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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.