Tattooing: A Fad of the Late Nineteenth Century

There is evidence that some of the earliest practices of tattooing happened around 4,000BC. However, despite tattooing have had a long history, public awareness of it did not begin to spread until the 1870s. The reason for this had to do with a legal case that captivated Victorian England and was often known as the “Tichborne claimant.”

Roger Tichborne, one of two daguerrotypes taken in South America in 1853–54. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Roger Tichborne was a worldly man born in 1829, which was the same year that François Gérard created a black chalk drawing with watercolor highlights of Madame Récamier. Like Madame Récamier, Tichborne was wealthy, highly educated, and raised in Paris. Tichborne traveled to South America in 1853 and was last seen in Rio de Janeiro in April 1854 awaiting sea passage to Jamaica. He left on a ship named Bella that set sail on 20 April. Four days later wreckage from the capsized ship was discovered off the Brazilian coast. It was presumed everyone onboard the Bella was dead but then reports began to circulate that another ship picked up survivors and took them to Australia.

Rumors then began to swirl that Tichborne had survived. Further, these allegations were fueled by clairvoyant assurances that he was alive and well. This encouraged Tichborne’s mother to place newspapers advertisements asking for information about her son. Her advertisements resulted in a man referred to as Thomas Castro or as Arthur Orton coming forward claiming to be Tichborne and when Lady Tichborne met him she immediately accepted him as her son. However, other Tichborne family members remained skeptical of the claimant, and these skeptics soon made inquiries.

An investigation into Castro/Orton ensued and he was declared a fraud. Tichborne v. Lushington was then initiated in the Court of Common Pleas where Castro/Orton failed to convince the courts of his legitimacy. In fact, he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to Newgate Prison because it was revealed that he bore some distinctive tattoos whereas reputedly Tichborne never had any.

Tichborne claimant, Thomas Castro/ Arthur Orton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because of the publicity surrounding the Tichborne claimant case tattooing became well-known. No longer was it just acceptable for soldiers, sailors, or criminals to have tattoos. People from all sorts of social backgrounds began requesting tattoos. That meant that soon laborers, unskilled workers, and even nobles and royals were being tattooed. For instance, among the royals in the nineteenth century who got tattooed was Prince Albert Victor, son of Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII),* and the future George V. Their tattoos happened as teenagers boys when they visited Japan in 1881. Prince Albert mentioned getting storks and George revealed in his dairy, “I have got a dragon on one arm done at Tokio [sic] & a tiger on the other arm done at Kioto [sic].”[1]

Tattooing - Prince Albert Victor and future George V.

Prince Albert Victor and future George V in 1881. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

During the same trip, one of the English elite who got tattooed was Lord Charles Beresford. He was a British admiral and member of Parliament. He reported:

“I was tattooed by the native artificers, to the astonishment of Japanese officials and nobles; for in Japan none save the common people is tattooed. The Japanese artist designs in white upon dark, working upon the skin round the chief ornament in his scheme; whereas the English tattooer designs dark upon white, using the natural skin as a background. Both methods are beautifully illustrated upon my person.”[2]  

Another well-known and elite person who got a tattoo was Lady Randolph Churchill. She was an American-born British socialite who became the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and mother to British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. In 1898 the New Zealand Herald reported:

“Newspaper notices of Lady Randolph Churchill frequently record the fact that she bears upon her arm a tattoo mark. It was when returning from India with Lord Randolph that the peculiar ornament was acquired. Lady Randolph, on board ship, watched a soldier tattooing a sailor, and was so pleased with the result that she desired the artist to similarly decorate her. The pattern chosen was a dark-blue snake, with scarlet jaws and green eyes. The name holds its tail in its mouth-a symbol of eternity.”[3]

Lady Churchill in 1854. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lady Churchill was not the only women to get tattooed. One American tattoo artist claimed that women were just as likely as men to request them:

“I have pretty girls with the daintiest of arms and legs come in here every day for me to operate upon. Yes, most of them decorate their arms. Take this young lady, for instance.  She is a student at the conservatory of Music. Come from somewhere in Indiana, I think. She was crazy to have an American flag upon her leg. … I put this little scroll upon her arm, away around here on the side of the muscle. No, it didn’t hurt her in the slightest.”[4]

Tattooed arms. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Besides flags, tattoo designs ranged from written names and initials to symbols and “foaming beer tankards.” There were also requests for people’s images, as well as demands for the Celtic “Harp of Erin.” Naval themes were also widely popular, and sailors often requested such images as mermaids, astronomical symbols, and ships, with anchors being the most fashionable. In addition, there was a large demand for various affectionate declarations or romantic pronouncements of love. The Oamaru Mail reported in 1895:

