07 March 2021

A Congress of Freaks.

I mentioned "Congress of Freaks" photos in an earlier blog post, but I thought I'd share a few of the ones I've found in the past few years--I swear I have a few more, but I'll have to look through my photos a little more closely to find them. Congress of Freaks photos are dated group photos of all performers in a circus or sideshow.

Circuses often contracted with photographers like Edward J. Kelty to take photos of circus performers. According to Art Blart online, though, Kelty paid Ringling in order to be permitted to take these photos. This complicates any simple belief that these "congress" photos were sold as souvenirs by the circus, or that they were used to create a visual record of each season's performers--larger circuses like Ringling had their own in-house photographers. Regardless, the usefulness of the photographs for my purposes isn't really affected by how the photos were originally used. They're rich with information that I could not and would not be able to find anywhere else, and certainly not while a pandemic has me trapped at home in rural Oregon. 

Bear with me as I'm organizing the photos by tattooed lady, not necessarily chronologically.

Betty Broadbent

I'm going to start with a few congress photos that include Betty Broadbent, one of the best-known tattooed ladies working in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States. 

The first photo below is from the Sells-Floto sideshow in 1931. It features Betty Broadbent on the bottom row, left side. And, Broadbent is standing next to Frances O'Connor, who worked sideshows as "The Living Venus de Milo"--such acts were known generically as "armless wonders" in the sideshow business. O'Connor was one of the stars of the 1932 film Freaks. You can see that both banners to the performers' right actually advertise O'Connor's appearance.

 
The second image here is from the 1937 season of Ringling/Barnum & Bailey's Combined Circus. This photo was taken by Kelty, and it shows Betty Broadbent in the lower row, left side. From this I know where Broadbent worked (and with whom) in the summer of 1937. And, at some point between 1931 and 1937, she moved from working with a sideshow to working with the Ringling/Barnum & Bailey Circus.


Ada Mae Vandermark and Lotta Pictoria

To take a look at another tattooed lady's resume, this earlier photo from the 1927 Ringling/Barnum & Bailey season shows Ada Mae Vandermark on the bottom row, toward the left side. She is wearing a large snake as a boa; being a "snake charmer" would have increased her popularity and her ability to draw a crowd--so it would have been a real value to hire her. Interesting to note, in 1927, the circus traveled with a second tattooed lady--on the bottom row toward the right, you can see Lotta Pictoria, too. 

I've not found any research that speaks to these tattooed ladies knowing one another or working together, so this is an exciting tidbit of information to find in a photograph.

  

And, while the following photo is not dated, it also features Ada Mae and Lotta together again. This may be another shot from the 1927 season, given the overlap in other performers between the two photos. 

To take a step forward to 1931, the photo below shows a much smaller Congress of Freaks from Ringling/Barnum & Bailey's 1931 season. The solo tattooed lady that year was Ada Mae Vandermark, pictured here on the bottom row.

And Ada Mae also appeared in Ringling's "Golden Jubilee" season in 1933. She's on the top right.

 

Stella Grassman

And although a bit out of order, the photo below, from the 1929 season of Ringling/Barnum & Bailey, shows Edith "Stella" Grassman as the tattooed lady; she's on the top row on the right. Her husband, Deafy Grassman, was responsible for all of her tattoo work. I originally thought this photo was labeled the 1924 season--it's hard to read--but that date would have made Stella only 15 years old. So, 1929 it is.

Deafy worked as a tattooist in both Philadelphia and NYC. Stella is easy to pick out in photos--her chest piece is a large butterfly--much more feminine than the patriotic tattoos that cover most tattooed ladies of this era. She also often wore a costume that had a custom-tailored neckline to highlight her chest tattoo.

Here is a second congress photo with Stella in about the same spot on the top row--I don't believe it's the same year, as there are several differences in the roster, but this photo is not dated. Also interesting to note is the autograph or signature on the lower right bottom of this photo--every copy of this photo on the internet today is a copy of THIS print. I can't find a single copy online that doesn't include that signature, or that does include a date.

