Hobos: The Great American Men

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In America, money and material possessions are considered important yardsticks of success. Thus it comes as no surprise that people who do not share such values are looked down upon by society. Such people, especially those without a residence, are often called lazy and good for nothing. But perhaps worst of all, these people are typically lumped together under the generic label "vagrants" or "homeless." This is the greatest insult of all, for many of these individuals are not merely homeless or street people, but in fact hoboes. From their work ethics, to their personalities, to their motivation for living the transient life, the American hobo has always been a very different entity from the vagrant, tramp, or homeless.

To understand the hobo one must first understand the origin of the hobo and his history. The word "hobo" has many different possible sources, many of which are characteristic of the hobo, himself.

Some think that the term hobo was coined after the American Civil War, when many former soldiers were looking for work. Many of them turned to migratory farming, and became "hoe boys." Others believe that it referred to their movement after the Civil War, when they were "HOmeward BOund." Still others believe that the term comes from the Latin, "Homo bonus" or "good man" (Watman 8). All are possible origins, and all describe the nature of the American hobo. Whether it be his drive to work, his constant need for movement, or his being a simply "good man," the hobo has always been a facet of American history.

The first recognized description of hoboes was after the American Civil War. They were usually former soldiers looking for odd jobs. Having been soldiers they were trained for vagabond survival. Vagabond survival is the ability to live without a base and without any kind of dependence (Kid 2). Some historians believe the former soldiers who later became hoboes did so because they felt disconnected from society, quite similar to Vietnam veterans (Joyce 256). These former soldiers also were tired of the strict discipline and structure of the Army and decided to pursue the other end of the spectrum and become wanderers. But they were not loners, far from it. Although they were not loners, they did prefer to associate primarily with their own. They usually congregated in a "jungle," their base camp. In 1869 there were an estimated 17,000 of these disaffected soldiers roaming the country. Many were constantly searching for short-term employment (Watman 17-18). They found great opportunities in the form of rebuilding the system of railroads in the South. From here they learned the ways of the rail. It became more and more common for hobo jungles to be located close to, or in, the train depot (Watman 48). These earliest hoboes set the mold by establishing the commonly- recognized four traits of the American hobo: vagabond survival, willingness to work odd jobs, self-contained sociability, and rail-riding (Watman 30-34).

The next appearance of a significant rise in the hobo population came in 1873 following the stock-market crash caused by the failure of the Jay Cooke & Company's banking house (Littlejohn 87). As thousands of businesses failed, men once again left behind their former lives and took to the rails. An estimated eighty-five percent of these neophyte hoboes had previously been businessmen. This happened again in 1893, when the stock market once again crashed. In his journal "Off to Nowhere," Victor Steward describes his transition from banker to hobo. "With them [his rice commodities] shot to hell, I figure I got nothing keeping me here. So I'm off to nowhere" (Steward 79).

Like most of the businessmen-turned-hoboes of the 1893 crash, Steward found himself with nothing. He no longer had a job. He had little money and no house. The crash had disillusioned him regarding his pursuit of money. But Victor Steward was not unique in that aspect. It all happened again in 1907, and in 1910, 1913, and in 1914.

It was not until the Great Depression in 1929 that hoboes peaked in their numbers. Overnight, nearly twelve and a half million Americans found themselves jobless. Over 400,000 of them took to the rails and became hoboes. It is estimated that nearly twenty percent of them died in the first year, due to the fact that they did not have the necessary vagrant survival skills. Many of them worked odd jobs while others took part in government work projects like Boulder Dam. While it is true that hoboes worked on "the Great Dam," it is thought that very few worked on it for the complete duration (Rocke 3). This, of course, would go against the hobo's ideology of never laying down roots and always traveling.

The Depression marked a perilous time of hobo history during which many people became hoboes purely out of necessity. It is because of this, that the Depression marks a time when the life of a hobo became dangerous. These dangers coupled with the rail companies' advocating for a policy to take care of these masses of free-riding vagrants led to government intervention (Crouse 3). The product of this was the Federal Transient Program (FTP) which existed from 1933-1935. Before the creation of the FTP, there was no federal policy dealing with the non-resident poor. Such policy was left to the state and local levels. Local and state governments competed with each other to provide the lowest level of benefits to transients in order not to attract large numbers of poor. They had established lengthy residency requirements in order to receive aid.

