HOW WAS the CONVENTION?
Q: What is the Hobo Convention?
A: The National Hobo Convention is the largest gathering of hobos, rail-riders, and tramps, who gather to celebrate the American traveling worker.
Q: When and where is the Hobo Convention?
A: The National Hobo Convention is held the second weekend every August in Britt, Iowa
Q: How can we get to the Hobo Convention?
A: Britt, Iowa is located 31 miles west of Mason City, Iowa. Route 18 travels through Britt. Greyhound Bus services Mason City. Clear Lake Municipal Airport offers flight service.
Q: Can we still ride a freight train to the Convention?
A: Freight train riding is illegal! Train service to Britt, Iowa is sporadic at best. There are trains daily in either direction but the schedule varies quite a bit. While we don’t condone freight train riding, we recognize that there will be individuals who will choose to travel that way. Please be careful.
Q: What is there to do at the Hobo Convention?
A: Aside from the scheduled events, there are many opportunities to visit with local townspeople and hobos and share stories and music and poetry. There is also many tourist attractions in the area including, the Armstrong House, The Grotto of the Redemption, The Surf Ballroom, the Museum of Farming and Agriculture. Hancock County Race track is located in Britt and has weekend racing.
Q: Are there any real Hobos at the Convention?
A: There are many former and current hobos who join us at the Convention.
Q: Are there any hotel or camping facilities at the Convention?
A: There are hotels in Mason City and Clear Lake, Iowa. There is camping available in Britt.
Q: Where do the Hobos stay?
A: Most of the hobos stay at the hobo jungle, located on the Northeast side of town, by the railroad tracks.
Q: Who runs the Hobo Convention?
A: The City of Britt runs the Hobo Days Celebration, The Council of Hobos (Tourist Union 63) handles the business of the convention. The Hobo Foundation operates the Hobo Museum and maintains the Hobo Cemetery.
Q: Can we drink at the Convention?
A: The Convention events are located on public property. Local laws do not allow for drinking alcoholic beverages on public property. There are a number of taverns located in Britt.
Q: Can anyone become Hobo King or Hobo Queen?
A: To be elected King you must be a true rail-rider. You must pass a committee of hobo kings who will test your worthiness to run. To run for queen, you must attend the convention for 3 years and help out at the convention.
Q: How can we trace a loved one who was on the rails or possibly still on the rails?
A: You may contact the Hobo Museum for more information. Call 641-843-9104. During Hobo week, you may ask at the Hobo Jungle.
Q: How can we get someone buried at the Hobo Cemetery?
A: Contact the Hobo Foundation for information at 641-843-9104.
Q: How can I donate to the Hobos?
A: You may donate to the hobos at the hobo jungle during Hobo Week, or you can donate financially or with memorabilia at the Hobo Museum 641-843-9104.
“City life is interesting but full of danger. … The flophouse and the cheap hotel compel promiscuity, but do not encourage intimacy or neighborliness. On the outskirts of cities, however, the homeless men have established social centers that they call “jungles,” places where the hobos congregate to pass their leisure time outside the urban centers.” Allan Pinkerton made one of the first descriptions of a hobo jungle back in 1877. While he doesn’t use the term hobo (it doesn’t come into custom until the 1890s), he does describe a scene which would become all too common along the railroad lines in the coming decades. This scene was reported as repeatedly occuring along the line of the Boston and Albany railroad. “It is night, and in a deep gorge near the railroad, where the trains are constantly passing and repassing, a collection of some twenty or thirty of these outcasts, who have been driven from a neighboring village, are gathered. At the bottom of the gorge, where a stream of water leaps down from the hills through the stone archway sustaining the tracks, are sleeping or dozing, about a fire which has been kindled for warmth and to cook what little the wanderers may have stolen or begged for their supper, a large number of the poor fellows, exhausted from their day’s march; for, like “Joe” in Dickens’s “Bleak House,” it is their destiny to be kept “moving on” and on. In different places are seen old and young men who have retired from the companionship of their fellows, to brood over their misfortunes, regret lost opportunities in the past, or possibly to resolve upon better things for the future….”  Pinkerton hit on the elements of what would come to be called “the jungle”. Not only are the geographical characteristics correct, but his description of a ‘society’ of outcasts, gathering, eating, and sleeping together is a fine description of the social function of the jungle.
