Eddie “The Monkey Man” Bernstein: a Rags to Riches Story

Eddie Bernstein with his monkey, Gypsy, ca. 1936.
Eddie Bernstein with his monkey, Gypsy, ca. 1936. Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post

Somewhere in Aspin Hill Memorial Park lie the remains of a monkey named Gypsy, the companion of a legless beggar on the streets of Washington, D.C. How a panhandler was able to afford a funeral and burial in a pet cemetery is an interesting question.

[Update August 2019:  Gypsy’s grave site has been found!]

[Update September 3, 2020:  There were two monkeys named Gypsy, and both were buried at Aspin Hill.]

I was first alerted to the story of Eddie “The Monkey Man” Bernstein while reading an article written in 1979 in the Montgomery Journal. It was five years after S. Alfred Nash, former owner of the cemetery, had passed away. The reporter interviewed Nash’s widow, Martha, who was still running the cemetery at the time.

Mrs. Nash told the story of a monkey buried in Aspin Hill that belonged to a legless beggar on the street in Washington, D.C. She recalled giving her children coins to give to the monkey, who entertained them with antics and then handed his take over to the beggar. At the end of the story, she shook her head and said, “I used to feel so sorry for him sitting there on the street…Shoot, the man had more money than I got.”

Edward Bernstein was born around 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia to Russian Jewish immigrant parents who later moved the family to Pensacola, Florida. It was there, when Eddie was eleven years old, that he lost his legs while playing on the train tracks.  An engine pulling two box cars ran over him, leaving his legs so mangled that they were amputated above the knee. It was thought that he would not survive.

Apparently, Eddie pulled through. In October 1911, his father successfully sued the L&N Railroad. According to the Pensacola Journal, which reported on the accident, Eddie’s father Nathan Bernstein received over $12,000 in damages. The following year, Eddie was sent to Atlanta, Georgia, where he was fitted for prosthetic legs.

Just before Christmas of 1911, the Pensacola Journal published two dozen letters that some local children had written to Santa Claus. One of them was Eddie Bernstein, who was about 13 years old at the time. Among the things that he asked for was “a monkey on a string.”  Many years later, he would get his wish.

Eddie Bernstein began showing up in Washington, D.C. in 1936. At first, he had a dog for a companion as he plied his trade, selling newspapers or pencils, and asking for handouts. His usual post was on the sidewalk in the 1200 block of F Street NW. There, it was said, he charmed many a wealthy lady. When his dog Snowball, a white Spitz, died, Eddie was given a Capuchin monkey by one of the richest women in Washington. His benefactor, Evalyn Walsh McLean, owned both the Washington Post and the Hope Diamond. Eddie named his monkey Gypsy.  Gypsy died on January 7, 1941, and was buried at Aspin Hill.  However, he soon acquired another monkey who he also named Gypsy.

Eddie only worked as a panhandler half the year, spending the other half in Florida. That alone should have tipped people off that he was no ordinary beggar, and perhaps not in need of their generosity. While he was in Florida, Eddie would leave Gypsy in the care of the National Zoo.

During their early years together, Eddie and Gypsy encountered trouble with the authorities. While the city commissioners were okay with Eddie’s dog accompanying him on the streets, it was not so with Gypsy the monkey. Eddie was told that he would have to pay a $1 per day fee for displaying a “wild animal” on the streets. Eventually, pleading that the fee would bankrupt him, Eddie was able to get the fee waived.

As early as 1957, articles in the Washington Post and Evening Star newspapers alluded to the possibility that Eddie was worth a lot more money than it appeared. The sources were usually other beggars, who were sometimes dismissed as being jealous of Eddie’s success. But there was one time that he gave himself away.

In 1959, Eddie fell ill from an overdose of medicine. Worried friends broke into his bleak apartment because he hadn’t been seen at his usual post selling pencils while sitting on a wooden platform on wheels. They whisked him away, unconscious, to D.C. General Hospital because it was assumed that he was indigent. When he regained consciousness, he asked where the sweatshirt he had been wearing had gone, saying that there was a lot of money in it. Eventually, the hospital staff produced it, sealed in a plastic bag. Pinned to the inside of the sweatshirt was $2,350 in cash.

At some point in the early 1960s, one of Eddie’s arms became paralyzed, and he could no longer control Gypsy. Eddie gave him up to the National Zoo permanently. In 1965, while Eddie was vacationing in Europe, the director of the Zoo decided that Gypsy had to go. One reason was that a Capuchin is not a particularly unusual species of monkey. The other reason was that Gypsy had to be kept in a separate cage because for most of his life, he had lived among humans. He and the other monkeys could not get along.

When Eddie returned from Europe, there was a letter waiting for him, informing him that he had to come to the Zoo and claim Gypsy. In response, Eddie did what any well-connected Washingtonian would do: he wrote a letter of complaint to the White House. An aide to President Johnson assured Eddie that Gypsy could stay at the Zoo as long as he lived.

Eddie Bernstein near 12th and F Streets NW, December 17, 1972. Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post
Eddie Bernstein near 12th and F Streets NW, December 17, 1972. Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post

In 1972, a fellow panhandler was featured in an article in the Washington Post. It was an in-depth story of Wilbur Davis’ predicament of being injured on the job and unable to support himself and his wife. In the course of the interview, Davis mentioned some of the other panhandlers he had met while working the streets. He told the reporter about the various gimmicks that beggars used to attract attention and money. He specifically mentioned Eddie and his monkey.  He went on to say that he and Eddie had become friends and that Eddie had confided in him that he owned several homes in Florida, a Cadillac, and pair of artificial legs.

Eddie was livid at this revelation and called Davis a liar. He contacted the newspaper to deny the story that he was rich.  He was sore because since the story had come out, he was making less money. Eddie asked the reporter, “If I had money and property, do you think I’d be sitting out in the cold all day? … If you think begging’s a good life, just try it.”

