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The University of Leeds
University College of Ripon and York St. John


The American Hobo

by Colin Beesley


Introduction | History | Romance And Reality | Hobo Culture | Cultural Representations Of The Hobo | Conclusion | Glossary | Appendices | Bibliography  | Endnotes


I took a freight train to be my friend, O lord,
You know I hoboed, hoboed, hoboed,
Hoboed a long long way from home, O lord,

Hobo Blues by J.L. Hooker

Americas's hoboes, or at least the legacy of them, continues to generate a fascination and resonance within the minds of many Americans. The contemporary television program The Littlest Hobo, and the 35,000 tourists who flock to the Hobo convention in Britt, Iowa each August attests to this enduring appeal.

However, the hobo remains something of an enigma. For many Americans the word "Hobo" is replete with contrasting and often contradictory images. To some the hobo is a harmless n'er-do-well, for others a sinister vagrant. He is seen as a "reckless, perambulating soldier of fortune" or as a "waste product", a drunken bum littering the sidewalks in the less salubrious quarters of America's cities such as Chicago's Hobohemia. Most certainly these superficial impressions of the hobo are compounded by his invisibility, because for the most part his life is lived beyond the redoubts of the settled society from which he is often alienated and excluded. Moreover, this view of the hobo is further complicated because as Feied (1964,19) asserts:

"In the cities, necessity forces them to seek out the cheaper slum lodgings or eating and drinking places... To the uninitiated eye the tramp and the hobo are all but indistinguishable, and to a certain extent the same may be said of the bum."

This perhaps begs the question, what is a hobo?, and what differentiates them from a tramp and a bum? Probably the most succinct definition and one with which most hoboes agree, is that of Dr Ben L. Reitman who stated that: "The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders and the bum drinks and wanders." (Anderson 1923, 87) Most hoboes are unanimous in that they are committed to the work ethic, as Road Hog (1997) a hobo for over forty years insists, "Real hoboes are workers...". To be sure there are some differences in emphasis, some "worked to be on the road" and others were "on the road to work". Whatever their motivations they became part of a distinct caste, that of the hobo. Equally important and fundamental to any delineation of the hobo, and an aspect which is seldom included in attempts to define them, is the use of the train. For the hoboes the train was their primary method of transport as they ranged across the country in search of work. From this most hoboes developed an intimate connection with, and knowledge of, trains and the railroad network. It is with these men and women who utilized the railroads to search for work, that this study is primarily concerned with.

This study's overriding aim is to dispel the simplistic and superficial view of the hobo. Further, it seeks to demonstrate that the hoboes are a much more vital, complex and interesting group than the popular and delusive images suggest. Additionally it will endeavour to illuminate the hoboes' important contributions to American society and culture.



The Harvest is truly plenteous,
but the labourers are few;
Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest,
that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.

Matthew 9:37, 38

Both Allsop (1967) and Anderson view the hobo as occupying a unique position in American history and society, inheritors as Mathers (1973) asserts of a mobility intrinsic to American society and, of a migratory work tradition stretching back to the journeymen craftsmen of the colonial era. Throughout this chapter the hobo will be placed within the context and framework of the larger society through which they moved, and upon whose periphery they existed. This will be achieved by an examination of the emergence and development of the hobo, coupled with a discussion of their economic contribution to American society. Furthermore, an exploration of the society's attitude to, and treatment of the hobo will be undertaken.

America in the latter third of the 19th century was a country in the midst of a volatile transition, as the nation underwent the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Concomitant with this was national economic growth, technological expansion and the development of large-scale enterprise. Furthermore it was a period also marked by a rapidly increasing population, urban development, and geographical expansion as the frontier pushed itself westward... These conditions were of fundamental importance to the development of the hobo. For it was during this transitional period lasting from approximately 1870 to 1920 that the hobo would emerge and reach his apogee. A pertinent example of such change is seen in the railroads. Growing from an embryonic 30,000 miles in 1860, reaching 230,000 miles in 1890 and attaining its zenith at 254,000 miles by 1916. This expanding railroad network was of paramount importance to the hobo. It provided them with the opportunity to work upon its construction and as Moon (1997, 5) emphasizes "...the rails they laid... became their means of mobility", and a skeleton upon which the hoboes could travel in search of work in other developing industries, such as construction, mining, timber and agriculture.

Steam Train Maury, a hobo since 1930, locates the birth of the hobo in the immediate post Civil War period asserting, "Hoboing started after the Civil War. The original hoboes were all veterans of the Civil War" (Moon, 35). Giving credence to this assumption is Davis (1984) who proffers evidence of this, suggesting that the earliest known description of a hobo is seen in a 1868 edition of Harpers, which describes freight train riding harvest hands in Minnesota. Whilst agreeing with the substance of these comments, Gordon (1996) implies that the end of the civil war threw a much greater number of people onto the rails than had been there before. Hence they became a much more visible phenomena. There had been, she continues, a hobo vanguard "riding the rattlers" on the foundling railroad network by the early 1860's.

These numbers were to be greatly augmented by the effects of economic depression during the 1870's. This perhaps marks the real creation point of the hobo, for now the unemployed as Allsop (129) states:

"...were heading all ways, to anywhere that rumour attributed pay packets, and for the first time these new unemployed began riding the trains they had themselves manned, or whose tracks they had laid, or whose trucks they had filled. The tramp was in a hurry, and as he began to steal his lifts on the freights he began to turn himself into the hobo".

Such effects were to be repeated in subsequent depressions, particularly those of the 1890's and 1930's. Lomax (1969) views these decades as perhaps the most significant for the hobo in terms of a relatively sudden and large increase in their numbers. Holbrook (1947) suggests that in the 1890's and 1930's approximately 60,000 and 1 million men respectively were hoboes. Other sources flatly dismissed these figures. Allsop posits that the number of hoboes in the late 1890's stood between 500,000 and 1 million. Likewise in 1934 the U S Bureau of Transient Affairs estimated that there were 1.5 million hoboes riding America's freight trains (Potter 1997, 3). These numerical disparities give some indication of the difficulties in determining the hoboes actual numbers, because their nomadism made the accurate collection of such data difficult if not impossible to obtain. Notwithstanding these numerical high points, the hoboes were as Allsop (1967) implies gradually increasing in numbers throughout the period from the 1870's and into the 1920's. By the 1920's Monkonnen sees the hoboes as having reached their peak in terms of their economic worth and cultural development.

Schneider (1984) certainly sees the 1920's and 1930's as transitional years for both the hobo and railroads. Increasingly the hoboes traditional labor markets had been undermined by western population growth. This, Anderson attests, provided a local labor market which usurped many of the hoboes former jobs. Similarly the increasing mechanization of agricultural and industrial processes was undermining the hoboes position. Supporting this conclusion is Jones (1992) who sees mechanization as a deadly blow for the migratory worker. Further credence is added to this assertion by Allsop (344):

"The mechanical mower, the reaper, the gang plough... the hay loader... fewer and fewer human hands were needed for the elaborate machinery rolling fast across the plains. The black shadow of men that swooped upon the corn country steadily faded from its 1915 peak until twenty five years later the labour needed to produce a bushel of wheat had been halved". (see I)

By 1940 Allsop continues, the use of the hobo as a free lance migratory worker had in most areas been almost eliminated. There would still be a need as Jones contends for such workers in agriculture and in other industries. However from this point on they would be required in much smaller numbers and, would increasingly be filled by other kinds of migratory workers such as the Mexicans under the Bracero Program.