The hobo jungle was a place to rest and repair while on the road outside of the city. Some were more permanent than others, but all shared the element of refuge, an out-of-the-way place where the hobo could eat, sleep, read a newspaper and wash himself before heading out again. Accordingly, the jungle was located near the railroad, close enough to get to and from the train yard or rail line but not so close as to attract unwanted attention. According to Anderson, accessibilty to the railroad is but one of the requirements for a good jungle. “It should be located in a dry and shady place that permits sleeping on the ground. There should be plenty of water for cooking and bathing and wood enough to keep the pot boiling. If there is a general store near by where bread, meat, and vegetables may be had, so much the better. For those who have no money, but enough courage to ‘bum lumps’ it is well that the jungles be not too far from a town, though far enough to escape the attention of the natives and officials, the town “clowns.”  Anderson divides jungle camps into two classes: the temporary and the permanent. Temporary jungles are just stop-overs or relay stations inhabited intermittantly by men temporarily stranded and seeking a place to lay-over without being molested by authorities or criminals. Of course, a smart man would look first for a place where others have already been because there he might find a pot to cook in. In places where the trains stop frequently – always a convenience – these camps tend to become more permanent.
In the jungle camp, especially a permanent jungle camp, might be found pots or kettles, utensils of various kinds, a line strung on which to dry clothes or a mirror with which a man might more easily shave. Much in the tradition of the cowboy camp whose basic tenet is that you leave it as you found it, the jungle has certain rules designed to keep it functional and self-sustaining.
* Making fire by night in jungles subject to raids.
* “hi-jacking” or robbing men at night when sleeping in the jungle
* “buzzing” or making the jungle a permanent hangout for jungle “buzzards” who subsist on the leavings of meals
* wasting food or destroying it after eating is a serious crime
* leaving pots and other utensils dirty after using
* cooking without first hustling fuel
* destroying jungle equipment
“In addition to these fixed offenses are other crimes which are dealt with as they arise. Men are supposed to use cooking cans for cooking only, “boiling up” cans for washing clothing, coffee cans to cook coffee, etc. After using, guests are expected to clean utensils, dry them, and leave them turned bottom side up so that they will not fill with rainwater and rust. They are expected to keep the camp clean. To enforce such common-sense rules, self-appointed committees come into existence.” 
“The jungle also is the kindergarten for the road kid and the academy for all. Here are learned the techniques of survival and even enjoyment. There is, at the simplest stage, the two-times table of tramping: the shorthand code of symbols which the floater’s eye picks up on a town’s signboard or gatepost, the half-moons and triangles and interlinked circles and crossed lines that indicate in hieroglyphic detail the reception a hobo can expect and the potentials for working or bumming.”  While often viewed as the haven in which hobo law, lore and tradition were passed on, the jungle could also be a place of danger and intimidation. Police, railroad bulls and criminals could find scapegoats or easy targets in the jungle congregation. On all counts, the good and bad, the jungle was the place where “the fledgling learns to behave like an old timer,” where the “slang… and the cant of the tramp class is circulated” and where the “stories and songs current among the men of the road, the sentiments, the attitudes, and the philosophy” of the migratory laborer are aired and passed on.  As the railroad carried the hobo from the jungles to the cities and back again, it also carried the slang, stories, songs and sentiments that were the heart of hobo culture.
the HOBO CODE
As inscribed in the Annual Convention Congress of the Hoboes of America held on August 8, 1894 at the Hotel Alden, 917 Market St., Chicago Illinois;
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 insure 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, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, 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 thru that yard.
