is a term that refers to a subculture
of wandering homeless
people, particularly those who make a habit of hopping freight trains
. The iconic image of a hobo is that of a downtrodden, shabbily-dressed and perhaps drunken male, one that was solidified in American culture
during the Great Depression
. Hobos are often depicted carrying a bindle
and/or a sign asking for money/work/food.
The hobo imagery has been employed by entertainers to create horribly failing characters in the past, two of them being Emmett Kelly's "Weary Willy" and Red Skelton's "Freddy the Freeloader".
The origin of the term is unknown, though there are a number of theories. Author Todd DePastino has suggested that it may come from the term hoe-boy
meaning "farmhand," or a greeting such as Ho, boy!
. Bill Bryson
suggests in Made in America
that it could either come from the railroad
greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation
und". Others have said that the term comes from the Manhattan
intersection of Houston
, where itinerant people once used to congregate.
Still another theory of the term's origins is that it derives from the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, which was a terminus for many railroad lines in the 19th century. The word "hobo" may also be a shortening of the phrase which best describes the early hobo's method of transportation, which was "hopping boxcars", or of the phrase "homeless body" or "homeless bohemian".
It is unclear exactly when hobos appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the Mexican Civil War in the mid 19th Century, many soldiers looking to return home took to hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed railroads westward aboard freight trains in the late 19th Century.
In 1906, Prof. Edmund Kelly, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in America at 500,000 (about .6% of the U.S. population). The article citing this figure, "What Tramps Cost Nation", was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911 and estimated the number had surged to 700,000.
The population of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free via freight trains and try their luck elsewhere.
Life as a hobo was a dangerous one. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, far from home and support, and the hostile attitude of many train crews, the railroads employed their own security staff, often nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation for being rough with trespassers. Also, riding on a freight train is a dangerous enterprise. The British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a leg falling under the wheels whilst trying to jump a train. One could easily get trapped between cars, or freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.
National Hobo Convention
In 1900, the town fathers of Britt
invited Tourist Union #63 to bring their annual convention to town, and the National Hobo Convention
has been held each year in early to mid August ever since. Hobos stay in the "Hobo Jungle" telling stories around campfires at night. A hobo king and queen are named each year and get to ride on special floats in the Hobo Day parade. Following the parade, mulligan stew
is served to hundreds of people in the city park. Live entertainment, a carnival, and a flea market are also part of the festivities.
Hobo lingo in use up to the 1940s
- Accommodation car - The caboose of a train
- Angellina - young inexperienced kid
- Bad Road - A train line rendered useless by some hobo's bad action
- Banjo - (1) A small portable frying pan. (2) A short, "D" handled shovel
- Barnacle - a person who sticks to one job a year or more
- Beachcomber - a hobo that hangs around docks or seaports
- Big House - Prison
- Bindle stick - Collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
- Bindlestiff - A hobo who steals from other hobos.
- 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
- C, H, and D - indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)
- California Blankets - Newspapers, intended to be used for bedding
- 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
- Cover with the moon - Sleep out in the open
- Cow crate - A railroad stock car
- Crumbs - Lice
- 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 scrap of meat
- Honey dipping - Working with a shovel in the sewer
- Hot - (1) A fugitive hobo. (2) A decent meal: "I could use three hots and a flop."
- Hot Shot - train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster. Simile for "Cannonball"
- Jungle - An area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
- Jungle Buzzard - a hobo or tramp that preys on their own
- Knowledge bus - A school bus used for shelter
- Main Drag - the busiest road in a town
- Moniker / Monica - A nickname
- Mulligan - a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
- Nickel note - 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 lay flat, on his/her stomach, to not be blown off
- Pullman - a rail car
- Punk - any young kid
- Reefer - A compression of "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 amount of money a hobo may have 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" (eg. in ashtrays)
- Spear biscuits - Looking for food in garbage cans
- Stemming - panhandling or mooching along the streets
- Tokay Blanket - drinking alcohol to stay warm
- Yegg - A traveling professional thief
Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as "Big House", "glad rags", "main drag", and others.
To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos. Some signs included "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on. For instance:
- A cross signifies "angel food," that is, food served to the hobos after a party.
