07 March 2021

UPDATED: A Congress of Freaks.

I mentioned "Congress of Freaks" photos in an earlier blog post, but I thought I'd share a small collection of the congress photos I've found in the past few years. 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--I'd assumed these shots were used for press materials and souvenirs. According to Art Blart online, though, Kelty paid Ringling in order to be permitted to take these photos. 

This complicated my simple belief about these "congress" photos, because many sources claim that larger circuses like Ringling had their own in-house photographers for souvenirs and marketing. 

Part of my update on 3/15 is to sheepishly admit that I'd forgotten that I actually own a book on Kelty and his photographs. My circus/sideshow/tattoo history library isn't that big, but the copy I own is missing its dust jacket, and I completely forgot about it until I was doing some online research, scouring the interwebs for any books I still need.

I do not regret spending a bit of my early afternoon leafing through Kelty's photographs today. And, I did some fact-checking.

Kelty might have had to pay an up-front fee for access to the circus grounds, but he was given wide access and took photos throughout the day--some larger group and "congress" photos, and some of individual troupes and performers. He would then develop the negatives and print proofs on a very quick turnaround, to provide both the performers and the circuses the option of purchasing prints from him. There were other photographers who took the circus's photographs during the show and inside the tent, but Kelty made a name for himself with his large group photographs before the shows and behind the scenes.

The usefulness of the photographs for my purposes isn't really affected by how and why the photos came to be. 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 under the smaller Sells-Floto sideshow to working with the Ringling/Barnum & Bailey Circus. 
It's important to note that Sells-Floto became part of the American Circus Corporation in the late 1920s, and in 1929, Ringling bought the American Circus Corporation. This move gave them a monopoly on traveling circuses in the United States. So, by 1931, Sells-Floto may have still operated their sideshow under the Sells-Floto banners, but they were part of the larger Ringling family. 

Ada Mae Vandermark and Betty Broadbent

This rare photograph that shows Betty Broadbent several years earlier, in 1928, working with Ada Mae Vandermark. Both women are on the bottom row of the photo--Ada Mae on the left and Betty on the right. This is Betty with her hair cut into a flapper-style bob, which she only had in the early years of her career.

I've never read anything to indicate that Betty Broadbent was ever anything other than the only tattooed lady on a bill, so seeing Ada Mae alongside Betty is an unexpected bit of history that can't be disputed.

Ada Mae Vandermark and Lotta Pictoria

To take a closer look at Ada Mae's resume, this 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" or "snake handler" 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. It is interesting to note that this photo is included in the Kelty book, and the tattooed ladies are billed as "Miss Artorio, tattooed wonder" and "Miss Pictorio, tattooed girl." I have seen Ada Mae identified with the last name "Artorio" in a few other places, and now I can surmise that it's not incorrect, but that it was a stage name she used.

I've not found any research that speaks to these tattooed ladies knowing one another or working together, so this is another exciting morsel 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. 


Ada Mae Vandermark

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.

Lotta Pictoria
And, not to be pushed to the side, a few years earlier, Lotta Pictoria was the sole tattooed attraction in Ringling's 1925 lineup. Here she is, on the upper left:

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. My guess is that it's probably from 1930. 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 Lotta Pictoria worked for Ringling in 1925, but Ada Mae Vandermark and Lotta Pictoria worked together as Ringling's tattooed ladies in 1927, and Ada Mae and Betty Broadbent worked together for Ringling in 1928. Then, Stella Grassman was the tattooed lady in 1929 and at least in one other season, possibly 1930. 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 or Betty'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 the late 1920s. I am certain that none of the women pictured above is also Trixie Richardson. 

it's 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.

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