13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose to authorities all molesters, 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!
WHAT is a HOBO?
Subject: Addressing the public about hobos
What a hobo looks like: To begin with, there is no real way to visually tell who a hobo is, there are no specific uniforms, or style of dress. No secret hand signs, or greetings, no membership cards, and contrary to most police attitudes, no organized gangs. This Idea come from an attitude called “Pass The Buck”, where a police officer cannot figure out a conclusion to a crime, so the police officer finds a Hobo to blame. And where a Hobo is concerned, migratory in activities, and habits, they are still predictable to return to places and areas they deem comfortable with a frequency. With only a past history of employment, they return to areas they are used to, the police know this and so, with that predictability, they haunt areas that Hobos frequent. Looking for someone who fits the description of the criminal suspect the police cannot otherwise find. The Hobo, having no community ties in the town, has no physical proof of his travels, and past places of residence, and therefore is an easy scapegoat to blame for what local crime the police cannot otherwise solve. The traveling and working man/woman know each other by sight and nickname from past experience of travel, work, and residence of locales. Life habits become character traits, which are the fingerprints of each Hobo encountered. There are many eccentricities of each Hobo that cause each one to be identified in the Hobos dress, name, way of living, and what friends he/she surrounds themselves with, or if they are loners.
Head gear: Ball Caps permeate through out the entire Hobo Culture; some may be from certain Football, Basketball, or Baseball Teams that a Hobo is a fan of. Other caps can be of Industry, or Industrial Companies that the Hobo is seasonally employed by. Other caps may be showing Cities, or States the Hobo spends their winters in, and still other caps have no denotation at all. These can be Military Caps, Welders Caps, “Boonie Hats”, Corn stripes, or Toboggans, still, like the Native American, the Hobos hat tells something about him/her.
Clothing: Clothes can be of any style, but generally consists of long-sleeved shirts, and denim pants, good denim pants are needed because the work and travel of the Hobo is rough, easily destroying clothing not made for the job. Too many attendants at the local mission are used to locals wearing what ever pants are given, and will not even try to understand the Hobo looking for the rough and tough pants that will endure a working punishment, and last for at least a year. They are used to most accepting what ever scraps are given, so they cannot fathom one discriminating over clothing. Another thing that mission attendants cannot understand is the Hobo wanting to wash his/her clothes. It is inconceivable to them that someone living “outside” would want to take care of their property. The mission attendant is too used to folks preferring no responsibilities, that they cannot fathom someone wanting such. In fact the mission attendant has been brainwashed by an administration with a “Big Brother” attitude, which are too used to seeing folks existing as a nameless, faceless number in a crowd. And are not used to anyone wanting to be an individual, so the Hobo is the freak of nature to the mission attendant.
Foot wear: There is no specific kind of footwear that can be called “Hobo Shoes”, or “Hobo Boots”, some wear work boots, some wear tennis shoes, some wear military dress shoes, some wear mountain climbing shoes. Most will find footwear that will last through the most extreme punishment, so if the boots/shoes cost $$, or not it is up to the individual to determine what will be obtained, and how. A big benefit to the Hobo is the “Military Stand Down”, where the Army gathers to redistribute many goods to veterans. At this activity a Hobo can replenish his/her living goods, boot, clothes, underwear, socks, coats, gloves, sleeping bags, food, etc. At a time, and in a culture that constantly tries to make its’ finances “go the extra mileage”, this is a better benefit than getting a Federal Tax Return, and will last much longer. Usually, at a local jungle, Hobos will group together and decide, of what they have gathered at the Stand Down, what each personally wants to keep, and what to pass on to others in the culture.
A grand sense of family permeates the Hobo Culture, and in that idea is the constant activity of giving unto others. This constant is ingrained in their minds by a street quote-“what goes around, comes around”, and most Hobos will remember the good done to the by others of the family/culture. And when they are “flush”, they will return the favor, maybe not directly, but eventually it will return to the giver. Although the use of a sleeping bag may appear self explanatory, it serves several functions in a Hobos life. As a bed, as a couch, as a worktable, as a seat, it can just be used to keep warm with, most will be military issue and will definitely show signs of heavy use, and travel.
