Friday, 11 November 2016

Grahamstown Gazette: the Steampunk edition

Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the November edition.

From The Treasury

‘Wanted: 500 ladies to copy some of the Beautiful Designs that are tattooed on Capt. Fisher’s body, for Crochet and Crewel work. He is now on exhibition at Mrs. Wade’s front room nightly.’ 

Well done Mrs. Wade! This snippet is from an advertisement column in the 1894 Thames Advertiser. Captain Fisher, the Tattooed Man, spent several days on exhibition at Mrs. Wade’s Queen Street boarding house in Thames; whether he was accompanied by the full five hundred ladies, the Advertiser declines to report. He is, however, described as a ‘remarkable specimen of humanity,’ and he was attracting ‘considerable attention’ from the ladies of Thames. 

Captain Fisher was a regular feature on New Zealand’s entertainment circuit in the early 1890s. The story  – or at least, the story he told his audience – goes that he was captured ten years earlier by a band of Indians, while travelling to the Black Hills gold diggings in Utah. The Indians covered his entire body in tattoos over a period of six months, before Captain Fisher finally made a daring escape. This story seems a tad less plausible in light of his prominent tattoos of St. George and the Dragon and Britannia ruling the waves, however. 

Captain Fisher wasn’t the only tattooed wonder to pay a visit to Thames. One of ‘the most remarkable exhibitions introduced to New Zealand’ opened in Pollen Street, just opposite the Bank of New Zealand, late in January 1915. Madame Suritha, the French Tattooed Princess, and her two ‘Belgian Midgets’ took up residence opposite the bank for a two day season, following sell-out shows across the country.
The Tattooed Princess had over a five hundred tattoos in eight different colours, depicting animals, fruit, flowers and ‘tattooagraphs’ of world leaders – the result of two years’ worth of needle work. The country’s newspapers, including the Thames Star, described her as the most beautifully tattooed lady in the world, with some advertisements going as far as to offer £100 to anyone who had ever seen ‘such a beautiful woman more beautifully tattooed.’ 

Meanwhile, Major Atom and Prince Lilliput were allegedly the ‘two smallest midgets in the world,’ and set to appear as a Principle Attraction at the San Francisco Exhibition the following year. They engaged in boxing matches to amuse the public. All this for only sixpence!

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