America's first tattooed showman

James O’Connell – the tattooed Irishman was America’s first tattooed showman working firstly at the Lion Circus

O’Connell first became known after the story of his life was published in 1836. Telling of the six years he had spent on the Island of Ponape in the South Seas Caroline Islands in the Micronesia region of Polynesia.

The book also told of when James first went to sea as a cabin boy aged 11, on the Phoenix, a ship that had the job of carrying female convicts to Botany Bay. Later to sign on with the Whaler “John Bull” – sailing from Australia to New Zealand where in a very bad storm the ship hit a reef and sank, leaving him in an open boat with five other men, until it reached Ponape – where the locals took them captive after surrounding the boat and attacking it with stones and spears before pulling it ashore – and it was there O’ Connell danced an Irish jig that was later to make him famous – but more importantly (at the time) charmed the Islanders. And this indeed probably saved his and the other men’s life. As they were unsure of how their captors were going to react to them – so he (O’Connell) danced to appease the natives – and luckily it did and he soon became assimilated by the Ponapeans which meant taking to the natives tattooing customs and habits.

O’Connell later left his Island home and new family when a ship landed near Ponape in 1833, much to the annoyance of the Ponapean’s who did not want to lose him. But lose him they did when O’Connell felt the lure of civilization too strong to ignore – escaped after finally succeeding in making a break for it and reaching the ship (he was being watched constantly by the Ponapean’s, in the hope of stopping him leaving the Island) where before it set sail O’Connell had gifts left for his 14 year-old wife and father-in-law. Said to be because of the guilt he felt in deserting them – and the fact that he knew that he would never be returning to Ponape.

Later in 1835 (some accounts say 1833) he arrived in New York and gained employment (Lion Circus and later with P.T. Barnum) dancing and telling tales of how it took eight days for his new found friends to tattoo his face, arms, legs, back and stomach until he resembled a rhinoceros, as well as doing the dance that helped him to become accepted by the Ponapean people.

James F. O’Connell, who danced in New Orleans, Memphis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – died on the 29th January 1854 when he became ill – while working with The Dan Rice Circus. And in his honour his favourite tune was played at his funeral and a sailor danced the hornpipe when he was lowered into the ground.

A Theatre handbill dated the 15th June 1837 advertising him as a “Sailor Of The South Sea” and pamphlets sold by O’Connell himself – depicting his life with the Islanders complete with a drawing of him doing his Irish jig still survive today.

It must be noted that there have been a number of writers and historians who have disputed some of James F. O’Connell’ s personal details of his South Sea adventures, and indeed in reality – The Ponapean people only tattooed the hands – arms legs and the female genital area of the vulva – so O’Connell’s other tattoo work was probably added later to give him more of a showbiz appeal, but he never recorded when and where his additional tattoo marks were put on him or by whom, He also appeared at the Franklin Theatre in 1849.

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