Extraordinary Gentlemen of the First World War: The Great Omi

2DA47A2A00000578-3283496-Born_to_be_wild_Zebraman_or_The_Gret_Omi_convinced_a_tattoo_arti-a-8_1445523529901If you were in New York sometime in 1939 you might have visited the World’s Fair out in Flushing Meadows. You might have wandered around its 1,000 acres of pavilions, sideshows, bandstands, and cultural attractions.

And you might have stopped in at a stand called John Hix’s Odditorium. It showcased strange humans, like the Anatomical Wonder and Marvello the Fingerless Pianist. A freak show, entrance 40 cents.

One of the Odditorium’s attractions was a 57-year-old Englishman whose body was tattooed in crude zebra stripes. He had bones through his nose and earlobes,  and called himself The Great Omi.

Omi told visitors he had been kidnapped by natives out in New Guinea and forcibly tattooed. Off stage, he told journalists stories about being the scion of a wealthy family who had won medals for bravery out in Mesopotamia during the war and lost his inheritance in playboy living.

No-one knew which story to believe.

Money and Arms

The tattooing had actually been done by George Burchett (“The King of Tattooists”)  at a London studio in the 1920s. Burchett’s work was popular among the smart set. He had tattooed Frederick IX of Denmark. So much for New Guinea. What about the rest of the story?

The Great Omi was born Horace Leonard Ridler in March 1882. He came into the world in London, probably in the Covent Garden area. Not the most promising place for a rich family to be based back then, but the area had moved on from its disreputable days as a hotbed of prostitution earlier in the century. St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden was known as the “actor’s church” because of its association with theatrical types, which could be relevant to Ridler’s later profession.

The first sign that Omi had been telling the truth about his background comes in 1904. The 22-year-old Horace Leonard Ridler joined the 3rd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant. Back in those days most officers came from upmarket backgrounds and usually had a private income. Ridler seems to have come from money.

In 1906 he was transferred to Lincolnshire Regiment and still seems to have been in the army at the time of the 1911 census. Then he disappears from the records.

Decline and Fall

Omi claimed to have been forced out of the army after running through his inheritance and getting into financial trouble. It might be true. Whatever he did after leaving the army wasn’t enough to stop him re-enlisting when the Great War began. He appears in September 1915 being promoted from Staff Sergeant back to 2nd Lieutenant in the Westminster Dragoons.

HL Ridler Medal CardThe Dragoons were a legendarily smart regiment full of fashionable and rich young men. Omi was 33-years-old and doesn’t seem to have had much cash left. That might explain why he started in the ranks, despite his experience. There might also have been a geographical connection: the Dragoons had been originally raised from a slice of London that included Covent Garden.

Ridler was a lieutenant by the time he got to France in May 1916. The Great Omi had a talent for soldiering. He became a Cavalry Captain in charge of a machine-gun company, then an acting Major in command of a machine-gun squadron. He may have served in Mesopotamia, although there’s no record of him winning any awards for bravery.

Ridler finally left the army in 1920 and returned to London. His story was that he got into sideshow work in ’22 after some financial difficulties. These were probably connected with a London art school he started up with the artist Verney Lionel Daners, the war veteran son of a Portuguese aristocrat.

Art and Commerce

Danvers was born in Lisbon back in 1895, the youngest son of a British electrical engineer who had impressed the locals enough to be made a Baron. Verney moved to Canada before the war, signed up when the fighting started, and washed up in London afterwards. Somehow he connected with Ridler and the pair started the Court School of Commercial Art at Lincoln Chambers in Portsmouth Street.

An advert for the school offers tuition in “Fancy Costume Designing for the Theatre, Fancy-Dress & Carnivals, etc”, which raises more questions than it answers. It also throws a few spider threads of conjecture towards Ridler’s upbringing in Covent Garden and subsequent career. Whatever the school offered, it was shut down by 1923 and the partnership between the two men dissolved. Danver promised to pay any outstanding debts. He went on to get married and do advertising work, and may have become a solicitor [but probably not – see the comments below].

Ridler got his first tattoos, mostly conventional scenes on the lower body, with the intention of working the sideshow circuit. It was a hell of a leap from officer, playboy, and war veteran. He never explained his motives, although small and hidden tattoos were not uncommon among the Edwardian smart set.

By the late 1920s, Ridler had rechristened himself the Great Omi and asked Burchett to tattoo him with the zebra stripes. His wife Gladys, who he married in 1925, apparently had no problem with the transformation. The tattooing took 150 hours. Burchett complained he never got paid in full.

Fame and Fortune

The Great Omi joined a few circuses, titillated crowds at sideshows, and toured Britain and France. He added the piercings, some jewellery, and the New Guinea backstory. He also paid someone to file his teeth into fangs. The road led to the World Fair in America, then shows in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia during WWII. He returned to England towards the end of the war and continued to perform into the early 1950s.

The Great Omi aka Horace Leonard Ridler retired later in the ’50s to a small Sussex village and died in 1969.

His life is a reminder of the days when extensive tattooing still had the power to shock in a circus sideshow. A lot of Ridler’s story still shadowy or half-known. If you have any information then write it in the comments below.

For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  books in paperback or ebook:

Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com]

and

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Extraordinary Gentlemen of the First World War: The Great Omi

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