The Road by Jack
Holding Her Down
Hoboes That Pass in the Night
Road-Kids and Gay-Cats
Two Thousand Stiffs
There is a woman in the state of Nevada to whom I once lied
continuously, consistently, and shamelessly, for the matter of a couple
of hours. I don't want to apologize to her. Far be it from me. But I do
want to explain. Unfortunately, I do not know her name, much less her
present address. If her eyes should chance upon these lines, I hope she
will write to me.
It was in Reno, Nevada, in the summer of 1892. Also, it was
fair-time, and the town was filled with petty crooks and tin-horns, to
say nothing of a vast and hungry horde of hoboes. It was the hungry
hoboes that made the town a "hungry" town. They "battered" the back
doors of the homes of the citizens until the back doors became
A hard town for "scoffings," was what the hoboes called it at that
time. I know that I missed many a meal, in spite of the fact that I
could "throw my feet" with the next one when it came to "slamming a
gate for a "poke-out" or a "set-down," "or hitting for a light piece"
on the street. Why, I was so hard put in that town, one day, that I
gave the porter the slip and invaded the private car of some itinerant
millionnaire. The train started as I made the platform, and I headed
for the aforesaid millionnaire with the porter one jump behind and
reaching for me. It was a dead heat, for I reached the millionnaire at
the same instant that the porter reached me. I had no time for
formalities. "Gimme a quarter to eat on," I blurted out. And as I live,
that millionnaire dipped into his pocket and gave me . . . just . . .
precisely ... a quarter. It is my conviction that he was so
flabbergasted that he obeyed automatically, and it has been a matter of
keen regret ever since, on my part, that I didn't ask him for a dollar.
I know that I'd have got it. I swung off the platform of that private
car with the porter manoeuvering to kick me in the face. He missed me.
One is at a terrible disadvantage when trying to swing off the lowest
step of a car and not break his neck on the right of way, with, at the
same time, an irate Ethiopian on the platform above trying to land him
in the face with a number eleven. But I got the quarter! I got it!
But to return to the woman to whom I so shamelessly lied. It was in
the evening of my last day in Reno. I had been out to the race-track
watching the ponies run, and had missed my dinner (i.e. the midday
meal). I was hungry, and, furthermore, a committee of public safety had
just been organized to rid the town of just such hungry mortals as I.
Already a lot of my brother hoboes had been gathered in by John Law,
and I could hear the sunny valleys of California calling to me over the
cold crests of the Sierras. Two acts remained for me to perform before
I shook the dust of Reno from my feet. One was to catch the blind
baggage on the westbound overland that night. The other was first to
get something to eat. Even youth will hesitate at an all-night ride, on
an empty stomach, outside a train that is tearing the atmosphere
through the snow-sheds, tunnels, and eternal snows of heaven-aspiring
But that something to eat was a hard proposition. I was "turned
down" at a dozen houses. Sometimes I received insulting remarks and was
informed of the barred domicile that should be mine if I had my just
deserts. The worst of it was that such assertions were only too true.
That was why I was pulling west that night. John Law was abroad in the
town, seeking eagerly for the hungry and homeless, for by such was his
barred domicile tenanted.
At other houses the doors were slammed in my face, cutting short my
politely and humbly couched request for something to eat. At one house
they did not open the door. I stood on the porch and knocked, and they
looked out at me through the window. They even held one sturdy little
boy aloft so that he could see over the shoulders of his elders the
tramp who wasn't going to get anything to eat at their house.
It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor
for my food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the
hungry tramp. The very poor can always be depended upon. They never
turn away the hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have
I been refused food by the big house on the hill; and always have I
received food from the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with
its broken windows stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken
with labor. Oh, you charity-mongers! Go to the poor and learn, for the
poor alone are the charitable. They neither give nor withhold from
their excess. They have no excess They give, and they withhold never,
from what they need for themselves, and very often from what they
cruelly need for themselves. A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity
is the bone shared with the dog when you are just as hungry as the dog.
There was one house in particular where I was turned down that
evening. The porch windows opened on the dining room, and through them
I saw a man eating pie -a big meat-pie. I stood in the open door, and
while he talked with me, he went on eating. He was prosperous, and out
of his prosperity had been bred resentment against his less fortunate
He cut short my request for something to eat, snapping out, "I
don't believe you want to work."
Now this was irrelevant. I hadn't said anything about work. The
topic of conversation I had introduced was "food." In fact, I didn't
want to work. I wanted to take the westbound overland that night.
"You wouldn't work if you had a chance," he bullied.
I glanced at his meek-faced wife, and knew that but for the
presence of this Cerberus I'd have a whack at that meat-pie myself. But
Cerberus sopped himself in the pie, and I saw that I must placate him
if I were to get a share of it. So I sighed to myself and accepted his
"Of course I want work," I bluffed.
"Don't believe it," he snorted.
"Try me," I answered, warming to the bluff.
"All right," he said. "Come to the corner of blank and blank
streets" — (I have forgotten the address) — "to-morrow morning. You
know where that burned building is, and I'll put you to work tossing
"All right, sir; I'll be there."
He grunted and went on eating. I waited. After a couple of minutes
he looked up with an I-thought-you-were-gone expression on his face,
"I . . . I am waiting for something to eat," I said gently.
"I knew you wouldn't work!" he roared.
He was right, of course; but his conclusion must have been reached
by mind-reading, for his logic wouldn't bear it out. But the beggar at
the door must be humble, so I accepted his logic as I had accepted his
"You see, I am now hungry," I said still gently.
"To-morrow morning I shall be hungrier. Think how hungry I shall be
when I have tossed bricks all day without anything to eat. Now if you
will give me something to eat, I'll be in great shape for those
He gravely considered my plea, at the same time going on eating,
while his wife nearly trembled into propitiatory speech, but refrained.
"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said between mouthfuls. "You come
to work to-morrow, and in the middle of the day I'll advance you enough
for your dinner. That will show whether you are in earnest or not."
"In the meantime —" I began; but he interrupted.
"If I gave you something to eat now, I'd never see you again. Oh, I
know your kind. Look at me. I owe no man. I have never descended so low
as to ask any one for food. I have always earned my food. The trouble
with you is that you are idle and dissolute. I can see it in your face.
I have worked and been honest. I have made myself what I am. And you
can do the same, if you work and are honest."
"Like you?" I queried.
Alas, no ray of humor had ever penetrated the sombre work-sodden
soul of that man.
"Yes, like me," he answered.
"All of us?" I queried.
"Yes, all of you," he answered, conviction vibrating in his voice.
"But if we all became like you," I said, "allow me to point out
that there'd be nobody to toss bricks for you."
I swear there was a flicker of a smile in his wife's eye. As for
him, he vas aghast -but whether at the awful possibility of a reformed
humanity that would not enable him to get anybody to toss bricks for
him, or at my impudence, I shall never know.
"I'll not waste words on you," he roared. "Get out of here, you
I scraped my feet to advertise my intention of going, and queried:
"And I don't get anything to eat?"
He arose suddenly to his feet. He was a large man. I was a stranger
in a strange land, and John Law was looking for me. I went away
hurriedly. "But why ungrateful?" I asked myself as I slammed his gate.
"What in the dickens did he give me to be ungrateful about?" I looked
back. I could still see him through the window. He had returned to his
By this time I had lost heart. I passed many houses by without
venturing up to them. All houses looked alike, and none looked "good."
After walking half a dozen blocks I shook off my despondency and
gathered my "nerve." This begging for food was all a game, and if I
didn't like the cards, I could always call for a new deal. I made up my
mind to tackle the next house. I approached it in the deepening
twilight, going around to the kitchen door.
I knocked softly, and when I saw the kind face of the middle-aged
woman who answered, as by inspiration came to me the "story" I was to
tell. For know that upon his ability to tell a good story depends the
success of the beggar. First of all, and on the instant, the beggar
must "size up" his victim. After that, he must tell a story that will
appeal to the peculiar personality and temperament of that particular
victim. And right here arises the great difficulty: in the instant that
he is sizing up the victim he must begin his story. Not a minute is
allowed for preparation. As in a lightning flash he must divine the
nature of the victim and conceive a tale that will hit home. The
successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and
instantaneously — and not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of
his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the
person who opens the door, be it man, woman, or child, sweet or
crabbed, generous or miserly, good natured or cantankerous, Jew or
Gentile, black or white, race-prejudiced or brotherly, provincial or
universal, or whatever else it may be. I have often thought that to
this training Of my tramp days is due much of my success as a
story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled
to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable
necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by
all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it
was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism
constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for
After all, art is only consummate artfulness, and artfulness saves
many a "story." I remember lying in a police station at Winnipeg,
Manitoba. I was bound west over the Canadian Pacific. Of course, the
police wanted my story, and I gave it to them — the spur of the moment.
They were landlubbers, in the heart of the continent, and what better
story for them than a sea story? They could never trip me up on that.
And so I told a tearful tale of my life on the hell-ship Glenmore. (I
had once seen the Glenmore lying at anchor in San Francisco Bay.)
I was an English apprentice, I said. And they said that I didn't
talk like an English boy. It was up to me to create on the instant. I
had been born and reared in the United States. On the death of my
parents, I had been sent to England to my grandparents. It was they who
had apprenticed me on the Glenmore. I hope the captain of the Glenmore
will forgive me, for I gave him a character that night in the Winnipeg
police station. Such cruelty! Such brutality! Such diabolical ingenuity
of torture! It explained why I had deserted the Glenmore at Montreal.
But why was I in the middle of Canada going west, when my
grandparents lived in England? Promptly I created a married sister who
lived in California. She would take care of me. I developed at length
her loving nature. But they were not done with me, those hard-hearted
policemen. I had joined the Glenmore in England; in the two years that
had elapsed before my desertion at Montreal, what had the Glenmore done
and where had she been? And thereat I took those landlubbers around the
world with me. Buffeted by pounding seas and stung with flying spray,
they fought a typhoon with me off the coast of Japan. They loaded and
unloaded cargo with me in all the ports of the Seven Seas. I took them
to India, and Rangoon, and China, and had them hammer ice with me
around the Horn and at last come to moorings at Montreal.
And then they said to wait a moment, and one policeman went forth
into the night while I warmed myself at the stove, all the while
racking my brains for the trap they were going to spring on me.
I groaned to myself when I saw him come in the door at the heels of
the policeman. No gypsy prank had thrust those tiny hoops of gold
through the ears; no prairie winds had beaten that skin into wrinkled
leather; nor had snow-drift and mountain-slope put in his walk that
reminiscent roll. And in those eyes, when they looked at me, I saw the
unmistakable sun-wash of the sea. Here was a theme, alas! with half a
dozen policemen to watch me read — I who had never sailed the China
seas, nor been around the Horn, nor looked with my eyes upon India and
I was desperate. Disaster stalked before me incarnate in the form
of that gold-ear-ringed, weather-beaten son of the sea. Who was he?
What was he? I must solve him ere he solved me. I must take a new
orientation, or else those wicked policemen would orientated me to a
cell, a police court, and more cells. If he questioned me first, before
I knew how much he knew, I was lost.
But did I betray my desperate plight to those lynx-eyed guardians
of the public welfare of Winnipeg? Not I. I met that aged sailorman
glad-eyed and beaming, with all the simulated relief at deliverance
that a drowning man would display on finding a life-preserver in his
last despairing clutch. Here was a man who understood and who would
verify my true story to the faces of those sleuth-hounds who did not
understand, or, at least, such was what I endeavored to play-act. I
seized upon him; I volleyed him with questions about himself. Before my
judges I would prove the character of my savior before he saved me.
He was a kindly sailorman — an "easy mark." The policemen grew
impatient while I questioned him. At last one of them told me to shut
up. I shut up; but while I remained shut up, I was busy creating, busy
sketching the scenario of the next act. I had learned enough to go on
with. He was a Frenchman. He had sailed always on French merchant
vessels, with the one exception of a voyage on a "lime-juicer." And
last of all — blessed fact! — he had not been on the sea for twenty
The policeman urged him on to examine me.
"You called in at Rangoon?" he queried.
I nodded. "We put our third mate ashore there. Fever."
If he had asked me what kind of fever, I should have answered,
"Enteric," though for the life of me I didn't know what enteric was.
But he didn't ask me. Instead, his next question was: —
"And how is Rangoon?"
"All right. It rained a whole lot when we were there."
"Did you get shore-leave?"
"Sure," I answered. "Three of us apprentices went ashore together."
"Do you remember the temple?"
"Which temple?" I parried.
"The big one, at the top of the stairway."
If I remembered that temple, I knew I'd have to describe it. The
gulf yawned for me.
I shook my head.
"You can see it from all over the harbor," he informed me. "You
don't need shore-leave to see that temple."
I never loathed a temple so in my life. But I fixed that particular
temple at Rangoon.
"You can't see it from the harbor," I contradicted.
You can't see it from the town. You can't see it from the top of
the stairway. Because — " I paused for the effect. "Because there isn't
any temple there."
"But I saw it with my own eyes!" he cried.
"That was in — ?" I queried.
"It was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1887," I explained.
"It was very old."
There was a pause. He was busy reconstructing in his old eyes the
youthful vision of that fair temple by the sea.
"The stairway is still there," I aided him. "You can see it from
all over the harbor. And you remember that little island on the
right-hand side coming into the harbor?" I guess there must have been
one there (I was prepared to shift it over to the left-hand side), for
he nodded. "Gone," I said. "Seven fathoms of water there now."
I had gained a moment for breath. While he pondered on time's
changes, I prepared the finishing touches of my story.
"You remember the custom-house at Bombay?"
He remembered it.
"Burned to the ground," I announced.