Perhaps the greatest blow to the hoboes and to the railroads as Schneider imputes came from the increased availability and use of the automobile and truck, occurring from the mid 1920's onward. For the railroads this increasingly meant a reduction in the number of passengers and freight to be transported. This would ultimately lead to rationalization and a decreasing rail network upon which the hobo could travel. (see II)

Moreover, as Feied and Weiner (1984) assert, much of the migrant work force would now travel by automobile. This they suggest had the effect of reducing even further the numbers that would previously have hoboed to work. Also Schneider argues that the rise of the welfare state in America during this period curtailed much hobo activity. This he implies perhaps gave the hobo less inclination to move around in search of work.

Undoubtedly the 1930's depression as Bird (1966) attests forced a large number of people onto the rails and roads. However, with the coming of World War II and the end of the economic crisis these were quickly reabsorbed into mainstream society. Subsequent developments and changes would also mitigate against the hoboes and their life style. Fishbones (1982) points to the introduction of diesel engines in the 1950's as another factor contributing to the decline of the hobo. Previously most steam engines would have to make regular stops to take on water at track-side water tanks. This allowed hoboes to get on or off trains at these points. Indeed many hobo camps or "jungles" were located beside water tanks. However, the diesel locomotive rendered the water tanks obsolete and, as a consequence, were now travelling much greater distances without having to stop. Moreover, the increased speed of the diesel freight meant that it became much more difficult to board them "on the hop" as the train left a freight yard or climbed a gradient. Allsop likewise cites the increasing use through the 1950's and 1960's of sealed and tamper proof freight cars as a further obstacle to the hobo.

Predictions of the demise of the hobo predate much of these developments. Anderson enunciated this possibility in the early 1920's. More stridently Millburn (1930, xvii) asserted that "...hoboes are anachronisms bound for extinction." Despite the drastic reduction in hobo numbers that Schneider identifies in the 1940's and 1950's, the hobo has persisted. Commentators were still predicting the hoboes demise in the 1960's. However as Allsop, (144) states "...He (the hobo [parenthesis mine]) is not utterly out of business yet. Persistently he has been declared to be".

From the onset of the depression of 1873 the hoboes began to be portrayed as shiftless wanderers, attempting to live off society while contributing nothing to it. For example the Cleveland Leader in 1875 advocated that:

"...The thing to be done is to stop feeding the army of loafers who have taken advantage of the hard times to inflict themselves upon people not too lazy to work." (Allsop, 113)

The Journal of United Labor (JUL) remarked upon this proclivity in 1883:

"These men (Jay Gould and his class [author's parenthesis]) have continually persisted in associating the word tramps with the words vagabond, idler, thief, and, in order not to be stingy with their synonyms, they have thrown the word loafer into the bargain..." (Monkonnen, 144 )

The JUL, like much of the labor press of the period, was attempting to correct this popular misnomer. Indeed as both Weiner and DeLorenzo (1997) assert, the hobo played a fundamental part in America's great period of industrial and agricultural development and expansion, from the end of the Civil War until well into the twentieth century. Allsop supports these conclusions and argues that the hoboes' mobility was an essential and intrinsic component of these developments.

Anderson views the hoboes' contribution to the development of the frontier of the United States as an example of this indispensable role. His view of frontier development as occurring in two distinct waves has since been discredited. However the basic thrust of his argument, that of the hoboes' role in its development, finds support from Moon, who likewise sees the hobo and his labor as a vital component in the frontier's development. Equally Monkonnen postulates that the hobo played a valuable role in the expansion of the cities asserting:

"The completion of the mature urban industrial system of the United states ended the era of intense industrial tramping. In 1870, a sketch of the mature urban system existed, but the infrastructure, the roads, rails, bridges, sewers, water systems, houses and building, had only begun to be built. Once this structure was built and peopled, once it was rationalized ...once it was working smoothly and predictably, the need for tramps would disappear. In once sense tramps were not a reserve army at all, but rather a highly mobile infantry." (7)

The hobo was an antidote to underemployment. In essence, the hoboes were filling a vital gap in the labor market, on the westward advancing frontier and in the growing urban-industrial complexes. The value of their labor to the economy was not lost on the hoboes themselves, as one asserted early in this century:

"...Do you know that this country couldn't exist without us boes! The Northwest's got to have us guys work at lumber in the winter and then Oklahoma's gotta have us work wheat in the summer, and we gotta get there quick or the crop spoils". (Wren 1987, 28)

Likewise, St. John Tucker, a president of the "Hobo College" early this century, stated:

"Upon the labor of the migratory worker [author's italics] all the basic industries depend. He goes forth from the crowded slavemarkets to hew the forests, build and repair the railroads, tunnel mountains and build ravines. His is the labor that harvests the wheat in the fall and cuts the ice in winter. All these men are hobos." (Anderson, 87)

Monkonnen also delineates further benefits to American society as a direct result of the hoboes' mobility and adaptability. He contends that as the hoboes travelled and worked at different occupations, they gained an increasing range of skills and information. Hence as the hobo travelled he was able to utilize his repertoire of skills and disseminate information. This, he continues, enhanced the labor pool and contributed to a more unified work culture.

Notwithstanding the hoboes contribution to the economy, this same economy was also complicit in creating the hobo. The economic cycles of boom and bust would in an almost osmotic process push the hobo away from areas of unemployment and pull them toward areas of underemployment. Furthermore the size of America offering employment opportunities in distant and far flung areas, created a group of people who had to travel to find employment, and who utilized the growing railroad network to reach it. Taylor offers the mid-western wheat harvest as an example stating:

"Farmers first planted wheat, then sought afterwards men who could be detached from home moorings to shift from brief harvest to brief harvest, migrating hundreds of miles in following the ever ripening grain." (Allsop, 331)

The economy had created, as Allsop propounds: "...a new type, matching a new need - migratory workers without ties... ready to accept a succession of irregular and short term employments..." (331) The industrial society or rather Monkonnen suggests the leaders of its industrial enterprises, had created the worker it needed. They were easily hired and, when surplus to requirements, just as easily fired, made in the words of Samuel Gompers "superfluous..." by "the employing class". (144) Feied and Davis likewise view the hobo as the waste products of industrial society. These assumptions do however deny the motivations of many hoboes, a number of whom in their writings recoil at offers of long term employment. Undeniably however, these historians have highlighted the dichotomy of the hoboes and their relationship to America's economy. They were at one and the same time one of the bedrocks of industrial society and, also one of its greatest victims.