“One young man, desirous of making a permanent record of his sweetheart’s name, has pricked on his chest the words, ‘I love Jane Mary,’ whilst another prefers to say, ‘In memory of my sweetheart.’ … Other marks of affection are ‘In memory of my sister and mother,’ and ‘Sacred to the memory of my dear cousin,’ whilst one … has the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ inscribed on his back in letters of blue and red.”[5]

tattooing - tattoo design

Reputedly one of the favorite requested tattoo designs in New York in 1893. Author’s collection.

Tattooing also appears to have been just as big of a craze in New York as it was in London. This is demonstrated in 1893 when a reporter asked “Professor” Samuel O’Reilly, the American inventor of the electrical tattooing machine who began tattooing in New York City in the mid-1880s, about the popularity of tattooing in that city. O’Reilly replied:

“No, it is not a fad, it’s a mania. … More than that it’s contagious. When a man, woman, or child sees some one who is tattooed, he or she or it immediately wants to follow. … And another thing, in most cases persons won’t stop with one design. They want to have another and another, especially if they see some striking design on another person’s wrist or arm.”[6]

Samuel O’Reilly. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Furthermore, tattoos were regularly placed all over different parts of a person’s body, which is supported by what one Bostonian tattoo artist revealed:

“I had a man in here one day who wanted me to put it on his spinal column so that the crowned head of the Savior would appear just at his collar button. I have tattooed bracelets on the wrists of pretty girls and garters on their legs. A young woman who is well known to the theater-goers of Boston has a serpent reaching from ankle to a point well above her knee. … The wife of a well-known steamboat captain has the design of a sailor’s farewell on the fleshy part of her arm. … I have had at least twenty-five Harvard students here.”[7]

As to how the tattooing was accomplished in the late 1800s, it was reported in 1893:

“The old system of jabbing with a needle by hand has gone out of vogue. … The instrument employed is an Edison electric pen with a larger eccentric so as to give the needle the play it requires. The play of the needle is about one-thirty-second of an inch. Ordinary cell batteries are attached to it. The same power, however, cannot be used in tattooing all persons. It is regulated by the condition of the skin of the patron. Two cells are sufficient for a person with the softest skin. Harder skinned people take all the way to six cells, the full force of the battery. The outlining is done with a single needle. The shading requires seven needles, which are placed in the machine side by side. But two kinds of ink are used, black India ink and Chinese vermillion. These are the only colors that can be used with perfect safety because they are not poisonous or injurious. Vaseline and witch hazel are used to relieve the soreness when the design is completed.”[8]  

As tattoos became more common, their presence was often used to help identify people. For instance, English deserters from the militia or the admiralty were often listed in newspapers with a description of their tattoos so that they could be easily identified and located. One militia deserter in 1880 named James Dunne was noted to have a shamrock on his left arm and a star on his left hand. An admiralty deserter, James Donovan, had his tattoo likewise described. In his case he sported a “small cross [on the] back of [his] right hand.”[9]

In 1870, the absence of a tattoo was also helpful in a court case where a man needed identification. The case happened in Long Island, New York and according to the newspaper account:

“Edmund Smith … was … accosted by Mary Simpson, who claimed him as her long-lost husband, Joe Simpson. A dispute arose between them in the James slip Ferry-house, when both were arrested and taken before Justice Hogan. The woman persisted in her statement, and averred that Smith had been a sailor, and had a tattoo mark on his arm representing a Highlander. He had married her several years ago, and lived with her a week and then disappeared. … Mr. Smith was examined by the sergeant, and no tattoo mark was found … the magistrate … finally ended the curious scene by dismissing the case, and sent both the man and woman out of the court.”[10]

Tattooing was also sometimes used to identify deceased persons. For instance, in New Zealand the Tuapeka Times reported on the discovery of a dead male in the one-time thriving port of Molyneux that was situated on the coast of South Otago. The man’s decomposed body was found embedded in the sand and because the extent of decomposition was so great, the only way to help identify him was by his tattoo marks:

“On deceased’s right arm there is a tattoo mark representing an America eagle; and on the left arm a similar tattoo represents the American flag ‘stars and stripes.’”[11]

Tattooing was extremely widespread among criminals during the Victorian Era, and many criminals sported tattoos because it was viewed as “a sort of a charm, and believed [among them] that to a certain extent the indelible ink figures that adorned their breasts or arms made them immune to arrest.”[12] However, by the late 1890s tattooing among criminals began to decline and according to the Paxton Daily Record in Illinois in 1899 its popularity faded for the following reason:

“The clever modern crook knows that the tattoo is a hoodoo. … [a] system of registration of the marks upon a man’s body … is a certain clew to the identification of prisoners … [Further] said a member of the state board of control recently … I took notice that the real clever criminals had fewer marks than the bungling fellows.”[13]

Tattoos of a French criminal. Author’s collection.

