Sideshow Trouping with Oscar Bouchard

Today we’re visiting Boston tattooer Oscar Bouchard (1896 - 1987) on the sideshow circuit—and at home with his large extended family.  Both venues gave Oscar perfect outlets for his trickster nature and great sense of showmanship.

Oscar tattooed through both World Wars, the Great Depression and the inking trade’s waning years in the 1950s and 60s.  However, his early acquisition of a full suit of tattoos—as well as his innate resourcefulness and love of adventure—opened yet another opportunity to him: performing in sideshows!

 
 Prof. Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1925

Prof. Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1925

 

By 1924 Prof. Oscar was trouping in northern New England with the Lew DuFour Exposition Circus, tattooing fairgoers and performing as a tattooed man.  During his 13 years on the summer circuit, Oscar also performed as a sword-swallower and fire-eater, and may have shared an escape artist act with his younger brother, Romeo.  He left the carnival circuit for good in 1935. 

Oscar’s sideshow career peaked around 1928, when his act was picked up by the Gentry Bros. circus.  Oscar seems to have completed his full suit of tattoos around then.  Look closely at this Gentry Bros. pitch card—you’ll see fill work completed on his neck and torso.  Oscar claimed that he was so densely tattooed, there was no room to ink his Social Security number.  He worked that essential ID into an existing design—a peacock in a floral wreath on his right thigh.

 
 Professor Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1930

Professor Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1930

 

Oscar loved an audience, and loved being the center of attention.  At home and at family gatherings, Oscar the showman continued performing—entertaining his relatives with his sword-swallowing and fire-eating acts.  He loved to play poker, and was a great prankster.  A magic store in his hometown of Springfield, MA supplied him with the chattering teeth, fake dog poop, gag lightbulbs and magic tricks he used to keep everyone laughing.

Oscar was an entertainer to the very end.  The last time his daughter saw him at his home in Palmer MA, she asked him for family photographs.  He walked to a back room, presumably to retrieve the photos, but returned instead playing a mouth harp—expertly, his daughter recalls!

 
 Oscar Bouchard, 1981

Oscar Bouchard, 1981