A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably NorthwesternUnited States around 1890.[1] Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a traveling worker.

Two hobos walking along railroad tracks after being put off a train. One is carrying a bindle.

EtymologyEdit

The origin of the term is unknown. According to etymologist Anatoly Liberman, the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890.[1] Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: "Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early Nineties (just then)?"[1] Author Todd DePastino notes that some have said that it derives from the term "hoe-boy", meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as "Ho, boy", but that he does not find these to be convincing explanations[2] Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America (1998) that it could either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation of "homeward bound".[3] It could also come from the words "homeless boy". H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migrant laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.[4][5]

HistoryEdit

 
Cutaway illustration of a hobo stove, a portable wood-burning stove using air convection

It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century.

In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in the United States at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the US population at the time). His article "What Tramps Cost Nation" was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911, when he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.[6]

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s.[7] With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.

Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, and far from home and support, plus the hostility of many train crews, they faced the railroads' security staff, nicknamed "bulls", who had a reputation of violence against trespassers.[8] Moreover, riding on a freight train is dangerous in itself. British poet W. H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels when trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to be trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.[9]

According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere (1984), at some unknown point in time, as many as 20,000 people were living a hobo life in North America. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.[10][page needed]

CultureEdit

Expressions used through the 1940sEdit

Hobos were noted for, among other things, the distinctive lingo that arose among them. Some examples follow:

Hobo term Explanation
Accommodation car the caboose of a train
Angellina a young inexperienced child
Bad road a train line rendered useless by some hobo's bad action or crime
Banjo (1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, "D"-handled shovel, generally used for shoveling coal
Barnacle a person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcomber a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports
Big house prison
Bindle stick a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
Bindlestiff a hobo who carries a bindle
Blowed-in-the-glass a genuine, trustworthy individual
'Bo the common way one hobo referred to another: "I met that 'bo on the way to Bangor last spring."
Boil up specifically, to boil one's clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
Bone polisher a mean dog
Bone orchard a graveyard
Bull a railroad officer
Bullets beans
Buck a Catholic priest, good for a dollar
Burger today's lunch
C, H, and D indicates an individual is "Cold, Hungry, and Dry" (thirsty)
California blankets newspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench
Calling in using another's campfire to warm up or cook
Cannonball a fast train
Carrying the banner keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
Catch the westbound to die
Chuck a dummy pretend to faint
Cooties body lice
Cover with the moon sleep out in the open
Cow crate a railroad stock car
Crumbs lice
Docandoberry anything edible that grows on a riverbank
Doggin' it traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line
Easy mark a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
Elevated under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Flip to board a moving train
Flop a place to sleep, by extension, "flophouse", a cheap hotel
Glad rags one's best clothes
Graybacks lice
Grease the track to be run over by a train
Gump a chicken[11]
Honey dipping working with a shovel in the sewer
Hot (1) a fugitive hobo; (2) a hot or decent meal: "I could use a hot and a flop"
Hot shot a train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for "Cannonball"
Jungle an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
Jungle buzzard a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
Knowledge bus a school bus used for shelter
Maeve a young hobo, usually a girl
Main drag the busiest road in a town
Moniker / Monica a nickname
Mulligan stew a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
Nickel note a five-dollar bill
On the fly jumping a moving train
Padding the hoof to travel by foot
Possum belly to ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to avoid being blown off)
Pullman a railroad sleeper car; most were once made by the George Pullman company
Punk any young kid
Reefer a compression or "refrigerator car"
Road kid a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
Road stake the small reserve amount of money a hobo may keep in case of an emergency
Rum dum a drunkard
Sky pilot a preacher or minister
Soup bowl a place to get soup, bread and drinks
Snipes cigarette butts "sniped" (e.g., from ashtrays or sidewalks)
Spare biscuits looking for food in a garbage can
Stemming panhandling or begging along the streets
Tokay blanket drinking alcohol to stay warm
Yegg a traveling professional thief, or burglar

Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as "big house", "glad rags", "main drag", and others.

