Tattooing A Fad

Found in the Huron Digitized Newspapers

You never know what curiosity you’ll discover when searching the Digitized Newspaper Collection.  Take this article on the tattooing craze in 1896 for example.  This article suggests that the recent boom in the tattoo industry has been brought about by an increase in railroad accidents leaving unidentified dead in their wake.  A fantastic read indeed!

Excerpt from the Exeter Advocate, 1896-4-30 page 7

Tattooing A Fad

Resorted to by travelers as a means of identification.

Men and women of refinement now submit to the operation, which is painlessly done by electricity.

The large number of railway accidents which have taken place recently has given a widespread boom to the art of the tattooer. There has been such a large percentage of unidentified dead among those killed in the smash-ups on the railroads of the country during the past few months that it has had a remarkable effect on the traveling public. Men and women, who a year ago would have shuddered at the mere suggestion of having a tattooing needle touch their skin, are having their names, monograms, and even crests tattooed upon their bodies. And they all say that they have been tattooed in the belief that the marks made by the needles will be the best means for the identification of their bodies should they meet death away from home and friends.

But there is another class of people who, caught by the popular fad, are having emblems of secret societies and fraternities to which they belong marked upon their skin. Many of the best known college men of the country carry the insignia of their fraternity worked upon their arms. It is among the drummers and members of the theatrical profession, however, that this tattoo man finds his greatest number of patrons. They spend a large portion of their lives in railroad cars, their danger from death in wrecks is greater than any other class of people, excepting railroad men, postal clerks and express messengers, and the tattooer is reaping a rich reward for coin from them.

With the spread of the tattooing fad in all parts of the United States and Canada the work with the ink and needles has been made well nigh painless. The tattooing art has kept step with the march of progress in other directions, and a brand new method of puncturing the skin has taken the place of the old. Instead of the laborious work of early days, an electric tattoo machine has been invented. Where it required an hour in the old-fashioned way to tattoo a name or figure, the electric machine does it in a few minutes. The inventor of the machine in in New York, and recently he chatted interestingly of tattooing in general and the prevalent craze in particular. He is Professor O’Reilly, probably the best known tattooer in either the United States or Great Britain. Many of the most noted tattooed men and women who have been on exhibition on both sides of the Atlantic are examples of his skill.

“I have tattooed thousands or persons, both in this country and England,” he said, “but at present the craze exceeds anything I have ever experienced during the last twenty years. Most people believe that only sailors and a vulgar class in general have tattoo marks put upon them. That is true, in many instances, but by far the largest number of those that I am tattooing now are men and women of intelligence and refinement. The only explanation that I can make for this is that the danger of being buried among the unknown dead in case of a railroad, steamboat or other accident has been so strangely emphasized during the present year that men and women who travel much very wisely have the needles and ink place sure identification marks upon their bodies.

“Many of those tattoos, the ladies especially, have the work done with artistic surroundings. Men generally want to be tattooed on the arms, while the women almost invariably have the decoration placed on the lower limb. I recently tattooed a serpent in brilliant colors around the leg of one of the best known comic opera prima donnas of the country. It bears her name in delicate letters. Another popular actress had me place a garter in vivid hues below the knee of her left leg and tattoo upon it “Tom” the name of her sweetheart, and one of the most prominent juvenile men in the profession.

“I tattooed the insignia of Delta Kappa Epsilon, one of the strongest of college fraternities, upon the arm of almost every member of the society. George Gould is one of the young men upon whose arm I placed the symbol of the fraternity.

“ Almost every day I put secret society marks on the arms of patrons. Two months ago I was surprised by a call from a tramp. He wanted a peculiar mark by which he was known to knights of the road tattooed in the palm of his right hand.

“A peculiar practice among vain women is to have their lips tattooed with carmine ink to keep them perennial red. Quite a number of nice young men come to me to have their lips and also their cheeks tattooed with a rosy tint. There are many persons who believe that even diseases can be removed by having the body from the neck to the head tattooed. The carbon in the ink seems to have a beneficial effect. Carbon is death to poisonous gases or microbes in the body.