Back Packs: In older days a backpack was called a bindle, and it is a staple of the Hobos life, and will carry extra clothes, food, eating utensils, cooking utensils, possibly a small stove, (although most hobos will opt for building a small fire, unless they are on the run, then they will eat cold). This container also holds their working tools, or “traveling trade”, and may contain pliers, screwdriver, knife, razorblades, needles and thread, denim material, leather or deerskin.
Traveling Intelligence: Traveling Intelligence is an item most hobos try to keep in their head; this might not always be possible (especially in this day and age). Mostly Traveling Intelligence revolves around the mode of transportation that the Hobo uses to get from Point-A, to Point-B. This usually is by a freight train, but also includes interstate bus, or hitchhiking so to say a hobo only travels by freight train is totally erroneous. For independence of life, enjoyment of freedom, and self-reliance in caring for ones’ self and ones’ personal finances is the basic essence of the Hobos way of life. In actual physical points of traveling, the intelligence begins with a total respect for freight trains, seeing that it is hundreds of thousands of tons of unrelentlessness, and mindless, or heartless steel. Totally having no feelings for human life, nor prejudice toward who ever it may kill, it is a machine that takes on the personality, and attitude of its’ operator. And if the operator/engineer has a hate directed toward Hobos, then the train will act accordingly! Older Hobos may not always use past experience, but may also be armed with a railroad scanner, in the past a hobo could ask and get good direct information as to whatever train they might be wanting to travel on going to, or near their destination. This may not be an option in this age; most Hobos agree that being out of sight is best for catching a train. Therefore scouting a train yard, and listening to a scanner for train numbers, then deciphering the cryptic information to tell where the train is, and its’ departure time, and destination is very reminiscent of a military reconnaissance operation. While in transit, keep in mind that you are a guest (uninvited) on the freight train you are riding, and anything you do that is otherwise asinine, and could effect the safety of your train must be avoided. If you feel this does not apply to you, please consider, In all but 16 freight train derailments in the past 50 years were caused by Dumb Hobos monkeying around.
Evading Railroad Police: Evading Railroad Police has never been a sure thing, an older Hobo once told me ” the bull ain’t caught you because he didn’t want to catch you”. The easiest way I know of to avoid Railroad Police is don’t drink alcoholic beverages while waiting to catch out. A person takes too many life threatening chances when they are alcoholically impaired, I’ve seen too many folks get “Sliced and Diced” after trying to catch when they are inebriated. Too many yard employees have had to clean up the tracks after a drunk hobo has gotten himself/herself killed by a moving train. For your protection (believe it or not) they will call the Railroad Police when they see someone drinking near the train yard. The best idea here is to catch out sober, and celebrate after the train is rolling. The old saying “Patience is a Virtue” is not too far off the mark, when scoping the yard to find a ride a person can draw a lot of attention to his/her self because most are in a hurry to get going. A problem with this is the fidgety acting, and pacing around also draws a lot of attention to yourself when around a train yard. It’s a hard thing to do, training yourself to be patient while waiting near a train yard, but the main thought here is an old Military Discipline, “Nothing is more evident than a moving object”. While waiting outside of the train yard, watch the activity, and try to scan the extent of the yard, you may be able to find an area away from too much activity that will be easier for you to access your train. Also in an area of low activity you will be less likely to be spotted by, or called into a railroad police officer. When all is said and done, and you still end up getting kicked off the yard, think of coming back at another time, it might be that the railroad police officer is doing you a favor!