"Do you remember Jim Wan?" be came back at me. "Dead," I said; but
who the devil Jim Wan was I hadn't the slightest idea.
I was on thin ice again.
"Do you remember Billy Harper, at Shanghai?" I queried back at him
That aged sailorman worked hard to recollect, but the Billy Harper
of my imagination was beyond his faded memory.
"Of course you remember Billy Harper," I insisted. "Everybody knows
him. He's been there forty years. Well, he's still there, that's all."
And then the miracle happened. The sailorman remembered Billy
Harper. Perhaps there was a Billy Harper, and perhaps he had been in
Shanghai for forty years and was still there; but it was news to me.
For fully half an hour longer, the sailorman and I talked on in
similar fashion. In the end he told the policemen that I was what I
represented myself to be, and after a night's lodging and a breakfast I
was released to wander on westward to my married sister in San
But to return to the woman in Reno who opened her door to me in the
deepening twilight. At the first glimpse of her kindly face I took my
cue. I became a sweet, innocent, unfortunate lad. I couldn't speak. I
opened my mouth and closed it again. Never in my life before had I
asked any one for food. My embarrassment was painful, extreme. I was
ashamed. I, who looked upon begging as a delightful whimsicality,
thumbed myself over into a true son of Mrs. Grundy, burdened with all
her bourgeois morality. Only the harsh pangs of the belly-need could
compel me to do so degraded and ignoble a thing as beg for food. And
into my face I strove to throw all the wan wistfulness of famished and
ingenuous youth unused to mendicancy.
"You are hungry, my poor boy," she said.
I had made her speak first.
I nodded my head and gulped.
"It is the first time I have ever . . . asked," I faltered.
"Come right in." The door swung open. "We have already finished
eating, but the fire is burning and I can get something up for you."
She looked at me closely when she got me into the light.
"I wish my boy were as healthy and strong as you," she said. "But
he is not strong. He sometimes falls down. He just fell down this
afternoon and hurt himself badly, the poor dear."
She mothered him with her voice, with an ineffable tenderness in it
that I yearned to appropriate. I glanced at him. He sat across the
table, slender and pale, his head swathed in bandages. He did not move,
but his eyes, bright in the lamplight, were fixed upon me in a steady
and wondering stare.
"Just like my poor father," I said. "He had the falling sickness.
Some kind of vertigo. It puzzled the doctors. They never could make out
what was the matter with him."
"He is dead?" she queried gently, setting before me half a dozen
"Dead," I gulped. "Two weeks ago. I was with him when it happened.
We were crossing the street together. He fell right down. He was never
conscious again. They carried him into a drug-store. He died there."
And thereat I developed the pitiful tale of my father — how, after
my mother's death, he and I had gone to San Francisco from the ranch;
how his pension (he was an old soldier), and the little other money he
had, was not enough; and how he had tried book-canvassing. Also, I
narrated my own woes during the few days after his death that I had
spent alone and forlorn on the streets of San Francisco. While that
good woman warmed up biscuits, fried bacon, and cooked more eggs, and
while I kept pace with her in taking care of all that she placed before
me, I enlarged the picture of that poor orphan boy and filled in the
details. I became that poor boy. I believed in him as I believed in the
beautiful eggs I was devouring. I could have wept for myself. I know
the tears did get into my voice at times. It was very effective.
In fact, with every touch I added to the picture, that kind soul
gave me something also. She made up a lunch for me to carry away. She
put in many boiled eggs, pepper and salt, and other things, and a big
apple. She provided me with three pairs of thick red woollen socks. She
gave me clean handkerchiefs and other things which I have since
forgotten. And all the time she cooked more and more and I ate more and
more. I gorged like a savage; but then it was a far cry across the
Sierras on a blind baggage, and I knew not when nor where I should find
my next meal. And all the while, like a death's-head at the feast,
silent and motionless, her own unfortunate boy sat and stared at me
across the table. I suppose I represented to him mystery, and romance,
and adventure — all that was denied the feeble flicker of life that was
in him. And yet I could not forbear, once or twice, from wondering if
he saw through me down to the bottom of my mendacious heart.
"But where are you going to?" she asked me.
"Salt Lake City," said I. "I have a sister there — a married
sister." (I debated if I should make a Mormon out of her, and decided
against it.) "Her husband is a plumber — a contracting plumber."
Now I knew that contracting plumbers were usually credited with
making lots of money. But I had spoken. It was up to me to qualify.
"They would have sent me the money for my fare if I had asked for
it," I explained, "but they have had sickness and business troubles.
His partner cheated him. And so I wouldn't write for the money. I knew
I could make my way there somehow. I let them think I had enough to get
me to Salt Lake City. She is lovely, and so kind. She was always kind
to me. I guess I'll go into the shop and learn the trade. She has two
daughters. They are younger than I. One is only a baby."
Of all my married sisters that I have distributed among the cities
of the United States, that Salt Lake sister is my favorite. She is
quite real, too. When I tell about her, I can see her, and her two
little girls, and her plumber husband. She is a large, motherly woman,
just verging on beneficent stoutness — the kind, you know, that always
cooks nice things and that never gets angry. She is a brunette. Her
husband is a quiet, easy-going fellow. Sometimes I almost know him
quite well. And who knows but some day I may meet him? If that aged
sailorman could remember Billy Harper, I see no reason why I should not
some day meet the husband of my sister who lives in Salt Lake City.
On the other hand, I have a feeling of certitude within me that I
shall never meet in the flesh my many parents and grandparents — you
see, I invariably killed them off. Heart disease was my favorite way of
getting rid of my mother, though on occasion I did away with her by
means of consumption, pneumonia, and typhoid fever. It is true, as the
Winnipeg policemen will attest, that I have grandparents living in
England; but that was a long time ago and it is a fair assumption that
they are dead by now. At any rate, they have never written to me.
I hope that woman in Reno will read these lines and forgive me my
gracelessness and unveracity. I do not apologize, for I am unashamed.
It was youth, delight in life, zest for experience, that brought me to
her door. It did me good. It taught me the intrinsic kindliness of
human nature. I hope it did her good. Anyway, she may get a good laugh
out of it now that she learns the real inwardness of the situation.
To her my story was "true." She believed in me and all my family,
and she was filled with solicitude for the dangerous journey I must
make ere I won to Salt Lake City. This solicitude nearly brought me to
grief. just as I was leaving, my arms full of lunch and my pockets
bulging with fat woollen socks, she bethought herself of a nephew, or
uncle, or relative of some sort, who was in the railway mail service,
and who, moreover, would come through that night on the very train on
which I was going to steal my ride. The very thing! She would take me
down to the depot, tell him my story, and get him to hide me in the
mail car. Thus, without danger or hardship, I would be carried straight
through to Ogden. Salt Lake City was only a few miles farther on. My
heart sank. She grew excited as she developed the plan and with my
sinking heart I had to feign unbounded gladness and enthusiasm at this
solution of my difficulties.
Solution! Why I was bound west that night, and here was I being
trapped into going east. It was a trap, and I hadn't the heart to tell
her that it was all a miserable lie. And while I made believe that I
was delighted, I was busy cudgelling my brains for some way to escape.
But there was no way. She would see me into the mail-car — she said so
herself — and then that mail-clerk relative of hers would carry me to
Ogden. And then I would have to beat my way back over all those
hundreds of miles of desert.
But luck was with me that night. Just about the time she was
getting ready to put on her bonnet and accompany me, she discovered
that she had made a mistake. Her mail-clerk relative was not scheduled
to come through that night. His run had been changed. He would not come
through until two nights after-ward. I was saved, for of course my
boundless youth would never permit me to wait those two days. I
optimistically assured her that I'd get to Salt Lake City quicker if I
started immediately, and I departed with her blessings and best wishes
ringing in my ears.
But those woollen socks were great. I know. I wore a pair of them
that night on the blind baggage of the overland, and that overland went
Holding Her Down
Barring accidents, a good hobo, with youth and agility, can hold a
train down despite all the efforts of the train-crew to "ditch" him —
given, of course, night-time as an essential condition. When such a
hobo, under such conditions, makes up his mind that he is going to hold
her down, either he does hold her down, or chance trips him up. There
is no legitimate way, short of murder, whereby the train-crew can ditch
him. That train-crews have not stopped short of murder is a current
belief in the tramp world. Not having had that particular experience in
my tramp days I cannot vouch for it personally.
But this I have heard of the "bad" roads. When a tramp has "gone
underneath," on the rods, and the train is in motion, there is
apparently no way of dislodging him until the train stops. The tramp,
snugly ensconced inside the truck, with the four wheels and all the
framework around him, has the "cinch" on the crew — or so he thinks,
until some day he rides the rods on a bad road. A bad road is usually
one on which a short time previously one or several trainmen have been
killed by tramps. Heaven pity the tramp who is caught "underneath" on
such a road — for caught he is, though the train be going sixty miles
The "shack" (brakeman) takes a coupling-pin and a length of
bell-cord to the platform in front of the truck in which the tramp is
riding. The shack fastens the coupling-pin to the bell-cord, drops the
former down between the platforms, and pays out the latter. The
coupling-pin strikes the ties between the rails, rebounds against the
bottom of the car, and again strikes the ties. The shack plays it back
and forth, now to this side, now to the other, lets it out a bit and
hauls it in a bit, giving his weapon opportunity for every variety of
impact and rebound. Every blow of that flying coupling-pin is freighted
with death, and at sixty miles an hour it beats a veritable tattoo of
death. The next day the remains of that tramp are gathered up along the
right of way, and a line in the local paper mentions the unknown man,
undoubtedly a tramp, assumably drunk, who had probably fallen asleep on
As a characteristic illustration of how a capable hobo can hold her
down, I am minded to give the following experience. I was in Ottawa,
bound west over the Canadian Pacific. Three thousand miles of that road
stretched before me; it was the fall of the year, and I had to cross
Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains. I could expect "crimpy" weather, and
every moment of delay increased the frigid hardships of the journey.
Furthermore, I was disgusted. The distance between Montreal and Ottawa
is one hundred and twenty miles. I ought to know, for I had just come
over it and it had taken me six days. By mistake I had missed the main
line and come over a small "jerk" with only two locals a day on it. And
during these six days I had lived on dry crusts, and not enough of
them, begged from the French peasants.
Furthermore, my disgust had been heightened by the one day I had
spent in Ottawa trying to get an outfit of clothing for my long
journey. Let me put it on record right here that Ottawa, with one
exception, is the hardest town in the United States and Canada to beg
clothes in; the one exception is Washington, D.C. The latter fair city
is the limit. I spent two weeks there trying to beg a pair of shoes,
and then had to go on to Jersey City before I got them.
But to return to Ottawa. At eight sharp in the morning I started
out after clothes. I worked energetically all day. I swear I walked
forty miles. I interviewed the housewives of a thousand homes. I did
not even knock off work for dinner. And at six in the afternoon, after
ten hours of unremitting and depressing toil, I was still shy one
shirt, while the pair of trousers I had managed to acquire was tight
and, moreover, was showing all the signs of an early disintegration.
At six I quit work and headed for the railroad yards, expecting to
pick up something to cat on the way. But my hard luck was still with
me. I was refused food at house after house. Then I got a "hand-out."
My spirits soared, for it was the largest hand-out I had ever seen in a
long and varied experience. It was a parcel wrapped in newspapers and
as big as a mature suit-case. I hurried to a vacant lot and opened it.
First, I saw cake, then more cake, all kinds and makes of cake, and
then some. It was all cake. No bread and butter with thick firm slices
of meat between — but cake; and I who of all things abhorred cake most!
In another age and clime they sat down by the waters of Babylon and
wept. And in a vacant lot in Canada's proud capital, I, too, sat down
and wept . . . over a mountain of cake. As one looks upon the face of
his dead son, so looked I upon that multitudinous pastry. I suppose I
was an ungrateful tramp, for I refused to partake of the bounteousness
of the house that had had a party the night before. Evidently the
guests hadn't liked cake either.
That cake marked the crisis in my fortunes. Than it nothing could
be worse; therefore things must begin to mend. And they did. At the
very next house I was given a "set-down." Now a "set-down" is the
height of bliss. One is taken inside, very often is given a chance to
wash, and is then "set-down" at a table. Tramps love to throw their
legs under a table. The house was large and comfortable, in the midst
of spacious grounds and fine trees, and sat well back from the street.
They had just finished eating, and I was taken right into the dining
room — in itself a most unusual happening, for the tramp who is lucky
enough to win a set-down usually receives it in the kitchen. A grizzled
and gracious Englishman, his matronly wife, and a beautiful young
Frenchwoman talked with me while I ate.
I wonder if that beautiful young Frenchwoman would remember, at
this late day, the laugh I gave her when I uttered the barbaric phrase,
"two-bits." You see, I was trying delicately to hit them for a "light
piece." That was how the sum of money came to be mentioned. "What?" she
said. "Two-bits, said I. Her mouth was twitching as she again said,
"What?" "Two-bits, said I. Whereat she burst into laughter. "Won't you
repeat it?" she said, when she had regained control of herself.
"Two-bits," said I. And once more she rippled into uncontrollable
silvery laughter. "I beg your pardon," said she; "but what . . . what
was it you said ?" "Two-bits," said I; "is there anything wrong about
it?" "Not that I know of," she gurgled between gasps; "but what does it
mean?" I explained, but I do not remember now whether or not I got that
two-bits out of her; but I have often wondered since as to which of us
was the provincial.
When I arrived at the depot, I found, much to my disgust, a bunch
of at least twenty tramps that were waiting to ride out the blind
baggages of the overland. Now two or three tramps on the blind baggage
are all right. They are inconspicuous. But a score! That meant trouble.
No train-crew would ever let all of us ride.
