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,

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