Old Tattooed Skin

These photographs are here for educational purposes and are not intended to shock or disgust anyone...if you can't handle it , please leave.

I received these photographs by the email below. Feel free to contact Richard if you have any additional information.

Copy of tattoo_eagle.jpeg.jpg (64870 bytes)Copy of tattoo_sailor.jpeg.jpg (79067 bytes)


I am attaching a picture of 2 tattoos that I have hanging on my wall.  I will
send a separate -email with the other tattoo.

Here is a short story of how I came to get them.

What I know about these tattoos is that when my grandfather purchased an old
log cabin in upstate New York in the 1940's. A number of Indian artifacts
came with the purchase.  I was only 8 years old when I first went there. I am
51 now (2000).  He was my step-grandfather and my father had just remarried.  So
being that young, the adults didn't confide in me that much.  But I did ask
them where they came from.

The story that was told was that the Indians had skinned them from the poor
soul or souls who were the owners.  There were other artifacts in the cabin
such as carvings and a small totem pole.  I thought that was pretty cool.
Anyhow when my grandparents sold the cabin and retired to Florida they left
everything in the cabin except for the two tattoos which my father brought
back to the house with him.

I am trying to determine their age by the flags on the one.  I have yet to
find a picture of one.  I will keep trying.  I suspect that the "poor" soul
who owned them might have been of French origin.  But that assumption is only
if the "Liberty" is not spelled with a "Y".  But I really don't know.

I seriously doubt that there are many items such as these in existence.  At
least I haven't located any through the web.  It is kind of bizarre.

I am interested in their possible age , value and their collectivity.

I hope you can help me.


Hi Richard,
Cool photos!!!!! I have seen other pieces of skin like this in private collections. Indeed they are very rare, especially from that era. If they are human skin or not, they are still very valuable, as they where tattooed by an old timer...the ships, uniforms & dress suggest the tall ship era. 

It is possible a grafter sold them as human, make sure they are not white pigskin, sometimes used by carnivals for shocking exhibits like shrunken heads & small mummies. 

They could have been removed pre-mortem by a physician, a common tattoo removal, then preserved, sold or discovered by some interested party. Post-mortem during an autopsy or an unscrupulous undertaker...then sold to a odd collector... What is important is that they are very rare & demonstrate the tattoo style of a era now gone!!!!

 I have a tattoo waiting, but wanted to thank you for sharing these rare pieces, I will try to find out more from collector friends & their theories. I could post them on our website to gather more information & forward the positive mail to you if you are interested... let me know ...
thank you for visiting our website, Mr.G

 One visitor offered this insight...

....It would be difficult to try and date the tattoos from the flags, as the flags shown have only 8 stars, and as far as I know, the U.S. flag has never been made with less then 13 stars.  The 3 masted ship with sleek lines looks to me like a clipper ship, (but then again, the artist's rendition of the American flag was wrong, but at least it makes it unlikely for the tattoo to predate the early-mid 19th century) a common freight carrying ship of the early-mid 19th century (before the American civil war and the spread of steam power)  which would also match the uniform the sailor is wearing in the 2nd tattoo.
as for why they were removed from the original owner (if the skin is human)  Many sailors were not literate.  Sailors also did  not often stick with one ship for more then one voyage.  So it was not uncommon for a sailor to be on a ship in which he did not know the captain or officers.  If he were to die at sea, he would be buried at sea.  Sometimes tattoos would be removed by the ship's cook in order to help identify the deceased.
I don't think I agree with your ideas about the post mortem.  If the tattoo is from the period I think it is from, medical science was still very primitive, and post mortems simply were not done.  (Though, come to think of it, graves were often robbed in the 19th century in order to provide cadavers for medical school "surgeons"  (in order to learn how to hack off limbs in the American civil war)   but, the skin looks to have been taken while the body was rather fresh- there is no stretching I can see in the photographs that accompanies early decomposition, most grave robbers couldn't get at the bodies until they were a few days old)  Though it was a fad in the Victorian era for upper-class men to get tattoos, (the only group of people who could afford to take special care of their dead) and it would not be unlikely for them to remove a tattoo, upper-class tattoos tended to be family crests, motto's, and nationalistic symbols...J.



 I just returned from the National Tattoo Association Convention in Reno(2001)with a great book, "Tattoo History: A Source Book" by Steve Gilbert. I have always enjoyed his online book at  http://tattoos.com/jane/steve/toc.htm and found it a great resource for understanding the history of tattooing. 

 Before I start tattooing each day, I have been reading a little of this new book  for  inspiration to face the day to day as a street shop tattooer. This morning , 5/22/ 01, I  discovered these photos in black & white on page 131 of Steve's book.  I am sure these photo's  are of  human skin, as Steve suggests, and he dates the skin circa: 1860. 

If you dig tattoos & tattoo history! Buy Steve's book!