A letter written by Fort Lauderdale citizen August Burghard, dated Dec. 12, 1938, begins:
“The picturesque old Indian, Charlie Tommie, who was known to hundreds of Fort Lauderdale and South Florida residents and tourists as ‘Shirt-tail Charlie,’ died several years ago with so much misinformation and misunderstanding heaped upon him that today his name is legend in this part of the tourist world.”
Burghard wrote that the truth he was disclosing came from Mrs. Frank Stranahan, who was “well familiar with Charlie Tommie.”
Well, that’s it, no less than the first lady of our city will sort out fact and fiction.
Who was that barefooted Seminole figure who wandered the streets wearing a woman’s dress of bright colors “which flapped about his ankles in the wind?”
The fiction, according to Burghard, was that a Seminole court, “following a corn dance,” sentenced Charlie to live alone outside the tribe for the crime of murder. Later embellishments had him murdering his own wife.
According to Ivy Stranahan, no such thing happened. His wife died of natural causes. How did she know? Well, not only was she acquainted with many Seminoles, but her husband and city father Frank, who did just about everything else in town, buried Charlie’s wife himself. Charlie’s grief, she said, came from another source: “fermented liquors.”
It wasn’t because he came from a disadvantaged family; indeed, he was from the famous Tommie family. His father’s brother was Dr. Tommie, the leading Seminole in South Florida at the time.
Charlie was 30 when his first wife died, at the prime of his life as a hunter and woodsman. But he took to drink, and it took to him. After that he became, in Burghard’s words, “a genial sort of derelict, a South Florida version of Rip Van Winkle, a victim of liquor and the influences of the white man’s civilization.”
He loafed around town, the object of white man’s charity. He would pick up coconuts or anything he could find to sell, doing “a good job of apologetic begging.”
He said he needed foot medicine, but what he really sought was “firewater.” Stories were told of shocked citizens witnessing Charlie bathing in the New River, as if it was the Ganges. Or, during the rainy season, crawling under raised houses to sleep.
Yet he didn’t spawn copycats, so as a lone, genial and good-natured character, the town adopted him. Photos of him appeared everywhere, in newspapers, on postcards, even hanging in bars. Photographs on file at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society of that famous “dress” are in black and white, but most show what looks like the long, mid-thigh shirts worn by men in Afghanistan or India. The difference between them and Charlie, as the Letterman line goes, is that Charlie was “not wearing pants.” One myth was that each year the tribe made Charlie cut an inch off the hem. No proof of that, say published reports.
Burghard calls his case “a symbol of what happens to Indians and members of other rugged races who take up white man’s more decadent customs.” Charlie died in 1925 at the age of 60, according to Broward historian Stuart McIver, who wrote that he was found lying face down in a puddle.
Yet he was such a symbol that the city once named a street after him, and later on a long-running bar and restaurant on the New River boasted his name.
And we’re still writing stories about him.