18 September 2015

Margaret Treese: Iowa's Tattoo Murder Case

2019 UPDATE: The blog The True Crime Files published a piece on Margaret Treese in January 2019, and the blog published the photograph above, crediting the Davenport, Iowa newspaper The Morning Democrat with the image. Read the article here.

I was drawn to Margaret's story because she was originally from Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville is less than five minutes from my hometown of Weirton, WV. Additionally, Margaret is buried in New Cumberland, WV, where she lived with her first and second husbands before leaving for the midwest; she's also buried there, as this article on findagrave.com reports. My grandparents lived in New Cumberland for many years--it's just fifteen miles from Weirton.

I was intrigued by the fact that she came from the same area along the Ohio River as I did. At the time in which Margaret would have lived in the Upper Ohio Valley, there weren't many opportunities for women. She was likely a teen bride when she married her first husband, who died in WWII, and her second husband was likely a steel worker, a coal miner, or a brickyard worker. She was destined to be a housewife and mother, probably with an alcoholic husband who worked shifts--the fate of most women of this time in this area of the country.

While newspaper accounts say that Margaret Beatrice (Martin) Treese was a circus attraction, she was working in a laundry at the time of her death. I am not convinced she ever was a tattooed attraction--she did not have a full suit of tattoo work, but just a few, scattered tattoos. I believe she either worked at the lower end of the sideshow circuit, maybe as a dancer, or she was a non-performer. She may have used the circus story to explain her tattoos, which for many years were considered to be the mark of a prostitute or woman of loose morals.

On the night of her death, she was in the company of two men. She was repeatedly run over by a car after being stabbed 10 to 15 times (reports vary). Both of the following links are detailed resources that compile information about Margaret Treese's murder.

Margaret Beatrice Treese: The Tattoo Murder Case

The Tattooed Lady: The Murder of Margaret Treese, 1947

It's interesting to note that neither link above, and none of the newspaper articles I've found, contains a photograph of Margaret. Many of the newspaper articles make note of her specific tattoo designs and their placements, but there are no photographs.

Also, this is still an open investigation--any information that would lead to a resolution to this case should be forwarded to the Davenport Police Department at 563-326-7979.

Frank & Emma Caldwell: Knife Throwers and Tattooed Couple

Frank and Emma Caldwell were actively working the circus and sideshow circuit in the early 20th Century. While there is not much written about them. They were a knife-throwing act that added tattoos as a way to better ensure employment--offering a "two attractions in one" for the price could sweeten the deal for traveling shows. However, the Caldwells weren't well-known enough to have much surviving history.

Emma Caldwell has one known portrait (the one above)--it's included in Bodies of Subversion by Margot Mifflin on page 17 as a photo of an "unidentified" tattooed attraction. Frankly, I've not seen the photo identified as Emma before, but I believe it is her, after comparing this portrait to the two cabinet cards below. The images are faint, but you can see that both Caldwells are fully tattooed.

The cabinet card above, dated "1899" in pen, is part of the Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs at Syracuse University. (The couple's other cabinet card, was found on Pinterest, with no link back to the original source.) The couple toured with John Robinson's 10-in-One in the summer of 1900, as members of the sideshow. They were billed as "tattooed wonders and Mexican knife throwers."

While I don't know much more about Emma Caldwell at this point, I did want to make note of her unidentified photo in the Mifflin book. She and her career are a little earlier than the focus of my research, but I still find her incredibly interesting.

16 September 2015

Dainty Dotty: not a tattooed lady, but still deserving of her place in tattoo history.

I'm veering a little off-topic by writing a bit about Dainty Dotty, because she wasn't known as a tattooed lady. However, she was a circus fat lady for years, and after marrying tattooist Owen Jensen, she became a tattooist as well. They worked as a team, eventually settling in Los Angeles after meeting in Detroit, MI. The photo below shows Dotty and Owen Jensen with Tatts Thomas and his wife.

Dotty is best known by this delightful cabinet card/souvenir photo from her time as a circus attraction. When she began tattooing, she did not actively work on a body suit, setting her apart from the other early 20th Century female tattoo artists I've been researching.

The photo above is also part of Bernard Kobel's "Human Oddities of the Circus Sideshow" collection of photographs. It is photograph 170 in that catalog, but Kobel's collection also contains photographs of Dotty labeled 177, 248, and 890 in the same catalog. (I have not seen copies of those three photos.)

2019 EDIT: I believe the photo below is one of the three Kobel photos I've not before seen.

In a wonderful stroke of luck, someone at the blog Artworld Confidential wrote this little article titled "Let Us Now Praise Dainty Dotty and all Circus Women" about Dotty in May of 2014.  In this article, the writer IDs Dotty as being present in a "Congress of Freaks" photograph with Mae Vandermark and the India rubber man who eventually committed suicide over his unrequited love for Mae (more on that story at another time). And, the same blog offered this article "Winning the Fat Lady" in January 2014 about Dotty as well. Both articles include wonderful images, and both articles seem very well researched. I'm pleased to share links to them, and to know that people remember Dotty and recognize her role in (and contribution to) tattoo history. Worth noting, the Artworld Confidential blog is full of wonderful tattoo history. It's worth a browse.

