Richmond’s mysterious tattooed dead man

Richmond was recently ranked the third most tattooed city in the U.S. One might argue that this is due to Richmond’s roots in punk/hardcore music, but I have a theory that maybe it goes back a little farther–to August 28th, 1861.

I think one of the first things that visitors to Richmond notice about our city is our affinity for tattoos. All it takes is a stroll down Carytown or near the VCU campus to find people both young and old with tattoos peeking out under their shirt sleeves. Recently ranked the third most tattooed city in the U.S., it’s definitely a bit of a curious distinction. One might argue that this is due to Richmond’s roots in punk/hardcore music, but I have a theory that maybe it goes back a little farther.

Today at the corner of 17th and Grace St., you’ll find some parking lots and empty space – the “no man’s land” between the highway, the businesses, and apartment buildings of Shockoe Bottom. Back in 1861, this area was a lot busier. On August 28th of 1861, it was actually a crime scene:

Inquest. – An inquest was held yesterday by Alderman Sanxay, over the body of an unknown man, (a soldier, apparently,) whose body was found lying dead at the corner of Grace and 17th streets, near Seabrook’s warehouse. The jurors sworn to inquire by what means the result had been produced, returned through their foreman (Jacob S. Atlee,) the verdict that he came to his death “by impertinence and exposure.” Richmond Dispatch, 8/28/1861

So, maybe no actual “crime” took place, but that wasn’t the mysterious part:

The person of the deceased presented one of the most striking features of the seafaring habit of emblematic disfiguration of the body, all parts of which, together with the arms, legs and feet, were covered with national emblems and other devices, representing the U. States coat of arms, U. States flags, symbolic figures of the Goddess of Liberty, with mottoes and letters in capitals, significant of something known perhaps only to the deceased; bracelets, with emblems, representations of rings on the fingers, and ships fully rigged and in trim for sail. The identity of the body is so well defined that his friends or connexions who may by chance happen to see this, can ascertain the certainty of his death. Both of his larger toes were off, also some of the smaller ones. Others remaining were disfigured. He represented to one of the witnesses who had been with him for several days previous to his death, that he was a member of the Jeff Davis Rangers, and was in the battle of Manassas, and was wounded in that engagement. No one seemed to be aware of his name.

So who was this mysterious tattooed Richmonder? I’m afraid that info might be lost to history, but it’s nice to know that those of us with tattoos or full sleeves may have been around in Richmond a lot longer than we originally thought.

Photo by: The Pug Father

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry.

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