Friday 7 November 2014

A visit to Blackpool's freakish past

Last week I visited Blackpool's Local History Library as part of my research for my tattooed lady project. I wanted to get a real feel for the sideshows and fairgrounds a tattooed lady from the past might have appeared in, and Blackpool, with it's entertainment history did not disappoint!

The library sits not far from where some of Blackpool's finest attractions have been drawing in excited crowds over the last century and more. Upstairs inside an unassuming room filled with filing cabinets and shelves crammed with books, I was lucky enough to learn something of the extraordinary world populated by robot men, starving brides and of course tattooed ladies.

Having access to the Cyril Critchlow collection and with helpful staff on hand I was soon immersed in a very different Blackpool to the one we know today. 

With no TV or home entertainment, the piers and promenades of the 19th and early 20th Century were heaving with amusements. 'The Golden Mile' written by Cryril Critchlow described the area as 'a strange conglomerate of wooden huts and canvas tents housing auctions of various orders of merit, photographers of every degree of ability, retailers of botanical beers, coffees and seafood, quack doctors, soothsayers, phrenologists and traditional gypsy fortune tellers. Then there were the swings, roundabouts, Aunt Sally stalls, rifle galleries and every sort of rough and ready amusements, the more freakish or macabre the sideshows the better the public liked it '.

I learned about a variety of the attractions on these freakish macabre sideshows, here are some of the best:

The Starving Bride (1930's): These young women were usually brides to be, or newly weds, sometimes joined by their spouses in a public display of starvation! Offered large sums of money they would forgo food for days or even weeks and be exhibited in glass cases for the fascinated crowds. In one particularly morbid photo a middle aged couple gaze down smiling at the diminished figure lying in her large glass coffin like case.

Anatomy exhibits (1920-60's): Showing at Louis Tussauds, the anatomies on display varied from the head of an Eyptian mummy to a freak of nature; a man found in the family way! The young man in question was actaully pregnant with his conjoined unborn twin sister.

One excerpt I especially enjoyed from the anatomy exhibits catalogue of 1949 read, 'This full length Florentine model of Louise Lateau posesses more than ordinary interest and for the truthfulness of this strange story I am about to relate I beg to inform the public that more than 100 physicians and other scientific gentlemen and professors of universities in Belgium have put Louise Lateau through every test that could be devised. These men of science have borne testimony to the following facts...'

It transpires Miss Lateau suffered from stigmata and ecstatic fits, but if they'd just put that in the catalogue it wouldn't have been half so entertaining!

The Robot Man (1950's): a mind reading robot man who could answer any question thrown at him. The poster advertising him read, 'Actually made in South Africa, A replica of the Robot shown to the Royal Family of England, Is this another Frankenstein Monster? How does it get it's knowledge? Can it get out of control? Can he answer your question? Come and see for yourself'.'

Other freakish favourites along the Golden Mile included: La Belle Eve, a teenage stripper! A child from Accrington born with no arms but could knit with her feet, Alf Pyott who stood ony two feet high and Mavoureen, the Irish woman who weighted 33 stone. 

All these characters perfectly fit our idea of the circus style sideshows from the past but they wouldn't be complete without a tattooed lady. Tanya the Tattooed Lady, real name Gillian Butterworth, was a former wall of death rider, who invited customers to try and rub her tattoos off to prove they were genuine. (Anyone who fancied their own tattoo after seeing hers could step outside to a kiosk where Price Eugene, a real prince, would give the choice of a clipper ship, a dragon or a nude woman on the upper arm. The figure would wiggle when the muscle was flexed). Another tattooed lady was the 'World Famous' Gipsy Castella who performed on her lute to the fascinated crowds as early as 1910.

One of things that stands out for me most from these weird and wonderful figures is that many had a story attached to them. As strange as it seems it wasn't enough to be an oddity, you had to be an oddity with something extra to capture the public's imagination. Whether that was being a poor little virgin bride starving away before her life had truely begun, or a stigmata phenomanon who has stumped the finest minds in Europe. Even the Robot Man, a real draw in the era of Science Fiction, proclaimed he had been shown to royalty to add a certain glamour.

The tattooed people of the sideshow, pulled huge crowds partly for their blatantly marked bodies, but also had their talents and speils. As my visit to Blackpool proved a good story is half of the show and I've got some great inspiration towards my own contemporary tattooed lady!