Battleship Kate of Sands Street, tattooed statue.

Courtesy of Skinner Auctions

Battleship Kate: New York City’s Tattooed Sailor Groupie

Written & Researched by Carmen Nyssen

Of all lost and rediscovered tattoo historical items, none has made as spectacular a comeback as the tattooed trade figure inscribed “Battleship Kate of Sands Street.” In August of 2014, this brightly-painted statue was resurrected in dramatic form, when it unexpectedly turned up at an antiques auction and fetched an impressive $28, 290.00. The resurfacing of such a rare piece of tattoo history fired the tattoo crowd. Excitement was roused not only by the statue’s magnificence, but also by the realization that it had once bedecked legendary Cap Coleman’s Norfolk, Virginia tattoo shop window.

Now, it isn’t often tattoo history is illuminated so profoundly. That’s what makes the rest of the statue’s secrets all the more fascinating. As hinted at by the “Battleship Kate of Sands Street” title, the figure is linked to Sands Street in Brooklyn, New York. Battleship Kate was, in fact, a genuine New York character.

Sands Street Sailor Groupies

Battleship Kate was the moniker of a 1910s sailor groupie, who frequented the seedy Sands Street sailor haven in Brooklyn lined with taverns, pool halls, and tattoo shops. Along with the likes of Tugboat Nellie, Itchy Helen, and Rusty Helen, this brazen young lass allegedly made a living on monthly pay allotments from sailor “suitors,” and sometimes rode the seas posing as the wife of ship captains. True to the ‘Battleship Kate’ figure, she was “well blessed with the red and blue marks of the tattoo needle.” At a time when tattoos upon women were taboo, she daringly wore a namesake battleship design, and more scandalously, the tattooed names of sailors whose company she kept.

Cap Coleman's tattooed lady statue

Cap Coleman’s Norfolk tattoo shop. Note ‘Battleship Kate of Sands Street’ in right window. Collection of Carmen Nyssen

During her lifetime, Battleship Kate was somewhat of a legend in the New York City area. Even after her death in 1922, a March 28, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle poem references Sands Street sailors “…with searching eyes, Looking for Battleship Kate.” The 1924 “Battleship Kate” song, written by Ada Rives and composed by New York bandleader Wilbur C. Sweatman, seems to pay homage to her as well. Although Sands Street denizens interviewed for a 1938 New Yorker article remembered Battleship Kate and her sister sailor groupies from earlier days, her cohorts never reached the level of infamy she did. What bolstered her notoriety—beyond her “unladylike” tattoos and promiscuous lifestyle—was her penchant for thievery. Because newspapers dutifully reported her long list of crimes, her escapades were well-known in New York City and elsewhere.

Battleship Kate’s Rap Sheet

Battleship Kate was born Marion Riess in Manhattan in 1893. The eldest of three daughters raised by a single father, she turned to a life of crime when she was a teen. As reported in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, in July of 1911, the “pretty eighteen-year-old” was arrested for stealing from two Salvation Army members. On the advocacy of a probation officer and her father, she was let off easy. But the leniency only encouraged her crooked leanings.

Battleship Kate of Sands Street poem

Abramson, Jo. “Sands Street.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1925 Mar 28: 24

By 1915, she had been incarcerated in Manhattan’s notoriously wicked Tombs Prison, where she was caught helping another inmate smuggle drugs in via a hollowed-out shoe heel. Five years later, in 1920, she served a sentence in the Bedford New York State Reformatory for Women. Upon her release, in 1921, she pulled her biggest heist, when she acquired a maid position in the White Plains home of Colin Armstrong and stole $5,000.00 worth of jewelry from him. Although she eluded the law for over a year afterward, she was finally apprehended in New York City in September of 1922, much to the relief of exasperated law officials. This last stunt won her a great deal of publicity and a 4-to-8-year sentence in the Auburn State Prison.

Battleship Kate’s Tattooed Aliases

Even if other bawdy, streetwise women used the Battleship Kate nickname over the years, all evidence points to Marion Riess as the inspiration for the ‘Battleship Kate of Sands Street’ trade figure. There’s zero proof of a similarly famed character from the New York area, and the names tattooed on Riess’ body firmly connect her to the New York sailor scene.

On May 12, 1921, the Altoona Tribune newspaper shared a detailed list of all her aliases and her tattoos as they appeared on the wanted circular distributed by Westchester County Sheriff George J. Werner. At least two of her adopted names appear to be those of sailor beaus and they are documented by her tattoos.

