The story of how a boy from Providence, Rhode Island, became “the most wonderful tattooed man ever known in the civilized world” involves menacing sailors and voyages across the sea, and was recently digitized so that we can all read this tale of the 19th century.
The 1880s book — Life of Frank Howard, the most wonderful tattooed man ever known in the civilzed [sic] world: a sketch of his life and the manner in which he became tattooed — is part of Harvard University Houghton Library’s new round of digitization, which includes an illuminated medieval manuscript, old-timey sheet music, and a pleasingly chaotic Stéphane Mallarmé manuscript. But the Life of Frank Howard is definitely a highlight. The book was printed by N.Y. Popular Publishing Co., then located at 37 Bond Street in Manhattan; it advertises its other titles on the front page of Life of Frank Howard, among them Bonaparte’s Oraculum and Book of Fate — a “true copy of the original edition which was used by Napoleon. Both sexes may refer to it with profit to themselves” — as well as guides to skating, conjuring, ventriloquism, and a “manuel of etiquette and art of making love,” presumably for use after you purchased their Bashfulness Cured and How to Woo and Win.
Frank Howard’s story is a singular edition. It begins with a rather sketchy history of tattooing, mostly related to the eternal question of 19th-century ethnocentrics: “why do savages thus decorate their bodies?” Yet, after skimming through all that condescension, you get to the real attraction: the history of Howard. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1857, he was, by 11 years old, ready to go “out into the wide world to seek his fortune.” Naturally for the time and place, this was at sea, over which he sailed on the ship the Greyhound and met a character named Growler, “an artist in his way.” The ominously named Growler is then described as drawing “from the depths of his chest a small canvass [sic] bag, and opening it [to display] its contents to his curious shipmates; inks of different colors, needles of various sizes, and several beautiful designs.”
Howard and the other “green hands” now “saw an opportunity to become, in their estimation, full-fledged sailors,” for just a pound of tobacco traded for a tattoo. But from the first touch of the needle Howard was hooked, and gave his skin over to Growler over the course of their voyaging. The fleshy designs he ended up with include ”the crucifixion of Christ on the Cross, on the right shoulder and arm, followed by a boat manned by nine men across the stomach, flags of various nations birds and beasts.” By the time the Greyhound reached Hilo, Hawaii, “Howard was quite a wonder” and had himself become proficient with the tattoo needles.
After returning to Providence at 19 years old — a tattooed sailor who was surely a sight different from the boy who had left eight years prior — he eventually wandered to Chicago with his sister Annie. Apparently she was quite curious about the tattoos and, as family trend went, became enamored with it until Howard had completely covered her with tattoos as well, a total of 238, according to the book, in red, blue, and purple.
The end of the volume actually reveals itself to be something of an advertisement for Frank Howard himself, featuring his address at the Kellery House on West Madison Street in Chicago. He offers to sell anyone a kit with ink, tools, and designs so that “a person of ability can soon acquire the art for himself.” The self-promotion was no coincidence, as Frank and Annie Howard were for a time displaying themselves with Barnum and Bailey’s circus, although their story then was that they were shipwrecked and the “savages” had forced the tattoos on them, according to Robert Bogdan’s book Freak Show.
Life of Frank Howard is a rather thrilling little read, if definitely laced with a high amount of embellishment, made even more questionable by the Howards’ tendency for falsifying the reasons for their tattoos. But the book unfortunately lacks any likenesses of Howard apart from the one on the cover showing him bare-chested and covered in patriotic emblems, even sporting an inked bow tie. Luckily, Syracuse Library has a rather impressive index of old tattoo photographs, including some of Frank and Annie Howard, along with their tattooed contemporaries, a few of which are posted below. Combined with the digitized book, they’re a fascinating look into this moment of American culture when tattoos attracted incredible curiosity for their permanent, vibrant artistry, all while still holding something mysterious.
Life of Frank Howard, the most wonderful tattooed man ever known in the civilized world : a sketch of his life and the manner in which he became tattooed is available online as part of Harvard University Houghton Library’s digital collections.
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