The Great Captain Costentenus is often regarded as the first tattooed man to be exhibited in the United States. That, however, is not true. The first tattooed man is believed to have been James F. O’Connel. Evidence indicates that O’Connel appeared at Barnum’s American Museum in 1842 and Constentenus didn’t appear until the 1870’s. O’Connel was also the first tattooed man to write and publish his embellished origin, as an extra source of income, under the title ‘The Life and Adventures of James F. O’Connel, The Tattooed Man’.
While Constentenus was not the first, he was by far the most remarkable tattooed man of the 1800’s. In fact, he was likely the most heavily tattooed man in the world during that century. Even today, the magnitude of his tattoo coverage remains rather remarkable. The Captain was the first man to display a full body tattoo with his face, scalp, genitals and finger webbing all tattooed. The only part of his body not tattooed were the soles of his feet.
The designs were Burmese in origin, blue and red in color and depicted mostly animals native to Burma and eastern mythology.
Little is known of Constentenus, rumor has it that he was born in Albania in 1836, and it is believed that he tattooed himself for the sole purpose of exhibition. Exactly who did the work is unknown. His origin story involves the same ‘kidnapped and forcibly tattooed by island natives’ story that was par for the tales told by his European contemporaries and it was, of course, completely false. The same story alleged that Captain Costentenus was actually an Albanian prince.
The person, or persons, who actually did the tattoo work were masters of their craft as the quality of his tattoos were the most elaborate ever exhibited at that point. As a result, Constentenus enthralled doctors and skin specialists and he was even extensively studied by the University of Vienna on several occasions.
In America, Constentenus was exhibited by Great Farini and P. T. Barnum and he proved to be a very successful attraction. He eventually commanded a weekly base salary of $1000, which he further augmented with sales of his mostly fictional biography.
At the time of his death he was a wealthy man. According to legend he willed half of his fortune to the Greek Church of London. The other half of his fortune he divided amongst his fellow showmen and peers.
image: Full color pitch card of Captain Costentenus.