I confess that I find tattoos baffling. I have no unicorns, skulls, or Bible verses on my person. From an artistic standpoint I find the colors jarring and they simply don’t wear well on a medium as ephemeral as the human skin.
Nevertheless, the art has an ancient history: Otzi the Iceman, frozen Scythian warriors, possibly the bog-buried Lindow Man. It was also not uncommon for respectable Victorian women to get tattoos:
In London there is a man who follows the business of tattooing. The majority of his patrons are men who have designs of a naval character pricked into their skin, but there are also a great many women who employ his art, if it may be termed such. With women the decoration is usually a bee, a butterfly, a spray of flowers, or a monogram. These ornaments are worn inside the wrist, so that they can be hidden by the glove in necessary. Mr. Macdonald also produces beauty spots. A short time ago he put two on the face of a lady well known in society. Whether they are really “beauty spots” is a moot question. They resemble a mole more than anything. Malvern [IA] Leader 25 December 1890: p.7
Lovers’ initials were always a popular choice at the tattoo parlor. A story from 1886 relates how a blushing young woman first had her fiancé’s initial “P” tattooed on her shoulder. A few months later, she came back and had the initial altered to a “B” for her new fiancé. And a few months after that, she requested a change to an “M,” for the man whom she would be marrying in a week. The tattoo artist could only cover it over with some other design, which worried her because her fiancé didn’t know of his predecessors. The ingenious bride-to-be thought and drew up a design of a scroll and the first two bars of Beethoven’s sonata in A minor to surround the “B,” explaining “I just dote on Beethoven.”
An 1879 article tells of tattoos in a more intimate location:
The custom is said to have lately grownup among young ladies of good social position in England of having various devices tattooed indelibly on one or other of their legs. This peculiar freak of the aristocracy of Great Britain has been made public through an advertisement announcing the mysterious disappearance of a well-connected young lady. But in this very advertisement is displayed a comical want of knowledge of the customs of this country. The friends of the missing girl evidently believe she has fled to America, and they tell us she can be identified by a cross in tattoo on her right leg. This is doubtless an infallible sign [In hoc signo vinces?] but who is to make the investigation which shall reveal the fair runaway? If aboriginal styles of dress prevailed here, as our British cousins evidently think they do, all would be easy enough, but when the very clocking of a damsel’s hose is largely a matter of conjecture to the most assiduous of lookers on, how could even a Paul Pry among fashion writers get at the cuticular ornamentation beneath the silk?San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 27 August 1879: p. 1
Unsurprisingly, disreputable Victorian ladies went under the needle also, but none to more memorable and novel effect than a Grand Horizontal named only as Euphemie L.
Suicide in Paris
The Paris correspondent of the Boston Atlas gives the following account of a strange suicide that recently took place in that city:
Euphemie L___, too, had seen and remembers a great deal. In 1837 she was the reigning beauty of Paris. Her favors were the object of general ambition. She rolled in that superfluity of wealth none but the Lais and the Phyrnes know. Her palace of the Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin, (it was twenty steps below me, a new street now occupies its site) exceed any of Louis Phillipe’s, and Col. Thorn’s was the only equipage which could vie with hers at the Promenade de Longchamps. Soon excesses of all sorts ruined Euphemie’s health; with her health fled her beauty, and her fortune. The prodigal girl descended even more rapidly than she had mounted fortune’s tide; the quick ebb soon abandoned her, steeped to the lips in misery. She could never forget the gilded days she had spent in the street. It embittered her misery; it became greater than she could bear. Day before yesterday,’ say this morning’s papers. ‘The body of a woman about forty years old, was taken out of the Canal St. Martin. The absence of all trace of violence instantly removed suspicion that a crime had been committed. Subsequent investigation proved the death to have been the result of a suicide. A strange spectacle presented itself to the magistrate and physician whose duty led them to inspect the body. The corpse was entirely covered with tattooing, from which, except the face and feet, no portion of the body was exempt. In midst of emblems and erotic [this was given as “erratic” in the original—misprint or censorship?] legends were the names of all the lovers the woman had had, with the date of the commencement and end of each amour. Nothing could be more painful to the sight than this album of debauchery upon a hideous corpse.
The ‘hideous corpse’ was the body of Euphemie L____.
La Crosse [WI] Democrat 17 May 1853: p. 1
Here is what purports to be the original from le Droit: Journal des Tribunaux de Paris, a paper devoted to sensational crimes and their appearance in the courts.
Il y a quelques années, le Droit, journal des tribunaux de Paris, contenait le récit suivant: On a retiré hier du canal Saint-Martin le corps d’une femme d’environ quarante ans. L’absence de toute trace de violence a éloigné tout d’abord la supposition d’un crime, et il a été, plus tard, constaté que la mort était le résultat d’un suicide. Cette femme a été reconnue pour la nommée Euphémie ^L…, qui a eu, il y a une quinzaine d’années, une grande réputation de beauté. Grâce aux libéralités de ses amants, Euphémie avait, dans la Chaussée-d’Antin, une maison montée avec un luxe princier, et son équipage effaçait par sa splendeur celui de bien des grandes dames. Mais bientôt les excès de tout genre détruisirent la santé d’Euphémie. Avec la beauté s’éclipsèrent les adorateurs et les écus. La fille prodigue descendit plus rapidement encore qu’elle ne l’avait gravie l’échelle de la fortune, et, quand elle eut quitté le dernier échelon, elle se trouva les deux pieds dans la fange. Là vinrent l’assaillir les souvenirs et les regrets. Ellene put résister à leur perpétuelle obsession, et cette existence misérable se termina par le suicide. Un spectacle étrange s’offrit au magistrat et au médecin, à l’inspection desquels dut être soumis le cadavre. Le corps d’Euphémie était entièrement couvert de tatouages, dont, à l’exception du visage et des extrémités, aucune place n’était exempte. Au milieu d’emblèmes et de légendes érotiques, figuraient les noms de tous les amants qu’avait eus l’Hétaïre, avec la date du commencement et celle de la fin de chaque amour. Rien n’était plus triste à voir que cet album de débauche sur un cadavre hideux
Quoted in Dictionnaire d’anecdotes: Historiettes, bons mots, aventures, process extraordinaries, etc. sur Les Femmes, Le Mariage et la Galanterie, Louis-Julien Larcher 1861
Naturally I found my mind wandering to how she kept track of those légendes érotiques and the many dates of commencement and fin: double-entry bookkeeping?
The courtesans of Paris were known for their whims and eccentricities: la Païva, who shot a horse who had thrown her; Lee d’Asco, famed for a nude balloon ascension and a pet bear; the jewel duels of Liane de Pougy and La Belle Otero, but this account seems to veer towards a roman by Balzac or de Maupassant. Does anyone know if this story of a human scandal sheet came from a work of fiction? (chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com)
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.