In 1905, philosopher George Santayana penned the oft-repeated maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To which Indy native Kurt Vonnegut promptly retorted (some 80 years later), “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
As Indianapolis approaches its bicentennial, you’ll read a lot of articles about how much the city has changed over the past two centuries. This isn’t one of those articles. Today — and on future Deja Vu Tuesdays — we’re going to celebrate 200 years of history repeating itself.
Or as rocker Jon Bon Jovi sang in 2010 (repeating a phrase coined a century earlier by 19th century French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr):
The more things change the more they stay the same
Whoa oh oh oh
Oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh
For example, the public outcry surrounding the Nora Post Office’s recent decision to banish a blind broom seller from its premises has echoes of an unfortunate incident from a century ago involving “Shoestring George” Johnson, an elderly blind man who made a living peddling shoelaces.
In 1916, local business leaders and elected officials successfully rallied to support Johnson after he was convicted for a crime that many believed he did not commit.
Johnson was a familiar fixture in downtown Indianapolis in the early years of the last century, selling shoestrings from a cart that was catty-corner to the Courthouse.
He first captured the public’s attention in 1907, when The Indianapolis Star published the sad tale of how he had been swindled out of his hard-earned money by an unfamiliar man and a woman who he later described as a “high-stepping North Side heifer.”
As Johnson related the tale, a man whose voice he did not recognize gave him what he claimed was a $2 bill for $1 pair of shoelaces. Johnson later discovered that the currency in question was a $1 bill, and that he had been defrauded.
Even more egregious, however, was an incident involving a woman described by onlookers as “good appearing.” Although she was not a regular customer, she talked like she was “somebody,” according to Johnson, so he took her word for it when he gave her change for what she said was a $5 bill. Within minutes of the transaction, however, Johnson learned that he had been cheated out of $4.
Following these incidents, Johnson declared that he would accept no currency larger than a $1 bill. As to whether he might be deceived by counterfeit coins, however, the shoestring peddler conceded that in most of his transactions, he had to “trust largely to a hope that there were not many people in the world” who would swindle a blind man out of his hard-earned cash.
The Star dubbed the individuals who had stolen from Johnson “the meanest man and meanest woman in Indianapolis.” The story went viral, at least by 1907 standards, and was picked up by other newspapers, including The Fort Wayne Daily News.
As a result of his prime location across from the Marion County Courthouse, Shoestring George Johnson gained many friends and supporters over the years among the city’s business, civic and political leaders. One particular benefactor was hardware store owner Franklin Vonnegut, who was one of the three trustees selected in 1913 to distribute lots to subscribers of the proposed Mars Hill industrial community.
A southwestside suburb near Holt Road and Kentucky Avenue, Mars Hill was established in 1911 by a consortium of Indianapolis businessmen who hoped to turn the former farmland into a thriving industrial community with factories and 50,000 residents. Although the plan was never fully realized after the sale of lots fell far short of its 8,000 goal, in May 1913 the 1,100+ subscribers who paid $400 each for 2,000 lots would finally get title to their property in a random drawing at the Chamber of Commerce offices.
Vonnegut Hardware donated two oaken barrels for use during the drawing. Slips of paper with the subscribers’ names filled one barrel, while slips of paper with lot numbers filled the other. Franklin Vonnegut put Shoestring George in charge of drawing the subscribers’ names, which were then matched with a lot number. The entire process took more than seven hours.
Three years later, Vonnegut and other local leaders who had befriended Johnson would stand behind him after he was convicted for a crime that many believed he did not commit.
In June 1915, Johnson was fined $500 and sentenced to six months in the state penal farm after he was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a girl. Vonnegut filed a petition for clemency with Governor Samuel Ralston, noting that even the girl’s father believed that Johnson was innocent. Similar petitions calling for remission of the hefty fine were filed by the county clerk, the county treasurer, the county auditor, and even the county sheriff.
Although it appears that Johnson served some time at the state penal farm, the $500 fine was lifted by Governor Ralston and Johnson returned to his shoestring stand across from the courthouse.
Fast forward another three years, and Johnson was back in the newspapers again over a $500 payment — but this time for a happier reason. In the spring of 1919, the U.S. government launched a final round of bonds to help pay for the cost of victory in World War I. The Indianapolis campaign was dubbed, “Mop Up,” and urged local residents to “show their gratitude for victory” by subscribing to their limits. Funds raised would be used “to mop up the debris of war — to bring the boys home — to care for the maimed, the blind — the widows and orphans.”
Shoestring George rose to the occasion. The blind peddler who stood on a street corner selling shoestrings by the pair — day after day, year after year, rain or shine — bought $500 worth of Victory Loan bonds.
Although little is known of Johnson’s personal life, The Indianapolis Star reported in November 1919 that Johnson had been injured in a fall down a flight of stairs on North Delaware street. A trap door to a basement stairwell had been left open on the sidewalk, and Johnson stumbled inside. The elderly man suffered some minor scrapes and bruises which were treated by police. According to the Star, Johnson was then escorted back to his room at 120 East Washington, in the hardware store building owned by his longtime friend and benefactor, Franklin Vonnegut.