Hobo signs and graffitiEdit

 
Key to a few hobo signs, displayed at the National Cryptologic Museum

Almost from the beginning of the existence of hoboes, as soon as the 1870s,[12] it has been reported that hoboes communicated with each other by way of a system of cryptic "hobo signs," which would be chalked in prominent or relevant places to clandestinely alert future hoboes about important local information. Many listings of these symbols have been made. A few symbols include (see also photo at right):

  • A triangle with hands, signifying that the homeowner has a gun.[13]
  • A horizontal zigzag signifying a barking dog.[14]
  • A circle with two parallel arrows meaning "Get out fast," as hobos are not welcome in the area.[14]
  • A cat signifying that a kind lady lives here.[14]

Reports of hoboes using these symbols appeared in newspapers and popular books straight through the Depression, and continue to turn up in American popular culture; for example, John Hodgman's book The Areas of My Expertise features a section on hobo signs listing signs found in newspapers of the day as well as several whimsical ones invented by Hodgman,[15] and the Free Art and Technology Lab released a QR Hobo Code, with a QR stenciler, in July 2011.[16] Displays on hobo signs have been exhibited in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service, and in the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland,[17][18] and Webster's Third New International Dictionary supplies a listing of hobo signs under the entry for "hobo".[19]

Despite an apparently strong record of authentication, however, there is doubt as to whether hobo signs were ever actually in practical use by hoboes. The alternative hypothesis is that the signs were invented early on by a writer or writers seeking to add to the fantastical mythos that began to surround hoboes soon after they first appeared; this fabrication, then, was perpetuated and embellished by writers over the years, aided occasionally by hoboes willing to make up a colorful story or pose for a photo.[12] Several hoboes during the days that the signs were reportedly most in use asserted that they were in fact a "popular fancy" or "a fabrication".[12] Nels Anderson, who both hoboed himself and studied hoboes extensively for a University of Chicago master's thesis,[12] wrote in 1932,

Another merit of the book [Godfrey Irwin's 1931 American Tramp and Underworld Slang] is that the author has not subscribed to the fiction that American tramps have a sign language, as so many professors are wont to believe.[20]

Though newspapers in the early and peak days of hoboing (1870s through the Depression) printed photos and drawings of hoboes leaving these signs, no known photos exist showing hobo signs found in situ where they would have served a practical purpose, leaving open the possibility that all the photographs published were staged in order to add color to the story.

Nonetheless, it is certain that hoboes have used some graffiti to communicate, in the form of "monikers" (sometimes "monicas"). These generally consisted simply of a road name (moniker), a date, and the direction the hobo was heading then. This would be written in a prominent location where other hoboes would see it. Jack London, in recounting his hobo days, wrote,

Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a "stiff" or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound. And promptly the hobo to whom I gave the information lit out after his pal. I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.[21]

The use of monikers persists to this day, although since the rise of cell phones a moniker is more often used simply to "tag" a train car or location. Some moniker writers have tagged train cars extensively; one who tagged under the name Bozo Texino during the 1970s and ’80s estimated that in one year ("where I went overboard") he marked over 30,000 train cars.[22] However, not all moniker writers (or "boxcar artists") are hoboes; Bozo Texino in fact worked for the railroad, though others such as "A No. 1" and "Palm Tree Herby" rode trains as tramps or hoboes.[22][23]

Ethical codeEdit

Hobo culture—though it has always had many points of contact with the mainstream American culture of its day—has also always been somewhat separate and distinct, with different cultural norms. Hobo culture's ethics have always been subject to disapproval from the mainstream culture; for example, hopping freight trains, an integral part of hobo life, has always been illegal in the U.S. Nonetheless, the ethics of hobo culture can be regarded as fairly coherent and internally consistent, at least to the extent that any culture's various individual people maintain the same ethical standards. That is to say, any attempt at an exhaustive enumeration of hobo ethics is bound to be foiled at least to some extent by the diversity of hobos and their ideas of the world. This difficulty has not kept hobos themselves from attempting the exercise. An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 (a hobo union created in the mid-1800s to dodge anti-vagrancy laws, which did not apply to union members)[24] during its 1889 National Hobo Convention:[25]