 

Lady Viola

The photo below shows Ringling/Barnum & Bailey's congress from the 1932 season. In that year, Ethel Vangi, who worked under the stage name Lady Viola, was the featured tattooed lady. She is pictured on the top row, on the right.

That means that Ada Mae Vandermark and Lotta Pictoria were Ringling's tattooed ladies in 1927, and Stella Grassman was the tattooed lady in 1929 and at least in one other season. Ada Mae Vandermark was back as the tattooed lady is seasons 1931 and 1933, but it looks as if Lady Viola was the tattooed lady in Ringling's 1932 lineup.

And while I can't guess at whether these performers worked an entire season or just part of a season, or if their contracts regularly overlapped like Ada Mae's and Lotta's, but it's an intriguing look at some proof of a tattooed lady's reputation and employment. 

And none of these photos show Trixie Richardson, though she is supposed to have been working for Ringling in 1927 or 1929. Perhaps, like Betty Broadbent in 1931, Trixie was working with a sideshow, and maybe that sideshow that toured alongside Ringling. Just another puzzle piece, and I'm many puzzle pieces short of a certain history for any of these women.

Through these photos as well, I've seen a few costumes that I've not seen Ada Mae wear in any other surviving photographs--out of all of the tattooed ladies included in my research, Ada Mae seemed to have more costumes in her traveling wardrobe than anyone else working at the same time. 

Many of the tattooed ladies who were photographed for pitch cards in New York photography studios of the time actually wore the same handful of costumes and jewelry. This has lead me to believe that certain photographers kept a small wardrobe of costumes for circus attractions to wear, not unlike the "old time" photography studios that we still see today at tourist destinations throughout the United States.

04 March 2021

Two new submissions, and some thoughts after the first day of AWP.

As I was sitting in my studio watching an incredible panel on women writing over 50, I realized it's been a month since I've sent out any poetry for publication consideration. When I checked this morning, I haven't sent out work since February 9th. Close enough. It's easy to start thinking I'm just not working hard enough, not putting enough time into the process--I"m grateful I started tracking my submissions on Duotrope in addition to the excel spreadsheet I've always used.


Duotrope reminds me that I've sent 452 poems out into the world in the past year, and that is pretty fantastic.

I did receive a rejection letter yesterday from Superstition Review, so submissions were already on my mind. (And who doesn't love a rejection during AWP? LOL) I pulled together a selection of five poems for Cream City Review and another four poems for Waxwing, and I sent those out this morning. Both journals have deadlines at the end of March/start of April. 

I also scratched out a rough draft of a new poem titled "Witchcraft" yesterday afternoon. That's a working title; I'm certain it won't stay.

I have really enjoyed the first day of AWP's conference, and the second day is just about to begin. At first, I thought there seemed like so many less panels this year than usual, but they've also spread the panels across Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday--when all the panels are usually concentrated on Thu-Fri-Sat. So, there might be a few less options, and the book fair experience is difficult to replicate virtually, but I like the more gradual roll-out of panels. I'm really impressed with the panels I've sat in on, and I loved the reading I attended yesterday afternoon of contemporary Muslim literature.

I know I'm going to have to spend some time this week on grading, but I really want to focus on my own writing and craft this week.

03 March 2021

AWP starts today, and new tattoo books!

I made the decision to attend AWP this year as soon as it was announced that the whole thing would be virtual. Yes, it means that it was less expensive than usual to attend, but I usually look forward to having those four days in a hotel room, alone, to incubate new ideas and generate new drafts of poems. I am sure that the interruptions of the cats and of trying to stay focused on writing when I can see my house is a wreck is going to present its own set of challenges. However, I am really looking forward to being able to revisit panels and readings while I'm on spring break at the end of March--having access to all AWP conference offerings for a month after the conference is an amazing opportunity for attendees like me who are in Week 8 of a 10-week school term, when student emails and freak-outs begin to ramp up in anticipation of final grades. 