I may as well explain here what a blind baggage is. Some mail-cars
are built without doors in the ends; hence, such a car is "blind." The
mail-cars that possess end doors, have those doors always locked.
Suppose, after the train has started, that a tramp gets on to the
platform of one of these blind cars. There is no door, or the door is
locked. No conductor or brakeman can get to him to collect fare or
throw him off. It is clear that the tramp is safe until the next time
the train stops. Then he must get off, run ahead in the darkness, and
when the train pulls by, jump on to the blind again. But there are ways
and ways, as you shall see.
When the train pulled out, those twenty tramps swarmed upon the
three blinds. Some climbed on before the train had run a car-length.
They were awkward dubs, and I saw their speedy finish. Of course, the
train-crew was "on," and at the first stop the trouble began. I jumped
off and ran forward along the track. I noticed that I was accompanied
by a number of the tramps. They evidently knew their business. When one
is beating an overland, he must always keep well ahead of the train at
the stops. I ran ahead, and as I ran, one by one those that accompanied
me dropped out. This dropping out was the measure of their skill and
nerve in boarding a train.
For this is the way it works. When the train starts, the shack
rides out the blind. There is no way for him to get back into the train
proper except by jumping off the blind and catching a platform where
the car ends are not "blind." When the train is going as fast as the
shack cares to risk, he therefore jumps off the blind, lets several
cars go by, and gets on to the train. So it is up to the tramp to run
so far ahead that before the blind is opposite him the shack will have
already vacated it.
I dropped the last tramp by about fifty feet, and waited. The train
started. I saw the lantern of the shack on the first blind. He was
riding her out. And I saw the dubs stand forlornly by the track as the
blind went by. They made no attempt to get on. They were beaten by
their own inefficiency at the very start. After them, in the line-up,
came the tramps that knew a little something about the game. They let
the first blind, occupied by the shack, go by, and jumped on the second
and third blinds. Of course, the shack jumped off the first and on to
the second as it went by, and scrambled around there, throwing off the
men who had boarded it. But the point is that I was so far ahead that
when the first blind came opposite me, the shack had already left it
and was tangled up with the tramps on the second blind. A half dozen of
the more skilful tramps, who had run far enough ahead, made the first
At the next stop, as we ran forward along the track, I counted but
fifteen of us. Five had been ditched. The weeding-out process had begun
nobly, and it continued station by station. Now we were fourteen, now
twelve, now eleven, now nine, now eight. It reminded me of the ten
little niggers of the nursery rhyme. I was resolved that I should be
the last little nigger of all. And why not? Was I not blessed with
strength, agility, and youth? (I was eighteen, and in perfect
condition.) And didn't I have my "nerve" with me? And furthermore, was
I not a tramp-royal? Were not these other tramps mere dubs and
"gay-cats" and amateurs alongside of me? If I weren't the last little
nigger, I might as well quit the game and get a job on an alfalfa farm
By the time our number had been reduced to four, the whole
train-crew had become interested. From then on it was a contest of
skill and wits, with the odds in favor of the crew. One by one the
three other survivors turned up missing, until I alone remained. My,
but I was proud of myself! No Croesus was ever prouder of his first
million. I was holding her down in spite of two brakemen, a conductor,
a fireman, and an engineer.
And here are a few samples of the way I held her down. Out ahead,
in the darkness, — so far ahead that the shack riding out the blind
must perforce get off before it reaches me, — I get on. Very well. I am
good for another station. When that station is reached, I dart ahead
again to repeat the manoeuvre. The train pulls out. I watch her coming.
There is no light of a lantern on the blind. Has the crew abandoned the
fight? I do not know. One never knows, and one must be prepared every
moment for anything. As the first blind comes opposite me, and I run to
leap aboard, I strain my eyes to see if the shack is on the platform.
For all I know he may be there, with his lantern doused, and even as I
spring upon the steps that lantern may smash down upon my head. I ought
to know. I have been hit by lanterns two or three times.
But no, the first blind is empty. The train is gathering speed. I
am safe for another station. But am I? I feel the train slacken speed.
On the instant I am alert. A manoeuvre is being executed against me,
and I do not know what it is. I try to watch on both sides at once, not
forgetting to keep track of the tender in front of me. From any one, or
all, of these three directions, I may be assailed.
Ah, there it comes. The shack has ridden out the engine. My first
warning is when his feet strike the steps of the right-hand side of the
blind. Like a flash I am off the blind to the left and running ahead
past the engine. I lose myself in the darkness. The situation is where
it has been ever since the train left Ottawa. I am ahead, and the train
must come past me if it is to proceed on its journey. I have as good a
chance as ever for boarding her.
I watch carefully. I see a lantern come forward to the engine, and
I do not see it go back from the engine.' It must therefore be still on
the engine, and it is a fair assumption that attached to the handle of
that lantern is a shack. That shack was lazy, or else he would have put
out his lantern instead of trying to shield it as he came forward. The
train pulls out. The first blind is empty, and I gain it. As before the
train slackens, the shack from the engine boards the blind from one
side, and I go off the other side and run forward.
As I wait in the darkness I am conscious of a big thrill of pride.
The overland has stopped twice for me — for me, a poor hobo on the bum.
I alone have twice stopped the overland with its many passengers and
coaches, its government mail, and its two thousand steam horses
straining in the engine. And I weigh only one hundred and sixty pounds,
and I haven't a five-cent piece in my pocket!
Again I see the lantern come forward to the engine. But this time
it comes conspicuously. A bit too conspicuously to suit me, and I
wonder what is up. At any rate I have something else to be afraid of
than the shack on the engine. The train pulls by. just in time, before
I make my spring, I see the dark form of a shack, without a lantern, on
the first blind. I let it go by, and prepare to board the second blind.
But the shack on the first blind has jumped off and is at my heels.
Also, I have a fleeting glimpse of the lantern of the shack who rode
out the engine. He has jumped off, and now both shacks are on the
ground on the same side with me. The next moment the second blind comes
by and I am aboard it. But I do not linger. I have figured out my
countermove. As I dash across the platform I hear the impact of the
shack's feet against the steps as he boards. I jump off the other side
and run forward with the train. My plan is to run forward and get on
the first blind. It is nip and tuck, for the train is gathering speed.
Also, the shack is behind me and running after me. I guess I am the
better sprinter, for I make the first blind. I stand on the steps and
watch my pursuer. He is only about ten feet back and running hard; but
now the train has approximated his own speed, and, relative to me, he
is standing still. I encourage him, hold out my hand to him; but he
explodes in a mighty oath, gives up and makes the train several cars
The train is speeding along, and I am still chuckling to myself,
when, without warning, a spray of water strikes me. The fireman is
playing the hose on me from the engine. I step forward from the
car-platform to the rear of the tender, where I am sheltered under the
overhang. The water flies harmlessly over my head. My fingers itch to
climb up on the tender and lam that fireman with a chunk of coal; but I
know if I do that, I'll be massacred by him and the engineer, and I
At the next stop I am off and ahead in the darkness. This time,
when the train pulls out, both shacks are on the first blind. I divine
their game. They have blocked the repetition of my previous play. I
cannot again take the second blind, cross over, and run forward to the
first. As soon as the first blind passes and I do not get on, they
swing off, one on each side of the train. I board the second blind, and
as I do so I know that a moment later, simultaneously, those two shacks
will arrive on both sides of me. It is like a trap. Both ways are
blocked. Yet there is another way out, and that way is up.
So I do not wait for my pursuers to arrive. I climb upon the
upright ironwork of the platform and stand upon the wheel of the
hand-brake. This has taken up the moment of grace and I hear the shacks
strike the steps on either side. I don't stop to look. I raise my arms
overhead until my hands rest against the down- curving ends of the
roofs of the two cars. One hand, of course, is on the curved roof of
one car, the other hand on the curved roof of the other car. By this
time both shacks are coming up the steps. I know it, though I am too
busy to see them. All this is happening in the space of only several
seconds. I make a spring with my legs and "muscle" myself up with my
arms. As I draw up my legs, both shacks reach for me and clutch empty
air. I know this, for I look down and see them. Also I hear them swear.
I am now in a precarious position, riding the ends of the
down-curving roofs of two cars at the same time. With a quick, tense
movement, I transfer both legs to the curve of one roof and both hands
to the curve of the other roof. Then, gripping the edge of that curving
roof, I climb over the curve to the level roof above, where I sit down
to catch my breath, holding on the while to a ventilator that projects
above the surface. I am on top of the train — on the "decks," as the
tramps call it, and this process I have described is by them called
"decking her." And let me say right here that only a young and vigorous
tramp is able to deck a passenger train, and also, that the young and
vigorous tramp must have his nerve with him as well.
The train goes on gathering speed, and I know I am safe until the
next stop — but only until the next stop. If I remain on the roof after
the train stops, I know those shacks will fusillade me with rocks. A
healthy shack can "dewdrop" a pretty heavy chunk of stone on top of a
car — say anywhere from five to twenty pounds. On the other hand, the
chances are large that at the next stop the shacks will be waiting for
me to descend at the place I climbed up. It is up to me to climb down
at some other platform.
Registering a fervent hope that there are no tunnels in the next
half mile, I rise to my feet and walk down the train half a dozen cars.
And let me say that one must leave timidity behind him on such a
passear. The roofs of passenger coaches are not made for midnight
promenades. And if any one thinks they are, let me advise him to try
it. just let him walk along the roof of a jolting, lurching car, with
nothing to hold on to but the black and empty air, and when he comes to
the down-curving end of the roof, all wet and slippery with dew, let
him accelerate his speed so as to step across to the next roof, down-
curving and wet and slippery. Believe me, he will learn whether his
heart is weak or his head is giddy.
As the train slows down for a stop, half a dozen platforms from
where I had decked her I come down. No one is on the platform. When the
train comes to a standstill, I slip off to the ground. Ahead, and
between me and the engine, are two moving lanterns. The shacks are
looking for me on the roofs of the cars. I note that the car beside
which I am standing is a "four-wheeler" — by which is meant that it has
only four wheels to each truck. (When you go underneath on the rods, be
sure to avoid the "six-wheelers," — they lead to disasters.)
I duck under the train and make for the rods, and I can tell you I
am mighty glad that the train is standing still. It is the first time I
have ever gone underneath on the Canadian Pacific, and the internal
arrangements are new to me. I try to crawl over the top of the truck,
between the truck and the bottom of the car. But the space is not large
enough for me to squeeze through. This is new to me. Down in the United
States I am accustomed to going underneath on rapidly moving trains,
seizing a gunnel and swinging my feet under to the brake-beam, and from
there crawling over the top of the truck and down inside the truck to a
seat on the cross-rod.
Feeling with my hands in the darkness, I learn that there is room
between the brake-beam and the ground. It is a tight squeeze. I have to
lie flat and worm my way through. Once inside the truck, I take my
seat, on the rod and wonder what the shacks are thinking has become of
me. The train gets under way. They have given me up at last.
But have they? At the very next stop, I see a lantern thrust under
the next truck to mine at the other end of the car. They are searching
the rods for me. I must make my get-away pretty lively. I crawl on my
stomach under the brake-beam. They see me and, run for me, but I crawl
on hands and knees across the' rail on the opposite side and gain my
feet. Then away, I go for the head of the train. I run past the
engine,. and hide in the sheltering darkness. It is the same old
situation. I am ahead of the train, and the train must,: go past me.
The train pulls out. There is a lantern on the first: blind. I lie
low, and see the peering shack go by. But there is also a lantern on
the second blind. That: shack spots me and calls to the shack who has
gone past on the first blind. Both jump off. Never mind, I'll take the
third blind and deck her. But heavens, there is a lantern on the third
blind, too. It is the conductor. I let it go by. At any rate I have now
the full train-crew in front of me. I turn and run back in the opposite
direction to what the train is going. I look over my shoulder. All
three lanterns are on the ground and wobbling along in pursuit. I
sprint. Half the train has gone by, and it is going quite fast, when I
spring aboard. I know that the two shacks and the conductor will arrive
like ravening wolves in about two seconds. I spring upon the wheel of
the hand-brake, get my hands on the curved ends of the roofs, and
muscle myself up to the decks; while my disappointed pursuers,
clustering on the platform beneath like dogs that have treed a cat,
howl curses up at me and say unsocial things about my ancestors.
But what does that matter? It is five to one, including the
engineer and fireman, and the majesty of the law and the might of a
great corporation are behind them, and I am beating them out. I am too
far down the train, and I run ahead over the roofs of the coaches until
I am over the fifth or sixth platform from the engine. I peer down
cautiously. A shack is on that platform. That he has caught sight of
me, I know from the way he makes a swift sneak inside the car; and I
know, also, that he is waiting inside the door, all ready to pounce out
on me when I climb down. But I make believe that I don't know, and I
remain there to encourage him in his error. I do not see him, yet I
know that he opens the door once and peeps up to assure himself that I
am still there.
The train slows down for a station. I dangle my legs down in a
tentative way. The train stops. My legs are still dangling. I hear the
door unlatch softly. He is all ready for me. Suddenly I spring up and
run forward over the roof . This is right over his head, where he lurks
inside the door. The train is standing still; the night is quiet, and I
take care to make plenty of noise on the metal roof with my feet. I
don't know, but ray assumption is that he is now running forward to
catch me as I descend at the next platform. But I don't descend there.
Halfway along the roof of the coach, I turn, retrace my way softly, and
quickly to the platform both the shack and I have just abandoned. The
coast is clear. I descend to the ground on the off- side of the train
and hide in the darkness. Not a soul has seen me.
I go over to the fence, at the edge of the right of way, and watch.