  1. Decide your own life; don't let another person run or rule you.
  2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
  3. Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
  4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
  5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of other hobos.
  7. When jungling in town, respect handouts and do not wear them out; another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
  8. Always respect nature; do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
  10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
  11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully. Take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad; act like an extra crew member.
  12. Do not cause problems in a train yard; another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
  13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children; expose all molesters to authorities – they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
  14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
  15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed; you may need their help someday.
  16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!

Hobo culture has changed in many ways since this list was written, and although many rules may still apply, some will have changed. Rule 16, for example, governs procedure at a "hobo court," but with the wane in numbers of hobos, such gatherings are now uncommon or nonexistent,[26] and conflict resolution is pursued by other means. Rule 14, meanwhile, is seen as naive by some modern hobos, who note that runaway children may be safer traveling than in a bad home situation; rule 10 is felt by many to be needless, and rule 2 meets sharp disagreement from some.[27] On the whole, though, the list is still approved by modern hobos.[27]

ConventionsEdit

GeneralEdit

There are numerous hobo conventions throughout the United States each year. The ephemeral ways of hobo conventions are mostly dependent on the resources of their hosts. Some conventions are part of railroad conventions or "railroad days". Others are quasi-private affairs, hosted by long-time hobos. Still others are ad hoc—that is, they are held surreptitiously on private land. Some of these conventions are held in abandoned quarries along major rivers.[citation needed]

Most non-mainstream conventions are held at current or historical railroad stops. The most notable is the National Hobo Convention held in Britt, Iowa.[citation needed] The town first hosted the Convention in 1900, but there followed a hiatus of thirty-three years. Since 1934 the Convention has been held annually in Britt, on the second weekend in August.[28]

National Hobo ConventionEdit

The Britt Hobo Museum exhibits a smattering of hobo history and lore. Initially just a "Hobo Convention" museum, in the late 1990s it evolved into a fuller Hobo History museum. LeAnn Castillo, a local artist and the hobo painter, exhibits her portrait collection of hobo kings and queens since 1900. All of her paintings are made from photos.[citation needed]

Formal entertainment at the annual Convention begins before dusk, and is provided by a mix of active hobos, extended hobo families and non-hobo wannabees. Late after dark, the crowd leaves and the campfire becomes more informal. Satellite groups spring up. Stories are told—small and tall, poetry is recited, and cants are sung to the muted vibrations of banjos, guitars and harmonicas.[citation needed]

Activities officially begin the Thursday of the convention weekend with a lighting of the campfire and exercise of some hobo cultural traditions (Honoring the Four Winds) before the opening entertainment. On Friday morning many visit the hobo-corner of the cemetery to pay tribute to those who have "Caught the Westbound", with a hobo memorial service preceded by a local contingent of ex-military colorguard. Names of deceased hobos are recited (Roll Call). At around five o'clock on Friday afternoon a poetry reading attracts participants and a small crowd of onlookers.[citation needed]

Hobo-king candidates are screened the days before the annual King and Queen election and coronation. They are expected to have knowledge and experience in riding trains, and are evaluated for how well they would represent the hobo community. A quasi-qualified candidate is occasionally allowed to run. Any woman who is part of the hobo community may run for hobo Queen.[citation needed] On the Saturday morning there is a parade in the town pavilion, allowing onlookers to see those running for hobo king and queen in a last chance to campaign before the election in the early afternoon. Following the parade, Mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park, cooked by local Boy Scouts. In early afternoon, the hobo King and Queen are elected by means of the volume of crowd applause.[citation needed]

A carnival, flea market, and an annual auto show are also part of the festivities. There is also stock-car racing.[citation needed]

