Early on Christmas morning, in the year 1900 in the city of St. Louis, an old man with a long gray beard and shoulder-length hair wandered north on North Grand Avenue, leaning on a cane as a brisk cold wind stung his face and whipped his coat.
Sitting at the front window of 3615 North Grand — the home of butcher Edward Ladain and his wife, Lulu — seven-year-old Elizabeth watched the old man with growing amazement.
Who would be outside on such chill morn were it not Santa Claus himself, weary from a night of hard toil and on his way home?
Little Elizabeth and other children in the house — their names lost to history — opened the door, and invited Santa inside to warm himself.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then an afternoon newspaper, recounted in a story published Dec. 25 (“Mistook Him for Old Santa Claus“): “The old man paused, then he entered. He mumbled something and shivered with the cold. The children bade him be seated before the big fire in the grate. He looked with vacant eyes at the demonstration of his little hosts. He could not divine the cause. It was so different from the other receptions he had had.”
Mrs. Ladain, hearing the children, looked in the front room, spotted the stranger and began to question him. He gave no answer, and looked confused. She called for a police officer, who took the man to City Hospital for observation. There, his clothing was searched and a railroad ticket from Abington, Virginia, to Grinnell, Iowa, was discovered. Pressed, the old man gave his name as John Henry Pippin, and said he was planning to be with his son on Christmas.
Pippin could not explain how or why he’d wandered three miles away from Union Station in the bitter cold.
“The doctors questioned him kindly, but his answers showed that he did not comprehend,” the Post-Dispatch concluded in its report.
There would be no more newspaper stories about John Henry Pippin.
John Henry Pippin, records show, lived only five days after little Elizabeth showed him a last kindness. The old man died on Dec. 30, 1900 at City Hospital, apparently never regaining his senses. His death certificate gave his age as 71 and listed senility as the chief cause of death, with alcoholism as a contributing factor. He was buried on New Year’s Eve at New Picker Cemetery, now the city-owned Gatewood Gardens Cemetery on Gravois Road. The grave is unmarked.
It’s unclear whether his family — including veterinarian Robert Craig Pippin, the son in Iowa he had intended to see — ever learned what had happened.
Not many years would pass before Elizabeth married a man named David Prosser. They had two sons. The family moved to Kansas City and Chicago, where David worked as a barber. Elizabeth died a widow in Tampa in 1983 at the ripe old age of 90.
The surname Ladain appears as Laidain in some records. Photograph is titled “Caught in the act,” created in 1900, from the Library of Congress collection. Becki Larson provided information about Gatewood Gardens.