These ambiguous attitudes were reflected as Davis implies in the larger societies janus-like attitude to the hobo. They were often welcomed in areas of underemployment or when their labor was required. Allsop posits the mid-western wheat belt areas as exemplifying this attitude. Moreover Gordon argues that particularly in the last quarter of the 19th century, hoboes were often seen as champions of the people. This she contends was because they were seen to be cheating the often unpopular railroad barons out of a fare. Conversely hoboes were viewed as a menace. When unemployment was high or when the hoboes' labor was no longer needed, they were often literally driven out of town. The "Hobo Express" system of the 1930's typifies this kind of treatment. Here groups of local police and public would meet incoming freight trains, and ship out the hoboes in trucks to the county or state line. Discussing this anti-tramp feeling, Davis identifies a waxing and waning of this public attitude, increasing in periods of economic depression and subsiding at times of relative prosperity. Periods of particularly vehement anti-tramp sentiment were seen in the last quarter of the 19th century. This was perhaps at its most heightened in the depression of the 1870's, as a fulminating article in the Chicago Tribune from 1877 demonstrates:

"The simplest plan, ...is to put a little strychnine or arsenic into the meat and other supplies furnished the tramp. This ...is a warning to other tramps to keep out of the neighborhood, keeps the coroner in good humour, and saves one's chickens and other portable property from constant destruction." (Allsop, 110)

Hysteria of this kind resulted in a enactment of repressive anti-tramp laws across America. Many of these replaced existing but much more lax tramp laws. Many of these new laws Davis (161) states "...reproduced some of the most onerous features of the southern black codes in their legislation against tramps". These laws were designed to discourage hoboes from coming into or remaining in a particular area. For example Ohio enacted a law which allowed a sentence of three years in jail for the "offences" of kindling a fire on the highway. Similarly in 1875 New Hampshire passed a law allowing any Justice of the Peace to put tramps to hard labor for six months for simply begging. Anderson contends that these attitudes continued well into the twentieth century. This conclusion is given added weight by London. While hoboing in the 1890's he was "...nabbed by a fee-hunting constable ...sentenced out of hand to thirty days' imprisonment for having no fixed abode and no visible means of support" (Etulain 1979, 100) Davis suggests that much of this attitude emanated from a general ignorance of the relationship of tramping to the economy. A relationship he contends was only gradually perceived through social investigation conducted in the half century between 1880 and 1920.

However, many did identify the connection and challenged as Davis describes the criminalization of poverty. The National Labor Tribune asserted in 1875:

"Who are the tramps and who made them? A tramp is ...an unfortunate man, because he can find no work ...they are products of recent times ...society itself has created every tramp who is compelled to beg...". (Allsop, 118).

Such protests Allsop feels were buried beneath the weight of declarations propounding America's gospel of wealth from the mid-19th century and into the first two or three decades of the 20th century. Poverty was viewed as sinful and indicative of personal sloth and culpability. Furthermore, it preached that wealth and the pursuit of it were divinely sanctioned, as the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts William Lawrence proclaimed "in the long run it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes ...Godliness is in league with riches". (cited in Allsop 1967, 124).

Despite such beliefs becoming obsolete by the 1920's, anti-tramp feelings would persist. Mathers contends that the 1930's was a decade of tolerance towards the hobo. To some extent this is true. Fishbones for example describes in his memoirs incidents of kindness during the 1930's. Conversely as one woman recounted to Terkel (1970, 35):

"My neighbors were angry with my mother because she fed hungry men at the back door. They said it would bring others... It wasn't until years later, I realized the fear people had of these men."

An example of such tolerance is seen in the actions of railroad companies who often attached empty box cars to freight trains to accommodate the large numbers of hoboes. But this was as Lomax (1960) implies a pragmatic tolerance. The railroads were simply hoping to prevent the hoboes breaking into sealed cars. Notwithstanding Mathers contention, official anti-tramp sentiment if anything flourished during the 1930's. Allsop cites the hardening of restrictions towards migrants at state and county levels throughout the thirties, and California's "bum blockade" during 1935-36 as evidence of this propensity. For much of this new legislation disqualified them from public relief and public works. Moreover, this fear led to echoes of the hysterical anti-tramp pronouncements of the late nineteenth century. For example a Los Angeles Times columnist propounded:

"The desert roads are streaming with hoboes ...All those with any desire to work have gone to the government camps. Most of these on the road are vicious and dangerous. Florida and Washington are stopping indigents at their border. California should do likewise". (Allsop, 115).

Attitudes have not changed. Mathers (68) writing in the early 1970 sees continuation of this view of hoboes as "shiftless bums and winos". Indeed even some of the old time hoboes have asserted similar views. Hopkins (1997), a founder of The National Hobo Association, contends that such attitudes are misguided asserting that: "...the majority of men and women riding the rails today are kind-hearted free spirits, not bloodthirsty predators." Denuded of their traditional occupations or work patterns, hoboes are perhaps now more than ever before open to attacks upon their character. It seems that this two sided view of the hobo is set to continue.

Within a surpassingly brief time-frame the hobo made an indelible impression upon the fabric and the imagination of America. Widespread ignorance of their contribution is perhaps a factor in the persistent vilification of the hobo by many in the mainstream of society. However, hoboes and hoboing have persisted in defiance of all the forces mitigating against them and, for the time being at least, there are still hoboes out there riding the steel rails.



He knows the fright of hunger and thirst,
And of cold and rain as well;
Of raggedy clothes and out-worn shoes,
An awful tale he can tell

Hobo poem

Almost from their inception the hoboes, like the cowboy, have had their way of life romanticized. Here is found a paradox in that during the latter third of the nineteenth century, in a period characterized by the vilification of the tramp, there is a concomitant process occurring that also eulogized them. In 1878 Alan Pinkerton, founder of the well known detective agency and renowned for his dislike of tramps, displayed this panegyric, and talked of, "...the careless, happy-hearted order, richer, and more satisfied, than some men worth their millions." (Allsop, 148) Allsop suggests that this idealized view of the hobo perhaps grew out of the disappearance of the frontier. The hobo, he asserts, became the repository of people's wistful yearnings for, and perhaps to be, a pioneering free spirit, a later manifestation of Natty Bumpo or Johnny Appleseed. It is a feeling or need for mobility that seems innate in American society. Kerr (1930, 179) gives weight to this assumption asserting:

"I remembered how often I had heard pillars of the social structure, decent married men with banking accounts and desks, say enviously, "Gee, Kerr I wish I could knock around as you do." And they were sincere."

As America industrialized and urbanized, the hobo for many people became and continued to be a symbol of freedom and escape. Both Allsop and Lomax posit that the romanticization of the hobo also stems from their intimate connection to the railroad, which for many Americans embodies abstract ideas of longing, yearning and freedom, as Lomax (p404) asserts, "What the ship is to the Englishman, the train is to the American." Such an attitude as Mathers attests has persisted. He argues that this view perhaps became heightened with the disappearance of steam locomotives, leaving the hoboes as tangible relics of the golden age of the railroad.

Indeed hoboes themselves have been guilty of cultivating this image. For example Jack London (in his hobo writings) invests the "profesh" or seasoned hobo with an air of nobility, describing them as a hobo elite or "knights of the road." However, this image of the hobo masked the reality of their life, which was more often dangerous, uncomfortable and dispiriting, as Lewis suggests, "Too few of the old-time hobos have told of their experiences... for some, life on the road had been so harsh that the sooner forgotten the better." (Fishbones 1982, 9) Rambling Rudy Phillips, a hobo since the 1920's, expresses a similar view, "Many books have been written celebrating and romanticizing the life of a hobo ...However, things were far from being the easy life." (1988, IV) Utilizing the writings and oral transcriptions of the hoboes themselves, this chapter will attempt to contrast the reality of the hobo life with these romantic images. This aim will be effected by an examination of the hoboes' motivation to embark upon and remain in this kind of life and the dangers and hardships that they encountered on the road. Furthermore, the more age, gender and race specific problems that boy, women and black hoboes faced will also be explored.

