Prof. S. J. Edwards, “The Liberty Tattooed Man”

Like many young Chicagoans, Edward Joseph Spousta (1883-1971) was drawn to the flashy arcades and tattoo shops that lined South State Street in the early twentieth century. By 1915 —and probably several years earlier— he received a full suit of beautiful tattoos there, including a rendition of Archibald Willard’s Spirit of ’76 on his stomach and the Statue of Liberty on his back. Thus transformed, the former salesman for a biscuit company became Prof. S. J. Edwards, “The Liberty Tattooed Man.”

 
Prof. S. J. Edwards (real name Edward Joseph Spousta), The Liberty Tattooed Man, Real Photo Postcard, ca. 1920.

Prof. S. J. Edwards (real name Edward Joseph Spousta), The Liberty Tattooed Man, Real Photo Postcard, ca. 1920.

 
 
Spirit of ‘76, by Archibald Willard, ca. 1875. Abbot Hall, Marblehead, MA

Spirit of ‘76, by Archibald Willard, ca. 1875. Abbot Hall, Marblehead, MA

 

Spousta immediately hit the sawdust trail, traveling with carnivals as a tattoo artist and tattooed attraction. He often shared the stage with his wife Helen, who performed as Madam Melba, the snake enchantress, and later worked as a rag paper cartoonist.

But it was during WWI that Spousta got his fifteen minutes of fame. In 1918 he enlisted in the Navy, quite possibly as a publicity stunt. A widely circulated newspaper article chronicled the event, describing Spousta’s many patriotic tattoos and his talent for showing them off. He even volunteered to exhibit himself during the next Liberty Loan Drive.

Great Lakes Bulletin , August 8, 1918

Great Lakes Bulletin, August 8, 1918

At the close of the war, just a few months later, Spousta was discharged and back on the carnival circuit. He continued to tattoo, but also added a glass-blowing act to his repertoire and began managing his own sideshow, “S. J. Edwards’ Congress of Living Wonders”. By the early 1930s he and Helen retired from the road, opting for a quieter life in Chicago.

 
Advertisement for Prof. S. J. Edwards’ Palace of Living Wonders.  Billboard , June 5, 1920

Advertisement for Prof. S. J. Edwards’ Palace of Living Wonders. Billboard, June 5, 1920

 
 
S. J. Edwards’ Congress of Living Wonders.  Billboard , Apr. 23, 1921

S. J. Edwards’ Congress of Living Wonders. Billboard, Apr. 23, 1921

 

A tattoo timeline. If you have anything to add, please let me know!

1883 Nov 29   Edward Spousta is born in Chicago to Joseph Spousta and Anna Periona 

1915 Dec 6     “Latest Style of designs tattooed in the Human Skin by the latest and painless process. by Prof. S. J. Edwards.” The Sheboygan Press

 

1915 Dec 7      “Tattoo Marks of all kinds removed by Prof. S. J. Edwards, 812 N. 8thSt.”  The Sheboygan Press

 

1916 Jul 22   “Tattooed Wonder – at Liberty; wife can work electric chair or snakes; state best salary, with tattooing privilege; tickets. Prof. S. J. Edwards, 508 Mulberry St., Rockford, Illinois.” Billboard

1918 Jul 17     “Sheboygan Girl is Snake Charmer with Wortham-Rice Troupe / A member of the Wortham & Rice carnival troupe, now playing a week’s engagement at the ball park, is a native of Sheboygan. She is Madam Melba, who charms snakes in “Wonderland”. In private life she is Mrs. Helen Edwards, the wife of Prof. S. J. Edwards, the electric tattoo artist who is also connected with the carnival. Her maiden name was Helen Draeger. She formerly lived with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Herman Draeger, at 323 Superior Ave. This is her fifth year of professional life, she having left Sheboygan to join a circus troupe in 1913. Madam Melba is very enthusiastic about her work, and says she prefers it to anything else she has ever done. She claims that she is the only girl in the country showing professionally, who handles snakes with their poison fangs in; the three rattle snakes now with her have their full equipment of death dealing fangs, as she demonstrated to a Press representative last night. The usual number of snakes in her outfit is about 150, although this spring she had in training 300. At present only a few reptiles are with her here, but she expects the others to be shipped here in a day or two.” The Sheboygan Press

1918 Aug 5       Spousta enlisted in the Navy

 

1918 Aug 8     “With Liberty Tattooed Man in Navy, Patriotism is at Least Skin Deep, By Frank L. Lyons. The Liberty Tattooed Man, who is believed to have more tattoo marks on his body than any other man in the world, is now a Great Lakes bluejacket. Edward Spousta, known in circus life as the human moving picture enlisted at the Great Lakes Recruiting office Monday and will report for duty today. Spousta has 365 separate designs on his body, ranging from enormous designs nearly a foot square to some that are about an inch square. There is hardly an inch of epidermis on the new recruit which has not some design indelibly stamped on it in brilliant blue, red, yellow and green inks. / “Spirit of ’76 on Chest. The Liberty tattooed man gets his name from the fact that most of his designs are of a patriotic nature. A huge reproduction of the “Spirit of 1776” is tattooed across his chest. The Statue of Liberty…Spousta said that the majority of the designs had been placed on his body by himself or reworked from other artists’ designs. The remainder of the work not done by himself and cost him nearly $500. He said that it was not very painful to have the big designs placed on his body. The only time it hurt a great deal was in having the Statue of Liberty made,” he said. When I was being tattooed along the spinal column, where all the nerves are, it made me wince….” 

