professional ear-borer and this boring makes her a young woman. It is done with great ceremony. Her mother gives a party and all the friends look on while she is thrown down on the ground and a golden wire is thrust through the lobe of her ear and twisted into a ring. After the sore is healed a bigger wire is put in. This is followed by a bigger one until the hole becomes as large around as a man’s thumb. Then a plug of gold, silver or glass is put into the ear and is worn there from this time on as an ornament. These plugs are sometimes studded with diamonds, and in the cases of wealthy girls they are very costly. Among the poorer Burmese women the holes are enlarged until you could put a napkin ring inside them.

The Burmese cigar is about three times as big round as the ordinary Havanna, and the Burmese women often carry their cigars around in their ears. In some cases the ears are pulled out so that they will hang almost to the shoulders, and I have seen photographs of such ears which contained holes large enough for me to have put my fist through.

This ear forming is done by some of the East Indian maidens and the daughters of the kings [???] themseves in this way. As to nose rings the Indian women have all sorts of them, and you will find that about half the women in the world ornament their noses.

There was also regular casual mention of tattooing — a lot of tidbits about what tattoos various convicts on the run had to identify them with, for example. But one rather morbid example really jumped out at me, from the Alton Daily Telegraph on April 29.

The Gun Did Its Work Nicely

Auburn, Neb., April 28 – Roscow Bros., dealers in general merchandise here, found a dead man lying behind the counter under the money-drawer. They had been troubled with burglars, and had attached a gun to the money-drawer by a wire. In trying to open it the man shot himself. He had been working in the country for a couple of weeks, and gave the name of George Woods. He had a tattoo of a woman’s face on one arm and on the other an inscription in memory of his mother.

I assume in part because book ownership wasn’t as widespread at the time, papers in 1890 often ran serial fiction, and I found that this serial fiction often mentioned tattooing. For example, in the Warren Ledger of March 14th, 1890, I read an incredibly cheesy Harlequin romance-type story about an amorous encounter between a woman named May and her exciting lover called Guy L’Estrange.

Claire’s Revenge

He helped her ashore as he spoke, and fastened the boat to the mooring post.

“You know you are always welcome,” said May tenderly; “but–oh, Guy, what strange mark that is on your right arm? I never noticed it before.”

She had taken hold of his white muscular arm, and was gazing intently on a strange tattoo mark, skillfully wrought — the mark of an anchor and a dagger, a kind of Spanish stiletto.

A dark cloud seemed to pass over his face as she spoke, but it vanished as quickly as it came.

“Some whim of my parents,” he said. “I only wish I could get rid of it. But I cannot without disfiguring myself, so I am forced to let it remain.”

“Oh, it does not matter,” said May; “it is no disfigurement in itself, is it, Guy?”

And as they moved along towards her home she clung to his arm in childlike confidence and love.

Speaking of tattoo regrets, in the “Queries” section of the Echo London Middlesex of June 11, 1890, in which readers could write in questions for other readers to respond to, a “J. Tillot” wrote in, “REMOVING TATTOO MARKS.–How can I remove Indian ink tattoo marks from the hands and arm?”. I do not know if they ever got an answer but I never saw it. In any case, continuing with the serial fiction, I also found what might as well have been a day-time soap-opera in the Acton Concord Enterprise of May 16th, 1890. In it Sir Toby, thought to have drowned in the Atlantic, reappears (soap opera shock!) and reveals that it was not he that drowned, but another passenger.


“But what on earth have you beer doing for more than two years?”

“I went hunting bears and things in the Rocky mountains,” said Uncle Toby in a sepulchral voice. “We lost our way, wandered about for days, and were eventually captured by the Indians. Couldn’t get away or even write.”

“Oh, indeed! Is that why you have tattooed your face so elegantly?” asked Jack.

“I didn’t tattoo myself–they did it for me,” wailed Sir Toby. “My face is nothing to the rest of me. I’ve got a pine forest, a lake and a range of mountains on my back; three rattlesnakes on each arm, my chest is covered with tomahawks, arrows and pipes; and there are opossums, terrapins and all sorts of damn ghastly animals on my legs!”

“Dear me, uncle, what’s become of your left ear?”

“Well, you see. Red Blanket, the chief, you know, took a great fancy to me: but sometimes he used to get drunk and throw things about. He cut nearly the whole of my ear off with a tomahawk one day.”

“You must have had a rollicking time.”

Anyway, Sir Toby then insists that he is taking back his family home, and the story continues in serial drama fashion that would make daytime soaps proud.

Now I want to finish up with something a bit less mundane. As the end of 1890 approached I started coming across stories of a “Messiah craze” among the Native Americans — An Indian man identifying himself as the second coming of Christ and gaining apparent large followings. This one is from the November 18th edition of the Burlington Hawk Eye. This Messiah seemed to be preaching a Christian-like message, but identified the Native Americans as God’s chosen people rather than the White Man. He was later identified as a Piute tribe member called John Johnson, highly intelligent but not educated, from the Walker Lake reservation. He would tell his story about being sent back to Earth by God to continue his work, and would show the scars of the crucifixion (tattoos apparently) on his wrists as “proof”.