As I mentioned earlier this week, I bought myself a few new books on tattoo history and one on the history of the dime museum in the United States. I decided my 50th birthday was reason enough to spend the money on these five books, but truthfully, they'll all have bearing on my larger project. The most amazing book--a collection of Dutch tattooist Henk Schiffmacher's vast tattoo history archive was just released by Taschen in January, and it's gorgeous. 

 
 
 

There are some high resolution photographs of tattooed ladies--nothing I've not seen before, but larger and crisply in focus. The most incredible part of the book is that the limited history that's included via the photographs' captions reinforces some of the conclusions I've come to myself about tattooed ladies and about tattoo history in general. And, there is a revelation about Trixie Richardson! 

I will go into detail about that in another blog post next week--I'm a few minutes away from my first AWP session for the day, and I want to get myself set up in my studio before it begins.

27 February 2021

My 50th birthday, and remembering my second husband.

Today is my 50th birthday, and I'm spending it grading on a Saturday. Certainly the pandemic is to blame for the lack of a celebration, but I'm at the end of Week 8 in a 10-week term, and the AWP conference is next week, so I would like to be caught up, at the very least, on last week's grading before next week begins. 

My second husband died on February 25th last year, so I anticipate that my birthdays moving forward will always have some sense of loss attached to them, at least for a while. I have no desire to rewrite history--things did not end well between us. But, our divorce was final only about four months before his death, and I had hoped we'd eventually salvage a friendship. I absolutely expected to know him longer. His passing does not require that I forgive him, but I am reluctant to hold onto hurt feelings and bitterness and guilt. I won't forget the numerous, valid reasons why I broke up with him, but I still mourn him. There are things that I miss, and things I'm glad are in my past. He was a big personality, and our good times were great. I loved him very much, but as I've said before, I am glad that it is a closed chapter of my life. (And, because I continue to write about him and talk about him, I know the chapter might be closed, but I'm still processing.)

My tax returns arrived--so I have paid off the small balance I was carrying on two of my credit cards, and I bought a few small pieces of furniture for the house. I used a few hundred dollars to buy a handful of books on tattoo history that have been published in the last few years--two of them over a hundred dollars. Those are my birthday gift to myself, and I feel I absolutely deserve them. 

It will likely be a week or two until I'm able to sit down and write another blog post about a tattooed lady, but I'm thinking that it might be Nellie Thornton or Mildred Hull. Millie is my favorite of all, but Nellie has quite a sordid tale. They both lived very colorful lives--Nellie as a traveling circus performer with multiple husbands, and Millie as a drinker and brawler. Millie was also the first female tattooist to set up shop and work out of a barbershop in the Bowery in NYC. This is a photo of Millie. It is difficult to date this photo, as her tattoo work looks less complete here, but the fascinator she's wearing in her hair is also in another tattoo shop photo taken from another angle. In it, she looks older.


I received a rejection letter from The Rumpus this past week . . . they'd held onto my poems since last July, so I thought they had a chance at publication there. Otherwise, everything is in a holding pattern with submissions.

23 February 2021

My research project. And Trixie Richardson.

I've decided to pick up my "tattooed lady research project" notes again. Finally.

A bit of background:

To be specific, I am researching in an attempt to correct and preserve as much of the ever-disappearing history of the early 20th Century tattooed lady in the United States as I can. I started this project during a spring term sabbatical in 2015; I made a trip to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to dig around in the Circus World archive, to help me to plan a collection of poems about circus folk and sideshow performers. Once I was in Baraboo, I realized that the whole project was shifting to some kind of nonfiction work. I'm not really a nonfiction writer, so the concept was both scary and exhilarating. I found a niche--MY niche--but my sabbatical and the following summer were just the start of the project. I thought I might have a book here, but I could tell it would take years to research, and multiple trips to other archives--Sarasota, Winston-Salem, San Francisco, and New York City to start. Holy crap.