Ah, ha! What's that? I see a lantern on top of the train, moving along
from front to rear. They think I haven't come down, and they are
searching the roofs for me. And better than that — on the ground on
each side of the train, moving abreast with the lantern on top, are two
other lanterns. It is a rabbit-drive, and I am the rabbit. When the
shack on top flushes me, the ones on each side will nab me. I roll a
cigarette and watch the procession go by. Once past me, I am safe to
proceed to the front of the train. She pulls out, and I make the front
blind without opposition. But before she is fully under way and just as
I am lighting my cigarette, I am aware that the fireman has climbed
over the coal to the back of the tender and is looking down at me. I am
filled with apprehension. From his position he can mash me to a jelly
with lumps of coal. Instead of which he addresses me, and I note with
relief the admiration in his voice.
"You son-of-a-gun," is what he says.
It is a high compliment, and I thrill as a schoolboy thrills on
receiving a reward of merit.
"Say," I call up to him, "don't you play the hose on me any more."
"All right," he answers, and goes back to his work.
I have made friends with the engine, but the shacks are still
looking for me. At the next stop, the shacks ride out all three blinds,
and as before, I let them go by and deck in the middle of the train.
The crew is on its mettle by now, and the train stops. The shacks are
going to ditch me or know the reason why. Three, times the mighty
overland stops for me at that station, and each time I elude the shacks
and make the decks. But it is hopeless, for they have finally come to
an understanding of the situation. I have taught them that they cannot
guard the train from me. They must do something else.
And they do it. When the train stops that last time, they take
after me hot-footed. Ah, I see their game. They are trying to run me
down. At first they her me back toward the rear of the train. I know In
peril. Once to the rear of the train, it will pull out with me left
behind. I double, and twist, and turn dodge through my pursuers, and
gain the front of the train. One shack still hangs on after me. All
right, I'll give him the run of his life, for my wind is good I run
straight ahead along the track. It doesn't matter If he chases me ten
miles, he'll nevertheless have to catch the train, and I can board her
at any speed that he can.
So I run on, keeping just comfortably ahead of him and straining my
eyes in the gloom for cattle- guards and switches that may bring me to
grief. Alas! I strain my eyes too far ahead, and trip over something
just under my feet, I know not what, some little thing, and go down to
earth in a long, stumbling fall. The next moment I am on my feet, but
the shack has me by the collar. I do not struggle. I am busy with
breathing deeply and with sizing him up. He is narrow-shouldered, and I
have at least thirty pounds the better of him in weight. Besides, he is
just as tired as I am, and if he tries to slug me, I'll teach him a few
But he doesn't try to slug me, and that problem is settled.
Instead, he starts to lead me back toward the train, and another
possible problem arises. I see the lanterns of the conductor and the
other shack. We are approaching them. Not for nothing have I made the
acquaintance of the New York police. Not for nothing, in box-cars, by
water-tanks, and in prison-cells, have I listened to bloody tales of
man-handling. What if these three men are about to man-handle me?
Heaven knows I have given them provocation enough. I think quickly. We
are drawing nearer and nearer to the other two trainmen. I line up the
stomach and the jaw of my captor, and plan the right and left I'll give
him at the first sign of trouble.
Pshaw! I know another trick I'd like to work on him, and I almost
regret that I did not do it at the moment I was captured. I could make
him sick, what of his clutch on my collar. His fingers, tight-gripping,
are buried inside my collar. My coat is tightly buttoned. Did you ever
see a tourniquet? Well, this is one. All I have to do is to duck my
head under his arm and begin to twist. I must twist rapidly very
rapidly. I know how to do it; twisting in a violent, jerky way, ducking
my head under his arm with each revolution. Before he knows it, those
detaining fingers of his will be detained. He will be unable to
withdraw them. It is a powerful leverage. Twenty seconds after I have
started revolving, the blood will be bursting out of his finger-ends,
the delicate tendons will be rupturing, and all the muscles and nerves
will be mashing and crushing together in a shrieking mass. Try it
sometime when somebody has you by the collar. But be quick — quick as
lightning. Also, be sure to hug yourself while you are revolving — hug
your face with your left arm and your abdomen with your right. You see,
the other fellow might try to stop you with a punch from his free arm.
It would be a good idea, too, to revolve away from that free arm rather
than toward it. A punch going is never so bad as a punch coming.
That shack will never know how near he was to being made very, very
sick. All that saves him is that it is not in their plan to man-handle
me. When we draw near enough, he calls out that he has me, and they
signal the train to come on. The engine passes us, and the three
blinds. After that, the conductor and the other shack swing aboard. But
still my captor holds on to me. I see the plan. He is going to hold me
until the rear of the train goes by. Then he will hop on, and I shall
be left behind — ditched.
But the train has pulled out fast, the engineer trying to make up
for lost time. Also, it is a long train. It is going very lively, and I
know the shack is measuring its speed with apprehension.
"Think you can make it?" I query innocently.
He releases my collar, makes a quick run, and swings aboard. A
number of coaches are yet to pass by. He knows it, and remains on the
steps, his head poked out and watching me. In that moment my next move
comes to me. I'll make the last platform. I know she's going fast and
faster, but I'll only get a roll in the dirt if I fail, and the
optimism of youth is mine. I do not give myself away. I stand with a
dejected droop of shoulder, advertising that I have abandoned hope. But
at the same time I am feeling with my feet the good gravel. It is
perfect footing. Also I am watching the poked-out bead of the shack. I
see it withdrawn. He is confident that the train is going too fast for
me ever to make it.
And the train is going fast — faster than any train I have ever
tackled. As the last coach comes by I sprint in the same direction with
it. It is a swift, short sprint. I cannot hope to equal the speed of
the train, but I can reduce the difference of our speed to the minimum,
and, hence, reduce the shock of impact, when I leap on board. In the
fleeting instant of darkness I do not see the iron hand-rail of the
last platform; nor is there time for me to locate it. I reach for where
I think it ought to be, and at the same instant my feet leave the
ground. It is all in the toss. The next moment I may be rolling in the
gravel with broken ribs, or arms, or head. But my fingers grip the
handhold, there is a jerk on my arms that slightly pivots my body, and
my feet land on the steps with sharp violence.
I sit down feeling very proud of myself. In all my hoboing it is
the best bit of train-jumping I have done. I know that late at night
one is always good for several stations on the last platform, but I do
not care to trust myself at the rear of the train. At the first stop I
run forward on the off-side of the train, pass the Pullmans, and duck
under and take a rod under a day-coach. At the next stop I run forward
again and take another rod.
I am now comparatively safe. The shacks think I am ditched. But the
long day and the strenuous night are beginning to tell on me. Also, it
is not so windy nor cold underneath, and I begin to doze. This will
never do. Sleep on the rods spells death, so I crawl out at a station
and go forward to the second blind. Here I can lie down and sleep; and
here I do sleep — how long I do not know — for I am awakened by a
lantern thrust into my face. The two shacks are staring at me. I
scramble up on the defensive, wondering as to which one is going to
make the first "pass" at me. But slugging is far from their minds.
"I thought you was ditched," says the shack who had held me by the
"If you hadn't let go of me when you did, you'd have been ditched
along with me," I answer.
"How's that?" he asks.
"I'd have gone into a clinch with you, that's all," is my reply.
They hold a consultation, and their verdict is summed up in: —
"Well, I guess you can ride, Bo. There's no use trying to keep you
And they go away and leave me in peace to the end of their
I have given the foregoing as a sample of what "holding her down"
means. Of course, I have selected a fortunate night out of my
experiences, and said nothing of the nights — and many of them — when I
was tripped up by accident and ditched.
In conclusion, I want to tell of what happened when I reached the
end of the division. On single-track, transcontinental lines, the
freight trains wait at the divisions and follow out after the passenger
trains. When the division was reached, I left my train, and looked for
the freight that would pull out behind it. I found the freight, made up
on a side-track and waiting. I climbed into a box-car half full of coal
and lay down. In no time I was asleep.
I was awakened by the sliding open of the door. Day was just
dawning, cold and gray, and the freight had not yet started. A "con"
(conductor) was poking his head inside the door.
"Get out of that, you blankety-blank-blank!" he roared at me.
I got, and outside I watched him go down the line inspecting every
car in the train. When he got out of sight I thought to myself that he
would never think I'd have the nerve to climb back into the very car
out of which he had fired me. So back I climbed and lay down again.
Now that con's mental processes must have been paralleling mine,
for he reasoned that it was the very thing I would do. For back he came
and fired me out.
Now, surely, I reasoned, he will never dream that I'd do it a third
time. Back I went, into the very same car. But I decided to make sure.
Only one side-door could be opened. The other side-door was nailed up.
Beginning at the top of the coal, I dug a hole alongside of that door
and lay down in it. I heard the other door open. The con climbed up and
looked in over the top of the coal. He couldn't see me. He called to me
to get out. I tried to fool him by remaining quiet. But when he began
tossing chunks of coal into the hole on top of me, I gave up and for
the third time was fired out. Also, he informed me in warm terms of
what would happen to me if he caught me in there again.
I changed my tactics. When a man is paralleling your mental
processes, ditch him. Abruptly break off your line of reasoning, and go
off on a new line. This I did. I hid between some cars on an adjacent
side- track, and watched. Sure enough, that con came back again to the
car. He opened the door, he climbed up, he called, he threw coal into
the hole I had made. He even crawled over the coal and looked into the
hole. That satisfied him. Five minutes later the freight was pulling
out, and he was not in sight. I ran alongside the car, pulled the door
open, and climbed in. He never looked for me again, and I rode that
coal-car precisely one thousand and twenty-two miles, sleeping most of
the time and getting out at divisions (where the freights always stop
for an hour or so) to beg my food. And at the end of the thousand and
twenty-two miles I lost that car through a happy incident. I got a
"set-down," and the tramp doesn't live who won't miss a train for a
set-down any time.
"What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all?"
— Sestina of the Tramp- Royal.
Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of
monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is protean — an ever changing
phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps
out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what
is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present
moment. He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the
delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance.
Often I think over my tramp days, and ever I marvel at the swift
succession of pictures that flash up in my memory. It matters not where
I begin to think; any day of all the days is a day apart, with a record
of swift-moving pictures all its own. For instance, I remember a sunny
summer morning in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and immediately comes to my
mind the auspicious beginning of the day — a "set- down" with two
maiden ladies, and not in their kitchen, but in their dining room, with
them beside me at the table. We ate eggs, out of egg-cups! It was the
first time I had ever seen egg-cups, or heard of egg-cups! I was a bit
awkward at first, I'll confess; but I was hungry and unabashed. I
mastered the egg-cup, and I mastered the eggs in a way that made those
two maiden ladies sit up.
Why, they ate like a couple of canaries, dabbling with the one egg
each they took, and nibbling at tiny wafers of toast. Life was low in
their bodies; their blood ran thin; and they had slept warm all night.
I had been out all night, consuming much fuel of my body to keep warm,
beating my way down from a place called Emporium, in the northern part
of the state. Wafers of toast! Out of sight! But each wafer was no more
than a mouthful to me — nay, no more than a bite. It is tedious to have
to reach for another piece of toast each bite when one is potential
with many bites.
When I was a very little lad, I had a very little dog called Punch.
I saw to his feeding myself. Some one in the household had shot a lot
of ducks, and we had a fine meat dinner. When I had finished, I
prepared Punch's dinner — a large plateful of bones and tidbits. I went
outside to give it to him. Now it happened that a visitor had ridden
over from a neighboring ranch, and with him had come a Newfoundland dog
as big as a calf. I set the plate on the ground. Punch wagged his tail
and began. He had before him a blissful half-hour at least. There was a
sudden rush. Punch was brushed aside like a straw in the path of a
cyclone, and that Newfoundland swooped down upon the plate. In spite of
his huge maw he must have been trained to quick lunches, for, in the
fleeting instant before he received the kick in the ribs I aimed at
him, he completely engulfed the contents of the plate. He swept it
clean. One last lingering lick of his tongue removed even the grease
As that big Newfoundland behaved at the plate of my dog Punch, so
behaved I at the table of those two maiden ladies of Harrisburg. I
swept it bare. I didn't break anything, but I cleaned out the eggs and
the toast and the coffee. The servant brought more, but I kept her
busy, and ever she brought more and more. The coffee was delicious, but
it needn't have been served in such tiny cups. What time had I to eat
when it took all my time to prepare the many cups of coffee for
At any rate, it gave my tongue time to wag. Those two maiden
ladies, with their pink-and-white complexions and gray curls, had never
looked upon the bright face of adventure. As the "Tramp-Royal" would
have it, they had worked all their lives "on one same shift." Into the
sweet scents and narrow confines of their uneventful existence I
brought the large airs of the world, freighted with the lusty smells of
sweat and strife, and with the tangs and odors of strange lands and
soils. And right well I scratched their soft palms with the callous on
my own palms — the half-inch horn that comes of pull-and-haul of rope
and long and arduous hours of caressing shovel-handles. This I did, not
merely in the braggadocio of youth, but to prove, by toil performed,
the claim I had upon their charity.
Ah, I can see them now, those dear, sweet ladies, just as I sat at
their breakfast table twelve years ago, discoursing upon the way of my
feet in the world, brushing aside their kindly counsel as a real
devilish fellow should, and thrilling them, not alone with my own
adventures, but with the adventures of all the other fellows with whom
I had rubbed shoulders and exchanged confidences. I appropriated them
all, the adventures of the other fellows, I mean; and if those maiden
ladies had been less trustful and guileless, they could have tangled me
up beautifully in my chronology. Well, well, and what of it? It was
fair exchange. For their many cups of coffee, and eggs, and bites of
toast, I gave full value. Right royally I gave them entertainment. My
coming to sit at their table was their adventure, and adventure is
beyond price anyway.