1918 Dec 4      Discharged from the Navy 

1920 Jan 8      Living with Helen at 2119 Gladys Avenue in Chicago.

 

1920 Jun 5      “Wanted – Freaks—Wanted for Prof. S. J. Edward’s Palace of Living Wonders, with Harry E. Billick’s Gold Medal Shows…Freaks..or anything suitable for a real live and best-framed Pit Show. You know how Edwards, the Liberty Tattooed Man, can frame up an outfit. This is a 20-car show…” Billboard

 

1920 Jul 31      “Wanted For Prof. S. J. Edwards’ Congress of Living Wonders one good Freak to be featured; also Glass Blowers and good working attractions. Want to buy Una-Fon, Levitation, Magic, Ventriloquist, Mind Reading, Banners. This week Chillicothe, Mo.; next week Hannibal, Mo. Wire Prof. J. E. Edwards.” Billboard

 

1920 Oct 2       “Pit Show Attractions Wanted for Prof. S. J. Edwards’ Congress of Living Wonders, with Harry E. Billick’s Gold Medal Shows. / Fat Girl, Midget, Armless Wonder, Magician, Glass Blower or good Freak that can be featured. Also =Working Acts. This is a 20-car show. Stays out all winter. State your salary in the first wire. No time for correspondence. Wire Prof. S. J. Edwards, care Gold Medal                         Shows, week of Sept. 27, Fayetteville, Ark.; week of Oct. 4, Mena, Ark.” Billboard

 

1921 Apr 16     “Gold Medal Shows / First of the Season To play Immediate Vicinity of Kansas City / …S. J. Edwards’ Congress of Living Wonders…Helen Edwards, cartoonist…S. J. Edwards, tattooed man…” Billboard

 

1921 Apr 23    “S. J. Edwards” Congress of Living Wonders / A big 20-in-1 show with Harry E. Billick’s Gold Medal Shows. Those in the picture are, left to right: Harry E. Billick, S. J. Edwards and Doc George Hammond, talker (first row); Ed Bledsoe, tall boy, 8 feet, 2 inches, and 19 years old; Lucy, fat girl; Mr. Gowler, glass blower; Mrs. Gowler, to left of Ed, and then Mrs. Helen Edwards, wife of S. J. Edwards.” Billboard

1922 Apr 29     “Hansher Bros.’ Attractions Ready for Start at Milwaukee…Mr. and Mrs. B. H. Lockman and Mme. Melba, illusionists and magicians, and Mr. and Mrs. S. J. Edwards, he being a tattooed man and glass blower and she a chalk-talk cartoonist…” Billboard

 

1923 Apr 14     “Call / Great White Way Shows / Show Opens Hammond, Ind., April 23…Pit Show Attractions for 15-1, write to S. J. Edwards…” Billboard.

 

1924 Jun 7        “Great Middle West Shows…”The shows; Circus side-show, S. J. Edwards, manager and announcer…Mrs. Helen Edwards, comic cartoon and chalk talk… Sailor Jack Edwards, tattooed man…” Billboard

 

1926 Jun 5        “Michigan Greater Shows, R. T. Wade, O. A. Baker….S. J. Edwards, can use you…” Billboard

 

1927 Apr 30     “Lou Delmore in Chicago / Chicago, April 20 – Lou Delmore, side-show manager, is in Chicago with the Sells-Floto Circus, acting as an announcer…Jack Orr, Tattooed Man…Princess Melba with her collection of snakes…” Billboard

 

1927 May 7      “Snapp Bros.’ Shows…”Mrs. Edwards the wife of our midway artist, S. J. Edwards, has arrived. She is a rag picture worker and a cartoonist appearing under the name of Artista…” Billboard

 

1931 Jan 17      “Among Showfolks in Chicago busily preparing for the new season are S. J. Edwards, tattooed man, and his wife, Helen, who bills herself as Artista. S. J. is making everything new, including flash, and the missus, in conjunctions with her chalk talks and rag pictures, will have a glass-blowing outfit, and is now busy making up stock for that attraction.” Billboard

 

1971 Jul 16   Edward J Spousta dies

 

1971 Jul 17       “Spousta / Edward J. Spousta, age 88, beloved husband of Helen. Services Monday, 1 p.m., at Krauspe Chapel, 3905-07 N. Lincoln Av., Interment Acacia Park. Member of Paul Revere Lodge, No. 998, A. F. & A. M., ILL Commandery, NO. 72, K. T., Columbia Chapter, NO. 202, R. A. M., Legion of Merit of Medinah Temple and Trowel Post, No. 160, A. L., 525-0529.”  Chicago Tribune

Derin Bray