Then, at the start of that fall term, after six months of steady work on the project, the shooting at UCC took place. To say that my priorities changed is a vast understatement. I'm still in the process of learning to live with related PTSD, and I've come to realize that my brain rewired itself in some pretty dramatic ways. And then I married and divorced in quick succession. I became buried in never-ending department chair work. In short, a few years were rough for a number of reasons. It's taken me a long time to come back to this project. 

So here we are.

In an attempt to get myself motivated to continue with this project, I brought home my enormous collection of note cards and photocopies from campus in October--and they've actually been sitting in the back seat of my car until today, when I finally felt compelled to bring them into the house, hoping I could force myself to start looking at them. "Baby steps" is a philosophy I've come to embrace.

Then I accessed my online annotated bib for the project this afternoon, and I freaked out, because I think I've lost a few of my online sources. The last time I've had them open was in 2015, and frankly, I don't know yet if I saved screenshots or pdfs of the web-based sources. I should have done that, but my brain was lightly scrambled in 2015--and I don't think I was necessarily thinking about maintaining the integrity of my sources when I unexpectedly put this research on hold. Frankly, of all the things I miss about how my brain used to work, I miss my impeccable organization the most. Even though I am extending myself some grace, I am a little upset about it. A few copies of photographs may have gone missing, too. However, I think I just need to sit with my research and get familiar with all of it again. I might be worried about information that I absolutely backed up. 

I'll find my foothold, and I will plug away with what I have. 

I feel like the project is even more pressing now. In five short years, additional history has disappeared from the internet. I thought I was seeing a surge in interest and writing about tattooed ladies, but that just hasn't been the case. And, these women don't seem important enough to the male tattoo historians who dominate the field.

Because there has never been a truly comprehensive, accurate account of these women's lives and careers, their photos become lost in a jumble of any and all tattooed women from their respective eras--and not all of them were circus sideshow attractions. At times, it's difficult to tell the difference, and there are distinct differences. Books like the excellent Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin just can't do all of the heavy lifting alone. Most other published histories and "encyclopedias" of tattoo don't mention more than a few tattooed ladies by name. Many of them are riddled with errors.

Side note: "Tattooed Lady" is a term that, to me, denotes "a woman who worked as a professional tattooed attraction, pre-1950." In contrast, "tattooed woman" is a more general term that can apply to any woman with tattoos, from any time. I just want to explain that ahead of time, because I'm not a fan of men using the term "lady" or "ladies" as a diminutive term when they mean grown-ass women.

While published tattoo histories don't spend a lot of time on this fact, many of the tattooed women depicted in collectors' photographs from this era who sport a handful of "hidden" or discreet tattoos were sex workers who earned a few extra dollars on the side by posing for partially nude photographs.These photographs were sold to collectors from classified ads in the back of men's magazines by people like Bernard Kobel.

Many of the women in these photographs never worked as tattooed ladies. Other women--those with sketchy tattoo work, or without full body suits, for example--were women who scraped together a living between smaller traveling carnivals and dime museums. To further muddy the water, many of these small-time tattooed ladies worked under catchall names like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," an attempt to bank on the popularity of the Marx Brothers song. Others worked as the even more generic "The Tattooed Lady," which was probably an effort to keep the sideshow's owners from having to commission new canvas banners whenever a new tattooed lady was hired.

So, there are a good number of vintage and antique photographs of tattooed women floating around on the internet and in private collections, but not all of them were working as tattooed ladies. Those that did work with circuses didn't keep diaries or journals that have been published or archived or otherwise made available. Some have families who were scandalized and shamed--who worked diligently to bury their family's connection to the sideshow. In many cases, the records for now-defunct circuses and sideshows have been lost to time. All of these truths work against the efforts to piece together any history at all for some of these women.

The largely missing story of Trixie Richardson is a prime example of how time can erase almost every trace of these women. 