Coming along the street, after parting from the maiden ladies, I
gathered in a newspaper from the doorway of some late-riser, and in a
grassy park lay down to get in touch with the last twenty-four hours of
the world. There, in the park, I met a fellow-hobo who told me his
life-story and who wrestled with me to join the United States Army. He
had given in to the recruiting officer and was just about to join, and
he couldn't see why I shouldn't join with him. He had been a member of
Coxey's Army in the march to Washington several months before, and that
seemed to have given him a taste for army life. I, too, was a veteran,
for had I not been a private in Company L, of the Second Division of
Kelly's Industrial Army? — said Company L being commonly known as the
"Nevada push." But my army experience had had the opposite effect on
me; so I left that hobo to go his way to the dogs of war, while I
"threw my feet" for dinner.
This duty performed, I started to walk across the bridge over the
Susquehanna to the west shore. I forget the name of the railroad that
ran down that side, but while lying in the grass in the morning the
idea had come to me to go to Baltimore; so to Baltimore I was going on
that railroad, whatever its name was. It was a warm afternoon, and part
way across the bridge I came to a lot of fellows who were in swimming
off one of the piers. Off went my clothes and in went I. The water was
fine; but when I came out and dressed, I found I had been robbed. Some
one had gone through my clothes. Now I leave it to you if being robbed
isn't in itself adventure enough for one day. I have known men who have
been robbed and who have talked all the rest of their lives about it.
True, the thief that went through my clothes didn't get much — some
thirty or forty cents in nickels and pennies, and my tobacco and
cigarette papers; but it was all I had, which is more than most men can
be robbed of, for they have something left at home, while I had no
home. It was a pretty tough gang in swimming there. I sized up, and
knew better than to squeal. So I begged "the makings," and I could have
sworn it was one of my own papers I rolled the tobacco in.
Then on across the bridge I hiked to the west shore. Here ran the
railroad I was after. No station was in sight. How to catch a freight
without walking to a station was the problem. I noticed that the track
came up a steep grade, culminating at the point where I had tapped it,
and I knew that a heavy freight couldn't pull up there any too lively.
But how lively? On the opposite side of the track rose a high bank. On
the edge, at the top, I saw a man's head sticking up from the grass.
Perhaps he knew how fast the freights took the grade, and when the next
one went south. I called out my questions to him, and he motioned to me
to come up.
I obeyed, and when I reached the top, I found four other men lying
in the grass with him. I took in the scene and knew them for what they
were — American gypsies. In the open space that extended back among the
trees from the edge of the bank were several nondescript wagons.
Ragged, half-naked children swarmed over the camp, though I noticed
that they took care not to come near and bother the men-folk. Several
lean, unbeautiful, and toil-degraded women were pottering about with
camp-chores, and one I noticed who sat by herself on the seat of one of
the wagons, her head drooped forward, her knees drawn up to her chin
and clasped limply by her arms. She did not look happy. She looked as
if she did not care for any thing — in this I was wrong, for later I
was to learn that there was something for which she did care. The full
measure of human suffering was in her face, and, in addition, there was
the tragic expression of incapacity for further suffering. Nothing
could hurt any more, was what her face seemed to portray; but in this,
too, I was wrong.
I lay in the grass on the edge of the steep and talked with the
men-folk. We were kin — brothers. I was the American hobo, and they
were the American gypsy. I knew enough of their argot for conversation,
and they knew enough of mine. There were two more in their gang, who
were across the river "mushing" in Harrisburg. A "musher" is an
itinerant fakir. This word is not to be confounded with the Klondike
"musher," though the origin of both terms may be the same; namely, the
corruption of the French marche ons, to march, to walk, to "mush." The
particular graft of the two mushers who had crossed the river was
umbrella-mending; but what real graft lay behind their
umbrella-mending, I was not told, nor would it have been polite to ask.
It was a glorious day. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and we
basked in the shimmering warmth of the sun. From everywhere arose the
drowsy hum of insects, and the balmy air was filled with scents of the
sweet earth and the green growing things. We were too lazy to do more
than mumble on in intermittent conversation. And then, all abruptly,
the peace and quietude was jarred awry by man.
Two bare-legged boys of eight or nine in some minor way broke some
rule of the camp — what it was I did not know; and a man who lay beside
me suddenly sat up and called to them. He was chief of the tribe, a man
with narrow forehead and narrow-slitted eyes, whose thin lips and
twisted sardonic features explained why the two boys jumped and tensed
like startled deer at the sound of his voice. The alertness of fear was
in their faces, and they turned, in a panic, to run. He called to them
to come back, and one boy lagged behind reluctantly, his meagre little
frame portraying in pantomime the struggle within him between fear and
reason. He wanted to come back. His intelligence and past experience
told him that to come back was a lesser evil than to run on; but lesser
evil that it was, it was great enough to put wings to his fear and urge
his feet to flight.
Still he lagged and struggled until he reached the shelter of the
trees, where he halted. The chief of the tribe did not pursue. He
sauntered over to a wagon and picked up a heavy whip. Then he came back
to the centre of the open space and stood still. He did not speak. He
made no gestures. He was the Law, pitiless and omnipotent. He merely
stood there and waited. And I knew, and all knew, and the two boys in
the shelter of the trees knew, for what he waited.
The boy who had lagged slowly came back. His face was stamped with
quivering resolution. He did not falter. He had made up his mind to
take his punishment. And mark you, the punishment was not for the
original offence, but for the offence of running away. And in this,
that tribal chieftain but behaved as behaves the exalted society in
which he lived. We punish our criminals, and when they escape and run
away, we bring them back and add to their punishment.
Straight up to the chief the boy came, halting at the proper
distance for the swing of the lash. The whip hissed through the air,
and I caught myself with a start of surprise at the weight of the blow.
The thin little leg was so very thin and little. The flesh showed white
where the lash had curled and bitten, and then, where the white bad
shown, sprang up the savage welt, with here and there along its length
little scarlet oozings where the skin had broken. Again the whip swung,
and the boy's whole body winced in anticipation of the blow, though he
did not move from the spot. His will held good. A second welt sprang
up, and a third. It was not until the fourth landed that the boy
screamed. Also, he could no longer stand still, and from then on, blow
after blow, he danced up and down in his anguish, screaming; but he did
not attempt to run away. If his involuntary dancing took him beyond the
reach of the whip, he danced back into range again. And when it was all
over — a dozen blows — he went away, whimpering and squealing, among
The chief stood still and waited. The second boy came out from the
trees. But he did not come straight. He came like a cringing dog,
obsessed by little panics that made him turn and dart away for half a
dozen steps. But always he turned and came back, circling nearer and
nearer to the man, whimpering, making inarticulate animal-noises in his
throat. I saw that he never looked at the man. His eyes always were
fixed upon the whip, and in his eyes was a terror that made me sick —
the frantic terror of an inconceivably maltreated child. I have seen
strong men dropping right and left out of battle and squirming in their
death- throes, I have seen them by scores blown into the air by
bursting shells and their bodies torn asunder; believe me, the
witnessing was as merrymaking and laughter and song to me in comparison
with the way the sight of that poor child affected me.
The whipping began. The whipping of the first boy was as play
compared with this one. In no time the blood was running down his thin
little legs. He danced and squirmed and doubled up till it seemed
almost that he was some grotesque marionette operated by strings. I say
"seemed," for his screaming gave the lie to the seeming and stamped it
with reality. His shrieks were shrill and piercing; within them no
hoarse notes, but only the thin sexlessness of the voice of a child.
The time came when the boy could stand it no more. Reason fled, and he
tried to run away. But now the man followed up, curbing his flight,
herding him with blows back always into the open space.
Then came interruption. I heard a wild smothered cry. The woman who
sat in the wagon seat had got out and was running to interfere. She
sprang between the man and boy.
"You want some, eh?" said he with the whip. "All right, then."
He swung the whip upon her. Her skirts were long, so he did not try
for her legs. He drove the lash for her face, which she shielded as
best she could with her hands and forearms, drooping her head forward
between her lean shoulders, and on the lean shoulders and arms
receiving the blows. Heroic mother! She knew just what she was doing.
The boy, still shrieking, was making his get-away to the wagons.
And all the while the four men lay beside me and watched and made
no move. Nor did I move, and without shame I say it; though my reason
was compelled to struggle hard against my natural impulse to rise up
and interfere. I knew life. Of what use to the woman, or to me, would
be my being beaten to death by five men there on the bank of the
Susquehanna? I once saw a man hanged, and though my whole soul cried
protest, my mouth cried not. Had it cried, I should most likely have
had my skull crushed by the butt of a revolver, for it was the law that
the man should hang. And here, in this gypsy group, it was the law that
the woman should be whipped.
Even so, the reason in both cases that I did not interfere was not
that it was the law, but that the law was stronger than I. Had it not
been for those four men beside me in the grass, right gladly would I
have waded into the man with the whip. And, barring the accident of the
landing on me with a knife or a club in the hands of some of the
various women of the camp, I am confident that I should have beaten him
into a mess. But the four men were beside me in the grass. They made
their law stronger than I.
Oh, believe me, I did my own suffering. I had seen women beaten
before, often, but never had I seen such a beating as this. Her dress
across the shoulders was cut into shreds. One blow that had passed her
guard, had raised a bloody welt from cheek to chin. Not one blow, nor
two, not one dozen, nor two dozen, but endlessly, infinitely, that
whip-lash smote and curled about her. The sweat poured from me, and I
breathed hard, clutching at the grass with my hands until I strained it
out by the roots. And all the time my reason kept whispering, "Fool!
Fool!" That welt on the face nearly did for me. I started to rise to my
feet; but the hand of the man next to me went out to MY shoulder and
pressed me down.
"Easy, pardner, easy," he warned me in a low voice. I looked at
him. His eyes met mine unwaveringly. He was a large man,
broad-shouldered and heavy-muscled; and his face was lazy, phlegmatic,
slothful, withal kindly, yet without passion, and quite soulless — a
dim soul, unmalicious, unmoral, bovine, and stubborn. Just an animal he
was, with no more than a faint flickering of intelligence, a
good-natured brute with the strength and mental caliber of a gorilla.
His hand pressed heavily upon me, and I knew the weight of the muscles
behind. I looked at the other brutes, two of them unperturbed and
incurious, and one of them that gloated over the spectacle; and my
reason came back to me, my muscles relaxed, and I sank down in the
My mind went back to the two maiden ladies with whom I had had
breakfast that morning. Less than two miles, as the crow flies,
separated them from this scene. Here, in the windless day, under a
beneficent sun, was a sister of theirs being beaten by a brother of
mine. Here was a page of life they could never see — and better so,
though for lack of seeing they would never be able to understand their
sisterhood, nor themselves, nor know the clay of which they were made.
For it is not given to woman to live in sweet- scented, narrow rooms
and at the same time be a little sister to all the world.
The whipping was finished, and the woman, no longer screaming, went
back to her seat in the wagon. Nor did the other women come to her —
just then. They were afraid. But they came afterward, when a decent
interval had elapsed. The man put the whip away and rejoined us,
flinging himself down on the other side of me. He was breathing hard
from his exertions. He wiped the sweat from his eyes on his coat-
sleeve, and looked challengingly at me. I returned his look carelessly;
what he had done was no concern of mine. I did not go away abruptly. I
lay there half an hour longer, which, under the circumstances, was tact
and etiquette. I rolled cigarettes from tobacco I borrowed from them,
and when I slipped down the bank to the railroad, I was equipped with
the necessary information for catching the next freight bound south.
Well, and what of it? It was a page out of life, that's all; and
there are many pages worse, far worse, that I have seen. I have
sometimes held forth (facetiously, so my listeners believed) that the
chief distinguishing trait between man and the other animals is that
man is the only animal that maltreats the females of his kind. It is
something of which no wolf nor cowardly coyote is ever guilty. It is
something that even the dog, degenerated by domestication, will not do.
The dog still retains the wild instinct in this matter, while man has
lost most of his wild instincts — at least, most of the good ones.
Worse pages of life than what I have described? Read the reports on
child labor in the United States, — east, west, north, and south, it
doesn't matter where, — and know that all of us, profit- mongers that
we are, are typesetters and printers of worse pages of life than that
mere page of wife-beating on the Susquehanna.
I went down the grade a hundred yards to where the footing beside
the track was good. Here I could catch my freight as it pulled slowly
up the hill, and here I found half a dozen hoboes waiting for the same
purpose. Several were playing seven-up with an old pack of cards. I
took a hand. A coon began to shuffle the deck. He was fat, and young,
and moon-faced. He beamed with good-nature. It fairly oozed from him.
As he dealt the first card to me, he paused and said:
"Say, Bo, ain't I done seen you befo'? "
"You sure have," I answered. "An' you didn't have those same duds
He was puzzled.
"D'ye remember Buffalo?" I queried.
Then he knew me, and with laughter and ejaculation hailed me as a
comrade; for at Buffalo his clothes had been striped while he did his
bit of time in the Erie County Penitentiary. For that matter, my
clothes had been likewise striped, for I had been doing my bit of time,
The game proceeded, and I learned the stake for which we played.
Down the bank toward the river descended a steep and narrow path that
led to a spring some twenty-five feet beneath. We played on the edge of
the bank. The man who was " stuck" had to take a small condensed-milk
can, and with it carry water to the winners.
The first game was played and the coon was stuck. He took the small
milk-tin and climbed down the bank, while we sat above and guyed him.
We drank like fish. Four round trips he had to make for me alone, and
the others were equally lavish with their thirst. The path was very
steep, and sometimes the coon slipped when part way up, spilled the
water, and had to go back for more. But he didn't get angry. He laughed
as heartily as any of us; that was why he slipped so often. Also, he
assured us of the prodigious quantities of water he would drink when
some one else got stuck.