How do Hobos get Work/Money? In almost every town there is a corner where people catch out work, most hobos have been working a migratory labor route for years, they are well aware of when and where seasonal work crops up. As always, planned travel does not work quite the way most want it to go, and most Hobos have experienced this, therefore they have had to seek out labor in areas that they would not otherwise stop in. Because of this they have established work corners in various towns across the continent, this also allows hobos who do not migrate with the seasons to have an area to replenish their road funds. Seasonal employment has existed since the founding of this country, most of it is centered on agricultural work. The best way to find out about this kind of work is to contact the Archer Daniels Midland Company. Another way most hobos will get work is to go to day labor offices, like Labor Ready, which has offices in almost every major town in the nation. The offices pay daily, and while $40 to$60 a day is not top dollar, it is still not anything to laugh at, especially when your wallet is full, of dust and lint.
Families: A big thing that has been asked of me over the years is do Hobos have families? Everyone comes from a mother and father, and some how they are related to someone somewhere, the problem with this is sometime neither of the parents have learned to how to love their children. Basically they are full of cold emotions, and therefore displace, or throw away their children, and so in a manner of speaking, they hit the road, many go to the big cities and fall prey to a destructive sub-culture that permeates in these areas. Some, however, have a spirit of wanderlust about them, and begin hitchhiking around the country, to a degree they find a loose knit family with the hitchhikers they encounter around the country. But many fall prey to the many greedy opportunists that follow, and feed upon hitchhikers, but some of them find the hobos. Much like these kids, hobos come from a family somewhere, and many of them have a family they return to see from time to time. Because hobos cross paths with each other so often, or travel the same routes they each become the others’ brothers and sisters, and form their self-styled family bonds. Because Hobos all share the same lifestyle, mode of travel, and dangers- the hobo family bonds, and love become stronger than most blood family bonds. Because they share everything with each other, they adopt those who have none, and kids that are thrown away by their own family find the Hobo Family highly accepting of them. So what if the kid is not college material, so what is the kid has a lot of body piercings or tattoos, so what is he/she smokes marijuana? If he/she has decided not to follow a norm or standard in their hometown life, then they are of the desire to be an individual, or an outlaw! A friend of mine, Just Jim (R.I.P.) once told me “hobos are the last of the outlaws”, and because of that the hobo family still inspires imagination, creativity, and independence. It is this kind of lifestyle I grew up with, and eventually hit the road with, it is this kind of lifestyle most kids find appealing, it is this kind of family most want to belong to. Because most Hobos have little, or no monetarily valuable possessions, the adopted kinships they have with other Hobos is so much more precious. And so hand made items abound among the Hobo Family, it is a throw back to a time when gifts could not easily be bought, but they could easily be made. And when one Hobo dies, though the rest of the U.S. could care less, the entire Hobo family feels the pain nation-wide.
What’s the appeal of Hobo Life? So what appeal to this kind of life is there really?, to the neo-phyte, imagine a way of life where you are not bound by time schedules, home owner bill, job expectations, the IRS, you can live where you want, sleep where you want, travel wherever you want as long as its’ in the continental US and Canada. Never pay a travel fare unless you want to, never pay rent, electric, gas, water, or cable bills, never pay taxes, and see places in the US and Canada others only see in the movies, or in a magazine. Sound like the lifestyle of Bill Gates, or Donald Trump?, well hundreds of folks live that kind of life every day, in fact that kind of life/culture has been going on since just after Americas’ Civil War. A lifestyle/culture so sweet, so addictive, so seductive, so intoxicating, that those of us who retire after 20, 30, even 40 years of are never really free of it. Because Lady Freedom has gotten too far in our blood to gotten rid of her completely. Freedom, complete freedom, and the ability to pursue that ultimate free life, and the vehicle to propel you ion such a quest, and a constitutionally base right to free movement. It’s truly a drug, a greasy steely drug that once it gets in your blood it’s there for good, and no matte how you’ve retired, no matter how much you deny it, you’ll never be free of it. Whenever you hear a train whistle, whenever you see a moving train, or just train cars, or even train tracks, that longing in your heart will tug at you so tight you’ll realize that you’re addicted for life!”
