Captain George Costentenus

Crazy adventures, kidnapping, tattoos, hazily remembered details and a guy that looks like Zach Galifianakis.

No, no. Not the Hangover films.

We have an even better (and less fictional) story for you.

Djordgi Konstantinus, also known as Captain George Costentenus, The Tattooed Greek Prince, The Greek Albanian and The Living Canvas Back (1833 – ?) was a late 19th century circus performer of Greek ancestry, born in Albania in the Ottoman Empire. His life, by all accounts (especially his own), was an incredible and absurd adventure, and some of this is likely true… somewhere under the embellishment.

Was Costentenus’s mother shot by his own father in order to save her from the horrors of harem life under a Turkish pasha? Was Costentenus raised in the same harem, called Fatima and dressed as a girl? Well, probably not exactly. Sources generally agree he spoke 8 languages (Arabic, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Persian and Spanish), and that he worked as an adventurer and pirate.

In or around 1867 he was part of a 12 man mining expedition into a region now known as Myanmar (Burma) in search of gold. For reasons that vary in the telling, the Royal Burmese armed forces captured the expedition and executed 9 of the men. The remaining 3 men were punished by tattooing using indigo and cinnabar (mercury). In Costentenus’s retelling, the other men were an American and an Englishman, and they both died from the tattooing procedure. Other sources describe the men as an American and a Spaniard, with the American dying a few months into the punishment, and the Spaniard going blind and dying in Manila.

The Democratic Press (October 29, 1874)

Costentenus received 388 symmetrically arranged and interwoven tattoos which covered his eyelids, ears (in some accounts) and genitals. The tattoos included exotic animals, geometric designs, Burmese writing and flowers.

Costentenus eventually made his way to freedom. It is likely he escaped with the Spaniard (if he existed). By his own account he was sold into slavery, and eventually released. He arrived back in Europe and attracted the attention of medical professionals and anthropologists. Authorities noted variations in Costentenus’s narrative, but found his tattoos to be authentic representations of Burmese tattooing. Writing between his fingers described him as a person of poor character.

He began to exhibit himself in Europe to great success. In 1875 he traveled to the United States as part of the Centennial Exposition, the first World’s Fair to be held in the United States. He quickly gained the attention of P. T. Barnum, and began traveling with P. T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show on Earth making a hundred dollars a day posing for spectators. Costentenus became a resident of New York in 1882, and an American citizen in 1883.

After 1894 he disappeared from records.

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