The social work profession had pushed for the implementation of the FTP because of states' inability to address the needs of the non-resident poor (Crouse 3). While it was called the Federal Transient Program, the FTP's main focus was specifically on hoboes. It is because of this focus that the Federal Transient Program established work camps in rural areas central to a primarily hobo population. In these work camps a transient would receive room, board and a small stipend in exchange for a day's work there. The FTP also established camps at key railroad junctions with the goal of eliminating the jungles. These camps received some local opposition, but in many areas were gradually accepted and welcomed. At the end of 1935, the program was liquidated (Crouse 4).

In some aspects the FTP was successful. It did decrease the danger by weeding out the treacherous yeags and the inexperienced, many of whom did not truly want to lead a hobo life and ended up staying permanently in the half-houses. But the program failed to place the hoboes into stable jobs and, in fact, inhibited this by keeping the men in isolated areas (Crouse 4). This was not a unique failure though. Because of the government's inability to understand the nature of the hobo and his constant need to be on the move, it never established a program that succeeded in putting hoboes in occupations and not merely more odd jobs. Whether successful or not, the FTP set a precedent by being the first federal program for the homeless.

Since the Great Depression, the number of true hoboes has steadily decreased. However after every major American war, including World War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, there has always been a significant increase in the number of American hoboes. Today the National Hobo Association considers there to be fewer than 600 true rail-riding hoboes. However there are a number of people, most far from poor, who take sabbaticals from work or school to lead a hobo life. These "recreational riders" or "yuppie hoboes" hop freights for the adventure, to seek inspiration, and as a respite from the tensions and stress of their everyday lives. The younger generation of riders includes artists and college students (NHA pamphlet 5).

By understanding the hobo's roots, one can see that the hobo has been a significant part of American history. But how is he different from the bum, the tramp, or the criminally-minded yeag? The common perception is that anyone who leads an itinerant life is a parasitic bum. However, this could not be more untrue. Major differences exist in work ethic, social behaviors, sense of dignity, and their ideology of society around them.

Frequently, the hobo is associated with the bum. The term bum, is in fact a widely-accepted classification of street-persons (Anderson 27). However, the bum is a type of homeless person very different from the hobo. True, they do have similarities. Both are homeless migratory men who are thought not to be inclined to commit themselves to a fixed place of residence, a family or a fixed community. They are frequently thought to be outsiders, strangers, and are sometimes feared. Because of their lack of commitment to established symbols of status, they do not compete in terms of conventional social prizes. However, those who know the hobo, know that he is distinguished from the bum by his disposition toward work. A bum makes a living from panhandling, but a hobo only begs under the rarest of conditions. The late Alabama hobo, Smelly Wills, described bums' work ethic versus that of the hobo: "A hobo is a drifting worker. Follows his trade, and if he can't get a job at his trade, he does other work. But a bum, he's just a bum. Wouldn't work if he had a job" (Wills 3).

Unlike the bum, the hobo does not desire to live off the society whose values he does not live by. The hobo maintains his sense of personal worth and dignity within the framework of a work ethic which places the highest value on working for one's keep. It does not matter how lowly or how refined and elevated the work may be. Nor need there be a strict calculation between the amount of work performed and the rewards received for the work. Hoboes were known to work in excess of the value of a meal that was their pay. But when the hobo works, he is working to get what he wants when he needs it, and he is not particularly concerned with what benefits others may receive from his labor.

The bum rejects ideologies of work and accepts charity, and it is for this reason that the bum is despised and frequently despises himself. Whereas the hobo may at times feel superior to those who have sacrificed their freedom because they work not for the sake of work, but for the purpose of accumulating the status symbols of conventional society (Anderson 42).

It may be useful in order to further clarify the special traits of the hobo to distinguish him from the tramp. While the hobo possesses a positive work ideology, the tramp, in contrast, is not identified with any work ideology; but neither is he, unlike the bum, thought be to hostile to work. In Nels Anderson's words, the tramp "dreams and wanders." His life of aimlessness and fantasy were well portrayed by Charles Chaplin who redeemed the tramp by endowing him with a capacity for kindness and sympathy. In this manner he is not so different from the hobo. He receives and asks for nothing in return, except a means of survival on his own terms. Therefore, the differences in the values which the hobo and tramp embrace appear primarily in their work ethic (Anderson 37).