TOURIST UNION 63
A Brief History of Tourist Union #63 and it’s Mission
“In the mid 1800’s several hobos found themselves in a jungle next to the mainline of the B & O RR They all had something in common, they had been repeatedly kicked out of towns and off train yards because they had no visible means of employment nor funds on hand at many times of the year. And because of strict enforcement of vagrancy laws by all police agencies nationwide an organization was needed to aid the migrant working hobo. However if one was the member of a Union then the unemployed person was granted free passage on any RR, and would not be persecuted for vagrancy while in any city attempting to gain even a few hours of employment. And so these few hobos drew up articles of confederation for a Tourist Union for any hobo nationwide to join and avoid persecution for vagrancy. Finding that the hobos present numbered to 63 this Union was labeled Tourist Union #63. The founding members, both men and women, registered their union in Cinncinati Ohio holding a small office at 1143 W. Market St. Near the Queensgate neighborhood, and the yards of the B & O, and Nickel Plate RR’s. In August of each year Tourist Union #63 held a National Hobo Convention to renew friendships, collect annual dues, sign up new members, and honor the most deserving of their union to the temporary positions of King, Queen, Crown Prince, Crown Princess, and Grand Head Pipe. Thereby attempting to elevate the stature of all hobos in the general public’s eyes. Through the mid to later 1800’s the Convention of Tourist Union #63 was held in a different city of the USA to appease to every region of the nation that it’s members originated, and to enlist new members thereby gaining more political support for the legitimacy of the union.
During the 1887 convention, held on the banks of St. Louis on what would someday become the Gateway Arch National Park, the convening members voted on Chicago as their next convention location. And Chicago remained the location of their convention for the next 12 years. [for by that time up to 8 organizations were hold a National Hobo Convention because of the publicity it generated] It was at one of these Chicago held conventions that the article called the code of the road was drawn up, voted on, and adopted by the Union as an absolute of laws that the entire Hobo Nation could enforce at any time or any place. In the year 1899 the heads of the town of Britt,Iowa approached the heads of Tourist Union #63 to hold their annual convention in Britt. The President of the Union rode the Milwaukee Road to Britt to inspect the Accommodations for the large gathering of members that would converge on Britt in August. And so beginning in the year 1900 the National Hobo Convention of Tourist Union #63 was moved permanently to Britt Iowa. The town needed to be able to accommodate a large convening body and this was very evident during the 1949 Convention when a total of 1800 hobos converged upon the town. Tourist Union #63 is a Hobo Nation oriented organization, we DO NOT expound a political attitude, but one that is directed towards a Nationwide Family. Our Mission is to preserve the Hobo Culture into the future, to police our own when needed, and to give a more concise image of our nation thru the control of our personal print media, and our many corners of the internet.”
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 – A small portable frying pan.
* 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”.
* 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 – A fugitive hobo. Also, a decent meal: “I could use three hots and a flop.”
* Hot Shot – train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster
* 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).
“Some hobos now communicate via cellular phones and e-mail. But the classic American hobo of early this century communicated through a much more basic system of marks–a code through which they gave information and warnings to their fellow Knights of the Road. Usually, these signs would be written in chalk or coal on a trestle, fence, building or sidewalk, letting others know what they could expect in the area of the symbol.”
RIDING the RODS
Riding the rods was by far the most dangerous occupation and as such, was a rite of passage for a true hobo.
“But to “ride the rods” requires nerve, and skill, and daring. And, by the way, there is but one rod, and it occurs on passenger coaches…. Between the cross-partition and the axle is a small lateral rod, three to four feet in length, running parallel with both the partition and the axle. This is the rod. There is more often than not another rod, running longitudinally, the air-brake rod. These rods cross each other; but woe to the tyro who takes his seat on the brake-rod! It is not the rod, and the chance is large that the tyro’s remains will worry and puzzle the county coroner. – Jack London
Clearly, beating the trains was a very dangerous occupation. Thousands
were injured and killed riding the rails.