Anderson, discussing the motivation of hoboes, postulates that the romantic image of the hobo and their lives was one of the fundamental reasons compelling people to take to the rails. This he implies was particularly true of young boys, as he states:

"To boys the tramp is not a problem, but a human being, and an interesting one at that. He has no cares nor burdens to hold him down. All he is concerned with is to live and seek adventure, and in this he personifies the heroes in the stories the boys have read." (p85)

Such a response to this romantic impulse is described by London, who writes of hearing the stories of young hoboes in the 1890's:

"On the sandbar above the railroad bridge we fell in with a bunch of boys likewise in swimming... They were road kids, and with every word they uttered the lure of The Road laid hold of me more imperiously." (Allsop, 202)

Interestingly, this romanticized image of the hobo could even be seen during the depression of the 1930's, when the country's economic woes were casting people on to the rails in a desperate search for work. This is shown by Roffman (1981, 53). Reflecting on the film A Man's Castle, (1933) he describes the hero Bill who:

"...insists on his freedom and avoids committing himself to a job ...He sleeps under an open skylight so that he can see his "hunk of blue" and the migrating birds that he identifies with. The sound of a train whistle to him is an irresistible summons to move on."

A similar view of the hobo was still potent enough to induce Mathers onto the rails in the 1960's. He recounts seeing a hobo by the side of the tracks as he left a freight yard on his first trip as a hobo:

"As we approached I could see the silhouette of a man sitting on an upturned bucket, gazing into the flames... He must have just come in and was cooking up some coffee... That scene confirmed all my images of the hobo: the romantic wanderer, alone under the stars, responsible to no one, free to travel at whim, living in the elements... I was riding and about to experience his freedom." (p44)

However, for many people the spur to hit the rails was not as a response to these lofty idealized impressions of hobo life, but for more basic economic and social reasons.

The effects of economic crisis and unemployment had a profound impact on the numbers of people on the road. Etulain (1979) supports such an assumption. Discussing the hobo writings of London he imputes that implicit in all of these works is the suggestion that the cause for many men taking to the road is a lack of work. Such causes are perhaps seen to best effect in the depression of the 1930's. Louis Banks was one of its victims, forced to hobo in search of work, as he recounts:

"A man had to be on the road. Had to leave his wife, had to leave his mother, leave his family just to try to get money to live on... I walked out because I didn't have a job." (cited in Terkel 1970, 42 )

Unhappiness at home is also often voiced by hoboes as the reason that they embarked upon a life on the rails. Anderson likewise asserts that a disenchantment with their social circumstances was a factor motivating many of the hoboes he interviewed to begin roaming. Road Hog (1997) a hobo for forty years is an example of this, as he states:

"The reason I set off hoboing and riding the rails was because at a very early age of 11 I ran away from an orphanage... and also ran away from many foster homes that I was unhappy in."

Similarly Alabama Hobo who began hoboing on 1932 cites social problems as one of the explanations asserting:

"I have never given it much thought about why I did it, but I think the main reason was because after the death of my parents, I was upset and didn't know how or what to do with myself." (cited in Moon, 41)

It seems that in pursuing the life of the wanderer the hobo was responding to abstract romantic notions and to more concrete and unhappy realities, and often both conspired to send them onto the road. Moreover it was a life that they would find by turns dangerous, uncomfortable and hard.

America's hoboes and their day to day lives have, as Allsop infers, long been idealized and imagined as one of comfort and ease. An early example of this is seen in a volume of poetry by H.H. Knibbs from 1914, which included the poem Overland's Delight:

When we quit the road at night,
And the birds were folding up their music bars,
Just to smoke a little bit; rub his chin awhile, and sit,
Like a Hobo statue, looking at the stars. (Allsop, 232)

A similar impression, of a life lived in gentle contemplation, is seen in the 1920's paintings of hoboes that Norman Rockwell provided for the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. (Finch 1975) This painting shows a happy and contented hobo cooking some sausages. These popular perceptions of the hobo lifestyle were perhaps the mirror image of the tribulations that many hoboes endured. To be sure not every minute of every day was a constant battle against hostile forces, as Rambling Rudy suggests in his writing:

"...he awoke to the sound of someone playing a sad and mournful tune on a harmonica. People sat with their heads bent low, swaying to the roll of the boxcar... Rudy lay on his side staring into the darkness... There was a truly romantic side to the life of a hobo, however little of however short, and this was it." (p164 )

Notwithstanding these short halcyon periods the hoboes life was often physically dangerous. The potential hazards involved in riding freight trains were numerous and as Moon suggests they could, and often did result in death or serious injury. (see III)

Most hoboes adopted a fatalistic approach to these dangers as Road Hog (1998) states: "...too many times I came close to death. One has to be a fatalist to be a hobo". Woody Guthrie (1943, 218) who spent much of the 1930's hoboing describes one such incident:

"I know a boy that used ta travel around on these dam freights... harvestin', an' ramblin' around... I seen his face. Wheel had run right across it, from his ear across his mouth, over to his other ear."

This boy had fallen off the train while trying to get on or off. Moreover Hoboes riding in boxcars or in open gondola cars could also be crushed by freight (see IV), or find themselves trapped inside a boxcar, which can only be opened from the outside. Kerr (265) describes finding a hobo who had suffered the latter fate:

"I had found a man in a locked box-car, stinking after being there for a month. He had forgotten to put a pebble in the door groove and a shunter must have closed the door while the poor devil was asleep."

Hoboes also often found themselves in grave danger from the Railroad Police or "bulls", many of whom, as Fishbones (1997a) attests, "were very cruel". Gas Can Paddy, hoboing since 1934, reflects upon the bulls:

"You knew where the bad bulls were. Some of them weren't to bad, but the majority would treat you pretty rough. Some hobos got beat up bad! I mean really got clubbed bad, shot at. Many fellas were thrown off fast moving trains at high speed..." (Moon, 90)

Rambling Rudy (p190) recounts being chased along the top of a moving train by the legendary bull "Texas Slim", and having a narrow but painful escape:

"..One of the slugs slammed into his right shoulder, tore through the muscle and ricocheted off the collar bone, ripping the top of his shoulder open... he soon lost his grip on the rungs and toppled backwards off the speeding train."

Unfortunately the hoboes were not the only people riding the freights. Monkonnen suggests that bands of wandering toughs were preying on hoboes as early as the 1880's and 1890's. These groups came to be known as "Jackrollers". Travelling in pairs or small groups they would often target hoboes, particularly at the end of the harvest season when they knew hoboes would be carrying a season's wages of perhaps a few hundred dollars. Reefer Charlie (Moon, 68) explains:

"They could pick you out if you just came off the job. They figured you had a roll of money on you. They'd follow you, and the first time you got behind a boxcar... they'd slap you upside the head with a blackjack or something and take all your money... The jackrollers were harvesting the harvesters... I got a scar under my chin where a jackroller hit me with a brake shoe key."

All of the hoboing fraternity shared these common dangers. However, certain sections of the hobo community, namely young boys, women and blacks, often faced problems because of their age, gender and race.

