Samuel O'Reilly's electrically tattooed marvels

O’Reilly Tattooing with an electric tattoo machine. Ev’ry Month Magazine, Oct 1899. Pg 5. Print.

Tattooed by O’Reilly: The First Electrically Tattooed Attractions

Researched & Written by Carmen Nyssen

In researching tattoo history, one of my most exciting discoveries was that New York Bowery tattoo artist Sam O’Reilly had electrically tattooed several attractions for exhibition prior to obtaining the first electric tattoo machine patent on December 8, 1891. In my tattoo machine tinkerers article about his experimentation with various pre-patent tattooing devices (dental pluggers and Edison stencil pens), I mentioned these first electrically tattooed men by name. However, since the article was focused on tattoo machines, I didn’t illustrate their history in much detail at the time. But a complementary article is 100% called for and long overdue.

So now, without further delay, I introduce to you three of Sam O’Reilly’s most famous pre-patent attractions tattooed by the electric process.

Step right up folks! And marvel at the magnificent, first electrically tattooed wonders: Tom Sidonia, George Karlavagn, and George Mellivan.

Tom Sidonia, One of Sam O'Reilly's first electrically tattooed men, 1889

Tom Sidonia, probably Sam O’Reilly’s very first electrically tattooed masterpiece. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Sidonia (The Tattooed Boy)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Charles Eisenmann cabinet card photo.

Tom Sidonia (1869-1954)

Quite likely the first of O’Reilly’s creations tattooed with an electric machine was twenty-year-old Novia Scotia native Tom Sidonia, who worked as a harness stitcher in Boston. According to an August 13, 1950 Richmond Times Dispatch interview, Sidonia had gone to New York for a short vacation when he decided to undergo the tattooing process. Once completed, his beautiful and groundbreaking tattoo work—consisting of stunning designs such as George Washington on his right leg, the Crucifixion of Christ on his left leg, St. George and the Dragon on his back, and the battle of the Alabama and Kearsage on his front side—made him an instant sensation on the dime show scene.

Tom Sidonia St. George & the Dragon tattooed by electric process in 1889

Tom Sidonia’s back tattoos in an article about Sam O’Reilly. Omaha World, June 22, 1890.

As Sidonia told the reporter, “Before it was finished, I had an engagement showing myself in Boston at Austin and Stone Museum.” Late 1889 and early 1890 ads, in the Boston Herald, confirm that the young, 5 ft. 3 in., Sidonia was a popular addition to the well-known Boston venue in Scollay Square, and several others. This was two whole years before O’Reilly was granted his tattoo machine patent!!!

Tom Sidonia Dime Museum Billings:

1889 Dec 31: Assembly of high class tattooed marvels, Austin & Stone’s: “The man tattooed by electricity was especially attractive to the crowds.”

1890 Jan: Austin & Stone’s Museum: “The Twelve Marvels of Tattoo-Registered for only six days longer-Nora Hildebrandt, Fred Hildebrandt, Bertha Cardentinus, Seidaunia, May Brooks, W.H. Brooks, Capt. Frank Thornton, Maude Thornton, Egbert Baum, Lulu Baum, Capt. Frank Howard, Annie Howard.”

1890 Jan 2: Austin & Stone’s Museum: “And the most world-renowned boy SIDONIA. The only living being ever tattooed by electricity.”

1891 Jan 13: Pilling’s World Museum: “Sidonia, the 1st man to be tattooed by electricity”

George Karlavagn (Real name George Kelly) (1868-1951)

The story of how Pennsylvania-born George Karlavagn encountered O’Reilly and offered himself as an experimental subject for electric tattooing has been lost to history. It’s just as unclear when exactly he was tattooed. But newspaper ads indicate it was at least a year before O’Reilly obtained his patent.

Karlavagn, Sam O'Reilly's pre-1891 patent, electrically tattooed creation

Karlavagn, Electrically tattooed by O’Reilly. The Illustrated American. Nov 8, 1890. pg. 365. Print.

According to a Boston Herald ad (Right), by November of 1890, Karlavagn, like Sidonia, had been invited to perform on stage at Boston’s Austin & Stone’s Museum. Even though his predecessor had already earned the title the year before, he was billed as the first person tattooed by electricity. And he wore the evocative words “Tatooed by O”Reilly” on his back.

Tattooed by Sam O'Reilly with electricity, Karlavagn in street clothes

George Karlavgan, tattooed man. C. 1890s. Charles Eisenmann cabinet card photo. Collection of Carmen Nyssen.