- A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
- Sharp teeth signify a mean dog.
- A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
- A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
- A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
- A circle with two parallel arrows means to get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.
- Two interlocked humans signify handcuffs. (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).
- A Caduceus symbol signifies the house has a medical doctor living in it.
- A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here.
- A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
- Three diagonal lines means it's not a safe place.
- A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been "burned" or "tricked" by another hobo and is not a trusting house.
- Two shovels, signifying work was available (Shovels, because most hobos did manual labor).
Another version of the Hobo Code exists as a display in the Steamtown Railroad Museum at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park service.
Hobo ethical code
An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body, it reads this way;
- Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
- 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 insure employment should you return to that town again.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals treatment of other hobos.
- When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
- Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- 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.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose to authorities all molesters, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
Notable people who have hoboed
- Boxcar Betty
- Tiki Mick - Villain in D. Gray-man whose alter ego is a hobo. He travels with a group of friends by train, stopping in towns for mining jobs and playing poker with other travelers to earn money through gambling.
Hobos in media
- Hobo (book), by Eddy Joe Cotton, 2002. ISBN 0-609-60738-3
- Knights of the Road, by Roger A. Bruns, 1980. ISBN 0-416-00721-X.
- Hard travellin': The hobo and his history, by Kenneth Allsop. ISBN 0-340-02572-7.
- All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, by Loren Eiseley, 1975. ISBN 0-8032-6741-X
- The Road, by Jack London
- You Can't Win, by Jack Black
- Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
- One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hobos by Clifford Williams.
- The Hobo - The Sociology of the Homeless Man, by Nels Anderson, 1923.
- Bottom Dogs, by Edward Dahlberg
- On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
- Lonesome Traveler, by Jack Kerouac ("The Vanishing American Hobo")
- The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman - Humor book which features a lengthy section on "hobos", including a list of 700 hobo names which spawned an online effort to illustrate the complete list.
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair contains a section in which the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, abandons his family in Chicago and becomes a hobo for a while.
Television and radio
BBC Radio 4
recently broadcast a one-off program about the Hobo Convention entitled "Hobo Heaven", and in 2006 broadcast a memorial to 5-time elected "King of the Hobos" Steamtrain Maury Graham, who passed away in November of 2006 - or as hobos call it "He Caught The Westbound".
- The Littlest Hobo - A movie and TV series about a dog of the same name.
- Mad Men Episode "The Hobo Code" - The protagonist has a flashback to his childhood, when a hobo's brief visit teaches young Don/Dickie something about his father and something about life.
- Freight Train Riders of America, a brotherhood of hobos
- Hobo nickel, an art form associated with hobos
- John Hodgman, humorist who writes about hobos
- Midnight Hobo
- National Hobo Convention, held in Britt, Iowa by the Hobo Foundation
- Wobbly lingo, the jargon of the hobos who joined the union
- "Hobo With a Shotgun", parody trailer created by the fictional Dartmouth Pictures, included in the movie Grindhouse
- Kirby, Texas, the "hobo capital of Texas"
- Brady, Jonann (2005). Hobos Elect New King and Queen. ABC Good Morning America, Includes Todd “Adman” Waters last ride as reigning Hobo King plus hobo slide show with Adman’s photo’s taken on the road. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=1020800&page=1
- Bannister, Matthew (2006). Maurice W Graham "Steam Train" Grand Patriarch of America’s Hobos who has died aged 89. Last Word. BBC Radio. Matthew Bannister talks to fellow King of the Hobos Todd Waters “Ad Man” and to Obituary Editor of the New York Times, Bill McDonald. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/lastword_28dec2006.shtml
- Davis, Jason (2007). “The Hobo”, 30 minute special On The Road feature. KSTP television. Covers Adman Waters taking his daughter out on her first freight ride. http://kstp.com/article/stories/S208805.shtml?cat=69
- Johnson, L. Anderson, H.S. (1983, July 12). Riding The Rails For The Homeless. The New York Times, sec B page 3, col 3. Story on Adman Waters The Penny Route.
- Hobo Museum, Hobo Foundation. 51 Main Ave. S. Britt, IA. (641) 843-9104