Young boy hoboes were, as Allsop (212) asserts, victims of a "basement white slave traffic". A relatively small number of Hoboes known as "wolves" or "jockers" would befriend young and inexperienced boy hoboes and persuade or coerce them into a sexual relationship. The jocker would also use the "punk" to "panhandle" (see V) or beg at backdoors for food, as boys often received a more sympathetic response than older hoboes. Mac McClintock, hoboing as a young boy in the 1890's, describes having first hand experiences of jockers:

"The decent hoboes were protective as long as they were around, but there were times I fought like a wildcat or ran like a deer to preserve my independence and my virginity" (Lomax, 410)

These jocker and punk relationships, Reefer Charlie suggests, were still prevalent when he began hoboing in the late 1920's, but he asserts further that it has gradually petered out over the intervening years.

Women hoboes were occasionally subject to harassment and sexual molestation by other hoboes and railroad workers, as Weiner (176) asserts: "several accounts of tramp life describe chilling rape scenes of the lone woman discovered in a boxcar or hobo jungle." Reefer Charlie (Moon, 60) relates an incident in which he encountered two women in a boxcar:

"I said "How do you do" ...But this red-headed gal said, "You get back down there at the other end of the car, and you stay down there. Don't you try to bother us, or I'll kill you." ...she had a little short-nosed-barrel .32 revolver..."

These women were very obviously aware of the dangers they faced while travelling as hoboes.

Life was perhaps most dangerous for the black hobo. Although black hoboes did suffer racial attack and abuse from white hoboes (see VI), such incidents, in the 1930's at least, seem to have been surprisingly infrequent. (see VII) However, black hoboes were often subjected to violence from other sources, as Oliver (1960, 61) states:

"To protect themselves against the assaults of the railroad officials and police, the [black] hoboes frequently banded together in groups upon the cars".

One dreadful incident is recounted by Rambling Rudy. (p62) At about the age of fifteen he was travelling on a freight with a black hobo of a similar age. Finding themselves quickly freezing to death on top of a boxcar, they made their way to the engine, hoping to get warm near the engineer's fire. One of the engineers told the black boy to shovel some coal and he refused. Rudy continues the story:

"The scoop shovel was a blur as it ...came down upon Chi's head with a sickening crunch. The boy fell limply to the floor, ...The fireman swung open the firebox door ...he swung the lifeless body up and into the fire..."

Later in his travels Rambling Rudy also witnessed four black men forced to jump off the baggage blinds on which he and they were travelling. The train was travelling at 50 to 60 miles per hour at the time. The fellowship that existed between black and white hoboes seems to have dissolved by the time Mathers began travelling in the 1960's. He describes the hoboes racism as "awesome" and continues:

"Once I witnessed a somewhat typical scene: a black who had just gotten off a freight started walking down the path to a jungle where five whites were drinking. Denver Red picked up an axe and stood at the end of the path, ominously swinging his weapon. The man turned around and jungled up down the way." (106)

Not only did the black hobo have to contend with the hazards of normal hobo life, he also had to face violence and intimidation from those with whom he shared a common bond.

Notwithstanding these very real dangers, the hoboes also faced hardship and discomfort in their everyday struggle to eat and travel. A leitmotif in all the hoboes recollections is the task of getting enough food to eat, as Peg Leg Jackson (1983, 42) asserts, " I had a rough time. Ate out of the garbage can more than I ate at a table" Many hoboes have fond recollections of cooking up a "Mulligan stew" in a jungle. This is a stew made up of any bits of food that a group of hoboes had on them or could procure. Often hoboes would "hit the missions" such as those run by the Salvation Army " the sally", for a nights lodging and a feed. However, for much of the time the hoboes' fare was much less palatable. Rambling Rudy (169) provides an account of one such meal:

"...a few feet from the door ...was a trough ...a sour smelling green film ran the entire length of it... The kitchen hands heaved the huge can onto the high end of the trough and let its contents flow down the steep incline... He plunged his hands into the churning sewage and pulled out a fistful of very soggy garbage... Never had Rudy tasted anything so foul..."

The difficulties that hoboes had in finding food are emphasized when Rudy recounts that this meal was fought over by a large group of hoboes.

Riding on the freight trains itself was very often extremely uncomfortable, as London's (Etulain, 34) hobo companion discovered:

"This afternoon Frank and I had an understanding. The road has no more charms for him. The romance and adventure is gone and nothing remains but the stern reality of the hardships to be endured."

To be sure there were periods of relative comfort as Reefer Charlie (Moon, 58) states, "I can't think of a more peaceful thing than sitting in the door of a nice clean boxcar... and watch the countryside go by..." These periods of relative comfort were however few and far between. Peg Leg Jackson (43) dispels this image when he describes one journey during the winter:

"I caught a train to Buffalo, New York. You know how cold it is around Lake Erie. After I got about fifty or seventy-five miles, I was stiff as a board, like to froze to death. When I got into the railroad yard in Buffalo, I couldn't move... Tips of my ears busted, fingernails come off, they carried me to the hospital and I stayed three weeks."

These recollections from the hoboes themselves seem to effectively dispel the more idealized depictions of their lives, which were characterized by uncertainty and hardship. However, as Allsop affirms, while innumerable hobo reminiscences often describe the less attractive aspects of this life, they also conversely commonly attest to its allure. Perhaps these hardships made the moments of happiness and contentment that much sweeter. Ultimately however, as Rambling Rudy (68) insists:

"For every mile of beautiful scenery and warn sunshine, there are hundreds of miles of cold, dark nights, no food and no one to care whether I live or die."

Most certainly life on the rails, in the words of a hobo Mathers (p2) encountered, "...ain't a life of honey."



Sometimes a hobo writes a verse
Oft' times he makes it rhyme,
In boxcar jargon poetry
He spends his precious time.

Hobo Bill (Fishbones 1997, 18)

Since their emergence the hoboes have developed and cultivated a distinct and vibrant cultural tradition. A hobo culture is perhaps, as Phelps (1983, 1) suggests, a "contradiction in terms." Certainly the peripatetic nature of the hoboes' life would seem to mitigate against the development of a discernible and enduring culture. However, as the hoboes criss-crossed the nation in boxcars, building the railroads, working the harvests, and flopping in missions, a unique tradition was formed. Perhaps the greatest facilitator in the dissemination of the hoboes culture was the hobo jungle, for here: (see VIII)

"...hobo tradition and law are formulated and transmitted. It is the nursery of tramp lore... In the jungles the slang of the road and the cant of the tramp class is copied and circulated... The stories and songs current among the men of the road... are all given due airing." (Anderson, 26)

The hoboes' cultural life also helped, as Phelps implies, to foster a sense of unity and solidarity within their transitory community. Anderson (214) expresses a similar sentiment, writing:

"In song and ballad the hobo... creates a background of tradition and culture which unifies and gives significance to all his experiences. His ballads of the road... induce a unanimity of sentiment and attitudes, the strongest form of group solidarity in the hobo world."

This is perhaps the most important element of the hoboes' culture, because of the nebulous, center-less nature of their society. (see IX)

This chapter will examine three areas of the hoboes cultural output: hobo songs, hobo signs, and the hobo vernacular. It is hoped that by investigating these cultural products, some insight may be gained as to how they served to engender a feeling of community among the hoboes. Moreover, it hopes to demonstrate that they have also given us a rich and interesting cultural legacy.