“I believe that the original idea of tattooing was for medical purposes. In Burmah all the males are tattooed. When eight days old the male baby is tattooed on each breast. When twelve years old the tattooers put a girdle of peacocks and griffins around the waist of the boy. The peacock is the national emblem of Burmah, and the griffin, a fabulous animal with an eagle’s head, talons and a body of a lion. But no matter what the origin of tattooing may have been the art is having a big boom.”

Two heads are better than one!

Did you know that the Museum has two two-headed calves in our collection?  Since the Museum’s earliest days these calves have been a crowd pleasing favourite among visitors – which one do you favour?

The first calf, a female, was born on the farm of William McFadzean, near Walton in 1925 with two heads, two tails, two hearts, two spinal cords and four legs. During birth one of the necks was broken and the calf died shortly after and was buried. Richard Hoy, owner of the store, restaurant, and butcher shop in Walton was also a taxidermist. When he heard the news, he exhumed the calf and preserved it.


The second, a male Friesian Holstein calf, was born with two heads, two tails and one set of organs in 1936 on William Long’s farm in Colborne Township. Dr. Meyers of Goderich was the veteranarian. The calf was mounted by a taxidermist from Toronto.

Excerpt from a newspaper clipping in 1936 (newspaper unknown):
“A freak Holstein calf was born on the farm of Mr. William Long, but lived only for a short while. The calf had two heads and two tails. About once in 2500 births there is a calf with two heads, but the veteranarian in attendance had never experienced the birth of a calf with two heads and two tails. Life was noticed in one of the heads for a few minutes, and the body of the calf was quite normal in that it had only four legs, one body, and one set of organs. Mr. Long is thinking of sending the body to a taxidermist to have it mounted.


If two headed calves aren’t your thing, how about an 8 legged kitten?  This creepy cat (a staff favourite artifact) was born with eight legs and stored in a jar filled with formaldehyde solution.


Find even more fascinating artifacts in the Museum’s On-line Collection!

The Gathering Place, Part 4: The Opening of the Presumably Absent Meeting Place

Guest blogger and local Wingham artist Becca Marshall finishes her series on the museum as ‘gathering place’ with a behind the scenes look at her exhibit on display now at Brock University. 

After a long year of photographing, developing, printing, and researching, we have finally made it to the finish line. As such, the end of my project was marked with a gallery exhibition of the photographs I took throughout the year accompanied by text and installation pieces on April 13th at the Marilynn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts in St. Catharines, ON. I thought I would include some photos and descriptions of the pieces below for those who wish to see the end result, or, if you are in the area you can go to the gallery and see the installation in person (On display Tuesday-Saturday from 1-5 pm until May 5th).

A couple of photos from the installation process.

Over the course of a couple of days and with the assistance of Matthew Tegal and Marcie Bronson from Rodman Hall, and Professor Amy Friend and Lesley Bell from Brock University, we were able to set up and install the show.

Step Lightly (2017) Pigment print on luster paper and graphite This is the beginning piece of the exhibition. The photo features the train of Jean (Scott) Taylor’s wedding dress and is accompanied by personal writing in graphite directly on the wall next to the image so that it can only be seen up close. A smaller image is hidden to the side of the text of an old bottle of Potassium Chlorate medication.











Shelf Life (2017) Assortment of boxes This piece takes up the span of the long wall. The eclectic boxes are a stand in for the discovery process that a person experiences in the museum. Visitors are encouraged to take their time opening the boxes and looking for things that might have been left behind.

Pulling Threads (2017) Pigment print on luster paper, graphite, and archival tissue paper This piece consists of the large format print of the child’s sewing machine from the museum coupled with a collage of tissue paper with fragmented writing. Beneath these sheets are more hidden photos. The viewer either has to lift the pages up to view the smaller pieces, or they might catch a glimpse when someone walks by and the breeze lifts up the pages for a few moments, exposing the photos underneath.






