July, 16 1893 - Mar,
lady, was born Anna Mae Burlingston in Linwood, Wisconsin, the
daughter of the Norwegian immigrant and farmer Gunder Huseland,
who at the time went by the name Frank Burlingston, and his wife
Amma Mabel Mason. Anna was one of seven children. The farm was
located on an island in the Wisconsin River that was referred to
as "Treasure Island" or "Burlingston Island." In 1907 the family
moved to Colville, Washington, and shortly thereafter, Anna's
father died. She and two of her sisters went to work as domestic
servants in Spokane, Washington, to help support the family. She
met the tattoo artist Charles "Red" Gibbons in Spokane; he was
working in an arcade and had been tattooing professionally for a
number of years. They married in Spokane in 1912; the couple had
After several years of marriage,
Gibbons and her husband decided that they would make a better
living if she became a performing tattooed lady, so Charles
Gibbons tattooed Anna with images from her favorite classical
religious artwork, in full color. Anna Gibbons was a deeply
religious woman and a lifetime member of the Episcopalian
Church. Her tattoos included illustrations of angels and saints
as well as patriotic images, including George Washington.
Tattooed men and women have been a
staple of the American sideshow since the mid-nineteenth
century. The first American tattooed man began working in the
1840s, and tattooed women, in the 1880s. As sideshows began to
tour with circuses, just before the Civil War, Americans were
introduced to a number of professionally employed oddities.
Popular sideshow freaks included Siamese, or conjoined, twins;
midgets (now referred to as "little people"); dwarves ; and fat
men and women as well as snake charmers, sword swallowers,
fire-eaters, and exotic dancers.
Gibbons's first season as "Artoria,
tattooed girl" was in 1919, with the Pete Kortes Show. She then
went on to work with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey
Circus's "Greatest Show on Earth" from 1920 until 1924, after
which she joined the Hagenbeck-Wallace Sideshow Annex. In 1925
and 1926 she worked for the Kortes and McKay's Museum in Los
Angeles; dime museums were popular venues for sideshow freaks.
For the 1927 and 1931 seasons, Gibbons was back with Ringling
Bros., working for the Clyde Ingalls Sideshow. Both Gibbons and
her husband worked for the Foley and Burk Shows during 1932 and
1933 and for the Johnny J. Jones Sideshow during the mid-1930s.
Anna worked as Artoria in the
sideshow while Charles tattooed customers. A sideshow tattooed
lady would stand on a platform or small stage within the
sideshow tent and talk about herself--though the stories that
sideshow performers told to audiences were usually false. The
stories were intended to entertain audiences and were often
based on popular culture of the day. The tattooed lady also wore
clothing that revealed her tattooed body; Artoria is usually
pictured wearing a skirt that falls just above her knees and a
sleeveless top. Because her tattoos were a major part of the
exhibition, they had to be visible.
When they were not with the
sideshow, which toured seasonally from April through October,
the Gibbonses lived in California, where Charles tattooed
regularly in arcades and amusement parks. Anna retired from the
sideshow temporarily in 1947 to care for her ailing husband.
Charles was the victim of both a brutal robbery and a
construction accident; following several unsuccessful surgeries,
he completely lost his vision in 1946. By 1956 Gibbons decided
to return to work, taking Charles with her. She had waited to
return to show business until her husband was able to travel
with her, which he did until his death in 1964.
During the 1970s, Gibbons worked for
several carnivals, including the Dell and Travis Carnival. This
period saw the release of Arthur H. Lewis's book Carnival
account of carnival life that Lewis researched through
interviews with legendary performers. Carnival contains
one of the most oft-told tales about Gibbons's sideshow
beginnings--namely, that when Gibbons was a teenager, she snuck
out to see a visiting sideshow, met a tattoo artist, and ran
away and married him in order to see the world. Although this
story was repeatedly told, by Gibbons and others, it was a
fiction--the type of tale that sideshow performers included as a
part of their act.
In 1978 Gibbons was hired by Ward
Hall, the owner of Hall and Christ Sideshow, whom she had met
years earlier while working at Hubert's Dime Museum in New
York's Times Square. This was her last sideshow. Gibbons retired
from the Hall and Christ Sideshow in 1981, and at the end of the
carnival season she went to live with her daughter's family in
When Gibbons died at age ninety-one,
she had performed as a tattooed lady for well more than fifty
years. She saw many changes in the American circus and sideshow
over the course of her career: the circus went from being one of
the main entertainment venues at the beginning of the twentieth
century to just one of many popular culture options available at
the end of the century. In addition, views on tattooing and
tattoos changed radically. By the time Gibbons retired, tattooed
ladies were no longer a novelty; many people, including women,
had tattoos. She was one of the last tattooed ladies to be
actively working in the United States.
For a more lengthy
discussion of Gibbons's life, please see Amelia Klem, "A Life of
Her Own Choosing: Anna Gibbons' Fifty Years as a Tattooed Lady,"
Wisconsin Magazine of History 89, no. 3 (spring 2006):
28-39. The interview by Arthur Lewis can be found in Arthur
Lewis, Carnival (1970). Sideshow and circus history is
well documented in Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting
Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1988),;A. W.
Stencell, Seeing Is Believing: America's Sideshows
(2002); and Janet M. Davis, The Circus Age: Culture and
Society under the American Big Top (2002). The history of
American dime museums is found in Andrea Stulman Dennett,
Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America (1997).
Tattoo history can be found in several sources, including Steve
Gilbert, Tattoo History: A Source Book (2001), and Jane
Caplan, ed., Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and
American History (2000).
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