With reference to hobo songs Reefer Charlie gives credence to Anderson's earlier assumption of the importance of the jungle for the transmission of hobo culture. Discussing life in the jungles he asserts:

"There was always lots of music in the jungles... That's where we used to have our jam sessions... we'd just get together and play." (Moon, 64)

Perhaps the most important song type in promoting the feeling of fellowship was the "Monika" song. A number of well known and regularly sung monika songs existed within the hobo community, such as "Portland County Jail" and "Monikas Seen on the Water Tank". Another good example is "The Hobo Convention":

There was New York Joe, Buffalo Crow, Teddy and Rough and Rovers,
One-eyed Sam and the Tattooed man, and the bald-headed man from Dover,
Louisville Lou and the Kalamazoo and San Diego Kid,
Moustache Pete and his "longa" feet, and the man with the derby lid. (Phelps,16)

It was also quite usual, as Millburn attests, for an extemporaneous version of a monika song to be sung in the jungle, with the challenge being to include the monikas of all those present. (see X) Thus the monika song is in a sense a literal affirmation of the community, on a national level in the standard versions and, on an immediate and local level in the improvised arrangements.

Such an expression of solidarity can also be seen in the more radical songs produced by the hoboes. These often railed against the callous treatment that they received from the wider society. Employers and religious missions in particular were often singled out for criticism. "Preacher and the Slave", "Harvest Land", and "The Hobo and the Right of Way" are typical examples of this theme. The following extract from "The Harvest Stiff's Tipperary" is emblematic of many of these songs:

You've paid the going wages,
That's what kept us on the bum,
You say you've done your duty,
You chin whiskered son-of-a-gun.
We have sent your kids to college,
But still you rave and shout,
And call us tramps and hoboes,
And pesky goabouts. (Millburn, 105)

These songs and many others described conditions and situations that all hoboes were perhaps too familiar with. Again it is conceivable that by singing these songs together the hoboes cultivated a kinship, based on shared hardships and experiences common to them all.

Undoubtedly the hoboes' most striking cultural gift are the hobo signs (see Appendices). Scrawled roughly in jungles, on the side of houses, on pavements and in innumerable locations. These arcane, runic symbols were, as DeLorenzo attests, used to warn other hoboes of the reception they may encounter in a particular locale. For example a circle with two arrows crossing it and pointing to the right, meant hit the road or get out fast. Kitty McCulloch remembers seeing these symbols during the depression of the 1930's: "I remember that our apartment was marked... One mark signified: You could get something at this apartment..."(Terkel, 40) Notwithstanding their practical importance, it may also be argued that these signs also contributed towards nourishing the hoboes' sense of kinship with his fellow travellers. This conceivably, and perhaps unconsciously, occurred because of the hoboes' knowledge that they shared a language peculiar to the hoboing fraternity. Moreover, it was a language that they utilized to aid one another, which in itself suggests that it did indeed assist in the development and maintenance of a sense of community among the hoboes themselves.

Equally interesting from a cultural viewpoint is the hobo dialect. (see XI) (see Glossary) London was in concordance with this view, asserting that it was:

"...a world of rods and gunnels, blind baggages and "side-door Pullmans," "bulls and shacks," floppin's" and "chewin's" ..."bindle-stiffs," "punks" and "profesh." (Allsop, 202)

Like all language the hobo argot has evolved and changed. For example Millburn writing in 1930 cites the disappearance from the hoboes' vocabulary of "gunnels". These were the metal bars running lengthwise below the boxcars, upon which many hoboes travelled. By the late 1920's these were referred to as the rods. (see XII) To the uninitiated, hobo speech could be unintelligible. London illustrates this with a sample of hobo speech from the beginning of the nineteenth century:

"De stem? Nit! Yaeggin's on the sugar train. Hit a fly on the main-drag for a light piece; de bull snared me; got a t'ree hour blin' ". (Etulain, 79)

This he translates as:

"The street for begging? It is worthless. On the main street I begged a policeman in citizens clothes for a small sum, but he arrested me and the judge gave me three hours to leave town." (Etulain, 79)

Although this is perhaps an extreme example, it serves to emphasize two important points. First, that this lexicon is a significant cultural asset and, like the hobo signs, it is a language shared by the hobo community, which again would serve to reinforce their sense of place in a unique and distinct group.

Despite the privations of their lifestyle, America's hoboes have produced a distinctive, varied and singular body of cultural products. Through their songs can be gained an insight into their lives. Due to the exigencies of their condition and out of pure expedience, grew a striking and practically useful semiotic language. Furthermore, they have also enriched the language with their characteristic cant. Further, these have all contributed towards, and have helped to preserve, a cohesion in hobo society.



Here's to you, my rambling boy,
and may your rambling bring you joy.

Tom Paxton, Rambling Boy

Through their own cultural output in writings, songs and poetry, the hoboes have furnished society, or that part of it that chose to listen, with an image of themselves and their lives. Likewise, "mainstream" society has sought to construct its own images and ideas of the hobo within similar cultural contexts.

Utilizing mainly literary, filmic and musical sources, the following chapter will endeavour to explore and highlight the nature of these various cultural representations. A small number of "types" seemed to emerge from screen, page, and song. These were the hobo as clown-like, mystical, victim and villain, and to facilitate this discussion it is these images that will be scrutinized.

Cultural depictions of the hobo as a clown-like figure, particularly in comic strips, were current within the first two decades of the 20th century. Allsop cites the characters of Weary Willie, Happy Hooligan and Tired Tim as typical examples of this early characterization. These figures, he asserts, portrayed the hobo as:

"...a harmless, daffy, ne'er-do-well... whom the citizenry could laugh at and feel comfortably superior to." (p146)

a beatific, smiling, happy hobo searching through garbage bins and finding an old sockA counterpart to this image is seen in the paintings of hoboes that Rockwell created for The Saturday Evening Post in 1927. One image portrays a beatific, smiling, happy hobo searching through garbage bins and finding an old sock (photo at left). Another presents the hobo in a similar manner, harmless, contented and non-threatening (photo below).

Roffman (1981) reflecting on the film Hallelujah, I'm a Bum from 1933 describes a scene that continues to reflect this idea of the hobo as a buffoon. In this sequence a hobo finds himself a job and is given a mock trial by his hobo friends, who declare him insane for wanting to work. Similarly, the film Emperor of the North (1973), despite the film's realism, displays a vestigial remnant of this image of the hobo. This is demonstrated through the character of A-No.1 played by Lee Marvin. (see XIII) Here Marvin is shown using a stolen chicken to fend off three other hoboes attempting to steal it from him. Likewise the hobo as clown can be seen in a comical scene later in the film in which Marvin, this time clutching a stolen turkey is chased by a policeman. Notwithstanding its roots as a condescending representation, this view of the hobo seems to be an enduring one.

hobo cooking hotdogsA number of sources invest the hobo with an almost mystical aura, as if they are holders of some sacred truths denied to the rest of society. An example of this can be found in the poem The Bridge, written in the late 1920's by Hart Crane. Here Crane intimates that through their wandering the hoboes come to know the country in a way most cannot, asserting:

