Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Hey ya’ll, once again it is Astor, reaching out from the steps of Speakeasy Tattoo in the heart of Los Angeles. You know, sometimes when I write these blog entries I feel something like a carnival barker—apoplectically attempting to get the attention of anyone who happens to pass my way— which is especially appropriate today because today we are telling the story of the (debatably) original tattooed lady, Nora Hildebrandt.
So first, what is a tattooed lady? Well with the advent of the modern tattoo machine in the late 1800’s, tattooing gained a surge of popularity in the United States, especially in New York, and especially especially in the boroughs of the Bowery and Coney Island, where a majority of the city’s artists and tattoo parlors were located. For those not in the know, Coney Island is an entertainment destination, an amusement park on a little peninsula in Brooklyn which has served for centuries as New York’s escape from the rigors of city living. Once called ‘Sodom by the Sea’, Coney Island in its heyday during the mid 19th to early 20th century was a place for New Yorkers to let loose, experience the thrills of newfangled amusement attractions, the spills of being tossed around in funhouses, and the chills of midway freak shows. Tattooed ladies where one such popular side-show act, in which scantily-clad, heavily-tattooed women would allow paying customers to gawk at them as they regaled the crowd with fabricated stories of how they came by so much ink, offering a momentary reprieve from the restrictions of late Victorian propriety, and the excitement of seeing a uncovered ankle. It’s also interesting to note that while tattooed men were also a midway attraction, they weren’t nearly as popular as their female contemporaries, and rarely got paid as much as the women. You love to see it.
So now that we know how we got here, let's look at what we got. There are really two histories of Nora Hildebrandt, the one that is, as far as we can tell, true… and the one she presented to the world while working the midway. In reality she was born in London in the mid 1850’s under a different name that would seem to have been lost to time, and moved to the United States sometime between 1860 and 1880. Shortly after meeting German immigrant and Civil War veteran Martin Hildebrandt (who also carried the distinction of opening New York’s first tattoo shop in 1846) Nora began getting tattooed, completing her fully hand-poked body suit in 1882. Nora also claimed both in life and her act that Martin was her father, but to me that seems highly unlikely, given what we know about Martin’s own history and Nora’s propensity for fabrication.
And then we have Nora’s midway story and ohhhh boy do things get squirrelly. So as I mentioned above, part of the tattooed lady’s appeal was her telling the story of how she came to be so covered in tattoos, so, Nora’s story began in Melbourne, Australia where she claimed she was born in 1860 to a well-to-do family. Her father (Martin, in some tellings) abandoned the family, and after her mother died in 1866, Nora set sail for America in the hopes of finder her estranged artist father. After completing school in 1878, Nora would explain that she traveled to to Salt Lake City to reunite with her father and after so many years apart the pair began to travel on horseback to the White Pine Reservation, where on the sixth day of their travels, she alleged, they were ambushed by “red skin devils” including none other then Sitting Bull himself. Now Sitting Bull’s captives, the Hildebrandts were taken to the Lakota camp where, Nora’s story goes, it was decreed that Martin was to be burned at the stake, and poor virginal Nora would be made Sitting Bull’s “White Squaw.” Yikes.
Supposedly, as the Indians were preparing Martin for the pyre, they took notice of his many tattoos, and Martin, noticing their interest, parlayed with Sitting Bull that he would tattoo all of the Lakota leader’s warriors, in exchange for the lives of himself and his “daughter”. However, Nora said, one of the warriors then accused Martin of poisoning him, so Sitting Bull changed his mind, promising them that their freedom would be granted if Martin would tattoo the entirety of his daughter’s body. According to Nora she was then tied to a tree by the Lakota and forcibly tattooed by her father, taking over a year to complete her three hundred and sixty five individual designs.
Nora’s narrative of imprisonment and subsequent nonconsensual tattooing was extremely popular, and spawned an entire industry of imitators. It became a common cliche that tattooed midway women received their ink by force, after the lady in question had been captured and bound by an imagined group of ‘savage natives’. Indeed, even fellow tattooed woman Irene Woodward’s story included the detail of her father being the one to put needle to her skin. It is worth mentioning that this trope didn’t originate with Nora; the famed circus performer Captain George Costentenus was a heavily tattooed man who also claimed to have been abducted and forcibly tattooed— this time by Chinese Tartars— however the story seems to have gained more steam with Nora and her female contemporaries than it ever could have with him, as her version played both into the late Victorian public opinion regarding nonwhite races, as well as titillated audiences by fitting the ‘protect the white woman’ storyline which remains a racist talking point even to this day. The horror and sensationalism of the tale, laid over the exposure of a woman’s skin, allowed for a sort of plausible deniability: patrons weren’t just paying to see a mostly undressed woman for licentious reasons, they were hearing a harrowing tale of barbarism and escape— with visual aids. And Nora herself wasn’t just flashing paying customers to make a quick buck, she was giving them an education on the dangers of the West.
Nora reportedly died in 1893 but her murky life story and legacy still remain. even now it is difficult to parse the truth from the wild claims she and others made while working the midway, but whether that be the good or the very, very, bad, it can’t be denied that she gave people a version of herself that they wanted.