Hobos and Tramps

early tramps



1870-1890

The tramp has always existed in some form or other, and he will continue on his wanderings until the end of time; but there is no question that he has come into public notice, particularly in America, to a greater extent during the present decade than ever before.
Allan Pinkerton, 1877


There have always been tramps and wanderers. Through the ages and since the beginning of time, men have set out in search of adventure and in desperation. But in the early days of the country, clearly there was no multitude of back-door strangers: it was only when they grew in number and the desperate situation grew in scale that tramps became a widely acknowledged social ill.

The true story of the American hobo begins with the Tramping problem first coming to light in the decades immediately following the Civil War. "The story of tramping is the story of the mass population movement caused by the industrial transformation of the urban United States (Monkkonen, 2)." The Civil War was not the only cause for a multitude of young, single displaced men on the move in the 1870s. In 1873, the Jay Cooke company of Philadelphia failed, causing the first large scale depression of the modern industrial age. More than 4,000,000 people lost their jobs and many of them took advantage of the railroad lines to travel and look for work.

The distances people traveled grew larger; the amount of strangers appearing at the door grew larger; the ability and desire of localities to take responsibility for these indigent strangers waned; Tramps became the scourge of mankind at the same time that they became caricatures in popular press, leaving a middle class who both vilified and engaged with tramps, never really knowing who they were, why they were, and what to do about dealing with them. Some people advocated that municipalities take action and provide housing for these displaced men; a more common idea was to put arsenic in meat and leave it out the back door.

Allan Pinkerton's book, Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, published in 1877, discusses the new problem of tramps. While he and his men were not considered a friend to tramps, he seems to back off from the absolute vilification of the wandering man.
I do not agree with Professor Wayland and others as to the universal villainy and ferocity of the tramp, though I have no measures to advocate, nor hardly any suggestions to make. Although tramping from place to place was necessary a century ago immeasurably greater than now, the "tramp" as an institution to attract public notice, and possibly need public leglislation, is comparatively new. We shall have to get better acquainted with him, when we will know how to treat him, and perhaps, if necessary, manage him. ... As a class, I feel that they have been somewhat misunderstood and always scorned and vilified. (31)
Bret Harte wrote his story My Friend, the Tramp in ___ which began a spate of writing, fictional and social study, of the tramp which peaked around ___. Josiah Flynt, a tramp himself, became known for his books dealing with tramp life. He became one of the tramp world's most prolific writer (battling with W.H. Davies, a Brit) and later even became a consultant for the railroads as a railroad policeman, exposing the lifestyles of the rail riders. The first of the following two selections are by Flynt; the second by a woman who writes about the lonely tramp who visited her back door.... Here are some early magazine stories or articles dealing with the tramp problem.