"Yet they touch something like a key perhaps.
From pole to pole across the hills, the states
-They know a body under the wide rain;
Youngsters with eyes like fjords, old reprobates
With racetrack jargon, -dotting immensity
They lurk across her, knowing her yonder breast. (Moore 1977, 347)

Examining the works of Kerouac, Feied identifies similar themes threaded throughout both The Dharma Bums (1958) and On the Road (1957). Goldstein (991, 60) concords with this conclusion. He finds that in Kerouac's hands the hobo is a "prophet on the archetypal road of life" and, like Sal and Dean, he performs their "one and noble function of the time, move". Most certainly Kerouac's conception of the hobo as a spiritual being, and of his feeling of affinity with them is expressed episodically in both On the Road and The Dharma Bums. An extract from the latter affirms this assumption. Ray Smith, the novel's main protagonist, meets a hobo on a freight train and asserts:

"I was a perfect Dharma Bum myself and considered myself a religious wanderer. The little bum in the gondola solidified all my beliefs by... whipping out a tiny slip of paper which contained a prayer by Saint Theresa..." (8)

This idea of the hobo, though altered and diminished, is still present in the character of A-No.1 in Emperor of the North. A-No.1 becomes a guru to a younger inexperienced hobo, and they have the following exchange:

A-No.1: Do as you're told kid and you could be emperor of the north.
?: Emperors know a lot huh?
A-No.1: They know plenty kid but I know more.

Similarly when A-No.1 enters a jungle his presence is greeted by the other hoboes with awe and reverence.

Here can be seen an elevation of the hoboes' profile, standing out in stark relief to the less flattering characterizations evinced elsewhere in this chapter.

The theme of the hobo as a victim of society is explored in a number of ways. London, as Etulain implies, perceives the hobo as a casualty of the economic system. Feied concurs, asserting that in London's oeuvre the hobo:

"...beacons a social fact, a phenomenon of economic determinism under capitalism." (p24)

This image of the hobo is certainly forcefully expressed by London himself in The Road when he writes:

"If they (the hoboes [parenthesis mine]) were annihilated, our industries would not suffer... many must be idle; and, since through invention the efficiency of labor is constantly increasing, so must this army of idlers increase..." (Etulain, 79)

London sees the hoboes as the result of society's failure. Conversely, Hart Crane, writing in the 1920's and early 1930's, intimates a contradictory view, that hoboes are perhaps failures in society and victims of their own inadequacy. This is shown in his poem The River:

Behind my father's cannery works I used to see
Rail-squatters ranged in nomad raillery,
The ancient men-wifeless or runaway
Hobo-trekkers that forever search
An empire wilderness of freight and rails.
Each seemed like a child, like me, on a loose perch,
Holding to childhood like some timeless play.
John, Jake or Charley, hopping the slow freight
-Memphis to Tallahassee-riding the rods,
Blind fists of nothing, humpty-dumpty clods. (Moore, 347)

Comparable to these renderings is one offered by Dos Passos in his book U.S.A. (1930) Assuredly the hobo characters in U.S.A. are in the main driven on to the rails for political purposes. However the book concludes with an image of a hobo who is thoroughly defeated and whose:

"Head swims, hunger has twisted his belly tight ...in the nostrils lingers the staleness of ...a transient camp ...on the taut cheeks the shamed flush from the boring eyes of cops and ...railroad bulls..." (492)

Thirty three years later Bob Dylan recorded a song entitled Only A Hobo. Unlike London and Crane, Dylan does not seek to apportion the blame for this hobo's condition. Rather, his lyric simply presents him as a victim, as somebody that has fallen through society's safety net, unknown and not cared for:

Does it take much of a man to see his whole life go down,
To look up on the world from a hole in the ground,
To wait for. your future like a horse that's gone lame,
To lie in the gutter and die with no name? (Dylan 1963)

These examples are perhaps extreme images of the hobo. Portraying them as emasculated, enervated, and unable to respond to the forces that drove them into the "gutter". Moreover, they are depictions that deny the personal motivation behind many hoboes' decisions to take to the rails.

a hobo carrying an obviously stolen pie, being pursued by a dogEmperor of the North, albeit clothed in comedy, displays another of the "types" of hobo characterization that of a thief or villain. This is evidenced in the comical chicken and turkey stealing scenes described above. Adopting a similar tactic, Rockwell shows a familiar caricature of a hobo carrying an obviously stolen pie, being pursued by a dog (Finch 1975) (photo at left)

London, although a seasoned hobo himself, also showed hoboes in a less than saintly light. In And Frisco Came Back, first published in 1895, he has his protagonist assert:

"I battered a house fer me breakfas' an' bumpt up inter a red-headed woman... I wuz dat rattled I fergot ter steal de soap... Dere wuzn't a freight along 'till dark, so... I swiped a kid's line an' went ter fishin'." (Etulain, 65)

Again this view of the villainous instincts of the hobo still seems to have some currency. Michelle Shocked (1995), in a song entitled Homestead, sings:

Ever since they built that damn railroad, hobos knocking at my door saying,
"Lady I will work for food, can I haul you water, can I chop you wood?"
"Well, let me take a good look at you (there ain't nothing lye and hot water won't do )
You can sleep on my porch if you're wanting to" and then I give him my husbands old brown boots.
But in the morning he was up and gone, a chicken missing from my pen...

Admittedly these representations are quasi-comical and do not treat the hobo as sinister or dangerous presence. However, Kerouac contradicts these prevailing constructs and decries this propensity to criminalize the hobo, propounding:

"...today mothers hold tight their children when the hobo passes through town because of what newspapers made the hobo to be - the rapist, the strangler, child-beater... Did Whitman terrify the children of Louisiana when he walked the open road." (1962, 150)

In these representations the hobo is endowed with an almost picaresque persona and has become a loveable rogue.

Emerging from this analysis of various cultural descriptions of the hobo, at base, is an image polarizing at extremes. He appears as a carefree figure of fun or in the guise of a mischievous villain. He is defeated and downtrodden or a mystical oracle and augur. Based on this admittedly limited selection, it can be argued that the hobo has, on the whole, been given a fairly hefty weight of cultural baggage to surmount, in order to counteract these less than positive perceptions.



"Hark" "I hear her whistling,
I must catch her on the fly:
One more scoop of beer I'd like,
Once more before I die."
The hobo stopped, his head fell back,
he'd sung his last refrain.
His partner took his hat and shoes,
and caught the east-bound train.

Hobo poem

The hoboes' history describes a brief trajectory. From their appearance in the immediate post Civil War era to the pinnacle of their industrial and economic power in the 1920's, and their numerical Zenith in the 1930's, is a period of just over sixty years. Yet quite remarkably within this short time span the hoboes made a considerable and lasting economic contribution. Indeed, as Monkonnen asserts, it is important to remember that they, "really were the builders of our (America's [parenthesis mine]) late twentieth-century world" (15) However, these contributions have been, and continue to be, overlooked and the knowledge of them buried beneath the weight of public perceptions.

These attitudes, as the study demonstrates, have been generated and maintained in a number of ways. Officially the hobo has seen his character blackened by the anti-tramp legislation of the late 19th century, and similar legislation in the 1930's. Economically the hoboes image was further denigrated throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th century, by a nation that viewed wealth as divinely sanctioned and poverty as a mark of sloth. Similarly these likeness has been encouraged and compounded by media collusion and caricaturing. Unfortunately, but understandably, this has led to a widespread ignorance of the hoboes, their lives and their culture, and a corrective is sorely needed.

