By Carmen Nyssen
Born: February 7, 1863 Holton, Aroostook, ME
Died: May 22, 1940 District of Columbia
Burial: Riverside-Magnolia Cemetery, Sec: Wysteria, Lot 135
Learn more about Elmer Getchell’s involvement with the invention of electric tattoo machines on the Early Tinkerers of Electric Tattooing page.
Getchell’s Tattoo Career
According to family, Captain Elmer Ellsworth Getchell (aka Electric Elmer Getchell) was a scholarly man and a “jack of all trades;” he was a horseshoer, tattooer, and water color artist. He enjoyed painting sunrises and sunsets and always brushed in 3 seagulls representative of the Holy Trinity.
As his moniker suggests, Getchell was also a steamboat captain and spent much of his life trekking up and down the East Coast. In later years, he kept multiple tattoo shops in seaport cities, such as Baltimore and Washington D.C., so he could wield his needle in between port calls.
Boston Tattoo Tradition
Getchell’s start in tattooing —probably sometime at the turn of the 1880s decade —was no doubt influenced by the seafaring tradition. Though born in Maine, Getchell grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, home to a U.S. Naval shipyard and a considerable fishing and whaling trade. With the hundreds of seaman passing through the busy maritime hub, a tattooer stood to make a decent living.
Getchell’s Tattooed Attractions
Boston’s dime museum scene, which rivaled that of the legendary New York Bowery, was an equally lucrative avenue for tattoo artists. The growing popularity of dime museums during the 1880s era brought with it a demand for an assortment of oddity acts, including the crowd-drawing tattooed attraction.
Like his contemporary, eminent New York Bowery tattoo artist, Samuel O’Reilly, Getchell covered several well-known tattooed performers in this period. The best recognized among them was James Burke, aka Frank Deburgh, who as it happens, was the husband of one of O’Reilly’s most notable tattooed creations, Mrs. Emma Deburgh.
Frank DeBurgh Tattooed by Getchell
Deburgh’s tattoos were described in full detail in an April 21, 1884 Chicago Tribune newspaper report about Elmer Getchell:
Boston Globe: “Turn around, Jim, and let them see the Crucifixion. Two men, seated on chairs, sat facing each other in a room on North Street. One of them was dressed in a navy uniform. His name was Elmer E. Getchell. The other was a Boston citizen named James Burke, and he was dressed in a light and airy costume of a pair of trunks. There was nothing more upon him in the way of clothing, but he had more decoration on his body than any man in the State. He was tattooed from his neck down to his toe-nails, with all kinds of figures of men, beasts, birds, flowers, ships, and shapes of every kind. His thighs were covered with idols, etc., placed there when he was in Burmah, eight years ago. All the rest of the work was new and had been put on within a few weeks by Mr. Getchell. The figures were blue and red, and the various figures were drawn in skillful and artistic style. As the tattooed man turned around, his back showed the commencement of a picture of the Crucifixion, copied after the large steel engraving by Hilton.
“I have a good deal to do on this man yet. That picture will cover all of the back and extend around to the sides. You see only the three figures on the crosses now, but I will work in all the other figures that are in the picture, and show the City of Jerusalem in the distance.”
Getchell’s Crucifixion Tattoo
Deburgh’s stunning back tattoo was a replication of William Hilton’s 1827 “Crucifixion” painting, now archived in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool England. A large steel engraving of this same image had also been reproduced by William Finden in 1852.
Tattooers Elmer Getchell & Sam O’Reilly
That Getchell had covered popular tattooed performer Frank Deburgh,
And O’Reilly had tattooed his famed wife Emma,
Is an interesting juxtaposition.
In much later years, the two tattoo artists were partners until they became engaged in a notoriously heated court battle over who invented the electric tattoo machine. In 1891, O’Reilly secured the first tattoo machine patent for a device based on Thomas Edison’s rotary stencil pen. Some years later, Elmer Getchell apparently invented a just as revolutionary machine made from a doorbell mechanism. According to the court case, he had manufactured and sold a sizable quantity of them, which prompted O’Reilly to file an infringement claim with the U.S. Federal Court. Getchell then left O’Reilly’s 5 Chatham Square tattoo shop and opened his own down the street at 11 Chatham Square, a shop later inhabited by O’Reilly (c. 1904), then Charlie Wagner (c. 1909)).
More Getchell Tattoo History
This is just a small window into Elmer Getchell’s history.
The rest will be presented soon in some very special projects.