Forgotten Person Benjamin Zimmerman, Wealthy Mendicant

Benjamin Zimmerman

Benjamin Zimmerman

Benjamin Zimmerman was a common sight on the Southern Pacific train which regularly plied back and forth between San Jose and San Francisco. Conductors and porters saw him board the train three or four times per day for the round trip, a process made more difficult because Zimmerman was missing both an arm and a leg, and got along on crutches. It being February 1903, handicapped accessible railway cars were nonexistent, and during the 90 minute journey, Zimmerman shuffled his way up and down the aisles of the passenger cars carrying in his hand a card that read: “The object of this appeal is to get the bearer an artificial leg and arm by which means he will be enabled to make his own living….Anything you wish to give will be thankfully received.” Dressed in raggedy clothes, and with a haggard appearance, Zimmerman aroused sympathy from most of the passengers who dropped their dimes, nickels and pennies into Zimmerman’s satchel. A few fellow travelers did complain that Zimmerman turned verbally hostile if they refused to turn over coins, but most were generous to the kindly Zimmerman, who explained that he had lost his arm and leg in a railway accident as a boy while selling newspapers on a train.

Zimmerman was no dummy. He always bought tickets for each trip he took, and thus could not be thrown off of the train without the railway inviting a lawsuit for damages. Officials sensed danger in the wind should more beggars discover this particular ploy as an Achilles Heel of the railroad; their respectable line swarming with all manner of roving mendicants.

Frank J. Kelly Esq., did what men of his ilk do and found a loophole. San Francisco’s statute book required the deportation of any “vagrant” found within the City limits. All the railway had to do was to prove that Mr. Zimmerman was in fact a vagrant no employment, and so he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. If successful, they could prefer charges and have him shipped out of town. Southern Pacific Superintendant B.A. Worthington, with all the weight of the Southern Pacific behind him, requested that Police Chief Wittman dispatch detectives to look into Zimmerman’s activities.

The case fell to detectives Fitzgerald and Graham, and it didn’t take them long to come back with results. It seemed that Zimmerman didn’t really need a new artificial arm and leg; he already had perfectly good ones. They were so good in fact, that he’d regularly placed them in hock to the local pawn shop as security on a short term loan. When his work day on the train was done, Zimmerman typically skedaddled home as fast as a man with one leg could to put on his top-of-the-line artificial limbs, and some fancy duds. He would then step out with the gait of a millionaire and pickup his girlfriend for a fancy dinner and wine at a popular café. In the event the girlfriend was unable to attend, Zimmerman would dine alone, and then spend the remainder of the evening shooting billiards at a local hall where his skill with a cue earned admiration, and even a few extra nickels.

Zimmerman sans artificial arm for some reason

Zimmerman sans artificial arm for some reason

Fitzgerald and Green reported their findings back to Chief Wittman and they picked Zimmerman up on a charge of vagrancy as he walked down Mason Street after a fancy dinner. Lodged in City Prison overnight, Zimmerman awoke from his less than comfortable slumber to appear before the frowning eyes of Police Judge Cabaniss.  Any chance Zimmerman had of escaping the charges faded to nonexistence when the Judge appointed Attorney Frank Kelly of the Southern Pacific as a special prosecutor. Zimmerman’s counsel, Attorney Shortall was quite skilled (he would sit on the bench in just a few years), and managed to get Zimmerman freed provided he stayed away from the Southern Pacific.

But Zimmerman wasn’t quite done with the Southern Pacific yet. With plenty of moxie, and little thought to the young lady who had come to like nice dinners, Zimmerman approached Attorney Kelly and said “Say, if you can get me a pass, I will leave the city.”  Kelly got him his pass, Zimmerman shook the dust of San Francisco off his feet and moved on, Neville St. Clair style, to bother someone else.

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  1. Love the “without a leg to stand on” comment.

  2. Glad you liked it. Felt I went out on a limb a bit.


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