When our thirst was quenched, another game was started. Again the
coon was stuck, and again we drank our fill. A third game and a fourth
ended the same way, and each time that moon-faced darky nearly died
with delight at appreciation of the fate that Chance was dealing out to
him. And we nearly died with him, what of our delight. We laughed like
careless children, or gods, there on the edge of the bank. I know that
I laughed till it seemed the top of my head would come off, and I drank
from the milk-tin till I was nigh water-logged. Serious discussion
arose as to whether we could successfully board the freight when it
pulled up the grade, what of the weight of water secreted on our
persons. This particular phase of the situation just about finished the
coon. He bad to break off from water-carrying for at least five minutes
while he lay down and rolled with laughter.
The lengthening shadows stretched farther and farther across the
river, and the soft, cool twilight came on, and ever we drank water,
and ever our ebony cup-bearer brought more and more. Forgotten was the
beaten woman of the hour before. That was a page read and turned over;
I was busy now with this new page, and when the engine whistled on the
grade, this page would be finished and another begun; and so the book
of life goes on, page after page and pages without end when one is
And then we played a game in which the coon failed to be stuck. The
victim was a lean and dyspeptic- looking hobo, the one who had laughed
least of all of us. We said we didn't want any water — which was the
truth. Not the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind, nor the pressure of a
pneumatic ram, could have forced another drop into my saturated
carcass. The coon looked disappointed, then rose to the occasion and
guessed he'd have some. He meant it, too. He had some, and then some,
and then some. Ever the melancholy hobo climbed down and up the steep
bank, and ever the coon called for more. He drank more water than all
the rest of us put together. The twilight deepened into night, the
stars came out , and he still drank on. I do believe that if the
whistle of the freight hadn't sounded, he'd be there yet, swilling
water and revenge while the melancholy hobo toiled down and up.
But the whistle sounded. The page was done. We sprang to our feet
and strung out alongside the track. There she came, coughing and
spluttering up the grade, the headlight turning night into day and
silhouetting us in sharp relief. The engine passed us, and we were all
running with the train, some boarding on the side-ladders, others
"springing" the side-doors of empty box-cars and climbing in. I caught
a flatcar loaded with mixed lumber and crawled away into a comfortable
nook. I lay on my back with a newspaper under my head for a pillow.
Above me the stars were winking and wheeling in squadrons back and
forth as the train rounded the curves, and watching them I fell asleep.
The day was done — one day of all my days. To-morrow would be another
day, and I was young.
I rode into Niagara Falls in a "side-door Pullman," or, in common
parlance, a box-car. A flat-car, by the way, is known amongst the
fraternity as a "gondola," with the second syllable emphasized and
pronounced long. But to return. I arrived in the afternoon and headed
straight from the freight train to the falls. Once my eyes were filled
with that wonder-vision of down-rushing water, I was lost. I could not
tear myself away long enough to "batter" the "privates" (domiciles) for
my supper. Even a "set-down" could not have lured me away. Night came
on, a beautiful night of moonlight, and I lingered by the falls until
after eleven. Then it was up to me to hunt or a place to "kip."
"Kip," "doss," "flop," "pound your ear," all mean the same thing;
namely, to sleep. Somehow, I had a "hunch" that Niagara Falls was a
"bad" town for hoboes, and I headed out into the country. I climbed a
fence and "flopped" in a field. John Law would never find me there, I
flattered myself. I lay on my back in the grass and slept like a babe.
It was so balmy warm that I woke up not once all night. But with the
first gray daylight my eyes opened, and I remembered the wonderful
falls. I climbed the fence and started down the road to have another
look at them. It was early — not more than five o'clock — and not until
eight o'clock could I begin to batter for my breakfast. I could spend
at least three hours by the river. Alas! I was fated never to see the
river nor the falls again.
The town was asleep when I entered it. As I came along the quiet
street, I saw three men coming toward me along the sidewalk. They were
walking abreast. Hoboes, I decided, like myself, who had got up early.
In this surmise I was not quite correct. I was only sixty-six and
two-thirds per cent correct. The men on each side were hoboes all
right, but the man in the middle wasn't. I directed my steps to the
edge of the sidewalk in order to let the trio go by. But it didn't go
by. At some word from the man in the centre, all three halted, and he
of the centre addressed me.
I piped the lay on the instant. He was a "fly-copy" and the two
hoboes were his prisoners. John Law was up and out after the early
worm. I was a worm. Had I been richer by the experiences that were to
be fall me in the next several months, I should have turned and run
like the very devil. He might have shot at me, but he'd have had to hit
me to get me. He'd have never run after me, for two hoboes in the hand
are worth more than one on the get-away. But like a dummy I stood still
when he halted me. Our conversation was brief.
"What hotel are you stopping at?" he queried.
He had me. I wasn't stopping at any hotel, and, since I did not
know the name of a hotel in the place, I could not claim residence in
any of them. Also, I was up too early in the morning. Everything was
"I just arrived," I said.
"Well, you turn around and walk in front of me, and not too far in
front. There's somebody wants to see you."
I was "pinched." I knew who wanted to see me. With that "fly-cop"
and the two hoboes at my heels, and under the direction of the former,
I led the way to the city jail. There we were searched and our names
registered. I have forgotten, now, under which name I was registered. I
gave the name of Jack Drake, but when they searched me, they found
letters addressed to Jack London. This caused trouble and required
explanation, all of which has passed from my mind, and to this day I do
not know whether I was pinched as Jack Drake or Jack London. But one or
the other, it should be there to-day in the prison register of Niagara
Falls. Reference can bring it to light. The time was somewhere in the
latter part of June, 1894. It was only a few days after my arrest that
the great railroad strike began.
From the office we were led to the " Hobo" and locked in. The
"Hobo" is that part of a prison where the minor offenders are confined
together in a large iron cage. Since hoboes constitute the principal
division of the minor offenders, the aforesaid iron cage is called the
Hobo. Here we met several hoboes who had already been pinched that
morning, and every little while the door was unlocked and two or three
more were thrust in on us. At last, when we totalled sixteen, we were
led upstairs into the courtroom. And now I shall faithfully describe
what took place in that court-room, for know that my patriotic American
citizenship there received a shock from which it has never fully
In the court-room were the sixteen prisoners, the judge, and two
bailiffs. The judge seemed to act as his own clerk. There were no
witnesses. There were no citizens of Niagara Falls present to look on
and see how justice was administered in their community. The judge
glanced at the list of cases before him and called out a name. A hobo
stood up. The judge glanced at a bailiff. "Vagrancy, your Honor," said
the bailiff. "Thirty days," said his Honor. The hobo sat down, and the
judge was calling another name and another hobo was rising to his feet.
The trial of that hobo had taken just about fifteen seconds. The
trial of the next hobo came off with equal celerity. The bailiff said,
"Vagrancy, your Honor," and his Honor said, "Thirty days." Thus it went
like clockwork, fifteen seconds to a hobo and thirty days.
They are poor dumb cattle, I thought to myself. But wait till my
turn comes; I'll give his Honor a "spiel." Part way along in the
performance, his Honor, moved by some whim, gave one of us an
opportunity to speak. As chance would have it, this man was not a
genuine hobo. He bore none of the ear- marks of the professional
"stiff." Had he approached the rest of us, while waiting at a
water-tank for a freight, we should have unhesitatingly classified him
as a "gay-cat." Gay-cat is the synonym for tenderfoot in Hobo Land.
This gay-cat was well along in years — somewhere around forty-five, I
should judge. His shoulders were humped a trifle, and his face was
seamed by weather-beat.
For many years, according to his story, he had driven team for some
firm in (if I remember rightly) Lockport, New York. The firm had ceased
to prosper, and finally, in the hard times of 1893, had gone out of
business. He had been kept on to the last, though toward the last his
work had been very irregular. He went on and explained at length his
difficulties in getting work (when so many were out of work) during the
succeeding months. In the end, deciding that he would find better
opportunities for work on the Lakes, he had started for Buffalo. Of
course he was "broke," and there he was. That was all.
"Thirty days," said his Honor, and called another hobo's name.
Said hobo got up. "Vagrancy, your Honor," said the bailiff, and his
Honor said, "Thirty days."
And so it went, fifteen seconds and thirty days to each hobo. The
machine of justice was grinding smoothly. Most likely, considering how
early it was in the morning, his Honor had not yet had his breakfast
and was in a hurry.
But my American blood was up. Behind me were the many generations
of my American ancestry. One of the kinds of liberty those ancestors of
mine had fought and died for was the right of trial by jury. This was
my heritage, stained sacred by their blood, and it devolved upon me to
stand up for it. All right, I threatened to myself; just wait till he
gets to me.
He got to me. My name, whatever it was, was called, and I stood up.
The bailiff said, "Vagrancy, your Honor," and I began to talk. But the
judge began talking at the same time, and he said, "Thirty days." I
started to protest, but at that moment his Honor was calling the name
of the next hobo on the list. His Honor paused long enough to say to
me, "Shut up!" The bailiff forced me to sit down. And the next moment
that next hobo had received thirty days and the succeeding hobo was
just in process of getting his.
When we had all been disposed of, thirty days to each stiff, his
Honor, just as he was about to dismiss us, suddenly turned to the
teamster from Lockport — the one man he had allowed to talk.
"Why did you quit your job?" his Honor asked.
Now the teamster had already explained how his job had quit him,
and the question took him aback.
"Your Honor," he began confusedly, "isn't that a funny question to
"Thirty days more for quitting your job," said his Honor, and the
court was closed. That was the outcome. The teamster got sixty days all
together, while the rest of us got thirty days.
We were taken down below, locked up, and given breakfast. It was a
pretty good breakfast, as prison breakfasts go, and it was the best I
was to get for a month to come.
As for me, I was dazed. Here was I, under sentence, after a farce
of a trial wherein I was denied not only my right of trial by jury, but
my right to plead guilty or not guilty. Another thing my fathers had
fought for flashed through my brain — habeas corpus. I'd show them. But
when I asked for a lawyer, I was laughed at. Habeas corpus was all
right, but of what good was it to me when I could communicate with no
one outside the jail? But I'd show them. They couldn't keep me in jail
forever. just wait till I got out, that was all. I'd make them sit up.
I knew something about the law and my own rights, and I'd expose their
maladministration of justice. Visions of damage suits and sensational
newspaper headlines were dancing before my eyes when the jailers came
in and began hustling us out into the main office.
A policeman snapped a handcuff on my right wrist. (Ah, ha, thought
I, a new indignity. just wait till I get out.) On the left wrist of a
negro he snapped the other handcuff of that pair. He was a very tall
negro, well past six feet — so tall was he that when we stood side by
side his hand lifted mine up a trifle in the manacles. Also, he was the
happiest and the raggedest negro I have ever seen.
We were all handcuffed similarly, in pairs. This accomplished, a
bright nickel-steel chain was brought forth, run down through the links
of all the handcuffs, and locked at front and rear of the double-line.
We were now a chain-gang. The command to march was given, and out we
went upon the street, guarded by two officers. The tall negro and I had
the place of honor. We led the procession.
After the tomb-like gloom of the jail, the outside sunshine was
dazzling. I had never known it to be so sweet as now, a prisoner with
clanking chains, I knew that I was soon to see the last of it for
thirty days. Down through the streets of Niagara Falls we marched to
the railroad station, stared at by curious passers- by, and especially
by a group of tourists on the veranda of a hotel that we marched past.
There was plenty of slack in the chain, and with much rattling and
clanking we sat down, two and two, in the seats of the smoking-car.
Afire with indignation as I was at the outrage that had been
perpetrated on me and my forefathers, I was nevertheless too
prosaically practical to lose my head over it. This was all new to me.
Thirty days of mystery were before me, and I looked about me to find
somebody who knew the ropes. For I had already learned that I was not
bound for a petty jail with a hundred or so prisoners in it, but for a
full-grown penitentiary with a couple of thousand prisoners in it,
doing anywhere from ten days to ten years.
In the seat behind me, attached to the chain by his wrist, was a
squat, heavily-built, powerfully-muscled man. He was somewhere between
thirty-five and forty years of age. I sized him up. In the corners of
his eyes I saw humor and laughter and kindliness. As for the rest of
him, he was a brute-beast, wholly unmoral, and with all the passion and
turgid violence of the brute-beast. What saved him, what made him
possible for me, were those corners of his eyes — the humor and
laughter and kindliness of the beast when unaroused.
He was my "meat." I "cottoned" to him. While my cuff-mate, the tall
negro, mourned with chucklings and laughter over some laundry he was
sure to lose through his arrest, and while the train rolled on toward
Buffalo, I talked with the man in the seat behind me. He had an empty
pipe. I filled it for him with my precious tobacco — enough in a single
filling to make a dozen cigarettes. Nay, the more we talked the surer I
was that he was my meat, and I divided all my tobacco with him.
Now it happens that I am a fluid sort of an organism, with
sufficient kinship with life to fit myself in 'most anywhere. I laid
myself out to fit in with that man, though little did I dream to what
extraordinary good purpose I was succeeding. He had never been in the
particular penitentiary to which we were going, but he had done "one
.... .. two-," and "five-spots" in various other penitentiaries (a
"spot" is a year), and he was filled with wisdom. We became pretty
chummy, and my heart bounded when he cautioned me to follow his lead.
He called me "Jack," and I called him "Jack."