“Thousands of wandering wage-earners in search of work are killed on American railroads, because society as a whole, and the railroad as a public carrier in particular, are ignorantly uninterested in the welfare of the less fortunate members of society. The number of so-called “trespassers” killed annually on American railroads exceeds the combined total of passengers and trainmen killed annually. From 1901 to 1903, inclusive, 25,000 “trespassers” were killed, and an equal number were maimed, crippled, and injured. From one-half to three-quarters of the “trespassers” according to the compilers of the figures were “vagrants,” wandering, homeless wage-earners in search of work to make their existence possible.”
“A #1, The Famous Tramp” was the moniker of a tramp whose claim to fame was to have traveled 500,000 miles for $7.61. While Nels Anderson notes that his books were more or less sensational and that many tramps thought the incidents he related were overdrawn, “A-No. 1” nevertheless laid out some slang terms for those who had been injured while beating trains.
* Sticks: Train rider who lost a leg.
* Peg: Train rider who lost a foot.
* Fingy or Fingers: Train rider who lost one or more fingers.
* Blinky: Train rider who lost one or both eyes.
* Wingy: Train rider who lost one or both arms.
* Mitts: Train rider who lost one or both hands.
* Righty: Train rider who lost right arm and leg.
* Lefty: Train rider who lost left arm and leg.
* Halfy: Train rider who lost both legs below knee.
* Straight Crip: Actually crippled or otherwise afflicted.
* Phoney Crip: Self-mutilated or simulating a deformity.
Outsmarting the bulls and crew was another matter altogether. While some crewmen accepted money or goods as exchange for a ride, there was a strong tradition of violence against the trespassers. They might be beaten senseless by the shacks or forced to jump from the moving train. The especially brutal bull might then shoot at the hobo as he was running away, that is, if he landed running. One might also be left out in the middle of a literal nowhere, in the dark, in the cold, with nothing. At best, the tramp may just face arrest – and the work farm.
GET to EL PASO
Hobo Sign Language Targeted El Paso / by David Uhl
“Graffiti covers scores of walls, businesses and residences in El Paso today, a result of gangs communicating with each other while leaving the general public in the dark. This isn’t the first time that distinct groups have used code to converse with each other. During the Depression thousands of unemployed men turned hobo overnight flocked to Texas because they heard from others traveling the country that there was a town out West called El Paso known for its generosity to beggars. This news reached the vagabonds through a simple system of symbols which could be found on street curbs and buildings nationwide.
A February 8, 1932 El Paso Times article carried the following code used by the hobos of the 1930s to spread world of El Paso’s generosity: 1. Two hobos, traveling together, have gone the direction of the arrows. 2. Hobos not welcome. Will be put to work on rock pile, sawing wood, or hard labor. 3. This sign depicts the bars of a jail. 4. Means “OUT” or “GET OUT.” Poor pickings. 5. The town itself is no good, but the churches and missions are kindly disposed. 6. This is a good place for hobos to meet other hobos. 7. All the ministers, mission heads, and Christian leaders are disposed to welcome transients. 8. The pendulum indicates that the people here swing back and forth in their attitude toward hobos, sometimes friendly and other times unkind. 9. Represents two rails and a cross tie. Means “Railway Terminal” or “Division Point,” a good place to board trains in different directions. 10. This sign represents teeth; it means the police or people are hostile to tramps. 11. This means “the jail is alive with cooties.” 12. Keep on moving: the police, the churches, and the people are no good. 13. This is a swell place to stop: these people are bighearted. 14. Food may be had for the asking. 15. The
sign for “OK.” People are very good, kindly disposed. 16. Best results are secured if two hobos travel together, not so good for a lone hobo.
