Congenital marvels are relatively rare and represent less than 3% of total human population. Also, more than 80% of those born will abnormal conditions die before they reach 3 months.
It is for this reason that the sideshow has a great number of what are commonly referred to as ‘made freaks’. This category includes such sideshow staples as tattooed men and women, fat men and women, and geeks.
The first recorded example of a tattooed man on exhibit is in 1691. Prince Giolo, an apparent island slave was put on display in England by one William Dampier. The exhibit created a huge sensation in England but was short lived as Giolo contracted small pox and died shortly after arriving from the Philippines.
It wasn’t until Russian explorer George H. von Langsdorff discovered a French deserter named Jean Baptiste Cabri 1804 that the tattooed man became popularized in sideshow. Cabri had married a native woman and been extensively tattooed. He returned with the Russian to Moscow where he launched a theatrical career and later toured Europe. The bulk of his showcase consisted of his regaling audiences with exaggerated tales of his adventures and a brief reveal of his tattooed body.
Cabri was soon followed by another tattooed man named John Rutherford in 1828. Rutherford became the first professional tattooed Englishman after returning to Bristol following a stint in New Zealand. Rutherford was heavily covered in Maori tattoos and furthered the tradition begun by Cabri by spinning greatly exaggerated tales his of alleged shipwreck, abduction, and eventual acceptance by the natives.
The first tattooed person to be exhibited in the United States is believed to have been James F. O’Connel. O’Connel appeared at Barnum’s American Museum in 1842 and he told tales similar to those of Cabri and Rutherford. He also became the first to write and publish his tales, as an extra source of income, under the title ‘The Life and Adventures of James F. O’Connel, the Tattooed Man. In 1873, O’Connel was succeeded by Prince Constantine in Barnum’s show. Constantine was a Greek man also known as Alexandrinos Constentenus and, perhaps most famously, Captain Constentenus. He was very likely the most successful tattooed exhibit of the era making a base salary of $1000 a week in addition to a tidy sum from his own book sales. The reason for his popularity likely had a lot to do with the extensive nature of his tattoo work. He was the first person to completely tattoo his body for the soul purpose of being an exhibit. As a result, the quality of his body work was simply remarkable.
The tattooed woman was, by far, a much more popular and profitable exhibit for promoters and performers. In an era where female skin was just not seen, by dropping a dime to view a tattooed lady, men were able to gawk and a whole lot of skin. It is for this reason that the tattooed ladies were often the highest paid performers in the sideshow.
But that said, the first white woman to be exhibited with tattoos in the US was the rather demure Olive Oatman. Oatman was allegedly kidnapped by the Yavapai in 1851 and later traded to the Mojave who marked her chin according to their traditions. She was eventually traded to by the Mojave to Cavalry soldiers at the age of 19.
Today, the ante has been upped. Modern tattooed men often tattoo with a theme in mind and modify their body beyond colored ink under the skin. Split tongues, ear pointing and dermal implants are the price modern made marvels pay to be a part of sideshow history.