The train stopped at a station about five miles from Buffalo, and
we, the chain-gang, got off. I do not remember the name of this
station, but I am confident that it is some one of the following:
Rocklyn, Rockwood, Black Rock, Rockcastle, or Newcastle. But whatever
the name of the place, we were walked a short distance and then put on
a street-car. It was an old-fashioned car, with a seat, running the
full length, on each side. All the passengers who sat on one side were
asked to move over to the other side, and we, with a great clanking of
chain, took their places. We sat facing them, I remember, and I
remember, too, the awed expression on the faces of the women, who took
us, undoubtedly, for convicted murderers and bank- robbers. I tried to
look my fiercest, but that cuff-mate of mine, the too happy negro,
insisted on rolling his eyes, laughing, and reiterating, "0 Lawdy!
We left the car, walked some more, and were led into the office of
the Erie County Penitentiary. Here we were to register, and on that
register one or the other of my names will be found. Also, we were
informed that we must leave in the office all our valuables: money,
tobacco, matches, pocket-knives, and so forth.
My new pal shook his head at me.
"If you do not leave your things here, they will be confiscated
inside," warned the official.
Still my pal shook his head. He was busy with his hands, hiding his
movements behind the other fellows. (Our handcuffs had been removed.) I
watched him, and followed suit, wrapping up in a bundle in my
handkerchief all the things I wanted to take in. These bundles the two
of us thrust into our shirts. I noticed that our fellow-prisoners, with
the exception of one or two who had watches, did not turn over their
belongings to the man in the office. They were determined to smuggle
them in somehow, trusting to luck; but they were not so wise as my pal,
for they did not wrap their things in bundles.
Our erstwhile guardians gathered up the handcuffs and chain and
departed for Niagara Falls, while we, under new guardians, were led
away into the prison. While we were in the office, our number had been
added to by other squads of newly arrived prisoners, so that we were
now a procession forty or fifty strong.
Know, ye unimprisoned, that traffic is as restricted inside a large
prison as commerce was in the Middle Ages. Once inside a penitentiary,
one cannot move about at will. Every few steps are encountered great
steel doors or gates which are always kept locked. We were bound for
the barber-shop, but we encountered delays in the unlocking of doors
for us. We were thus delayed in the first "hall" we entered. A "hall"
is not a corridor. Imagine an oblong cube, built out of bricks and
rising six stories high, each story a row of cells, say fifty cells in
a row — in short, imagine a cube of colossal honeycomb. Place this cube
on the ground and enclose it in a building with a roof overhead and
walls all around. Such a cube and encompassing building constitute a
"hall" in the Erie County Penitentiary. Also, to complete the picture,
see a narrow gallery, with steel railing, running the full length of
each tier of cells and at the ends of the oblong cube see all these
galleries, from both sides, connected by a fire-escape system of narrow
We were halted in the first hall, waiting for some guard to unlock
a door. Here and there, moving about, were convicts, with close-cropped
heads and shaven faces, and garbed in prison stripes. One such convict
I noticed above us on the gallery of the third tier of cells. He was
standing on the gallery and leaning forward, his arms resting on the
railing, himself apparently oblivious of our presence. He seemed
staring into vacancy. My pal made a slight hissing noise. The convict
glanced down. Motioned signals passed between them. Then through the
air soared the handkerchief bundle of my pal. The convict caught it,
and like a flash it was out of sight in his shirt and he was staring
into vacancy. My pal had told me to follow his lead. I watched my
chance when the guard's back was turned, and my bundle followed the
other one into the shirt of the convict.
A minute later the door was unlocked, and we filed into the
barber-shop. Here were more men in convict stripes. They were the
prison barbers. Also, there were bath-tubs, hot water, soap, and
scrubbing- brushes. We were ordered to strip and bathe, each man to
scrub his neighbor's back — a needless precaution, this compulsory
bath, for the prison swarmed with vermin. After the bath, we were each
given a canvas clothes-bag.
"Put all your clothes in the bags," said the guard. "It's no good
trying to smuggle anything in. You've got to line up naked for
inspection. Men for thirty days or less keep their shoes and
suspenders. Men for more than thirty days keep nothing."
This announcement was received with consternation. How could naked
men smuggle anything past an inspection? Only my pal and I were safe.
But it was right here that the convict barbers got in their work. They
passed among the poor newcomers, kindly volunteering to take charge of
their precious little belongings, and promising to return them later in
the day. Those barbers were philanthropists — to hear them talk. As in
the case of Fra Lippo Lippi, never was there such prompt
disemburdening. Matches, tobacco, rice-paper, pipes, knives, money,
everything, flowed into the capacious shirts of the barbers. They
fairly bulged with the spoil, and the guards made believe not to see.
To cut the story short, nothing was ever returned. The barbers never
had any intention of returning what they had taken. They considered it
legitimately theirs. It was the barber-shop graft. There were many
grafts in that prison, as I was to learn; and I, too, was destined to
become a grafter — thanks to my new pal.
There were several chairs, and the barbers worked rapidly. The
quickest shaves and hair-cuts I have ever seen were given in that shop.
The men lathered themselves, and the barbers shaved them at the rate of
a minute to a man. A hair-cut took a trifle longer. In three minutes
the down of eighteen was scraped from my face, and my head was as
smooth as a billiard-ball just sprouting a crop of bristles. Beards,
mustaches, like our clothes and everything, came off. Take my word for
it, we were a villainous-looking gang when they got through with us. I
had not realized before how really altogether bad we were.
Then came the line-up, forty or fifty of us, naked as Kipling's
heroes who stormed Lungtungpen. To search us was easy. There were only
our shoes and ourselves. Two or three rash spirits, who had doubted the
barbers, had the goods found on them — which goods, namely, tobacco,
pipes, matches, and small change, were quickly confiscated. This over,
our new clothes were brought to us-stout prison shirts, and coats and
trousers conspicuously striped. I had always lingered under the
impression that the convict stripes were put on a man only after he had
been convicted of a felony. I lingered no longer, but put on the
insignia of shame and got my first taste of marching the lock-step.
In single file, close together, each man's hands on the shoulders
of the man in front, we marched on into another large hall. Here we
were ranged up against the wall in a long line and ordered to strip our
left arms. A youth, a medical student who was getting in his practice
on cattle such as we, came down the line. He vaccinated just about four
times as rapidly as the barbers shaved. With a final caution to avoid
rubbing our arms against anything, and to let the blood dry so as to
form the scab, we were led away to our cells. Here my pal and I parted,
but not before he had time to whisper to me, "Suck it out."
As soon as I was locked in, I sucked my arm clean. And afterward I
saw men who had not sucked and who had horrible holes in their arms
into which I could have thrust my fist. It was their own fault. They
could have sucked.
In my cell was another man. We were to be cellmates. He was a
young, manly fellow, not talkative, but very capable, indeed as
splendid a fellow as one could meet with in a day's ride, and this in
spite of the fact that he had just recently finished a two-year term in
some Ohio penitentiary.
Hardly had we been in our cell half an hour, when a convict
sauntered down the gallery and looked in. It was my pal. He had the
freedom of the hall, he explained. He was unlocked at six in the
morning and not locked up again till nine at night. He was in with the
"push" in that hall, and had been promptly appointed a trusty of the
kind technically known as "hall-man." The man who had appointed him was
also a prisoner and a trusty, and was known as "First Hall-man." There
were thirteen hall-men in that hall. Ten of them had charge each of a
gallery of cells, and over them were the First, Second, and Third
We newcomers were to stay in our cells for the rest of the day, my
pal informed me, so that the vaccine would have a chance to take. Then
next morning we would be put to hard labor in the prison-yard.
"But I'll get you out of the work as soon as I can," he promised. "
I'll get one of the hall-men fired and have you put in his place."
He put his hand into his shirt, drew out the handkerchief
containing my precious belongings, passed it in to me through the bars,
and went on down the gallery.
I opened the bundle. Everything was there. Not even a match was
missing. I shared the makings of a cigarette with my cell-mate. When I
started to strike a match for a light, he stopped me. A flimsy, dirty
comforter lay in each of our bunks for bedding. He tore off a narrow
strip of the thin cloth and rolled it tightly and telescopically into a
long and slender cylinder. This he lighted with a precious match. The
cylinder of tight-rolled cotton cloth did not flame. On the end a coal
of fire slowly smouldered. It would last for hours, and my cell-mate
called it a "punk." And when it burned short, all that was necessary
was to make a new punk, put the end of it against the old, blow on
them, and so transfer the glowing coal. Why, we could have given
Prometheus pointers on the conserving of fire.
At twelve o'clock dinner was served. At the bottom of our cage door
was a small opening like the entrance of a runway in a chicken-yard.
Through this were thrust two hunks of dry bread and two pannikins of
"soup." A portion of soup consisted of about a quart of hot water with
floating on its surface a lonely drop of grease. Also, there was some
salt in that water.
We drank the soup, but we did not eat the bread. Not that we were
not hungry, and not that the bread was uneatable. It was fairly good
bread. But we had reasons. My cell-mate had discovered that our cell
was alive with bed-bugs. In all the cracks and interstices between the
bricks where the mortar had fallen out flourished great colonies. The
natives even ventured out in the broad daylight and swarmed over the
walls and ceiling by hundreds. My cell-mate was wise in the ways of the
beasts. Like Childe Roland, dauntless the slug-horn to his lips he
bore. Never was there such a battle. It lasted for hours. It was
shambles. And when the last survivors fled to their brick-and-mortar
fastnesses, our work was only half done. We chewed mouthfuls of our
bread until it was reduced to the consistency of putty. When a fleeing
belligerent escaped into a crevice between the bricks, we promptly
walled him in with a daub of the chewed bread. We toiled on until the
light grew dim and until every hole, nook, and cranny was closed. I
shudder to think of the tragedies of starvation and cannibalism that
must have ensued behind those bread-plastered ramparts.
We threw ourselves on our bunks, tired out and hungry, to wait for
supper. It was a good day's work well done. In the weeks to come we at
least should not suffer from the hosts of vermin. We had foregone our
dinner, saved our hides at the expense of our stomachs; but we were
content. Alas for the futility of human effort! Scarcely was our long
task completed when a guard unlocked our door. A redistribution of
prisoners was being made, and we were taken to another cell and locked
in two galleries higher up. Early next morning our cells were unlocked,
and down in the hall the several hundred prisoners of us formed the
lock-step and marched out into the prison-yard to go to work. The Erie
Canal runs right by the back yard of the Erie County Penitentiary. Our
task was to unload canal-boats, carrying huge stay-bolts on our
shoulders, like railroad ties, into the prison. As I worked I sized up
the situation and studied the chances for a get-away. There wasn't the
ghost of a show. Along the tops of the walls marched guards armed with
repeating rifles, and I was told, furthermore, that there were
machine-guns in the sentry-towers.
I did not worry. Thirty days were not so long. I'd stay those
thirty days, and add to the store of material I intended to use, when I
got out, against the harpies of justice. I'd show what an American boy
could do when his rights and privileges had been trampled on the way
mine had. I had been denied my right of trial by jury; I had been
denied my right to plead guilty or not guilty; I had been denied a
trial even (for I couldn't consider that what I had received at Niagara
Falls was a trial); I had not been allowed to communicate with a lawyer
nor any one, and hence had been denied my right of suing for a writ of
habeas corpus; my face had been shaved, my hair cropped close, convict
stripes had been put upon my body; I was forced to toil hard on a diet
of bread and water and to march the shameful lock-step with armed
guards over me -and all for what? What had I done? What crime had I
committed against the good citizens of Niagara Falls that all this
vengeance should be wreaked upon me? I had not even violated their
"sleeping-out" ordinance. I had slept outside their jurisdiction, in
the country, that night. I had not even begged for a meal, or battered
for a "light piece" on their streets. All that I had done was to walk
along their sidewalk and gaze at their picayune waterfall. And what
crime was there in that? Technically I was guilty of no misdemeanor.
All right, I'd show them when I got out.
The next day I talked with a guard. I wanted to send for a lawyer.
The guard laughed at me. So did the other guards. I really was
incommunicado so far as the outside world was concerned. I tried' to
write a letter out, but I learned that all letters were read, and
censured or confiscated, by the prison authorities, and that
"short-timers" were not allowed to write letters anyway. A little later
I tried smuggling letters out by men who were released, but I learned
that they were searched and the letters found and destroyed. Never
mind. It all helped to make it a blacker case when I did get out.
But as the prison days went by (which I shall describe in the next
chapter), I "learned a few." I heard tales of the police, and
police-courts, and lawyers, that were unbelievable and monstrous. Men,
prisoners, told me of personal experiences with the police of great
cities that were awful. And more awful were the hearsay tales they told
me concerning men who had died at the hands of the police and who
therefore could not testify for themselves. Years afterward, in the
report of the Lexow Committee, I was to read tales true and more awful
than those told to me. But in the meantime, during the first days of my
imprisonment, I scoffed at what I heard.
As the days went by, however, I began to grow convinced. I saw with
my own eyes, there in that prison, things unbelievable and monstrous.
And the more convinced I became, the profounder grew the respect in me
for the sleuth-hounds of the law and for the whole institution of
My indignation ebbed away, and into my being rushed the tides of
fear. I saw at last, clear-eyed, what I was up against. I grew meek and
lowly. Each day I resolved more emphatically to make no rumpus when I
got out. All I asked, when I got out, was a chance to fade away from
the landscape. And that was just what I did do when I was released. I
kept my tongue between my teeth, walked softly, and sneaked for
Pennsylvania, a wiser and a humbler man.
For two days I toiled in the prison-yard. It was heavy work, and,
in spite of the fact that I malingered at every opportunity, I was
played out. This was because of the food. No man could work hard on
such food. Bread and water, that was all that was given us. Once a week
we were supposed to get meat; but this meat did not always go around,
and since all nutriment had first been boiled out of it in the making
of soup, it didn't matter whether one got a taste of it once a week or
Furthermore, there was one vital defect in the bread-and-water
diet. While we got plenty of water, we did not get enough of the bread.