As a result of its generosity, El Paso came to be known as an “easy mark” for beggars. These men could make from $2 to $5 a day or more panhandling when working men took home much less: Olive D. McGuire, secretary of the El Paso Community Chest, warned townspeople to inspect their curbs and be thrilled if hobos had placed an emblem of lattice work there- a symbol meaning “hobos not welcome.” McGuire distributed sheets containing the hobo language and asked residents to send panhandlers to organized agencies for help. The generosity of El Pasoans has continued through the years even though the city is not affluent. Some restaurants in town give their left-over food to shelters or charity organizations, or they simply give it to the homeless who ask, rather than throwing it away. Although the hobo sign language no longer exists, many homeless still know that El Paso is a generous city, recently having been named one of the top 50 U.S. cities for charitable giving.”
HOBO KINGS & QUEENS (1900 – PRESENT)
Year Kings Queens
1900 Charles Noe
1933-35 Hairbreadth Harry
1936 Scoop Shovel Scotty
1937-38 King David I
1939 Scoop Shovel Scotty
1940-45 Hobo Ben Benson
1946 Skeet Simmons Polly Ellen Pep
1947 Hiway Johnny Weaver Polly Ellen Pep
1948 Hobo Ben Benson Polly Ellen Pep
1949 Cannonball Eddie Box Car Myrtle
1950 Hobo Ben Benson Box Car Myrtle
1951 Cannonball Eddie Sylvia Davis
1952 Scoop Shovel Scotty Sylvia Davis
1953 Hobo Ben Benson Sylvia Davis
1954-55 Scoop Shovel Scotty Box Car Betty Link
1956 Hobo Ben Benson
1957 Scoop Shovel Scotty
1958 Arizona Bill Box Car Betty Link
1959 Scoop Shovel Scotty
1960-61 King David I Box Car Betty Link
1962 Scoop Shovel Scotty
1963 Pennsylvania Kid Wilson
1964 Beef Steak Charlie
1965 Hard Rock Kid
1966 Pennsylvania Kid
1967 Hard Rock Kid
1968 Pennsylvania Kid
1969 Slow Motion Shorty Box Car Myrtle
1970 Hard Rock Kid Longlooker Mic
1971 Pennsylvania Kid Longlooker Mic
1972 Hard Rock Kid Longlooker Mic
1973 Steamtrain Maury Longlooker Mic
1974 Slow Motion Shorty Longlooker Mic
1975 Hard Rock Kid Adventurer Jan
1976 Steamtrain Maury LuAnn Uhden
1977 Sparky Smith Longlooker Mic
1978 Steamtrain Maury Longlooker Mic
1979 Steamtrain Maury Longlooker Mic
1980 Sparky Smith Cinderbox Cindy
1981 Steamtrain Maury Hobo Lump
1982 Hobo Bill Mainer Longlooker Mic
1983 Mountain Dew Hobo Lump
1984 Fry Pan Jack Slo Freight Ben
1985 Frisco Jack Longlooker Mic
1986 Ramblin’ Rudy Minneapolis Jewel
1987 Alabama Hobo Hobo Lump
1988 Fishbones Would-be hobo
1989 El Paso Kid Slo Freight Ben
1990 Songbird McCue Gypsy Moon
1991 Ohio Ned Minneapolis Jewel
1992 Roadhog USA Connecticut Shorty
1993 Iowa Blackie Blue Moon
1994 Sidedoor Pullman Kid New York Maggie
1995 Luther the Jet Gett Cinderbox Cindy
1996 Liberty Justice Come On Pat
1997 Frog Minneapolis Jewel
1998 New York Slim Cinders
1999 Preacher Steve Slo Freight Ben
2000 Bo Grump M.A.D. Mary
2001 Grandpa Dudley Derail
2002 Redbird Express Nightingale
2003 Hobo Spike Mama Joe
2004 Adman Sunrise
2005 Ironhorse Brad Half-track
2006 Iwegan Rick Miss Charlotte
2007 Tuck Lady Son Shine
2008 Stretch Connecticut Tootsie