Eddie Bernstein at the grave site of his monkey, Gypsy. Aspin Hill Cemetery for Pet Animals.
Eddie Bernstein at the grave site of his monkey, Gypsy. Aspin Hill Cemetery for Pet Animals. Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post

Gypsy died in 1976, and was buried in Aspin Hill Cemetery for Pet Animals. The funeral was covered by the Evening Star newspaper, and featured colorful quotes by Eddie himself. “I really missed the monkey when I had to give him up. After all, we lived together for 25 years. I mean, you get attached to a pet when he’s all you have. I used to visit him often at the zoo, bringing him grapes and peaches. He knew me right up to the last time I saw him alive, about two weeks ago.”

Eddie was also asked about his lifestyle, particularly when he was not in Washington. The article closed with,  “In Pensacola, Bernstein does not ‘work’ the streets. He has ‘other business interests’ to look after, but he prefers not to discuss them. ‘It would hurt my business up here. You know what I mean? Everyone loves me anyway, but, well, you know how it is.'”

When Eddie died unexpectedly in Florida in February 1979, the truth was revealed. As a panhandler, Eddie sometimes took in as much as $100 dollars a day and would deposit the money in an investment account. His estate was worth $691,676. He owned a topless bar, a delicatessen, a house, a Cadillac, and a pair of artificial legs — just as his former friend Wilbur Davis had said. In Florida, Eddie was a dapper dresser, wearing a jaunty hat and and a fashionable suit which covered up his artificial legs.  He would sit outside the bar he owned, greeting customers and occasionally paying for drinks for everyone in the joint.

The story of Eddie the Monkey Man is not your usual rags-to-riches story. On the one hand, I admire his resourcefulness, especially considering his disability. On the other hand, he deceived a lot of people like Martha Nash who probably wouldn’t have given him their spare change if they’d known he was so well-off.  He didn’t seem to give a thought to the other beggars on the street who needed the money more than he did.

Whatever the lessons are from this tale, there is one thing I know for sure.  Aspin Hill Memorial Park has proved yet again to be the source of a fascinating story, one that ties it to the life and times of the Washington, D.C. area.

Update: August 19, 2019

I recently located Gypsy’s grave.   John Kelly, of the Washington Post, has written a two-part series on Eddie Bernstein.  Here are links to Part 1 and  Part 2.Grave stone of Gypsy. Aspin Hill Memorial Park.

Grave stone of Gypsy. Aspin Hill Memorial Park.

Gypsy Pet of 
Eddie Bernstein
For 39 Years
Aspin Hill Memorial Park
Section 15, Lot 351

Sources Consulted

Ahlers, Mike. “Fuzzy Companions Rest in Peace at Aspin Hill,” Montgomery Journal, December 28, 1979.

“White Boy Run Over by Freight Train,” Pensacola Journal, April 11, 1911. pg. 3.

“Bernsteins Get Damages from L&N,” Pensacola Journal, October 31, 1911. pg. 6.

“Crippled Newsboy Must Pay $1 a Day To Display Simian,” Washington Post, July 1, 1939. pg. 1.

“Legless Man Asks Exemption From Monkey Tax,” Washington Post, July 11, 1939. pg. 1.

“Legless Vender Need Not Pay Tax To Exhibit Simian,” Washington Post, July 29, 1939. pg. 7.

“Eddie and Gypsy Happy; Can Roam Streets Together,” Washington Post, August 9, 1939. pg. 13.

“Eddie’s Monkey, Gypsy, Is Dead.” Washington Post, January 8, 1941. p. 15.

“The Story of a City and Its Beggars – Sympathy, Silver Keep Them Going,” Evening Star, May 19, 1957. pg. 10.

“$2350 Found Pinned to Sweatshirt of Hospitalized Legless Pencil Seller,” Washington Post, January 30, 1959. pg. A1.

“Eddie’s Plea to White House Stalls Eviction of His Veteran Simian Aide,” Washington Post, October 17, 1965. pg. B4.

Whitaker, Joseph D. “Begging Is His Business,” Washington Post, November 23, 1972. pg. B1.

“Beggar Not Rich, He Says,” Washington Post, December 1, 1972. pg. B4.

Sherwood, John. “Dean of Panhandlers Mourns His Monkey,” Evening Star, October 9, 1976. pg. 3.

“Rags and Riches: Panhandler ‘Eddie the Monkey Man’ Leaves Fortune in D.C. and Florida,” Washington Post, March 1, 1979. pg. A1.

10 thoughts on “Eddie “The Monkey Man” Bernstein: a Rags to Riches Story”

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying all the stories you are finding. I have lived 5 minutes away from this place most of my life and have never given it much thought. That has all changed. I will be visiting soon and truly look forward to all your writings on this location. Thank you!

      1. That is true – it is “Aspin Hill” – it was named after a dog kennel in England – to the perpetual confusion of those knowing it’s located in Aspen Hill, MD.

  2. I remember this guy and the monkey. What a conniver! Think of the pity aroused in children and adults for his condition. Did he ever donate money to truly needy individuals? He may have had property but he never had regards for others. As a kid I would see him and ache for his plight!!

  3. I too was fooled as a child, though the monkey was entertaining. Could not believe the truth after Eddie passed. (Reeves Candies was my favorite downtown destination, so we saw him regularly. Often wondered where he was when not there).

  4. Eddie a beggar? No! He sold pencils and I bought some. And those comments critical of his success. Where’s the sympathy? The guy had no legs most of his life. I think his daily struggle was more than most, and he got out there and took care of himself and two Gypsys. He led an admirable life in spite of a huge handicap.

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