2019 EDIT: The same blog ran this brief article in January 2015.

It is interesting to note that Dotty may not have ever been tattooed at all--I've not found any photos or anecdote that mentions any tattoo. (The Tattoo Archive, incidentally, notes that historians say Dotty was tattooed by Owen, but there are no known photographs. Their article on Owen Jensen is interesting; there is not a separate article on Dotty.)

Dotty and her husband had a successful career tattooing others--below are photos of Dotty and Owen tattooing customers in a traditional early 20th Century tattoo booth. (These were often located inside a barber shop.) Some of Dotty's original designs are still used in traditional tattoo flash today, and while tattoo flash by Owen Jensen and  "The Jensens" may be better known, Dotty was respected as an artist in her own right.

Because of the Jensen's role in Los Angeles tattoo history, Dotty's professional story is a little more consistent than those of tattooed attractions who toured for most, if not all, of their professional careers. However, just like the rest of the women in the realm of my research interests, her personal life is largely unknown.

2019 EDIT: When checking links in this article in September 2019, I came across the following photograph of the Jensens on a blog called Speedboys.)

2019 EDIT: Another page worth noting that's popped up since I first published this article is this one on Owen Jensen via Buzzworthy Tattoo. There is a photo of Dotty and Owen's son, Owen, Jr., as well as a photo or two of Dotty. The author of that page has more information on the Jensen's personal life, as found through the research of Owen Jensen. It's hard not to see how being married to a notable male tattoo artist helped to preserve more permanently certain portions of Dottie's history.

The now-defunct blog The Dead Bell has a detailed entry on Dotty and her grave, which is in the "Showman's Rest" area of LA's Evergreen Memorial Park. This photo is from that site--I love that she was buried as Dainty Dotty Jensen.

And, this obituary ran in The Milwaukee Journal on December 19, 1952. Other versions of the obituary mention that at the time of her son's birth, she weighed considerably less--350 pounds:

06 September 2015

A minor-but-important correction to a published tattoo historybook . . .

Within the tattoo industry and among tattoo enthusiasts, Steve Gilbert's book, Tattoo History: A Sourcebook, has been considered one of the most thorough books on tattoo history. It is exhaustive in many areas, but it's not quite an academic-level source--which is an issue with many of the "classic" and "important" tattoo books I've been reading this past year.

Gilbert's book has not been a useful source for me, because despite the subject matter promised by the title, the history offered within this book is a male history. Women are almost entirely unrepresented in the book.

This is something that's been increasingly criticized in recent reviews of the text on amazon.com and goodreads.com. Gilbert's book could be forgiven that oversight, perhaps, had it not been published in 2001. At that time, there was already a greatly-increased interest in the role of women in early U.S. tattoo history, and there were already scholars researching and compiling that history.

However, any research into tattooed women (even today) is difficult and the resulting information is scant--I assume that due to the easy availability of men's tattoo history, Gilbert made an easy choice . . . but the book does owe the reader at least a little more insight into women's roles in tattoo history.

In addition to the lack of women's history in Gilbert's book, there is also an error in photo identification on page 130 of the text.

This photo, from the Kobel collection, accompanies a section on Charlie Wagner (the tattoo artist seated in the lower right corner) and identifies the seated woman as Mildred "Millie" Hull. This is not Mildred Hull, however.

I believe the woman is "Big Liz," or Elizabeth Miller, but I'm only about 75% sure of that at this point. She was not a well-known tatttooed lady, and clear photos of her and her tattoos are few. (sidenote: I do know that Jean Furella Carroll is the woman standing at the center of the photo.)

This misidentification of Mildred Hull is a professional slight that is two-fold. First, Hull was the first independent woman tattooist in New York City's Bowery, and she is the first known female U.S. tattooist who did not find her way to the profession via a tattooist husband.

Her life was cut short by suicide, but she played an important role in NYC's tattoo history. However, she does not have a section in Gilbert's book. And, the double whammy--Gilbert (or his editors) didn't fact-check the book's photos.

If one considers the number of times that this sort of mistake has happened over the years in the small pool of women's tattoo history, and it is surprising to me that any accurate history exists at all.

The photo below is also in Gilbert's book, a few pages later . . . this actually IS a photo of Mildred Hull, Charlie Wagner, and Jean Carroll. This negative is also in the Kobel collection. From the same period of time, give or take a few years (using Carroll's appearance to judge), but Mildred and Elizabeth do not look alike.

To me, it's a blatant instance of a woman with tattoos being "The Tattooed Lady" instead of having any identity beyond that. In an industry-respected book of tattoo history, however, it's an error that's difficult to forgive.