Trixie Richardson is frequently mentioned in the limited scholarship about tattooed ladies, but virtually nothing is known about her life. Albert Parry's seminal 1933 book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art identified Trixie as a tattooed lady who also worked as a tattooist, but she warrants little more than a line or two in Parry's book. Parry claimed that she worked as a tattooist at the New Jersey shore in 1925, tattooing several thousand women, so the story goes, in that single season. 

Perry offered no source for that information, and it sounds highly improbable to me. The average woman in the 1920s was not tattooed while on vacation at the shore. Instead, this sounds like a tabloid news story about a tattooed lady that's been told and retold until it became her only history. Trixie Richardson is subsequently mentioned in other sources, but those authors repeatedly cite Parry's book. No one has ever offered any information that helps to prove Trixie was a real person. For a while, I couldn't find any definitive proof that this woman actually existed.

Add to that: there are at least three different tattooed ladies identified in various sources as Trixie Richardson. They all have dyed black, bobbed hair, and they were all working in the 1920s and 1930s. They all passed through New York City--they were all photographed in the same studio with many of the same props and costuming as other tattooed ladies. However, these three Trixies don't have matching tattoos. 

The irony is not lost on me--these women made a living by baring their skin and welcoming the gaze of spectators, but they are also confused with one another regularly because tattoo historians often can't be bothered to look closely enough at their tattoos to differentiate them from one another. I can't tell you how many hours I've logged, zooming in on scans of hundreds of blurry, 100-year old photographs, trying to match arms to arms, chests to chests, for positive identifications on anonymous photos.

I believed for a while that none of these women was the "real" Trixie, becoming increasingly convinced that it may have been a name, like Lydia, that was used by more that one woman. I eventually found a photo of Trixie that was printed with her name on the front of the photo. 

So, I revised my hypothesis, thinking this woman may have been the first to use the name Trixie Richardson, and perhaps she found some fortune and fame. Other women may have been emulated her look in order to cash in on her popularity. 

It's important to note that I can't find evidence of Trixie in any group photographs of circus performers--and larger shows always took a "Congress of Freaks" photo each touring season, to be sold as souvenirs. Because of this, I believed Trixie to be a lower-tier sideshow performer and that it was just dumb luck her name was mentioned in Parry's book at all.

And then I stumbled on a photograph that changed everything, and clarified Trixie's place in tattoo history. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is the woman who is the "real," or the original, Trixie Richardson. When I began this project five years ago, this photo was all over Pinterest and the internet at large, but she was not always identified correctly. Note her chest piece--a rising sun behind a bald eagle, wings spread over two American flags.

 

And this is a badly retouched photograph of the same woman. The sun behind the bald eagle's head is what separated this chest piece from the others, but it's easy to look at the roses on her left shoulder and match those up, too; those are definitely the same tattoos. Her eyes are a giveaway, too. Her tattoos were not complete in the photo below, if you look at the field of blue behind the flags' stars; so, this is an earlier photograph than the one above. Another version of this photo, accompanied by a photo of her back, is labeled with her name, and as having been taken in 1924.

And this is when I stumbled across a bit of serendipity.

The photo below shows Trixie in a photo collage. This collage would have been would have been reproduced and sold as a souvenir "pitch card." The existence of this pitch card allowed me to confirm that Trixie was indeed a legitimate tattooed attraction, making her living in some sort of circus sideshow. 

I'd only seen a copy of this pitch card with most of the writing at the bottom of the photo cropped out. Though I couldn't read it, I knew that because the writing is bright white, it was likely written on the photo's original negative, or on an original print of the photo. This could have happened before the photo was distributed as a souvenir, or before the photo became part of the circus's archive. The style of handwritten block lettering is common on photos of tattooed circus attractions from this era. (I also know that Bernhard Kobel did not label the prints he sold in this manner--he used numbers.)

Then I found the copy below, and I could finally read the caption. She is identified as Miss Trixie Richardson, and she worked with Ringling Bros. in their 1926 or 1928 season. This is huge. Not only was she a circus sideshow attraction, she worked with Ringling. According to multiple sources, Ringling did not have blow-off acts in their sideshows, and they did not tolerate grift or sex work on their tours. They were considered family entertainment, even in the late 1920s. So, at least in 1926 or 1928, Trixie was at the top of her trade.

