What’s in a Name?

Well, if you’re noted prohibitionist, Anti-Saloon League activist, former Indian agent, part-time University of Nebraska student, newspaper man, and all-around tough (but sober) character William E. Johnson (better known as “Pussyfoot” Johnson), it sure says something about you. He earned his charming nickname in the Western US in the late 1800s-early 1900s, mostly by being a sneaky old cuss in pursuit of the elimination of liquor from American public life; Ol’ Pussyfoot was the kind of guy saloon owners and others would pay to have murdered, and he was very good at his job (gunfights, night raids, con jobs pulled on saloon owners both in person and by mail, and assorted mayhem being entirely expected of him at the time).

"Pussyfoot" Johnson (LOC)

This image of Johnson (dated 4/24/20) does not, by itself, appear to provide much information. He certainly doesn’t look like a fellow who once had a bounty on his head. It’s just a picture of guy sitting at a desk, oddly wide-eyed. It is a rather unremarkable image, perhaps rendered a bit comic by his expression, in which half of his face appears surprised.

Would it be more informative to a viewer who knew his name? It would! A viewer familiar with the name and the time period might understand that his right eye is perpetually wide because it’s made of glass. How did he lose the eye? So, yeah — funny story…

For the full tale, I recommend reading both Dr. Grenfell’s introduction and Ch. 10 of F. A. McKenzie’s “Pussyfoot” Johnson: Crusader — Reformer — A Man Among Men (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920), a charming bit of popular hagiography written in praise of Pussyfoot. Short version: It involved being kidnapped from a speaking engagement, pelted with small bags of flour and the occasional rock, and hauled along the streets of London by a mob of rowdy university students the year before this picture was taken. The riot was meant to be a bit of “ragging” (hazing, really) by the students of UCL, King’s, and St. Bart’s, who put aside other rivalries in the name of their shared cause; the students objected, as one might imagine, to Mr. Johnson’s presence as a source of support and encouragement for the local British temperance crusaders. It’s worth noting that the biographer Mr. McKenzie (as Grenfell points out in his introduction to the text — see p. 7) was actually the chair of the meeting from which Pussyfoot was so perilously purloined, so he had a front-row seat (actually, an on-stage seat) for the show; he was in fact also “kidnapped” by the students.

As McKenzie tells it, the students sang, chanted, and brought along assorted banners and signs, which came out when they finally captured their prohibitionist prize and started their parade. They tried to get to Pussyfoot before the meeting, but that clever fellow lived up to his nickname and snuck past them by mingling with the audience going in, so they actually staged their flour-bagging inside the meeting as a part of their ragging raid. McKenzie notes one sign/banner in particular:

Banner text from McKenzie's biography of Pussyfoot Johnson

The medical students got their rhyme on. Who says the humanities aren’t good for something? (McKenzie, 160)


The rock throwing, all witnesses agree, was when things got a bit out of hand — the students themselves had only intended some light hazing, not serious physical harm, and the rock apparently came from some outsider in the crowd. Pussyfoot himself “entered into the spirit of the proceedings” once it became clear to him that the students were just messing with him (160), and was fine enough until the rock hit him; even after, he was at pains to inform reporters that “there [was] no ill will” on his part toward the students.

In Dr. Grenfell’s view, this behavior (and the glass eye) marked Pussyfoot as “a sportsman in the very best English sense of the term” (5). Dr. Grenfell’s introduction, as it happens, provides a comment that could stand as an excellent caption for the otherwise unremarkable photo of Pussyfoot above:

When Mr. Johnson was to appear on a public platform after the cowardly assault made upon him, his enemies expected to see him wearing a “black patch” to invite sympathy, as did Long John Silver in Treasure Island. But they reckoned without their man. “Pussyfoot” was a real sportsman. He needed no mollycoddling methods to bolster up his ideals. He refrained from appearing in public until he could wear such a good artificial eye that his audience found it difficult to beleve [sic] he had ever lost his real one. That we loved. It was the straight, sporting spirit (5-6).

While it’s entirely unlikely that the people whose lives he made difficult as both a liquor reformer and as an Indian agent (spoiler alert: Indian agents were justifiably unpopular with native people as a rule, and Pussyfoot was by all reports the sort of moralizing, missionary Indian agent who did not make friends among native people) would be terribly impressed by what a good sport Pussyfoot was, one can’t help at least respecting the chutzpah that characterized Pussyfoot’s entire public life. One wide-eyed, unremarkable picture doesn’t do his audacity justice.


About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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