As noted in the newspaper article, Battleship Kate also went by the names: Jennie McNally, Evelyn Connors, Texas Tommy, Fanny West, and Grace. Of the lot, the aliases Evelyn Connors and Fanny West corresponded to two tattooed names:

“Tommy, I Love Fred P. West” (on her left thigh) likely referenced sailor Ferdinand Perrin West aka Fred P. West, who was born in Brooklyn, New York November 19, 1895. According to census records and military documents, he was a lifetime Navy man. During World War I, he was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Covington, which docked in Hoboken, New Jersey (part of the New York harbor) between voyages.

tattooed groupie Battleship Kate's sailor beau

Article about Battleship Kate’s sailor beau Harry McBride. “U.S. Sailor to be Released.” Jersey Journal 17 Dec. 1914: 1.

 

The identity of “F. Connors, U.S.S. Fulton” (on her right arm) can’t be substantiated, but from 1914 to 1915 the U.S.S. Fulton was docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

In addition to the above name and the battleship design on her right arm, she sported these etchings:

“Val T. King;” “Joe Carter;” “George J. Hall;” “R.J. Huster, 1913;” and “Harry McBride, U.S.S. Florida, 1914.”

While not all these sailor friends can be identified in records, a December 17, 1914 Jersey Journal article does describe Harry McBride as a U.S.S. Florida shipmate. In 1914, the U.S.S. Florida spent ample time in the Narrows at Tompkinsville, Staten Island. In 1915, it was a mainstay at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Clearly, from the above descriptions, the tattoo designs on the figure do not match Battleship Kate’s real-life tattoos. Yet they figuratively capture the essence of a rarely documented female character in tattoo history. Battleship Kate was not tattooed to make a living like circus and dime show attractions of the day, nor was she a trendy socialite who had an inconspicuous design or two etched into her skin. She was a gritty female persona, who was thoroughly enmeshed in nineteenth-century tattoo culture and its interconnected sailor traditions.

Battleship Kate’s Last Days

For over a decade, Battleship Kate lived fast and hard, ignoring all semblances of traditional societal roles. In her short run, she transformed from a “pretty eighteen-year-old” pick-pocket into a “not much to look upon” 29-year-old, 200-pound felon, with a “weatherbeaten” face, “masculine stride,” and tattooed initials that “almost hid the color of her skin.” Ultimately, her wayward lifestyle caused her demise. After serving only one month of her sentence in Auburn State Prison, she succumbed to illness and died there on October 12, 1922. Despite all that had passed, she was given a proper family burial next to her early-departed mother in New York City’s Lutheran Cemetery.


The 'Greek Slave" was used by tattoo artists to display their art

Parian ware ‘Greek Slave.’ Collection of Carmen Nyssen

The Greek Slave Sculpture

As if the connection with Marion Riess isn’t surprising enough, the ‘Battleship Kate of Sands Street’ figure holds yet another secret. Under the colorfully-painted tattoos and scanty red outfit, is a Papier-mâché version of the famous fine art sculpture the ‘Greek Slave’—a nude masterpiece completed in 1843 by Hiram Powers.

Given that the ‘Greek Slave’ was intended as historical commentary on the Greek slave trade, and was meant to embody Christian morals and purity, its appropriation as a thieving, sailor-loving, tattooed woman seems sacrilege. It’s unlikely, however, that the tattoo artist who painted the ‘Battleship Kate’ trade figure was aware of the sculpture’s original symbolism. When the ‘Greek Slave’ was first introduced to the public, it was a source of great controversy. Many couldn’t see past its nudity and deemed it shameful and immoral. But Powers’ six marble replicas that were toured around Europe and America, were publicized so effectively, in time, the ‘Greek Slave’ became the most celebrated sculpture in existence. Because it was such a highly recognizable image, for many years, its likeness was borrowed for a multitude of purposes—from satirical political cartoons to tobacco labels and steamboat art to home décor replicas and trade figures (made from bronze, ceramic, Parian ware, Papier-mâché, etc). As often happens when creative works are consumed by mainstream culture, especially over a long period, its artistic significance was eventually diluted. As times changed, even its stark nudity ceased to shock people. In this later context, the ‘Greek Slave’ came to be regarded as simply a fine art object by the general public. In the same vein, the ‘Battleship Kate of Sands Street’ tattooed trade figure was just another appropriation of the well-known art work.

Ironically, the once scandalous nudity of the ‘Greek Slave’ would have been a perk, not a hindrance in the creation of ‘Battleship Kate.’ It was perfect for demonstrating tattoos on the human body, and as a fine art work, its nudity (or semi-nudity with the bikini top and briefs) was permissible.

