Professor J.T. Clark was born John Thompson in 1871 in Bedale, England, a small market town in the northern part of the country. JT was not suited to small-town life, so in his teens he left England with his older brother, David, and ended up in Galveston, Texas. Along the way, they both changed their surname to Clark but JT retained Thompson as his middle name.
Galveston was a booming port town in the late 1800’s with a prosperous shipping business. There were many other English immigrants in Galveston as well as opportunities and diversions for a young man. JT worked as a general laborer at first and then became attracted to the budding tattoo profession. He learned some of his early tattoo skills with a then famous Mexican artist named Vedella.
Eager for adventure and a steady income, JT enlisted in the Texas Volunteers and fought in the Spanish American War in 1898. After about a year of service, he was discharged, narrowly avoiding a court-martial for striking an officer. They lost the paperwork, or more likely, JT enlisted someone’s aid in misplacing his file. He was also charged a separate time for being drunk and disorderly but he denied that he was disorderly. Nobody likes a rowdy drunk.
Back in Galveston only a short time from the Army, JT traveled to Cape Town, South Africa in early 1900 to fight on the side of the British in the Boer War. He enlisted in Kitchener’s Horse and served as a Scout. In the Magaliesberg Valley, he contracted a water-born tropical disease called bilharzias (Schistosomiasis), a nasty ailment transmitted through a bizarre human-snail cycle that weakens the victim by causing anemia.
JT went home to Bedale in 1901 to see his family, and to consult Dr. Horsfall, the local physician, for his illness. Unfortunately, there was no cure for bilharzias at that time. After a rest, JT returned to South Africa and tried to reenlist but the British military rejected him due to his illness. He took a job in civilian support in the labor camps in De Aar for about a year and stayed in South Africa after the War ended.
In 1904 JT went to Galveston to see how the city was rebuilding after the Storm of 1900 and to look for an old friend. He found his friend’s young widow, Bertha, who had been left with no money and a small child. Her mother and four sisters had all been lost in the Storm and she was alone. Bertha and JT met previously and she had been deeply impressed by his charm and good looks. He proposed marriage and off they went to Johannesburg. (For Bertha’s story, see Princess Beatrice.)
In Johannesburg, JT was a friend and colleague to George Burchett, famous British tattoo artist. Curiously, JT had a distinctive portrait tattoo of Paul Kruger, the President of the Orange Free State of the Transvaal on the top of his head done by Burchett 1913. Paul Kruger was the leader of the Boers and during the War and JT had fought on the side of the British. (Popular sentiment had however been with the Boers and the saying goes that the “British won the war but not the peace.”)
The Kruger tattoo may have indicated a change of heart for JT or it could have been done as a means to draw a crowd. JT wrote that “it was a most difficult feat of tattooing” implying that he tattooed his own head. As a child I would imagine the series of mirrors he would have needed and marveled at his dexterity. He also boasted that he was the only person with a tattooed scalp! Undoubtedly, no one in the audience had seen any other tattooed scalp so his statement was not likely to be challenged.
Between 1904 and 1914 JT and Bertha lived in hotels and rooming houses in South Africa in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. JT also traveled to Australia where he exhibited and had shops for a time.
JT billed himself as a “Yank” so along the line he achieved US citizenship which I have yet not been able to document. He probably claimed whichever nationality that suited the situation best at the time.
In early 1914, JT and the family returned to the United States. Burchett also returned to England around the same time. The threat of war and concerns about safe ocean travel certainly influenced their decision.
Back in the States, JT and Bertha exhibited together and separately. They had two young children to care for but had to go where the work was. They were in sideshows, wild west venues, Ringling Brothers Circus, etc. In 1915, JT took his son and my father, Francis, to England to see family and to work. JT opened a shop in London.
In 1918, JT was working in Montreal where he fell seriously ill and died. The official diagnosis was pneumonia. He had been weakened for years by the bilharzias. Spanish Flu is also a possibility. Bertha had a premonition that JT was near death and was able to get to Montreal before he died.
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