It's also important to note that this pitch card also has a separate engraved watermark/signature in the lower right corner, stating that Trixie was tattooed by Charles Wagner, the famed NYC tattooist. Because of the props and backdrop used in these photos, and the similarity in handwriting, and the connection to Charlie Wagner, I am willing to believe that the handwritten caption is correct. I will write about Charlie on another day--while not a tattooed lady or circus worker, his story is both sad and fascinating, and he appears as a minor character in many tattooed ladies' stories. While Charlie's reputation was questionable, his body suits were considered some of the finest tattoo work of its time on the sideshow circuit.

The information I was able to glean from this souvenir photo is more detailed than anything that Albert Parry or anyone else has documented about Trixie Richardson. This quest to find any scrap of Trixie's story is exemplary of how these women and their histories are disappearing--it's often because no one has bothered to actually look for their stories. And, I think I'm at a point where it's too late to salvage much.

As I mentioned above, one of the cities I need to visit for research is San Francisco. However, in the five years I've been away from this project, Lyle Tuttle has passed away. While he may not have been willing or able to meet with me, he was the last living link to a lot of history.

I am hoping to make a trip to the Ringling archive in Sarasota, Florida within the next year. I think it will prove to be the key to this project in general, and to learning more about Trixie in particular. I hope Covid-19 vaccinations allow this to happen sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, I need to organize what I have, to make sure I have a detailed list of where to begin when I'm able to travel. 

Even writing this short essay about Trixie feels good. I've missed this project, and I can already feel my excitement and momentum returning. I'm going to start small--writing an essay here and there on this blog,

19 February 2021

A financial misstep, but a good week overall.

This week has been fairly stagnant with submissions; I've not received any rejections or acceptance notices, and I've not sent out any new submissions. 

On a more significant note, I did find out on Wednesday that I've secured professional development funding for the Summer Poetry Workshop at Community of Writers in Squaw Valley, CA--it's a full week of workshops with an amazing handful of poets, and I'll hear in early May whether I made the cut. And if I do, I won't have to pay for the registration out of pocket. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I expect that there will be a great deal of competition . . . this summer's workshop is virtual, which cuts the need for travel, meals, and lodging. I'm crossing my fingers that I might have a shot at a place in the workshop, anyway. 

AWP is coming up on the first weekend in March, so I need to start this coming week to get my online classes ready to run without me for a couple of days. AWP is also virtual this year, and I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that to attend more panels and readings. I'll hopefully be able to "attend" recordings of panels during my spring break, too.

I pulled together some rough, rough drafts of some new poems last night--working on lines I've salvaged from my journals, trying to mad-lib my way to something inspired. It's at least some effort.  

30% of the way through *The Overstory*--I love it. I love it in a way that makes me not want to read it too quickly.

So my financial misstep is actually a series of unfortunate events, all at once. I paid 500.00 on a credit card this past week when I meant to pay 50.00. I have tax returns on the way, with which I was planning to pay off the whole balance on that card, but I just made a simple error. Adding to that, I'd ordered a 350.00 bookcase from Wayfair the day before, and I was unable to cancel that order. Then, my friend's husband, a contractor, called me to arrange a small house project. For this week. So, I haven't had the pleasure of being this level of house poor, or hoping I can dodge any bounced checks, since I started living alone--almost two years ago. I'd just sent a check to my therapist, who is holding it until she hears from me, which is what the contractor is also doing. I was able to transfer funds, but it's taking forever to process. Unbelievable. 

On a positive note, the large, noisy, terrible air conditioning that was built into the side of my living room is gone, and the hole is patched on both the outside and the inside of the house. It's already quieter in the house, which makes working from home easier, and I'm in a better place to get a split heat pump system installed this summer. I'm grateful I was able to get that done on such a quick timetable.