Herbie Worried No One Would Mourn Him; Indy Showed him Otherwise
*Editor’s note—in formatting this article for publication, I desperately tried to find a picture of Herbie Wirth. After hours of searching, I could not find a single one. Not one.
By Mary Giorgio
For over 25 years, an unassuming man wandered the streets of Indianapolis’s Northside, peddling household wares. Armed with two shopping bags and an ever-present smile, Herbie Wirth developed a reputation for being a kind and honest man.
In 1944, Herbie’s adventures as a street peddler began after he lost his job at a local dry goods store at the age of 57. Herbie sold small household wares, including washcloths, potholders, and shoelaces. Everything was sold for $.25.
Herbie walked the Northside streets six days a week, from 9 AM to 6 PM. He took no lunch break, never owned a car, and once estimated that he had walked more than 50,000 miles as a street peddler.
A circuit around the Northside took Herbie about four months to complete. He saw most customers three times a year. His one exception was Meridian Street—because Herbie had so many customers there, he made a special trip down Meridian Street. once a month.
Herbie’s sales amounted to about $25 a day. He typically sold about 40 dishrags, 35 washcloths, and 25 pot scrapers, along with a few miscellaneous items.
Many of his customers never suspected that Herbie was a lonely old man with no family or close friends. When he died of a heart attack on January 30, 1971, the only telephone number the coroner could find to call was that of a newspaper man by the name of Thomas Keating. He had interviewed Herbie for a story a few years earlier.
Herbie had pre-paid his funeral arrangements at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. His greatest fear was that no one would come to his burial. Having expressed this worry to Keating years earlier, the reporter recalled Herbie’s wishes. He wrote a beautiful newspaper article in the Indianapolis Star, urging readers to come to the burial.
The day of Herbie’s burial was bitterly cold and snowy. Much to everyone’s surprise, over 1000 people showed up at Crown Hill Cemetery to pay their respects. Some were former customers, while others had never met the man. It was one of the biggest funerals in the history of Crown Hill Cemetery. Many people had to park a mile away and walk through the snow to reach the gravesite. A historic cemetery bell that hadn’t been rung since the 1930s was called into service for the occasion.
Herbie never would have guessed that so many people would turn out to celebrate his life. In Indianapolis lore, the remarkable turnout for the burial of Herbie Wirth is remembered as a true expression of the goodness of humanity. A portrait of Herbie, painted by local artist Bob Willis, hangs in the Crown Hill Cemetery. It honors the spirit of the street peddler who once graced the streets of Indianapolis’s Northside.