Santayana AND Kurt Vonnegut Jr. were BOTH right…at least that’s my opinion. I may be incorrect…
Libby, Any idea when Mr. Johnson died? As you might imagine, there are a couple dozen George Johnsons buried at Crown Hill, including 6 who died in the 1920s. If he’s even buried there my first guess would be a George A Johnson who was buried in Section F Lot 7164 on June 2, 1923. But that’s only a guess with absolutely nothing much to support it.
Tom – I looked at the Crown Hill listings when I was writing my article, and thought it might be George A. Johnson as well. I’m haven’t had any luck finding an obituary thus far but am going to keep looking. I also found what I believe are his records from the State Penal Farm, but I’ll have to take an afternoon off from work and trek to the State Archives to get those. But in any event, I hope to do a follow up story at some point if I can find out more about George Johnson.
There is a George A. Johnson buried in Sec 59 Lot 288 on March 10, 1920 that could be him. Unfortunately my ability to do further research at the cemetery is limited for awhile but if I get a chance to find out anything about this guy I will.
OK Libby–you have opened a door in my memory of “street people” and it is a floodgate. I doubt there aare many out there who go back to where I am starting–from 1944 era pre and post WW2 –the first years I started writing at The Times when my “beat” covering the old City Hall, cop shop progressed to my having a daily Inside Indianapolis column –meaning I was daily trodding downtown streets and alleys when some fascinating “street people” were such a common sight downtown so familiar that you didn’t even “see” them—until a dull news day when you struggled to find something to write about–or as in the recent blind broom man some event brought them into print. Let ‘s see if anybody else remembers because in most cases I don’t even know a name–only a figure I can still close my eyes and see:
1. Cleaner Ed–his area the alley between the back of the Claypool and Blocks store–where the window decorators “tossed” used display stuff. Ed was almost military-stiff in posture, a bit soiled but absolutely NEVER seen without his upside down janitorial broom which he used as a “staff” and attention-getter. I sat next to the greatest of Indy columnists of the era, Lowell Nussbaum, in the second story Indianapolis Times city room–accessed by a short flight of stairs to a landing at the entry door. I was new, so I was startled l day at what all the others were used to–suddenly a “figure” appeared in the entry door, upside down broom in hand, decked out in the tossed Latin-straw hat and colorful serape he had salvaged from a tropical Block’s window–he literally clicked his heels, stomped his broom handle 3 times LOUD shouting “:NUUUUUS BAAAM”–scaring the hell out of frightened small town girl, me,–but so familiar that Nussbaum didn’t bat an eye, rose to greet him “come in Ed.” In retrospect it seems to me Nuss must have written about him sometime prior–but as time went by I too became so accustomed to Cleaner Ed on the downtown streets and occasional city room visits that it never occurred to me he was a story. Anybody else remember?
2. Dear kind modest Nussbaum and his homespun columns attracted these types–another street figure familiar standing outside Bates art supply store at the corner of Delaware and Ohio again was somewhat shabby and strange looking–Coca Cola thick glasses (mended with tape), unshaven, unbathed most time would sometimes disappear but then re-appear, standing on the corner, not pan-handling, just standing there–and early on I would walk with Nussbaum to our respective “beats”–and always, as we passed, Nuss would speak “Hello John, how are you today?” or similar words as he reached in his pocket and with closed hand discreetly put coins or a bill into the almost-disfigured hands –long uncut nails. And the strange man would almost whisper a single word “thanks.” Never did he speak beyond that–he just watched as we moved on. When I became curious, Nuss explained a little, the man he called John wasi n and out of Central State, an artist Nuss said, who did the most delicate water colors and oils with fingers that could barely negotiate eating utensils..”they let him sleep upstairs in that art store–he’ll use the money to buy materials, not to get a meal ” Nuss told me. And one day he wasn’t there not that day and never again–maybe Liz can locate his grave too–his full name was John Zwara, and his local art scenes today are sought after in the $5000 up figure (I gave $ll.00 for the first one I bought.)
3. I could go on–if anybody remembers when 5 cents would get you a kind of tinfoil lined paper cup of ice cream and throw away tiny spoon–there was a smallish man who tied hundreds and hundreds of the metallic spoons on his wrists, elbows, ankles and he would stand hours at the corner where Washington, Illinois, Ky Ave used to intersect–moving his arms to create a tinkle sound, smiling, waving. Sometimes he would appear at 38th and Illinois–but outside L Strauss was his habitat until one day he was never there again.
4. Last–and wonderful News columnist did a column on the 2 women figures after I mentioned them to him l day he was searching for a column idea. In the 60’s I volunteered weekly at the English Foundation “do good” building at 615 N. Alabama–and almost every day that I drove there would see 2 women around the 20-something blocks walking in the same direction I was driving, south on Delaware. They stood out not so much “shabby” as “over-clothed” with several layers of garments and carrying or pushing what clearly were all there worldly possessions–one older, somewhat masculine, one “foreigh” looking, hard to explain except that she had a far away look. Then, later I would see them downtown on a park bench. Dear clever Fremont took the idea–found them–did a classic column about them which I wish I had kept. I didn’t. But I can still see them. That-s all–of course there was the “raggedy man” long time over near Indiana Ave., and others only dimly remembered…but if anyone out there reads this and remembers I would love to have the questions answered that I now wish I had asked then.
Thanks for sharing those wonderful stories, Donna.