Upon first glance, this may appear to be simply a portrait of a respectable Victorian woman. Look a bit closer, though, and you’ll realize that what seems to be some kind of lace pattern covering the young lady’s chest and arms is actually a complex design of tattoos. The woman in question is Miss Irene Woodward, otherwise known as La Belle Irene, and she is widely considered the first documented tattooed lady of the circus sideshow tradition.
I’ve always been fascinated by tattooed ladies for much the same reasons as I am enthralled with flappers; that is to say, I love learning about the men and women who, in a time in history as uptight as the Victorian era, chose to alter their appearances so radically that it would put them on the fringes of society forever. In my fiction writer brain, I wonder about character motivation: What drove them to do it? What was the appeal?
During the late 1800’s, when Le Belle Irene got her start in New York, the British Empire had been expanding steadily for almost 100 years, filling the white Western minds of its countrymen with lavish images of all the exotic and fascinating lands it was subjugating. People entertained their notions of “savages” and their “uncivilized ways” with a morbid mix of horror and curiosity, and it didn’t take the dime museums long to capitalize on it.
Tattooing is a centuries-old practice in many non-Western cultures, and pretty soon men and women alike were displaying their exotic body art in sideshows across the country. The backstories of how they got their tattoos ranged from the mundane to the utterly fantastic. My favorite is Nora Hildebrandt, who claimed that she and her father were kidnapped by the Sioux Indian tribe, headed up by none other than Chief Sitting Bull himself. During more than a year of intense psychological torture conjured up by those inhuman savages, the Indians forced Nora’s father to tattoo her skin until he finally broke his own needles in an act of defiance (which he paid for with his life, of course). Nora was rescued and discovered by circus owner Adam Forepaugh who heard her tragic story with pity.
When they weren’t making up extravagant backstories for themselves, the early tattooed ladies were often very enterprising and independent women. Some of them had incredibly successful careers on the sideshow circuit, and many of them became tattoo artists themselves. As for Irene, she eventually joined P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and toured through England, France, and Russia, performing for heads of state and royalty alike.
There are a lot of photographs of tattooed ladies to be found on the internet, but not a whole lot of real information about their day to day lives, leaving my character motivation question somewhat unanswered. I suppose the draw of possible fame and fortune was enough for many of these women to tattoo themselves, but I have to wonder if, at least for some of them, there wasn’t something more to it than that. As an increasingly tattooed lady myself, I want to believe that Miss Irene genuinely loved her tattoos, that she found meaning and satisfaction in having art etched onto her skin, even at the cost of most of society’s respect. I want to find in these women a type of courage to tap into whenever I visit my friend in Alabama and get tons of stares in a restaurant or have to face the quiet judgment of my grandparents at family gatherings. Looking at these photographs inspires me to continue being myself and reminds me that, if all else fails, I can always join the circus.