By the looks of Tom Sidonia and George Karlavagn, it appears that O’Reilly shrewdly handpicked young, handsome models for his first electrically tattooed attractions. What better way to draw in crowds and advertise his innovative tattoo work! In fact, one wonders if O’Reilly had a plan in mind when he introduced his wonderful, electrically tattooed creations so soon before his patent was in place. Revealing his revolutionary new method, if his goal was indeed to patent it, would have been risky, whether or not he was the only one experimenting with tattoo machines. But perhaps, even if he was in competition with others, he was so far ahead of the game that he wasn’t worried about usurpers catching up to him and stealing his ideas.

One thing is certain. O’Reilly was an astute practitioner, showman, and businessman. While it isn’t known if he had intended to patent an electric machine all along, the presentation of these first electrically tattooed attractions, with their good looks and exceptionally well-executed tattoo designs, was an ingenious tactic. It not only proved his mastery of electric tattooing, but also the worth of his inventions.

George Mellivan (Real name Gustave Hermann) (1856-1919)

Albert Parry, in his 1933 book, Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art, states that George Mellivan was tattooed by Sam O’Reilly. A pre-1904 cabinet card photo of Mellivan in a private collection also notes (on the backside) that he was tattooed by O’Reilly—with the electric method.

As with Karlavagn, Mellivan’s tale of becoming an electrically tattooed man is somewhat elusive. Unfortunately, his name was often misspelled in newspaper ads, making it difficult to track his early history and travels on the dime show circuit. The earliest record I’ve come across naming him as a tattooed attraction is a December 6, 1891 Austin & Stone’s advertisement in the Boston Herald, printed two days before O’Reilly obtained his electric tattoo machine patent. While this particular snippet doesn’t specify that Mellivan was an electric tattooed man, writings soon after describe him as such.

Tattooed by electricity before the 1891 tattoo machine patent, George Mellivan

George Mellivan, one Sam O’Reilly’s earliest electrically tattooed men. New England Home Journal, Nov. 8, 1890.Print.

An October 8, 1893 Pittsburgh Press dime museum pitch, introduces him as “…Mellivan, the human, living, walking art gallery, the only man in the world tattooed by the scientific process (Thomas Edison), the finest and most artistically tattooed man in the world…”

An 1894 medical journal, Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine and Toxicology (Vol 1), discussing the now “rapidly done” tattooing with an Edison pen, refers to both Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan:

“A Nova Scotian [Sidonia], tattooed from head to foot, has among other designs that of ” St. George and the Dragon” on his back; while a Texas ranchman [Mellivan], six feet two inches tall, underwent the torture of eight weeks’ profanation of his body in order to appear blue, brown, and red, with an irreverent imagine on his back of the Immaculate Conception and thirty-one angels.”

Now, it’s difficult to say which of his early machines O’Reilly used to tattoo Sidonia and Karlavagn—his early dental plugger tattoo machines or another type—but Mellivan was apparently inked with some kind of tattoo machine adapted from an Edison pen. The question is: was it O’Reilly’s patent model or another rendition?

In either case, Mellivan was an apt canvas for O’Reilly’s modernized, skillful art. Although he was a bit older and perhaps not as attractive as his cohorts, he made an equally striking subject given his tall stature.

Another point of interest, is that his stage name “Mellivan” happened to also be the name of a brand of late 1800s sewing needles.

Source Note: Mellivan’s birth name is documented on his Florida death certificate, file #11012

Electric Tattooing Pioneers

Tom Sidonia, George Karlavagn, and George Mellivan probably weren’t the only attractions Sam O’Reilly (or others) tattooed by electricity before the first electric tattoo machine patent was in place. Yet they were O’Reilly’s top masterpieces and their introduction to the dime show circuit inspired a new era of tattooing.

Despite the exceptional tattoo work of the three men, they didn’t immediately displace attractions tattooed by the “old method.” Instead, clever dime museum managers capitalized on the abundance of tattooed attractions in the late 1880s by exhibiting groups of both hand-poked and electrically tattooed men and women—billed as “the galaxy of tattooed people” or “the congress of tattooed people.” Not only was the display a novel sight, the visual contrast of the two tattooing methods effectively advertised the attributes of electric tattooing to a wide audience. Additionally, as part of these acts, many tattooed attractions, including Karlavagn and Mellivan, started tattooing with electric machines and sometimes wowed show-goers by tattooing people on stage. Such sensational publicity of an already revolutionary innovation invited a slew of newcomers into tattooing. The best of them became the generation of tattooers who carried the craft into a modern age and cemented O’Reilly’s pioneering legacy.

For further context about pre-patent electric tattooing, see the Early Tinkerers of Electric Tattooing Buzzworthy feature.

The article includes a great c.1897-1900 photo of Karlavagn tattooing with an electric tattoo machine

And don’t forget:

Elusive Dental Plugger Tattoo Machines
Tattoo Machine History: Electric Bells & Dental Pluggers

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