Betty Broadbent, originally named Sue Lillian Brown, was born on November 1st, 1909 in Philadelphia, where she spent most of her childhood. At the ripe young age of 14, Betty, a nanny working in Atlantic City at the time, saw a heavily tattooed man on the boardwalk on one of her days off. Right then and there, she decided she wanted to pursue a tattooed lifestyle and esthetic. Her hope was to entice curious patrons, charging them along the way, and rise to circus stardom, where tattooed women were seen to some as a novelty and to others as an absolute freakshow. For the next two years, Betty would be tattooed by some of the most well known tattoo artists in American history.
In the 1920s and 1930s, tattooed performers were at the peak of their popularity, women often being more successful than the men, as women had many more societal factors working negatively against them. The circus was an appealing place for those who seek financial independence, social freedom and the promise of fame as they travel from state to state. Able-bodied men in general had various opportunities for employment in a variety of professions, whereas women had little to no education, meaning they had even less opportunities for employment and financial freedom. Women were oftentimes financially dependent on their male counterparts, as men were considered providers. The circus was seen as one of the only ways a woman could travel, while making an impressive salary, sometimes up to $200 per week! A tattooed body was seen as a profitable venture.
When Betty met Jack Redcloud on the boardwalk that fateful day, her curiosity was piqued. After conversing and befriending Jack, he introduced Betty to his tattoo artist, Charlie Wagner, who was the tattoo legend of his time. By the time she was 16, Betty’s body was covered in more than 565 tattoos! Betty was lucky enough to be tattooed by some of the most famous pioneers in tattoo history, such as Charlie Wagner, Tony Rhineagear, Red Gibbons, and Joe Van Hart. Betty had a full body suit of tattoos, from her shoulders to her ankles but they were all easily hidden by street clothing, should the need arise. However, Betty did have a small tattoo of a bird on her right palm, as a small homage to her true self.
It was through Wagner that Betty met Clyde Ingalls who was associated with a travelling circus. After finding out that Betty had a passion for all things tattoo related, Ingalls offered Betty a job as a “Tattooed Lady” at his circus. In 1927, she officially joined with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and was known as the “youngest tattooed woman in the world.” Betty posed for curious onlookers who paid to see the many artistic pieces she had illustrated on her body. Later, Betty would learn to ride steers, horses and mules, adding to her already impressive circus performance. For the next forty years, Betty would tour and perform with different circuses and sideshows, becoming one of the most famous and talked about tattooed ladies in America.
Betty’s tattoos wildly differed from each other. She had many themes and subjects tattooed on her limbs, one of her most famous being a big, beautiful eagle with wings spread wide on her back, taking up the space between her shoulders. This specific tattoo took over six sessions and Betty later admitted in an interview with The New York Times that it was one of her most painful tattoos. She had no regrets, though, as she also said that the pain she experienced while getting the eagle tattoo was “worth it.”
Betty became somewhat of a legend in New York, after she boldly participated in a beauty pageant at New York World’s Fair in 1939. Her goal was to challenge beauty standards for women at that time and question societal standards that were put in place for women in the 1930s. Betty was seen as an icon to American women, as she was known to intelligently challenge what was considered the societal norm. She went against known stereotypes of her profession and refused to sexualize her body or romanticize her motives. Betty was a feminist in her own right, fighting for the right to work, to travel the world and to have her own freedom and independence, free from the judgement of others.
Betty’s personal life consisted of a short-lived marriage in May of 1940 to Charley Roark, who was a magician and ventriloquist working for the circus. She later married again, in March of 1969, to Winford Emory Brewer, the circus’s personal mechanic.
Betty’s career in general was an interesting one. Besides being a renowned tattooed lady, mule rider and pageant contestant, Betty was also a tattoo artist! She made guest appearances in tattoo shops across North America, including Montreal and New York. In 1973, Betty took her adventures abroad, where she performed in circuses in Australia and New Zealand. Upon arriving back in the U.S, she traveled and performed with a sideshow, up until her retirement in 1967, at the age of 57.
Betty Broadbent went on to become one of the most photographed tattooed ladies of the 20th century. She retired to central Florida in 1967 after a long and exciting career as a circus performer and tattoo artist. On August 5th, 1981, she had the honor of becoming the first person introduced to the Tattoo Hall of Fame!
Betty Broadbent died peacefully in her sleep on March 28th, 1983, at 73 years old. To this day, the world remembers Betty Broadbent as an idol and inspiration, as well as a huge contributor to the growth of the tattoo industry.