Jack Julian's tattooed lady statue

Jack Julian and his tattooed version of the ‘Greek Slave.’ Courtesy of Tattoo Archive.

An added bonus, of course, was the ‘Greek Slave’s’ visual familiarity, an attribute tattoo artists possibly capitalized on. Naturally, ‘Battleship Kate’ was not the only tattooed trade figure. A good number of early nineteenth-century tattoo artists, such as Elmer Getchell, J.F. Barber, Charlie Wagner, Jack Julian, and Cap Coleman, displayed hand-painted tattooed figures in their tattoo shops as attractive advertising tools. As it turns out, two other renditions of tattooed ‘Greek Slave’ statues adorned the shops of Wagner and Julian.

Charlie Wagner’s tattooed version of the ‘Greek Slave.’ Note missing pillar. Photo courtesy of Chatham Square posters & prints.

 

Unfortunately, the story behind these multiple figures isn’t within reach. It’s unclear whether the idea of painting tattoos on ‘Greek Slave’ statues was simply passed on from one tattoo artist to another, or whether one particular tattoo artist painted replicas and sold them to fellow tattoo artists. But the fact that several tattoo artists owned this piece over the numerous other neo-classical nude replicas on the market, suggests there was some level of deliberation in making them. Chances are tattoo artists were aware of the ‘Greek Slave’s’ popularity….and that of others.


Fine Art Tattooed Statues

Another fine art work replica often appropriated as a tattooed trade figure was ‘The Swimmer’ (Svömmeren) by J.L.H. Borjeson. Several tattooed renditions can be seen in photos of J.F. Barber, Cap Coleman, and Charlie Wagner’s tattoo shops (see postscript regarding Elmer Getchell). Although it’s difficult to determine from photos whether they are all different statues or the same one handed down from one tattoo artist to the next, the existence of yet another fine art piece re-purposed as a tattooed figure is certainly intriguing. It indicates that tattoo artists very well could have been cognizant of the visual impact of a fine art piece decorated with tattoos. (Note: It’s unclear who discovered the correlation between the male tattooed figure and the original art work. It has been passed around on Facebook for the past year or so).

The Swimmer by Johan Berjeson served as a blank canvas for tattoo artists to paint their art on

A larger version of this statue sits in the park and pier area known as Langelinie in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo courtesy of Auktionshuset.

 

Cap Coleman's male tattooed figure.

Tattooed figure once displayed in Cap Coleman’s tattoo shop window. Courtesy Mariner’s Museum.

 

Charlie Wagner's male tattooed statue

Kobel photo depicting a tattooed rendition of Johan Borjeson’s ‘The Swimmer’ in Charlie Wagner’s tattoo shop.

J.F. Barber's male tattooed statue

Photo depicting J.F. Barber’s tattooed version of Johan Borjeson’s ‘The Swimmer’ (left). Billboard Magazine 3 Sept. 1910: 68

 


Battleship Kate’s Tattoo Artist

The name(s) of the tattoo artist(s) who etched the tattoos on Battleship Kate’s body remains a mystery. Any one of the many Sands Street and New York City practitioners could have done them: Jack Gavett, Charlie Wagner, Lew Alberts, Bob Wicks, Bert Thompson, Joe Van Hart, Adam Ogint, etc. So far, documentation of who painted the “Battleship Kate of Sands Street” trade figure hasn’t surfaced yet either. The logical assumption is that it was made by a New York tattoo artist and Cap Coleman later acquired it. As to how and when these events might have unfolded, there’s little evidence of the circumstances surrounding the figure’s creation or its travels, and there are too many possibilities to draw any hard conclusions.

Regardless of the unknowns, the ‘Battleship Kate’ figure exemplifies the importance of both oral history and material culture. The fact that some tattoo artist saw fit to memorialize a character like Marion Riess in statue form is a remarkable singularity in tattoo history. Even if the figure isn’t a literal likeness, it’s physical evidence of both Riess’ handed down history and a unique tattoo related subculture that otherwise hasn’t been documented so boldly or vividly.


Namesake son of tattooed sailor groupie Battleship Kate.

Click for Youtube link. Vocals start about 2:20.


Postscripts: 

1) There is evidence of a New York sailor named George J. Hall in census records and military records, who possibly correlates to the “George J. Hall” tattooed on Battleship Kate. However, there isn’t enough information to link the two.

2) For a reference to ‘The Swimmer’ tattooed statue in Elmer Getchell’s shop see Skin & Bones Tattoo Exhibit Catalog:  “The New York tattooists Charlie Wagner and Elmer E. Getchell were also known to have similar figurines in their shops sporting tattoos from head to toe.”

