Nora Hildebrandt was America’s first professional tattooed lady. Her place in history is due mostly to the fact that her father, German born Martin Hildebrandt, was America’s first professional tattoo artist. Nora stood in as a canvas for her father when he was not tattooing sailors and soldiers from both sides of the Civil War.
Martin set up shop in New York in 1846 and Nora was born sometime in the 1850’s. Nora began to exhibit herself in 1882. By that time, she was covered in tattoo ink, neck to toe, with a reported 365 tattooed designs. She toured primarily with Barnum & Bailey Circus throughout the 1890’s. Initially, she borrowed heavily from the embellished origins laid out by the tattooed men of years past like John Rutherford and Captain Constentenus. In her fictional biography, Nora stated that she and her father were originally forcibly tattooed by American Indians. According to her story, she was tattooed daily for an entire year, while tied to a tree. At one point, she even claimed that Sitting Bull was involved in her torture.
Nora’s fabricated tale proved to entertain audiences but she eventually discounted it and regaled audiences instead with the details of the work done by her father while displaying her body for all to see.She proved a very popular attraction among men. However her fame was rather short lived as another attractive tattooed lady debuted shortly after her. Irene Woodward quickly eclipsed Nora’s spotlight and Nora’s exact fate is still lost to history.
Image: 1942 reproduction of an Eisenmann cabinet card.