The Bag Lady

You may not recognize the name, but Elaine Higgins was a fixture in downtown Toledo for many years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sadly, she was better known as “The Bag Lady.” She, her shopping cart, and her multitude of bags were not an uncommon sight in the central business district, either on the move, or hunkered down into an alcove of a closed building. I was one of many who, no doubt, knew very little about her otherwise.

Mostly, people put up with her. Then, as now, unfortunately, the more fortunate went about their business and paid her and the other homeless in downtown Toledo no mind. But by the mid-1980s there was an effort to find a stable environment for her. It started mostly around the opening of the Hotel Sofitel at 444 N. Summit St. in the spring of 1985.

“Shortly after the opening of Hotel Sofitel, Mr. (Michael) Hill (general manager of the hotel) and other tenants in new buildings along the riverfront complained about her presence on Summit Street. The complaints led to more than a dozen arrests,” according to The Blade.

By late summer that year, the Associated Press wrote this story that reported Higgins was being arrested repeatedly.

A 60-year-old woman who lives in downtown alleys and doorways is being arrested repeatedly for minor violations because police say they have to follow up on complaints about her and she refuses to give up her “bag lady” life style.

Elaine Higgins has become perhaps the most well-known homeless person in the city since she began living in the streets about 10 years ago, say police who arrested her Tuesday just six hours after she was released from jail after serving five days for a loitering conviction.

Police Chief John Mason said he has ordered officers to arrest her whenever she is seen breaking the law, because her presence and the large collection of bottles, bags, umbrellas and other possessions she carries with her are sparking citizens’ complaints.

The story also said Downtown Toledo Associates, a disbanded business group, asked the county Probate Court to commit her to the Toledo Mental Health Center but was told Higgins wasn’t a risk to anyone.

She had been arrested at least 23 times in the previous 15 years on charges of loitering, criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, public indecency, disturbing the peace, shoplifting, intoxication and soliciting.

According to the Toledo Lucas County Public Library’s Images in Time website, this is a photo of Elaine Higgins in front of the Bostwick-Braun Building at Monroe and Summit, circa 1975. I would put this photo sometime in the 1980s, however. Courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, obtained from http://images2.toledolibrary.org/.

Part of the effort was an April 1, 1986 fundraiser, held at Theo’s Taverna on Summit St. There, 200 people, at $25 a head, helped create a fund for Higgins she could use as long as stayed off the streets, which she had since February of 1986 (the story didn’t say where, however).

“We’ve got judges. We’ve got prosecutors. We’ve got bankers, businessmen, even some Irishmen. And they’re all here to say they care about street people in general and Elaine Higgins in particular,” according to her attorney, Peter Wagner (who was also an organizer of the event).

Not Hill, however. “There are many street people who I feel sympathy for, but I don’t feel that much sympathy for Higgins,” Hill told The Blade. This letter writer to The Blade felt the same way.

“Mrs. Higgins, who can still be seen wandering downtown streets some days, showed up only briefly last night. Shortly before 6 p.m., she was seen under the overhang of a building at Lafayette and Summit streets,” The Blade said.

Higgins was also a Blade reader according to Blade veteran Mike Bartell, who recalled in an article for the University of Toledo Alumni eMagazine: 

We had a notorious bag lady who lived downtown named Elaine Higgins. She had issues, caused trouble downtown and I wrote a lot about Elaine. One of the things that would absolutely fascinate me is I would be walking down the street and Elaine would stop me. She would either compliment me on the article that I had written about her or be very critical of the article, but she was reading my stuff.

Six years to the day after that fundraiser, Higgins died of cancer at the age of 66. It was front-page news the next day in The Blade. Her obituary filled in the blanks.

Elaine Elizabeth Higgins was born in 1925 in East Toledo. In 1927 she moved to Arletta Street in then-Washington Township (Wernert’s Corners area). She attended Wernert Elementary and attended Whitmer High School but did not graduate. Around 1940, she met and married John Higgins (she would have been 14 or 15 years old at the time). Around the time of her marriage, the obituary said, she suffered severe head injuries in an automobile accident.

During the war, she inspected Jeeps at Willys-Overland. Her husband was killed in action in April 1945 while serving with the U.S. Army in Germany. In the 1950s she was a barmaid and manager of the Lorelyn Ranch bar on Monroe St. near Sylvania Ave.

Higgins lived with her father until just before he died in 1961 and lived periodically in mental institutions, being discharged for the last time in 1975. But living in apartments didn’t suit her. “It just got to be too much, honey,” she told a reporter. “I said, maybe if I go live downtown, things will be better.”

“She ended up out in the street, and that was it,” her brother, Norman Haas of South Bend, Ind., told The Blade’s Tom Troy. “We tried to help her.”

The obituary went on to describe how most Toledoans remember her:

Her shopping cart, her tattered clothing, and her abrasive personality made her a center of controversy and a symbol of the predicament of the homeless.

A familiar sight, she often was found nestled under blankets, preferring empty parking garages, doorways and sidewalks to anything that reminded her of an institution.

Several layers of clothing, a tattered glove, and a ragged hat were her year-round wardrobe. She could be menacing, casting angry looks and foul words at anyone she saw as a threat.

A 2017 story out of Wauseon tells a completely different story, and you can take it for what it’s worth. The Blade’s obituary, for example, does not mention Higgins losing her entire family in a fire.

But one thing is true, as The Blade wrote in an editorial April 3: “She could not be ignored, and will long be remembered.”

One Comment

  1. Paul M

    Wow…I have not thought about “the Bag Lady” in decades. I saw her often downtown, and like a lot of people, was on the receiving end of a string of obscenities from her when I walked by her once (my old man worked downtown, and several times he saw her defecating right in the gutter). People tried to help her all the time–she didn’t want it. That aspect of her story would probably get lost (or deliberately ignored) if her story was told in the paper today. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t make it next-to-impossible to lock up someone long-term who’s mentally ill and a menace…and then complain that they’re out on the street and bemoan the fact that no one is helping them. A lot of people would say, “Thank goodness we see things differently today about these people,”…but I bet some citizens of San Francisco, for example, would now agree with the old ways.

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