Capt. Fred Hadley Tattoo Man

By Carol Mobley
   Ambrose Hadley aka Capt. Fred Hadley was my great grandfather and married to the Circassian Girl, Lizzie Metz. He was notable for a number of things, Civil War Veteran, Nebraska Pioneer and Tatooed Man. That’s right, my great grandfather was the tatooed man in the circus from 1882 to 1884. I never knew him, he died long before I was born but I am proud to say he is my relative.
   Ambrose was born March 12, 1841 in Sterling, Mass. His home life was very difficult so when he was 12 years old, he left home to find his own way. He found work at sea as a deck hand where he worked until the Civil War broke out.
   Ambrose joined the Union Army in 1861 and was a member of Company H, Second Rhode Island Infantry. He was mustered out in 1863 after serving his required duty. He then re-enlisted in 1863 and was wounded in May of 1864 and was mustered out of service in 1865. It was customary at that time for a soldier not to be able to reenlist once wounded in battle so, as the story goes, Ambrose had his scar covered over with a tattoo so he could remain in the Army. He remained in service until the end of the Civil War. He never rose above the ranks of Private.
   It was after the Civil War that his life changed. He returned to Boston where his story goes in two different directions, you can decide which one you believe.
   The first story is that he hired Elmer E Getchell of Boston, a tattoo artist, to ink him from neck to toe. Ambrose was one of the very first men to be tattooed using the new ‘electric’ equipment. In an article published in The Chicago Daily Tribune, April 21, 1884 Getchell states that it took 6 weeks to tattoo his entire body.
   The second story is documented in “Life of Capt. Fred Hadley, the Tattooed American with a Treatise on the Art of Tattooing” written by Himself, printed and published by John H. Campbell, Phenix, Rhode Island. After the Civil War he returned to Boston where he shipped aboard the “Susan Wilson” bound for Australia. He fell ill at sea and was left on Chatham Island, South Pacific Ocean, in the hands of a resident there. He became acquainted with a native woman of the island who was an expert tattooer who tattooed him from head to foot.    Ambrose had 386 designs and his entire body was covered from neck to toes. Here is how he describes some of his tattoos:
   …beginning on the breast: where is seen the full masonic emblem enclosed in a floral wreath of great beauty, with all the working tools and emblems of the entered apprentice, fellow craft and master. On the back is to be seen the finished picture illustrating the “Rock of Ages,” which extends from shoulder to shoulder, and clearly defines the wreck dashed against the rock and going to pieces. On the right our Savior, under a beautiful sun-burst, and all calm in the centre, the cross with the lady clinging to it. The Altar, Bible and Robe are also plainly pictured here, and clear to the sight [sic] in the angry waters may be seen parts of the wreck. Around the neck is a chain in thirteen links, representing the thirteen original states. On each shoulder is the sun, on the right, the moon. On the right arm, near the shoulder, is Washington’s bust, surrounded with French and American Flags. Below it is the United States Coat of Arms, Easter Cross, Bunch of Grapes and many new figures and designs of my own conception, including the ‘Warriors” in colors, Faith. Hope and Charity, a Bee Hive, a figure of young America, a small cross wreathed with flowers, a ballet dancer, etc.
   My favorite story, however, is one my mother told me. When she was a little girl she would sit on her grandfather’s lap. If she was sad, he would tease her with the sad face on one knee until she laughed and then he would tease her with the smiling face on his other knee.
   Ambrose married Lizzie Metz in 1880 and together they both performed in the circus. It was there that he started calling himself Capt. Fred Hadley – I am sure Ambrose didn’t sound as good as Capt. Fred! The well-known photographer, Chas. Eisenmann of New York, took photos of Capt. Fred Hadley which he sold at circus stops along the way. He also wrote a small pamphlet which he sold that told his life story and detailed his tattoos.
   After Ambrose left the circus he traveled to western Nebraska where he homesteaded and later owned a farm in Box Butte County. At the end of his life he and his brother moved into Battle Mountain Sanitarium at Hot Springs, SD. He is included in postcards of the Veterans Home. He died in May 1924 and is buried in the military cemetery at Hot Springs, SD.
   I am very pleased to be able to document history either from my own family history or from other ephemera that can be found at the local Postcard and Paper Ephemera Collectible Show held on Friday and Saturday May 3-4 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. You can read more about the show at May will be the expanded venue where there will be postcards, photographs, ephemera, coins, comics, bottles and many other collectibles.

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