Notable personsEdit

Notable hobosEdit

  • Jack Black
  • Charles Elmer Fox, author of Tales of an American Hobo (Singular Lives) (1989) ISBN 978-0-87745-251-5
  • Maurice W. Graham, a.k.a. "Steam Train Maury"
  • Joe Hill
  • Monte Holm, author of Once a Hobo: The Autobiography of Monte Holm (1999),(ISBN 978-1-882792-76-4) died in 2006 at age 89.[29]
  • Leon Ray Livingston, a.k.a. "A No.1"
  • Harry McClintock
  • Utah Phillips
  • Robert Joseph Silveria Jr., a.k.a. "Sidetrack", who killed 34 other hobos before turning himself in to the authorities
  • T-Bone Slim
  • Bertha Thompson, a.k.a. "Boxcar Bertha", was widely believed to be a real person. Sister of the Road was penned by Ben Reitman and presented as an autobiography.
  • Jim Tully, an author who penned several pulp fiction books, 1928 through 1945.
  • Steven Gene Wold, a.k.a. "Seasick Steve"

Notables who have hoboedEdit

In mainstream cultureEdit

BooksEdit

ComicsEdit

DocumentariesEdit

  • Hobo (1992), a documentary by John T. Davis, following the life of a hobo on his travels through the United States.
  • American Experience, "Riding the Rails" (1999), a PBS documentary by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, narrated by Richard Thomas, detailing the hobos of the Great Depression, with interviews of those who rode the rails during those years.
  • The American Hobo (2003), a documentary narrated by Ernest Borgnine featuring interviews with Merle Haggard and James Michener.
  • The Human Experience, (2008), a documentary by Charles Kinnane. The first experience follows Jeffrey and his brother Clifford to the streets of New York City where the boys live with the homeless for a week in one of the coldest winters on record. The boys look for hope and camaraderie among their homeless companions, learning how to survive on the streets.

Fictional charactersEdit

Examples of characters based on hobos include:

MoviesEdit

 
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, 1921

MusicEdit

ArtistsEdit

Musicians known for hobo songs include: Baby Gramps, Railroad Earth, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Utah Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Seasick Steve, Tim Barry, and Boxcar Willie.

SongsEdit

Examples of hobo songs include:

StageEdit

  • King of the Hobos (2014), a one-man musical that premiered at Emerging Artists Theatre in New York City, is centered around the death of James Eads How, known during his lifetime as the "Millionaire Hobo".[44]

