Almost anything dealing with tattoos in 19th century American history gets my attention. Rare book. Historical ephemera. A chromo-lithographic print. An albumen photograph. An autograph letter. A handwritten diary. I’m not particular. If it deals with tattoos in 19th century America— or tattoo artists and their designs, whether on skin or sketched on paper, I’m interested.
How often do I see this kind of material, out in the wilds? Rarely.
What we are talking about — [H. A. Thomas, Litho.]. Captain Costentenus The Greek Albanian [opening lines] [New York: 1880–1886]. Pitch Card. 6½ x 4¼ inches.
I was happy to come across this “pitch card” for the curious Captain Costentenus. Tattooed from head to toes — and everywhere imaginable between — The “Captain” was a marvel of his age.
Costentenus was a circus performer. Like many, he went under various names — “The Greek Albanian”, “Captain Costentenus”, and “The Turk”.
His origin story was dramatic and exciting. His pitch card says he was tattooed “in Chinese Tartar as punishment for engaging in Rebellion against the King.”
In some fanciful accounts, Costentenus was of royal blood, the son of a Greek king turned pirate. But then he got caught. The punishment? If he survived his three months of non-stop tattooing he would be free to live. Or so declared his nefarious captors.
Less dramatic interpretations suggest another narrative. Believed to have been born in 1836, Costentenus was an Albanian who decided to tattoo his body for exhibition purposes. The idea of selling his body as a human spectacle to earn a living must have intrigued this not-so-introverted soul.
Less dramatic interpretations also suggest that there was no hell-raising accomplished in a strange faraway kingdom by the “Greek Albanian.” Still, Costentenus’ neighbors must have been in for a shock as the tattoos began to appear. Here. There. Then → Everywhere.
And anecdotally, it has been claimed Costentenus was the first tattooed man to be placed on exhibition in America. But Author J. Tithonus Pednaud in his excellent article Captain Costentenus — The Tattooed Prince informs otherwise:
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. [em. mine] 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.
Not a bad asterisk to have next to your name in 19th century tattoo history, eh?
In his day, Costentenus, was not just a popular entertainer. He was considered a medical marvel; a curiosity to be studied by physicians and scientists. Distinguished journals (still distinguished to this day) like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet published articles describing the physiology of the Tattooed Prince.
The men of science and medicine wondered. How could one man’s inner machinations survive such an assault upon visible and skin? The ‘Tattooed Prince’ even made an appearance in an 1876 skin atlas such was the anomaly he presented to 19th century physicians.
Costentenus came to the attention of 19th century Americans circa the 1870s. His popularity and draw became indisputable. P. T. Barnum played a part in Constentenus’ upward trajectory. Tattooed and colorful, Americans must have been suitably impressed and bedazzled.
Costentenus’ colorful pitch card perhaps served as a mnemonic trophy for those American purveyors who had managed to feast their eyes upon such a visual and colorful creature.
To induce Americans to pay money to see Costentenus, a pitch card printed in color was needed. Ticket sales would not be helped by a pitch card with a boring black and white woodcut or engraving.
Consider, the introduction of color lithography was as impressive in the nineteenth century as the introduction of color television was in the 1950s.
For a good pitch card to be produced, the process of color lithography would have to be used. If you had a colorful tattooed ‘Captain’ on the payroll whom’s base salary reached $1000 a week (big cake in those days) you best have a damn good pitch card. And it better be in color.
To this end, the “Artistic Litho.[graphers or graphic]” firm of H. A. Thomas & Co. of 29 Warren Street, New York were hired to produce this pitch card. We surmise a lithographer from their firm worked the stone from a produced photograph of Costentenus.
Henry A. Thomas had apprenticed for the prestigious firm of Sarony & Major before going it solo in 1864. Peters referred to him as “the lithographic historian and celebrator of the American theatre.” We can only imagine Thomas appreciated the theatrics of Costentenus’ performance.
H. A. Thomas & Co. would create a large poster of Captain Costentenus, the ‘Captain’ likewise shown stripped to the waist. The same caption on this pitch card was printed upon this poster. Thomas went into partnership in 1886, we date this pitch card c. 1880–1886.
Nowadays, you don’t have to foment open rebellion in a distant land to be then punished by being tattooed up and down the body electric.
Tattoo parlors with skilled artists are found in most urban settings. You won’t get paid $1,000 a week to flaunt your body. But you might be paying a tattoo artist a $1,000 a week for their ink and labor.
Physicians won’t write articles about you in The Lancet marveling upon your body art, unless you start glowing and growing bio-fluorescent moss on your scalp.
Notably-active in the 1870s and the 1880s, Costentenus made a good living with his body art. It was a body tattooed with elephants and animistic Burmese designs of mythology; a visual landscape American audiences likely found exotic.
For his efforts, Costentenus became a wealthy man. It’s interesting to imagine what he might have thought of G.G. Allin had the men crossed paths; if only, in a futuristic fantasy, such as Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld.
Arrighi & Emeljanow, ed., A World of Popular Entertainments: An Edited Volume of Critical Essays (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012) pp28–32.
Last, The Color Explosion (Hillcrest, 2005).
Peters, America on Stone (Arno, 1976 ed.)
CAPTAIN COSTENTENUS — The Tattooed Prince accessed online August 2015.