Twelve Parts Fragile (2017) Pigment print on cotton rag paper The final piece of the show is a series of artifact photographs presented side by side so that they read like a sentence. This piece ties together the nature of the museum- the bringing together of like and unlike things to share their stories.


In many ways, I still cannot believe that this project is over. It was the experience of a lifetime and I am so grateful to the incredible staff at the museum who so generously gave their time and resources to help me better understand the nature of collections, curation, and our relationship to artifact display.

Additionally, without the support of my supervising instructors, Professor Amy
Friend and Dr. Keri Cronin, along with the advice and aid of Matthew Tegal, Marcie Bronson, and Lesley Bell, this project would never have gotten off the ground. Their constant support was of the utmost value. Overall, I learned so much about the silent conversations and nuances that inform our interactions with artifacts from the past – and I am so grateful for those of you who followed
me along on this journey.

The Mystery of the 4th Toe on the Left Foot

The list of women from Huron County who served as nursing sisters in the First World War is now up to 50 names!  This list includes women who served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC), American Army Medical Corps, Red Cross, and Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. As more records become available online, we are finding out more about what their lives were like before, during, and after the war.

It can be difficult to find out what happened to a nurse after the war ended for many different reasons. Many women married and changed their name, some moved across the country or the United States, and a lot of records still aren’t available due to privacy legislation. Due to limited resources, it can be very difficult track people down and verify their identity.

One such woman is Mary Agatha Bell, who was born, according to her Attestation Papers, on November 5, 1879 in St. Augustine but lived in Blyth, Ontario. Mary enlisted on April 3, 1917 in London, Ontario, left Canada on May 20, 1917, and arrived in England on May 30, 1917. While overseas, Mary mainly served with the 7th Canadian General Hospital in France. She also did temporary duties with the 6th and 8th Canadian General Hospitals. After the war ended, Mary sailed back to Canada in July 1919 on the S.S. Olympic.

U.S., Border Crossings from Canada to U.S. –

It was difficult to track down what happened to Mary Agatha Bell after the war. On October 11, 1925, a birth registration* was issued to a Mary Bridget Bell born on November 5, 1874 in St. Augustine, Ontario. Records show that this Mary Bridget Bell moved to the state of New York on October 22, 1925. A border crossing document from August 1945 states that Mary’s address was 11 Hows Avenue, New Rochelle, New York, where she worked as a registered nurse. The document also states that she is missing the fourth toe on her left foot.

New York, Naturalization Records –

This last piece of information was critical in definitively proving that Mary Agatha Bell (born in 1879) is the same person as Mary Bridget Bell (born 1874). According to her service file, Mary starting experiencing problems with her left foot in France, 1918. Notes in her file refer to her problem as a “contracted toe”. The 4th toe on her left foot was eventually amputated when she returned to Toronto in 1919 at St. Andrews Hospital.

It appears that Mary lied about her birth year on her Attestation Paper. This was not uncommon among women enlisting as nursing sisters in WWI. Mary would have been a much more appealing candidate at age 38 than her real age of 43. Why she decided to change her middle name from Agatha to Bridget still remains a mystery…


*Birth registrations were often issued to adults who didn’t have birth certificates

Historic Hearse Jack-O’-Lantern

By Emily Beliveau, Digital Project Assistant

This year, our museum pumpkin is inspired by the History Hall funeral parlour display — it’s a jack-o’-lantern hearse, complete with casket and occupant. The styling was based on a horse-drawn hearse on display at the museum, a late-1800s model that was used in Dungannon,  as shown in the photo below.

This is a picture of the hearse M950.1459.001. The men in it are Robert Bowers, the driver and William Sproul, the undertaker and owner of the hearse, in Dungannon, Ont.

Horse-drawn hearse with Robert Bowers, driver, (left) and William Sproul, undertaker, (right) in Dungannon, Ont. in the late 1880s. Photograph by J. W. Trussler, Object ID 1950.1459.039. You can see this hearse in person in the History Hall gallery at the Huron County Museum.