3)F.A. Myers’ business card included an illustration similar to ‘The Swimmer’ tattooed figures. See image on Tattoo Archive, “Paul Rogers Early Tattoo Years.”

4) For an in-depth and insightful study on the ‘Greek Slave’ see: “Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide” – “ ‘The Greek Slave’ by Hiram Powers: A Transatlantic Object,” edited by Martina Droth and Michael Hatt

5)The appropriation of fine art in folk art was a common phenomenon. For a short, interesting history of trade figures (especially as to how they interconnect with mainstream imagery) see: the “Cigar Store Figures and Other Trade Signs” chapter in American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone By Jean Lipman.


Sources:

Miscellaneous:

Brinegar, John. Email Correspondence with Carmen Nyssen. Aug. 2012. Grandson of Henry Brinegar, one-time owner of the ‘Battleship Kate of Sands Street’ figure.

Nyssen, Carmen. “Re: Sands Street Kate.” Message to [John Brinegar]. 2014 Aug. 23. Email.

“Battleship Kate” Composition Trade Figure of a Tattooed Woman | Sale Number 2744M, Lot Number 386 | Skinner Auctioneers. 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.

John Börjeson. “Simmaren”, skulptur, gips, gjutarstämpel Stenders forlag EneretAuktionshuset. 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

“New York, New York City Municipal Deaths,” 1795-1949,” Katherine Riess, 11 May 1902; citing Death, Bronx, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,710.

Tallman-Walker, Funeral Ledger. 1922. Brew Funeral Home. Auburn, New York.

Rives, Ada, and Wilbur C. Sweatman. Battleship Kate. 1924. Song Lyrics. 1674 Broadway, New York 19, N.Y. University of Missouri, Kansas City, Joe Thomas Collection, Box 1 Folder 32

Droth, Martina, and Michael Hatt. “The Greek Slave: A Transatlantic Object.” NCAW | Volume 15, Issue 2 | Summer 2016. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 2016. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Publications:

“Say Girl is Not a Thief.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 19 Jul. 1911:8.

“Peculiar Circumstances Surrounding Case of Marion Riesse.” Brooklyn Daily Star 19 Jul. 1911: 1.

“U.S. Sailor to be Released.” Jersey Journal 17 Dec. 1914: 1.

“Drug in Heel of Shoe.” The Washington Post 17 Nov. 1915: 6

“Fugitive From Law Carries Many Men’s Names.” Altoona Tribune 12 May 1921: 1.

“Battleship Kate” Held for Theft in New Rochelle.” Yonkers Statesman and News 1922 Sep. 15: 13.

““Battleship Kate” Arrested by New York Police.” Scarsdale Inquirer 16 Sep 1922: 2.

““Battleship Kate Goes to Limbo.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 18 Sep. 1922: 1.

““Battleship Kate” Begins Long Burglary Sentence.” Boston Herald 18 Sep. 1922.

“Battleship Kate’s Term in Prison Ended by Death.” Auburn Citizen 24 Oct 1922.

Abramson, Jo. “Sands Street.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1925 Mar 28: 24

Liebling, A. J. “A Reporter At Large.” New Yorker 02 July 1938: 23-29.

Census Records:

1900; Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; Roll: 1084; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 0092; FHL microfilm: 1241084. Joseph Riess Family.

1910; Census Place: Manhattan Ward 16, New York, New York; Roll: T624_1035; Page: 15B; Enumeration District: 0860; FHL microfilm: 1375048. Joseph Riess Family.

New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1915; Election District: 39; Assembly District: 19; City: New York; County: New York; Page: 04. Joseph Riess Family.

1920; Census Place: Bedford, Westchester, New York; Roll: T625_1275; Page: 15B; Enumeration District: 3; Image: 72. Jennie McNally-Bedford New York State Reformatory for Women.

1920; Census Place: Boston, Massachusetts, United States, Military and Naval Forces; Roll: T625_2041; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: USS Henshaw; Image: 955. Fred P. West.

1920; Census Place: Manhattan Assembly District 21, New York, New York; Roll: T625_1224; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 1442; Image: 925. Wilbur C. Sweatman.

1930; Census Place: Kittery, York, Maine; Roll: 841; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 0026; Image: 896.0; FHL microfilm: 2340576. Fred P. West.

1940; Census Place: Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California; Roll: T627_222; Page: 62B; Enumeration District: 19-51. Fred P. West.

Military Records:

Ancestry.com. New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. Fred P. West.

Ancestry.com. U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Fred P. West.

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