You never know what strange mysteries you’ll uncover when you go thumbing through old news archives, as I recently discovered while browsing a hundred-and-fourteen-year-old issue of the New York Times.
At the time, I was looking for 1980’s-era reporting about The Golden Girls (as one does) and I had just been led astray by a brief news item from 1906 that used the term. But in the column next to that article, I spotted an intriguing unrelated headline: “GIRL WANTS TO BE A SAILOR. Runway Is Found, Tattooed, in the Bowery.”
The blurb had just a few tantalizing details: The girl’s name was Madeline Altman, she was 15 years old, and had apparently run away from home, got her arm tattooed so she could pass more convincingly as a boy, and was apprehended by the Children’s Society in the company of several other sailors.
Fortunately, I happened to be livestreaming when I made this discovery—it’s a fun little weekend pastime I recently began, browsing old newspaper archives for an online audience of fellow news-nerds—and some of the folks who were watching leapt into action to collaboratively piece together more details of Madeline’s life.
We had only a few clues to go on: Madeline’s father was a produce merchant at Willoughby Market in Brooklyn; her tattooers were named Peter Farley, Sam Reilley, and William F. Davis (their addresses were included in the piece); and she was at risk of developing blood poisoning from the tattoos.
While I scoured the Times archives for more clues, some of the folks in the chat started searches of their own. One person located a 1907 news article in The Buffalo Commercial that referenced a Miss Madeline Altman graduating from St. Margaret’s School in 1907; another found a reference to a Madeline Altman attending Vassar College later that year, which was confirmed by a third searcher who found her name in Vassar Quarterly.
Could that be the same girl? Hard to say. Buffalo is about 400 miles from Brooklyn, and it’s possible that the family fled the big city for the shores of Lake Erie after Madeline’s misadventure. Or it could just be another coincidentally-named woman whose age roughly lines up.
A fun detail about the news from Buffalo is that Madeline Altman of Vassar College is mentioned several times in society pages—she seems to have returned home frequently, often bringing a female friend with her as a guest. I’d like to believe that the family sent her to some sort of reform school and then Vassar, where she fell in with a sapphic community that was perhaps a bit less dangerous than shipping out to sea with a bunch of older men. This is just idle slash-fic speculation of course—it’s hard to know the truth of her life, or even whether these are the same person, from these brief snippets.
Meanwhile, I managed to locate a follow-up piece in the Pittsburgh Press. “MAD LASS IS TATTOOED,” reads the headline. There were more details about the tattoos: A warship; sailors in uniform; hearts; eagles; stars and stripes. “The girl boasted that she was in love with navy life,” the piece reads.
Another searcher found what might be a photo of the person in question, though there’s no sign of tattoos and her name is spelled “Madeleine.” An unattributed quote next to her photo reads, “She’s gentle and not fearful,” and metadata describes a husband and child, which is confirmed by another Buffalo Evening News article from 1916.
Additional searching turned up some references to the tattooers, some of whom seem to have been of historical significance. In addition to tattooing Madeline, they appear to have contributed to body-mod art of the time—and there was a tantalizing hint in some historical writing that referenced Madeline as “the waif of the bowery.” What a title!
And that’s where the trail ran cold, at least for now. There was no confirmation that the “waif of the bowery” was also the “gentle and not fearful” Vassar student. Was her love of navy life ever fulfilled? Future historians may locate more clues, but for now, the story must end in our imaginations.
But in the process of searching for Madeline’s fate, I turned to another intriguing article, this one from 1905. “GIRL IN BOY’S CLOTHES,” it reads. It would seem that a young Kate McGinley, a “pleasant-faced” seventeen-year-old, was found wandering Coney Island in male attire after meeting and going home with a woman on a trolley. Time for me to dive back into the archives for another search.