Apostle Porcupine Tells About the Indian Christ.

Lieutenant Robertson, in partial corroboration of the story that Piute Johnson is the Messiah referred to, says Reedtold him Johnson had tattoo marks on his wrists. He is quite wealthy in horses and cattle.

That story didn’t tell me much beyond the fact that there was a native walking around claiming to be the second coming of Christ, and using some tattooed-on crucifixion marks to con people. I’ll wrap up this collage of news clippings with a final article I found on the subject in The World Hutchinson News on November 23rd, which has a General Miles blaming the Mormons for setting into motion this religious fervor.


Joseph Smith, the founder and first “prophet, seer, and revealer” of the Church, was greatly given to dreams aud visions. On one of these occasions the Lord appeared before him aud assured him that be should live to the age of eighty-five, and that before he died he should see the Saviour. Had he lived he would have been eighty-five years old in 1891, and reckoning on this basis, he prophesied the coming of the Messiah in that year. His appearance was indefinitely postponed by President Woodruff last month, but through all these years the Mormon missionaries, with the fervor of fanatics, have been enjoining their red brethren to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, who was scheduled for 1891. And now comes John Johnson, a half-breed Piute over in Nevada, where Mormon settlements abound, and declares that he is the Messiah, and exhibits tattoo marks on his wrists to prove that he was crucified, and preaches his gospel to delegations from all the Western tribes. And so, also, comes the squaw of the Northwest, who proclaims herself to the worJd as the Virgin Mary.

Next time I’ll pick another year at random and see what I find!

What’s new is old!

I was reading Tim Hendricks’s blog this morning and came across an absolutely fascinating entry. As is not surprising for someone who designs tattoo equipment, Tim also collects antique tattoo equipment, and bought up this gem of unknown providence. He’s not sure how old it is, but it’s very old, and has a number of interesting design features. Of course you can see that it has an armature on it that acts as a stand that slides across the skin and both controls depth and supports the machine — important with a unit this heavy! But you might also notice the strange bulb that hangs off the front. At first I thought it was some sort of ink resevoir, but it’s actually a light — a feature I’m surprised has never been built into a modern machine! The whole thing came in a nice wooden case with integrated tattoo supply.

I liked the comment Tim Hendricks had to make on the machine as well. He wrote, “A shit-ton of tattooers these days are like, ‘I really love these new rotary machines’… NEW? [This] shows that we’re still just improving upon old inventions by brilliant minds like Thomas Edison and Samuel O’Reilly. So now when someone talks about the ‘new rotary design’, you can say, ‘Man, that shit been played out since the 1920′s holmes!’.” So true!


Sammy & Sid

Here’s another lovely (and thought-provoking) video courtesy of Shawn (more).. Read on Macduff!

“I dug this footage up when I was preparing a class I was preparing to teach on behalf of the APP; it features Sailor Sid Diller interviewing “Tattoo Sammy” from Frankfort, West Germany.”

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DivX download (233 MB) link for BME members: Extreme2 or Full members

“Sammy appeared in P.F.I.Q. #18 (1983) and #19 as the magazine’s first documented tongue piercing. This clip has audio and video glitches (that Roo was kind enough to clean up to the best of his ability) present in the original VHS; that’s why these are so important to share. Once the original masters degrade – this stuff could be lost forever. I hope you guys are enjoying these glimpses into our not so distant past!

Enjoy! – Shawn”

Hang By a Slender Thread

It’s nice to have friends through whom to live vicariously, and it really seems like Ron, Wayde and Chris are constantly on the road, not wasting a second, and taking the pictures to prove it. Like Wayde up there, hanging out at some ruins in Chinchinitza, Mexico, and, apparently, holding on for dear life or gettin’ it on with a thousand-year-old pole. Either way. More shots of these globetrotting adventurers on location in Mexico, after the jump.

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Jack Yount – On Piercings and Subincisions

This video is a little fancier than the old 8mm conversions I’ve been sending in.

Filmed in South Florida in 1989 by Sailor Sid on a fancy VHS camcorder it features Jack Yount talking about his piercings and subincision. It’s living proof that the pre-1990s modification scene didn’t believe in wearing clothes. Which is how I like to remember Jack..


Shawn PorterScarwars.net

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DivX download link for BME members: Extreme2 or Full members

Cliff the Raven

More from Sid’s 1974 visit to NYC (all)..

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This video offers a rare (not exclusive, but rare) glimpse of iconic tattooist Cliff Raven at work. Of all the videos I had in my “to do” pile, this one was the one I was looking forward to the most. As long as Roo wants to keep posting them (Roo: I do, I do!) I’ll keep converting them!


Shawn Porter – Scarwars.net