James F. O’Connell, the world's first tattooed showman, traveled across America to tell the story of how Pacific Islanders decided to ink not eat him.

Inked from head to toe, the Dubliner is considered to have been America’s first tattooed showman and kids would pay 25 cents each to listen to his colorful life story.

Born and brought up in Dublin’s inner city, O'Connell left Ireland to pursue adventure and excitement abroad. Allegedly he was shipwrecked on a Pacific island called Pohnpei. It was there that his body was tattooed from head to toe and it changed his life. 

During shows he would then perform the same Irish jig he claimed had so amused islanders that they had decided they wouldn’t eat him but instead marry him to the chief’s youngest daughter.

Still, his acceptance into the culture of the island did not prevent his fleeing in a canoe at the first opportunity and in 1835 he arrived in New York. There he made a fortune telling his story to audiences up and down the eastern seaboard – newspapers reported that he was truly a hideous sight.

Sadly he passed away at a young age: only 46. His burial was, at his request, more of an entertaining celebration than a funeral and witness Maria Ward Brown wrote afterward: “Poor O'Connell thought that the transition from a life of privation and suffering was more appropriately celebrated by music and mirth than grief and lamentation."

Still, his legacy lives on to this very day; where once tattoos were a rarity in American society now they are a common sight and commentators believe O’Connell’s shows helped normalize them.

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum's circus, officially known as "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome," was a traveling entertainment extravaganza that gained fame in the 19th century. P.T. Barnum, whose full name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, was a showman, businessman, and one of the most prominent figures in the history of the American circus.

The circus was characterized by a combination of various attractions, including exotic animals, oddities, curiosities, and performers with unique talents. Barnum was a master showman who understood how to capture the public's attention and create a sense of wonder and excitement. His circus featured a wide array of acts, ranging from acrobats and clowns to bearded ladies and giants.

One of the notable attractions associated with P.T. Barnum was the Fiji Mermaid, a supposed half-fish, half-human creature that turned out to be a hoax—a fabricated combination of different animal parts. Barnum was also known for his promotion of "Tom Thumb" (Charles Sherwood Stratton), a little person whom he promoted as the "world's smallest man" and who became one of his most famous attractions.

In 1881, P.T. Barnum merged his circus with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson's circus to form "Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth." This circus continued to be a major spectacle, touring the United States and around the world. The circus featured a diverse range of acts and continued to draw large audiences with its combination of entertainment, spectacle, and curiosities.

In 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the successor to P.T. Barnum's original circus, held its final performance, marking the end of an era in American entertainment.

* Originally published in 2018, updated in Nov 2023.