The hobo does not rationally calculate the difference in value between labor expended and market reward. He is essentially working for himself and does not care what anybody else makes off his work so long as he is paid; he separates his ideology of work from an ideology of profits and greed (Anderson 32). The hobo can give to society more than he takes, preempting the role of philanthropist (Anderson 33). Perhaps Nels Anderson presents the best analogy: "In terms of ethics, this is a Protestant work ethic which has separated itself from the spirit of capitalism and Calvinism and now justifies itself in terms of itself. One works in relation to oneself and lives by and off the strength of one's personal character." A bum, the untouchable of the road, seldom works and primarily begs. The tramp will neither work nor beg. But a yeag will starve to death before lowering himself to honest labor. In other words, a hobo is a periodic vagabond who may work for today and takes to the road tomorrow, while a yeag is a professional vagrant, often thought of as the lowest caste of homeless. Moreover, bumming is a racket and yeaging is regarded as a profession with a history and a culture of a sort. There are poets and songwriters in yeagdom. Their creations reflect their abnormal life just as poetry, song and music reflect joys and sorrows of all people through the ages.

Yorkey Ned's poem, "The Klondike," for example, is the story of what he saw and suffered while seeking gold in the Northland. He talks about the yeags' thievery, many times mugging their victims. Yorkey Ned goes on to write that "These[yeags] are the one who give us the bad name/ The yeags are most likely the rowdy ones to blame/ We hoboes live well and ride the rails/ We be not the yeags with the nails." The yeags were usually thought to be violent, often mischievous. At the transient lodging houses it was not uncommon for the yeags to mug a hobo or even to get into large fights with each other. In the song "Half-House," as retold by renown hobo Steamboat Murray, one of these scenes is described.

You sees them[yeags] at their bottle drinkin' Hey do diddle dum day Ya got to wonder what they's thinkin' Hey do diddle dum day Who's the next to get the knocky? Hey do diddle dum day So that they can plump their sockies They fight each other, with no scinty[regard] Hey do diddle dum day The sparks will fly like they are flinty Hey do diddle dum day (Murray 5) The yeags had absolutely no sense of camaraderie. Yeags were interested only in their own personal self-gain.. They felt that society had given them a hard life and that they were justified for stealing and breaking the law. They felt they were society's victims in that they hadn't chosen to be homeless, but had been forced into their lowly lifestyle by circumstances. Thus they felt entitled to do whatever was necessary to scrape by, whether it be panhandling, cheating, stealing, or beating.

The hobo, on the other hand, has, to a certain extent chosen the life that he leads. While it is true that the hobo population increases dramatically when there is economic crisis, he still has the choice to sell apples, or beg, for there are many other options to living the way he does. The rise in hoboes in times of economic crisis suggests that, much like Victor Steward, other people feel that having lost it all, they have nothing left to keep them tied down. Perhaps it is not a choice that they would make under ordinary conditions, but under times of crisis they are given the opportunity to evaluate their lives without taking into consideration job, house, bank account, or the opinions of others.

This theory is reinforced when one looks at the increase of hoboes after every major war. Veterans coming back from war, in many cases, feel alienated from society, and feel that their friends have moved on. Many of them become disillusioned by the trauma of war similar to the way people are affected after the trauma of complete monetary loss. The hobo is thus able to maintain a large degree of dignity and self respect. In many cases the hobo believes that he has been freed from social convention.

Perhaps the greatest difference between hoboes and common yeags or tramps is the hobo's social outlook (Anderson 45). The hobo is not a hermit and does not merely live for himself. He feels great connection with other hoboes, others who understand the life he leads. This is displayed by the set up of the jungle. In a jungle many hoboes share food with one another, as well as stories and anecdotes. In the hobo jungle, hoboes feel belonging and connection with people they may have never met and may never see again. The congregation around the fire is the zenith of all these feelings. But even without jungles, hoboes tend to gather nonetheless. Today they continue the tradition at their annual convention in Britt, Iowa.

The order of every convention day is the same: drinking and singing from morn till night; poets reciting their poems and song writers bellowing their songs with all hands joining in the chorus. Every poet and songwriter comes to the conventions with a new creation. They share the stories that they have gathered over the past year, and for a weekend live it up (Paulie 1). It is a true throwback to the days of the jungle, for after a few days, they say goodbye and go their separate ways.

Thus the hobo life continues. Even in times of economic success, even with tight railroad security and public shelters for the homeless, the ways of the hobo endure. The camaraderie and tight bonds of hoboes will always carry on. And as long as there is always a warm meal and a place to sleep for someone willing to do an honest day's work, the hobo will never truly vanish.