Jack London is quoted as saying, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Howley, was certainly no exception. In 1864, he joined the U.S. Navy under an assumed name so his wife wouldn’t find out. (She found out. She was not happy.)
In her Navy widow’s pension application that I found on Fold3.com, Jane reveals, “I do not remember any noticeable marks or scars on the person of my husband, Thomas Howley, only India ink tattooed on his arm consisting of the letters I.H.S. and as I remembered the image of the crucifiction. [sic] My impression is that the marks were on his arm at the time of his enlistment in the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1864.”
When questioned again about the tattoo, Jane tells the examiner I.H.S. stands for “I have suffered.” It was more likely a Christogram, but I’ll probably never know whether she assumed that, or Thomas told her that, or for that matter, whether Thomas knew of the significance himself. In another affidavit, she says it was “done by India ink when he was a boy.”
Not one to pull punches, Jane goes on to comment on him enlisting without telling her, “I felt very sore over it.” In regards to the tattoos on his arms she says, “I told him he was quite foolish to have those marks on his arm and he said when he was a boy, a lot of them had it done so he had it done on his arm too.” At the time of this affidavit, Thomas had been dead 23 years. Jane clearly had opinions.
I love the little insights from the various mentions of his tattoos, and while you might not find this amount of background about a tattoo in most other records, there are some records that will tell you if your ancestor had tattoos, and if so, what they were.
Jacob Gaune’s record in that same collection, doesn’t mention a tattoo, but does reveal that he had “both ears bored.”
Declarations of intent to naturalize for some time periods also asked about specific markings. Alfred Maynard Sillence’s declaration doesn’t give us much of a description, but does say he has a “Tattoo on ring finger.”
Of course if your ancestor ran afoul of the law, his (or her) tattoos could be noted in prison records. David Beaudry imprisoned in the McNeil Island Penitentiary (Washington) for three months for “selling liquor to an Indian” and had “Tattooed ‘D.B.’ & “David” on left arm” and “on right forearm “D” & an anchor.”
The words “Hope,” “True,” and “Love” probably aren’t what you’d expect to find tattooed on a “confidence man,” but nonetheless, that’s what we find in the 1906 U.S. Album of Criminals for Harry Homer.
Keep an eye out for notations about your ancestor’s tattoos and unusual physical markings and characteristics. Not only can they help identify him (or her) in other records, they may include clues to their “interesting past.”
About Juliana Szucs
Juliana Szucs has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.
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