TelevisionEdit

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c "On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. November 12, 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
  2. ^ Interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America from the University of Chicago Press website
  3. ^ Bryson, Bill (1998). Made in America. Transworld Publishers Limited. 161. ISBN 978-0-380-71381-3.
  4. ^ Mencken, H.L. (1937). "On the road again". The American Language (4th ed.). grammarphobia.com (July 25, 2009). Archived from the original on 2012-05-05. Retrieved 2013-05-06.
  5. ^ Mencken, Henry Louis (25 August 2017). The American Language: An Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States. Knopf. ISBN 9780394400754 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ The New York Telegraph: "What Tramps Cost Nation", page D2. The Washington Post, June 18, 1911.
  7. ^ "Virginia.edu" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 17, 2012. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  8. ^ Mathers, Michael H. (1973). Riding the Rails. Boston: Gambit. p. 30. ISBN 0-87645-078-8. OCLC 757486.
  9. ^ "Life and Times of an American Hobo". Allvoices. 2010-09-21. Archived from the original on 2012-10-13. Retrieved 2015-11-01.
  10. ^ Conover, Ted (1984). Rolling Nowhere. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-60319-0.
  11. ^ Bruns, Roger (1980). Knights of the Road: A Hobo History. New York: Methuen Inc. p. 201. ISBN 0-416-00721-X.
  12. ^ a b c d Wray, Mike; Wray, Charlie (2018). "Hobo Signs: Code of the Road?". Historic Graffiti Society. Retrieved 2020-02-25.
  13. ^ Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", page 198. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  14. ^ a b c Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", page 24. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  15. ^ Hodgman, John. (2006). The areas of my expertise : an almanac of complete world knowledge compiled with instructive annotation and arranged in useful order ... (Riverhead trade pbk. ed.). New York: Riverhead. ISBN 978-1-59448-222-9. OCLC 70672414.
  16. ^ "QR Code Stencil Generator and QR Hobo Codes". F.A.T., Free Art and Technology Lab. 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2012-07-18.
  17. ^ Rothstein, Edward (August 1, 2014). "Security Secrets, Dated but Real". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-02.
  18. ^ "National Cryptological Museum—Virtual Tour". Retrieved 2010-10-05.
  19. ^ Webster's third new international dictionary of the English language, unabridged. Gove, Philip Babcock, 1902-1972., Merriam-Webster, Inc. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster. 1993. ISBN 0-87779-201-1. OCLC 27936328.CS1 maint: others (link)
  20. ^ Anderson, Nels (March 1932). "American Tramp and Underworld Slang. Godfrey Irwin (book review)". American Journal of Sociology. 37 (5): 842. doi:10.1086/215902.
  21. ^ London, Jack (2005) [1907]. The Road. Project Gutenberg.
  22. ^ a b Daniel, Bill. Who Is Bozo Texino? (documentary). Self-published: billdaniel.net, 2005.
  23. ^ Wray, Mike; Wray, Charlie (2018). "Moniker: Mark of the Tramp". Historic Graffiti Society. Retrieved 2020-02-25.
  24. ^ "Iowa's Hobo Convention". www.mentalfloss.com. 2014-01-21. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  25. ^ "Hobo Code". National Hobo Museum. Archived from the original on July 24, 2011. Retrieved April 20, 2014.
  26. ^ "Hobo History: Ethical Code". Squat the Planet. 2019-12-19.[dead link]
  27. ^ a b "Hobo History: Ethical Code". Squat the Planet.[dead link]
  28. ^ Lammle, Rob (2014-01-21). "Strange States: Iowa's Hobo Convention". Mental Floss. Retrieved 2015-11-01.
  29. ^ "Monte Holm Dead at 89". Original Nickel Hobo Society. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
  30. ^ "Tucson Citizen Morgue". Tucsoncitizen.com. 2009-04-06. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  31. ^ "Louis L'amour: A brief biography". louislamour.com. Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  32. ^ Niven, Frederick (1927). Wild Honey. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
  33. ^ "Down and Out in Paris and London". Archived from the original on October 10, 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-07.
  34. ^ Van Ronk, Dave. The Mayor of MacDougal Street. 2005.
  35. ^ "Dale Wasserman, 94; Playwright Created 'Man of La Mancha'" obituary by Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times, printed in The Washington Post December 29, 2008.
  36. ^ American Travels of a Dutch Hobo, 1923–1926: Gerard Leeflang: 9780813808888: Amazon.com: Books. 1984. ISBN 081380888X.
  37. ^ "The Great Depression - The Story of 250,000 Teenagers Who Left Home and Ride the Rails". Erroluys.com. 1933-04-17. Archived from the original on 2013-05-05. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  38. ^ Thrilling Detective Heroes, John Locke & John Wooley, eds. (Silver Spring, MD: Adventure House, 2007)
  39. ^ "Series List".
  40. ^ https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1995-10-26-9510260009-story.html
  41. ^ "Here Comes Your Man". Frankblack.net. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  42. ^ Hobo Bill's Last Ride by Jimmie Rodgers (1929) on YouTube
  43. ^ Waiting for a Train by Jimmie Rodgers (1928) on YouTube
  44. ^ "King of the Hobos". www.brownpapertickets.com. Retrieved October 11, 2014.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

  •   The dictionary definition of hobo at Wiktionary
  •   Media related to Hobos at Wikimedia Commons