For a figure so deeply embedded in the American mind there has been surprisingly little research and investigation. From the hobo heyday of the 1930's there has been at best, a trickle of books and academic research. Indeed there are glaring gaps. For example, of the books dealing with hobo song there is virtually no use of blues as a reference tool. A similar situation prevails regarding many of the authors of these songs, the black hobo. The female hobo has also been sadly neglected though to a slightly less extent. As Fishbones (1997) opines there are precious few hoboes left from the last great era of hoboing in the Great Depression of the 1930's, and as he implies, those that are left will perhaps soon be catching the "westbound".

Nevertheless, as Moon demonstrates there are still hoboes out there riding the rails, continuing and upholding the hobo tradition. The hobo life still exerts its allure, as one hobo exults: "Put it this way: you piss out a boxcar once, you're hooked." (Mathers, 126)



Ballast - The gravel used for rail beds.
Bay Horse - Brand name of rubbing liniment for horses. Similar to bay rum.
Bindle - A bedroll.
Blind - Front End of a baggage car.
Bridge and plank gang - A railroad maintenance crew.
Bridger - A hobo who rode both steam-powered and diesel powered trains.
Bull - A policeman.
Canned heat - Strained Sterno consumed for the alcohol content.
Catch the westbound - Die.
Cinder bull - A railroad policeman.
Consist - All the cars that make up a particular train.
Couplers - Fixtures at the ends of train cars used to connect one car to the other.
Courtesy call - A night's stay in the town jail without being arrested. An opportunity to get in out of the cold and to eat a meal.
Crummy - Caboose.
Dick - A detective.
Drag - A slow freight train.
Dumpster diving - Rummaging through dumpsters for food or other needed items.
Freddy - Flashing rear-end device on the train. It has taken the place of the caboose.
Gay cat - A person on the road who, when the going gets tough, can afford to purchase a ticket (Irwin 84).
Go in the hole - To pull onto a siding to allow another train of higher priority to pass by.
Gondola - A train car with low walls and no roof.
Gun boat - An empty can used for cooking. Usually a coffee can.
Harness bull - A policeman in uniform.
Helper - An extra engine added temporarily to a train to assist in pulling it up a steep grade.
High iron - The track in a railroad yard that serves as the main line or through line.
Hooverville - Shantytowns built of junk and cardboard by the poor. Named after Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States of America (1929-1933).
Hotshot - A fast train.
Jackrollers - Thieves who often targeted a hobo who had just received his pay.
Jocker - A man who travels the road with an underage boy.
Jungle - An encampment where hobos stayed for brief periods before moving on. "To jungle up" is to stay in a jungle.
Jungle buzzard - Someone in a hobo jungle who tries to avoid sharing in the work and expense.
Knee-shaker - A handout on a plate at the back door of a house. Eaten on the back steps while balancing the plate on one's knees.
Knuckle - A movable joint in the coupler.
Live train - A consist of railcars with engines hooked to it. A train that could move at any time.
Local - A train that makes many stops and does much work in a short distance.
Lump - A handout which is packaged to be taken along on the road.
Mission stiff - A bum that spends much time in missions.
Mixed freight - A train consisting of a variety of cars.
"P" farms - Farms where prisoners worked.
Pearl diver - A dishwasher.
Punk - A young boy travelling on the road with a younger man.
Rattler - A long train rattling along the tracks, resembling a rattlesnake.
Red cards - A membership card of the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Reefer - A refrigerated freight car.
Rods - The steel structural bars that were below the old boxcars. A very dangerous and difficult place for hobos to ride.
Rule of the match - An insulting gesture of handing a match to someone. It is the same as saying. "You are not welcome around this jungle fire. Go build your own someplace else".
Scoping the drag - Looking for a good ride on a freight train as it slows down.
Seam squirrels - Lice.
Sit-down - A meal given as a handout with the offer to eat it in the comfort at the kitchen table.
Specks - Fruit with spots beginning to form. Farmers and groceries were often willing to give it to hobos.
Stack train - A train made up of topless, low-sided cars which carry large containers sometimes stacked two high.
Streamliners - Railriders that travel with light gear and on fast freights.
Walking dandruff - Lice.
Wobblies - A short name for the International Workers of the World (IWW)
Yard dick - A railroad detective.




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Chapter 1
 (I) Allsop suggests that in its first year of use in 1926 the combine harvester displaced 33,000 harvest hands. In the short space from 1926 to 1933, 150,000 harvest hands became redundant as a result of mechanization.

 (II) From its apogee at 254,000 miles of track in 1916 the railroad would lose over 40,000 miles by 1966. The present network stands at approximately 100,000 miles.

Chapter 2
 (III) Moon (p11) provides figures that graphically emphasize these dangers. She asserts that between 1899 and 1902 on The Pennsylvania Railroad alone, 2000 train jumpers died and 500 suffered injuries resulting in amputations. Monkonnen (p224) similarly proffers figures that support those of Moon. He asserts that between 1901 and 1905 there were 25,000 deaths of railroad tresspassers in The United States.

 (IV) Mathers (p44) describes meeting a hobo who found two dead hoboes in a gondola. They had been crushed by shifting iron pipes in the car in which they were riding. Mathers himself recounts narrowly escaping a similar fate.

 (V) Panhandling is the method of stopping people on the streets to ask for money for food, lodgings etc.

 (VI) Woody Guthrie (219) recounts such an incident during the 1930's while he was travelling with a black hobo.

 (VII) Most hoboes and commentators, such as Shneider, Anderson, and Allsop, suggest that in the hobo "jungles" or camps, there was little if any racism. However, Anderson and Allsop attest to the presence of some segregated jungles in the southern states.

Chapter 3
 (VIII) The importance of the jungles to the hobo cannot be overstated. Without exception commentators of the hobo, and hoboes themselves express this opinion. Indeed for the hoboes the jungles were "home". Aside from the cultural importance, they were also centres of information on conditions "on the road", and of the whereabouts and health etc, of other hoboes.

 (IX) There have been organizations that gave some recognizable centre to the hobo community. The Hobo College founded in Chicago in approximately 1915, the Industrial Workers of The World union, (founded in 1905 but a spent force by approximately 1920) and hobo newspapers such as the Hobo News (now defunct) and the present publication The Hobo Times.

 (X) Phelps makes the point that it was not uncommon for many hobo songs to have a number of variations in circulation.

 (XI) A number of phrases were taken from the vocabulary of the rail-road men. "Highball" and "double-header" are two such examples.

 (XII) The rods or "rod" was in fact a single metal strut below a passenger car, and it required skill, endurance and perhaps desperation to ride on it. indeed many hoboes met their deaths attempting to do so.

Chapter 4
 (XIII) A-No. 1 the character played by Lee Marvin in Emperor of the North, is as both Anderson and Etulain state based on an actual hobo, active from the 1890's onwards.. His real name was Leon Ray Livingston. He claimed to have been a good friend of Jack London, and wrote a book called "From Coast to Coast with Jack London" in 1917. However, both Anderson and Etulain view this book and other writings as "unreliable yarns".


Hobo Signs

hobo signs