Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society, from the scrapbook of Nathaniel Paine. C. 1880s

Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society: c. 1880s scrapbook of Nathaniel Paine. Click for link to site. Used with permission, 2015.

John O’Reilly:
The Tattooed Irishman

Researched and written by Carmen Nyssen

Not all that long ago, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts digitized an extraordinary scrapbook filled with assorted rare photos and ephemera relating to 1800s dime museum attractions.

One particular photo of a tattooed man labeled “Prof. Riley” sparked much excitement within the tattoo history crowd.

As so few photos of renowned New York Bowery tattooer Samuel O’Reilly have been seen to date, many believed the man in the photo might be him. My thoughts leaned in a different direction.

Throughout the years of researching Samuel O’Reilly and his family, I had repeatedly come across references for a tattooed dime show performer named John O’Reilly. I was hopeful that eventually I would find adequate evidence to prove that this man and Samuel O’Reilly’s brother of the same name were a match.

Once the American Antiquarian Society photo was made available, it only took a little more digging, and tying the pieces together, to do just that.

Here’s what I discovered:

John O’Reilly’s Tattoos

In an 1888 New Rochelle newspaper interview, Sam O’Reilly claimed he had only tattooed female attractions prior to that time. As it turns out, there was at least one “tattooed man” under his belt by then—his younger brother John.

While John O’Reilly (1862-?) received far less publicity than his famous tattoo artist brother, I found a key newspaper article that—along with the scrapbook image—helped unlock the mystery.

An informative June 8, 1890 New York Press interview, not only infers that Samuel was the artist behind John O’Reilly’s tattoo work, but also outlines the tattoo designs in some detail.

According to the report, “O’Reilly,” a tattooed man “…decorated by his brother who makes a specialty of such work…,” “went in for tattooing as a matter of experiment;” he said he was the only living man “done in brown ink.” On his legs, he wore “wonderful landscapes” and “dancing Nautch girls,” and on the rest of his body, the following tattoos:

New York Sunday Morning. June 8, 1890. Print.

New York Sunday Morning. June 8, 1890. Print.


Most of the designs described in the article do not appear in the torso-shot photo of John.
But, on close examination of his chest tattoos, the American eagle is visible.

The Press. May 2, 1889. pg. 8

The Press. May 2, 1889. pg. 8

O’Reilly Tattooed Man

It would seem that John O’Reilly did not grace the dime show scene as long as his brother.

Often billed as the Tattooed Irishman,” John O’Reilly exhibited in Bowery dime museums and on the traveling circuit for a number of years starting in the late 1880s. One of the earliest mentions of him as a tattooed attraction appears in a February 22, 1887 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article describing his performance at a Temperance Hall boxing match:

“….John Riley, a tattooed man, then exhibited himself as showing how hideous he could be made by barbarious practices…”

From that date, he’s intermittently billed in dime museum advertisements in various cities (as The Tattooed Irishman, Prof. or John Riley, Reilly, O’Reilly, etc) through 1892.

The mystery now waiting to be solved is: what became of John after 1892?

O’Reilly Brothers Tattoo Mystery

The fact that Samuel O’Reilly had a “tattooed man” for a brother is a surprise in itself. But further research could reveal an altogether more interesting story. John O’Reilly’s billing in a January 10, 1892 New York Sun advertisement hints at an intriguing possibility:

“In the curio department at Worth’s museum….Riley, “electrical tattooed” man…”

Samuel O’Reilly had commenced tinkering with electric tattoo machines by 1889-1890 and had tattooed several people with an electric tattoo machine before his famous 1891 patent was in place.

Although the “electric tattooing” on John’s body might have simply referred to later applied touch up work ……
……Is it possible that O’Reilly’s trials with electric machines did begin a bit earlier? When he tattooed his brother?

Related Buzzworthy Tattoo History Pages:

Samuel F. O’Reilly (Provides some information about his family)
Early Tinkerers of Electric Tattooing (Information about Sam O’Reilly’s early involvement with electric tattoo machines)

Published December 8, 2015 @ 19:04:03

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