The late 1800s was also a time where criminologists, newspaper reporters, and social do-gooders were thinking and writing about criminality and the criminal character. This resulted in numerous articles addressing issues related to London prisons. Henry Mayhew, a journalist, playwright, and reform advocate, wrote about prisons in his 1857 book The Great World of London. In it Mayhew stated that many criminals have private marks stamped on them … whilst many of the regular thieves have five dots between their thumb and forefinger, as a sign that they belong to ‘the forty thieves’, as they call it.”[14]

Dots were among the easiest and simplest of tattoos and people could do these types of tattoos themselves. Tattooed dots also served as a form of jewelry and could easily be placed on a person’s wrists or fingers. Therefore, although five dots proved to be one of the most popular tattoos among men and women in London, having five dots did not necessarily indicate that a person belonged to a gang as Mayhew suggested.

The placement of tattoos on the body was also of interest to nineteenth century criminologists. For instance, in an article titled “Criminal Anthropology,” by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist, phrenologist, physician, and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology, he pointed out that many criminals tattooed themselves in obscene places or used indecent designs:

“Of one hundred and forty-two delinquents whom I examined, five were tattooed upon the penis. Three had upon this organ the image of a nude woman; another had the design of a woman’s face so arranged that the mouth was formed by the margin of the urinary meatus, which upon the dorsum of the glans was the royal coat of arms. One individual had the initials of his mistress, and another a bunch of flowers. These facts prove not only the lewdness of mind but the extraordinary lack of sensibility of criminals.”[15]

Moreover, in the same article Lombroso reported on a study conducted by the nineteenth and early twentieth-century French physician and criminologist, Alexandre Lacassagne. Having looked at what criminals had tattooed upon themselves, Lacassagne determined the following:

“[T]he most appallingly cynical inscriptions [are] tattooed upon criminals, such as the following: The convict prison awaits me; … Death to faithless women; Death to police, … Long live France and fried potatoes, Death to the French officials; and this still less patriotic sentiment, ‘La M – – – vaut mieux que la France entière.’”[16]

Alexandre Lacassagne. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As shown, tattooing became a craze for a variety reasons. Beside the Tichborne case, tattoo artists more easily set up shops after the electrical tattooing machine was introduced. The famous American showman, Buffalo Bill, also helped to popularize tattooing. He took his Wild West show to London in 1887 and then visited Paris in 1889. Visitors to his shows clamored to have a special memento of their experience and they found that tattoo artists were more than willing to provide the perfect remembrance in the busts they tattooed representing Buffalo Bill.

Edward, Prince of Wales also had a tattoo. It was a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm that he got in Jerusalem in 1862.


  • [1] Prince George’s diary recorded being tattooed in Japan, p. 181.
  • [2] H Cortazzi, ed., Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2007), p. 74.
  • [3] New Zealand Herald, “Ladies Gossip,” April 2, 1898, p. 4.
  • [4] The York Daily, “The Tattoo Fad,” August 3, 1893, p. 2.
  • [5] Oamaru Mail, “How Criminals Are Tattooed,” 20 Mail 1895, p. 1.
  • [6] Chattanooga Daily Times, “The Tattoo Fad,” May 28, 1893, p. 14.
  • [7] The York Daily, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Police Gazette, “Admiralty,” September 3, 1880, p. 8.
  • [10] Isle of Wight Observer, “Bold Stroke for a Husband,” April 23, 1870, p. 8.
  • [11] Tuapeka Times, “Inquest,” December 3, 1873, p. 3.
  • [12] Paxton Daily Record, “Tattooing Out of Favor,” November 24, 1899, p. 2.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] H. Mayhew, The Great World of London (London: David Bogue, 1857), 245
  • [15] T.L. Stedman, ed., Twentieth Century: Practice: An International Encyclopedia of Modern Medical Science, X XII (New York: William Wood and Company, 1897), p. 384.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 383.

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