Comedy, Mel Brooks said, is when you fall down a manhole and die; tragedy is when I stub my toe. That dictum of what is and isn’t funny applies to one of the most bizarre true-crime stories in Nashville history: the 18-year rampage of the man known simply as the Footstomper.
Starting in the late 1960s, a black North Nashvillian named George Mitchell launched a one-man war upon the feet of local women. Clad in hard black dress shoes, Mitchell would sidle up to his victims and bring his wooden heel down hard on the tender bones of their insteps. To the women, it was thinly veiled sexual aggression. It also hurt like hell.
To the Nashville media, though, it was a joke that never got old. For 18 years, the Footstomper inspired bored copy editors to smirky headlines such as “Foot Stomper Gets Boot Again” and “Cools Heels in Jail.” News anchors, scarcely hiding their amusement, couldn’t wait to report his latest attack. He gave them plenty of chances. By the mid-1980s, Mitchell had been arrested more than 40 times. In the 15 years between 1970 and 1985, he spent all but 11 months in jail.
At the height of his notoriety, however, the Footstomper vanished. The story faded, except in the memory of beat reporters and former victims. Mitchell himself seemed to have slipped quietly into obscurity. His whereabouts were neither known nor discussed.
“Some people do cross-stitch; I do documentaries,” says Demetria Kalodimos, the writer, producer and director of Injurious George, an hour-long film making its premiere 1 p.m. Saturday at the Nashville Independent Film Festival. One of Kalodimos’ first assignments, as a rookie reporter new to Nashville in 1984, was to cover the Footstomper’s court appearances for WSMV-Channel 4. In Injurious George, the now-WSMV anchor tracks down the notorious ’Stomper to find the secrets behind his compulsion.
“He was not vicious or mean,” says Kalodimos, who worked on the film for two years. “But there was an anger component and a sexual component. He’s still remorseful about parts of it. He’s always been completely honest about doing it. He never plead not guilty.”
To the kids in the John Henry Haile Homes where he grew up, George Mitchell was not known as the Footstomper. His nickname, Kalodimos says, was “Kill.” (He loved shooting at things.) He was raised by his grandmother, a Belle Meade domestic employee, and he quit school in seventh grade. But the lean, slippery kid proved adept at shoplifting at an early age. As a pre-teen, he mastered the art of stealing BB guns, whisking them down his pants leg, nosing the barrel through a pre-cut hole in his pocket.
Once puberty set in, a switch seems to have been thrown in Mitchell’s head. The teenage Mitchell would frequent college campusesplaces like Vanderbilt and Belmont, “where he desperately wanted to fit in,” Kalodimos explains. Dressed as a student, he would slam a heavy objecta brick, an iron clock, a can of tinned grapefruitdown on a woman’s foot. The attack was supposedly a setup for purse snatching.
It became clear Mitchell was more interested in feet than purses. In 1966, a woman from Greenbriar accused him of stomping her foot three times at three different stores in Nashville’s Church Street shopping district. He was sentenced to a year at the state training school. No sooner was he released than he stepped up his attacks. Police couldn’t keep up. In 1968, he was arrested for one charge before police could even process two more claims.
By this time, Mitchell was 19. He would spend most of his youth in jail, emerging only to stomp againsometimes within minutes of his release. In the Greyhound bus depot in 1983, he strode in after midnight wearing a three-piece suit and a red rose in his lapel, then stomped three women and ran before a security guard tagged him. Victims told Kalodimos he would apologize profusely. He said the experience gave him no pleasure. His stomach would clench, his body shake. Next thing he’d know, he was going downtown. “I’d rather be dead than stomp on another woman’s foot,” he told Tennessean reporter Dwight Lewis in 1985. “It’s uncontrollable.”
So why did he do it? The psychiatrists Kalodimos interviewed have several answers. Obsessive compulsion. Intermittent explosive disorder. Not surprisingly, a foot fetish stoked his fire. No doubt there was a racial component as well. Many of Mitchell’s victims were blonde white womenthe sort who might have attended the schools he couldn’t, or who might have set his grandmother to work scouring floors. “I have to say,” then-district attorney Tom Shriver remarked, “that he has exquisite taste in women.”
But that’s too easy. Mitchell himself said that he stomped his fair share of black women. The difference was, they wouldn’t prosecute. Enough women would, however, that Mitchell was branded a public nuisance. He was unemployable in his North Nashville neighborhood.
In 1985, Kalodimos learned, he was basically run out of town by prosecutors and police, who made it clear that if he stuck around he would face hard prison time. Overnight, the Footstomper began to recede from the city’s headlines and broadcasts.
In 2000, after completing her documentary Friends Seen and Unseen, Kalodimos began the two-year process of making Injurious George. She talked to Mitchell’s acquaintances and relatives. She talked to victims and detectives. She obtained Mitchell’s elementary school records. Special help came from peerless Nashville newshound Larry Brinton, formerly of rival WTVF-Channel 5, who had covered the ’Stomper for the Nashville Banner. “There’s nothing better than a friend and colleague who’s retired,” Kalodimos says, “and Larry was calling every day with new leads.” She set up a makeshift editing bay in her garage and started working with editor Carlos Torres and her boyfriend, musician Verlon Thompson, who narrated the film.
As much as Kalodimos relishes describing this process, she initially remains coy on one point: whether she actually found George Mitchell. Then the story gets the better of her. Earlier this year, 10 minutes before a 5 p.m. newscast, she was set to go live when her cell phone rang. Suddenly, with no time to talk, she found herself speaking directly to the man she had pursued for two years. Word of the project had finally reached George Mitchell. In March, the two sat face to face for a two-and-a-half-hour interview.
And? “He is a delightful person, a real gentleman,” Kalodimos says, laughing. “He’s funny, he’s clever, he knows how to keep you engaged in conversation. He’s got good manners.” Talking about the sexual component of his crimes, she recalls, “he was concerned about offending me!” Now a father and grandfather, he has turned his life around, for reasons he makes clear in the documentary, Kalodimos says. His one stipulation was that the film not reveal his whereabouts. “He is out of state and not in jail,” she says, “and that’s all I’ll say.”
Well, almost all. Did she take any precautions? After all, she was meeting the Jack the Ripper of podiatry, the man who left an 18-year wake of bruised toes and broken arches. How does one prepare for an encounter with the Footstomper? Demetria Kalodimos’ reply is a lot more deadpan than the anchors who covered him back in the day.
“Well,” she says, “I was wearing hiking boots.”