A ration of bread was about the size of one's two fists, and three
rations a day were given to each prisoner. There was one good thing, I
must say, about the water — it was hot. In the morning it was called
"coffee," at noon it was dignified as "soup," and at night it
masqueraded as "tea." But it was the same old water all the time. The
prisoners called it "water bewitched." In the morning it was black
water, the color being due to boiling it with burnt bread-crusts. At
noon it was served minus the color, with salt and a drop of grease
added. At night it was served with a purplish-auburn hue that defied
all speculation; it was darn poor tea, but it was dandy hot water.
We were a hungry lot in the Erie County Pen. Only the "long-timers"
knew what it was to have enough to eat. The reason for this was that
they would have died after a time on the fare we "short-timers"
received. I know that the long-timers got more substantial grub,
because there was a whole row of them on the ground floor in our hall,
and when I was a trusty, I used to steal from their grub while serving
them. Man cannot live on bread alone and not enough of it.
My pal delivered the goods. After two days of work in the yard I
was taken out of my cell and made a trusty, a "hall-man." At morning
and night we served the bread to the prisoners in their cells; but at
twelve o'clock a different method was used. The convicts marched in
from work in a long line. As they entered the door of our ball, they
broke the lock-step and took their hands down from the shoulders of
their line-mates. just inside the door were piled trays of bread, and
here also stood the First Hall-man and two ordinary hall- men. I was
one of the two. Our task was to hold the trays of bread as the line of
convicts filed past. As soon as the tray, say, that I was holding was
emptied, the other hall-man took my place with a full tray. And when
his was emptied, I took his place with a full tray. Thus the line
tramped steadily by, each man reaching with his right hand and taking
one ration of bread from the extended tray.
The task of the First Hall-man was different. He used a club. He
stood beside the tray and watched. The hungry wretches could never get
over the delusion that sometime they could manage to get two rations of
bread out of the tray. But in my experience that sometime never came.
The club of the First Hall-man had a way of flashing out — quick as the
stroke of a tiger's claw — to the hand that dared ambitiously. The
First Hall-man was a good judge of distance, and be had smashed so many
hands with that club that he had become infallible. He never missed,
and he usually punished the offending convict by taking his one ration
away from him and sending him to his cell to make his meal off of hot
And at times, while all these men lay hungry in their cells, I have
seen a hundred or so extra rations of bread hidden away in the cells of
the hall-men. It would seem absurd, our retaining this bread. But it
was one of our grafts. We were economic masters inside our hall,
turning the trick in ways quite similar to the economic masters of
civilization. We controlled the food-supply of the population, and,
just like our brother bandits outside, we made the people pay through
the nose for it. We peddled the bread. Once a week, the men who worked
in the yard received a five-cent plug of chewing tobacco. This chewing
tobacco was the coin of the realm. Two or three rations of bread for a
plug was the way we exchanged, and they traded, not because they loved
tobacco less, but because they loved bread more. Oh, I know, it was
like taking candy from a baby, but what would you? We had to live. And
certainly there should be some reward for initiative and enterprise.
Besides, we but patterned ourselves after our betters outside the
walls, who, on a larger scale, and under the respectable disguise of
merchants, bankers, and captains of industry, did precisely what we
were doing. What awful things would have happened to those poor
wretches if it hadn't been for us, I can't imagine. Heaven knows we put
bread into circulation in the Eric County Pen. Ay, and we encouraged
frugality and thrift . . . in the poor devils who forewent their
tobacco. And then there was our example. In the breast of every convict
there we implanted the ambition to become even as we and run a graft.
Saviours of society — I guess yes.
Here was a hungry man without any tobacco. Maybe he was a
profligate and had used it all up on himself. Very good ; he had a pair
of suspenders. I exchanged half a dozen rations of bread for it — or a
dozen rations if the suspenders were very good. Now I never wore
suspenders, but that didn't matter. Around the corner lodged a
long-timer, doing ten years for manslaughter. He wore suspenders, and
he wanted a pair. I could trade them to him for some of his meat. Meat
was what I wanted. Or perhaps he had a tattered, paper-covered novel.
That was treasure-trove. I could read it and then trade it off to the
bakers for cake, or to the cooks for meat and vegetables, or to the
firemen for decent coffee, or to some one or other for the newspaper
that occasionally filtered in, heaven alone knows how. The cooks,
bakers, and firemen were prisoners like myself, and they lodged in our
hall in the first row of cells over us.
In short, a full-grown system of barter obtained in the Erie County
Pen. There was even money in circulation. This money was sometimes
smuggled in by the short-timers, more frequently came from the
barber-shop graft, where the newcomers were mulcted, but most of all
flowed from the cells of the long- timers — though how they got it I
What of his preeminent position, the First Hall-man was reputed to
be quite wealthy. In addition to his miscellaneous grafts, he grafted
on us. We farmed the general wretchedness, and the First Hall-man was
Farmer-General over all of us. We held our particular grafts by his
permission, and we had to pay for that permission. As I say, he was
reputed to be wealthy; but we never saw his money, and he lived in a
cell all to himself in solitary grandeur.
But that money was made in the Pen I had direct evidence, for I was
cell-mate quite a time with the Third Hall-man. He had over sixteen
dollars. He used to count his money every night after nine o'clock,
when we were locked in. Also, he used to tell me each night what be
would do to me if I gave away on him to the other hall-men. You see, he
was afraid of being robbed, and danger threatened him from three
different directions. There were the guards. A couple of them might
jump upon him, give him a good beating for alleged insubordination, and
throw him into the "solitaire" (the dungeon); and in the mix-up that
sixteen dollars of his would take wings. Then again, the First Hall-man
could have taken it all away from him by threatening to dismiss him and
fire him back to hard labor in the prison-yard. And yet again, there
were the ten of us who were ordinary hall-men. If we got an inkling of
his wealth, there was a large liability, some quiet day, of the whole
bunch of us getting him into a corner and dragging him down. Oh, we
were wolves, believe me -just like the fellows who do business in Wall
He had good reason to be afraid of us, and so had I to be afraid of
him. He was a huge, illiterate brute, an
ex-Chesapeake-Bay-oyster-pirate, an "ex-con" who had done five years in
Sing Sing, and a general all- around stupidly carnivorous beast. He
used to trap sparrows that flew into our hall through the open bars.
When he made a capture, he hurried away with it into his cell, where I
have seen him crunching bones and spitting out feathers as he bolted it
raw. Oh, no, I never gave away on him to the other hall-men. This is
the first time I have mentioned his sixteen dollars.
But I grafted on him just the same. He was in love with a woman
prisoner who was confined in the "female department." He could neither
read nor write, and I used to read her letters to him and write his
replies. And I made him pay for it, too. But they were good letters. I
laid myself out on them, put in my best licks, and furthermore, I won
her for him; though I shrewdly guess that she was in love, not with
him, but with the humble scribe. I repeat, those letters were great.
Another one of our grafts was "passing the punk." We were the
celestial messengers, the fire-bringers, in that iron world of bolt and
bar. When the men came in from work at night and were locked in their
cells, they wanted to smoke. Then it was that we restored the divine
spark, running the galleries, from cell to cell, with our smouldering
punks. Those who were wise, or with whom we did business, had their
punks all ready to light. Not every one got divine sparks, however. The
guy who refused to dig up, went sparkless and smokeless to bed. But
what did we care? We bad the immortal cinch on him, and if he got
fresh, two or three of us would pitch on him and give him "what-for."
You see, this was the working-theory of the hall-men. There were
thirteen of us. We had something like half a thousand prisoners in our
hall. We were supposed to do the work, and to keep order. The latter
was the function of the guards, which they turned over to us. It was up
to us to keep order; if we didn't, we'd be fired back to hard labor,
most probably with a taste of the dungeon thrown in. But so long as we
maintained order, that long could we work our own particular grafts.
Bear with me a moment and look at the problem. Here were thirteen
beasts of us over half a thousand other beasts. It was a living hell,
that prison, and it was up to us thirteen there to rule. It was
impossible, considering the nature of the beasts, for us to rule by
kindness. We ruled by fear. Of course, behind us, backing us up, were
the guards. In extremity we called upon them for help; but it would
bother them if we called upon them too often, in which event we could
depend upon it that they would get more efficient trusties to take our
places. But we did not call upon them often, except in a quiet sort of
way, when we wanted a cell unlocked in order to get at a refractory
prisoner inside. In such cases all the guard did was to unlock the door
and walk away so as not to be a witness of what happened when half a
dozen hall-men went inside and did a bit of manhandling.
As regards the details of this man-handling I shall say nothing.
And after all, man-handling was merely one of the very minor
unprintable horrors of the Erie County Pen. I say "unprintable"; and in
justice I must also say "unthinkable." They were unthinkable to me
until I saw them, and I was no spring chicken in the ways of the world
and the awful abysses of human degradation. It would take a deep
plummet to reach bottom in the Erie County Pen, and I do but skim
lightly and facetiously the surface of things as I there saw them.
At times, say in the morning when the prisoners came down to wash,
the thirteen of us would be practically alone in the midst of them, and
every last one of them had it in for us. Thirteen against five hundred,
and we ruled by fear. We could not permit the slightest infraction of
rules, the slightest insolence. If we did, we were lost. Our own rule
was to hit a man as soon as he opened his mouth -hit him hard, hit him
with anything. A broom-handle, end-on, in the face, had a very sobering
effect. But that was not all. Such a man must be made an example of; so
the next rule was to wade right in and follow him up. Of course, one
was sure that every hall-man in sight would come on the run to join in
the chastisement; for this also was a rule. Whenever any hall-man was
in trouble with a prisoner, the duty of any other hall-man who happened
to be around was to lend a fist. Never mind the merits of the case
-wade in and hit, and hit with anything; in short, lay the man out.
I remember a handsome young mulatto of about twenty who got the
insane idea into his head that he should stand for his rights. And he
did have the right of it, too; but that didn't help him any. He lived
on the topmost gallery. Eight hall-men took the conceit out of him in
just about a minute and a half -for that was the length of time
required to travel along his gallery to the end and down five flights
of steel stairs. He travelled the whole distance on every portion of
his anatomy except his feet, and the eight hall-men were not idle. The
mulatto struck the pavement where I was standing watching it all. He
regained his feet and stood upright for a moment. In that moment he
threw his arms wide apart and omitted an awful scream of terror and
pain and heartbreak. At the same instant, as in a transformation scene,
the shreds of his stout prison clothes fell from him, leaving him
wholly naked and streaming blood from every portion of the surface of
his body. Then he collapsed in a heap, unconscious. He had learned his
lesson, and every convict within those walls who heard him scream had
learned a lesson. So had I learned mine. it is not a nice thing to see
a man's heart broken in a minute and a half.
The following will illustrate how we drummed up business in the
graft of passing the punk. A row of newcomers is installed in your
cells. You pass along before the bars with your punk. "Hey, Bo, give us
a light," some one calls to you. Now this is an advertisement that that
particular man has tobacco on him. You pass in the punk and go your
way. A little later you come back and lean up casually against the
bars. "Say, Bo, can you let us have a little tobacco?" is what you say.
If he is not wise to the game, the chances are that he solemnly avers
that he hasn't any more tobacco. All very well. You condole with him
and go your way. But you know that his punk will last him only the rest
of that day. Next day you come by, and he says again, "Hey, Bo, give us
a light." And you say, "You haven't any tobacco and you don't need a
light." And you don't give him any, either. Half an hour after, or an
hour or two or three hours, you will be passing by and the man will
call out to you in mild tones, "Come here, Bo." And you come. You
thrust your hand between the bars and have it filled with precious
tobacco. Then you give him a light.
Sometimes, however, a newcomer arrives, upon whom no grafts are to
be worked. The mysterious word is passed along that he is to be treated
decently. Where this word originated I could never learn. The one thing
patent is that the man has a "pull." It may be with one of the superior
hall-men; it may be with one of the guards in some other part of the
prison; it may be that good treatment has been purchased
from grafters higher up; but be it as it may, we know that it is up
to us to treat him decently if we want to avoid trouble.
We hall-men were middle-men and common carriers. We arranged trades
between convicts confined in different parts of the prison, and we put
through the exchange. Also, we took our commissions coming and going.
Sometimes the objects traded had to go through the hands of half a
dozen middle-men, each of whom took his whack, or in some way or
another was paid for his service.
Sometimes one was in debt for services, and sometimes one had
others in his debt. Thus, I entered the prison in debt to the convict
who smuggled in my things for me. A week or so afterward, one of the
firemen passed a letter into my hand. It had been given to him by a
barber. The barber had received it from the convict who had smuggled in
my things. Because of my debt to him I was to carry the letter on. But
he had not written the letter. The original sender was a long-timer in
his hall. The letter was for a woman prisoner in the female department.
But whether it was intended for her, or whether she, in turn, was one
of the chain of go-betweens, I did not know. All that I knew was her
description, and that it was up to me to get it into her hands.
Two days passed, during which time I kept the letter in my
possession; then the opportunity came. The women did the mending of all
the clothes worn by the convicts. A number of our hall-men had to go to
the female department to bring back huge bundles of clothes. I fixed it
with the First Hall-man that I was to go along. Door after door was
unlocked for us as we threaded our way across the prison to the women's
quarters. We entered a large room where the women sat working at their
mending. My eyes were peeled for the woman who had been described to
me. I located her and worked near to her. Two eagle-eyed matrons were
on watch. I held the letter in my palm, and I looked my intention at
the woman. She knew I had something for her; she must have been
expecting it, and had set herself to divining, at the moment we
entered, which of us was the messenger. But one of the matrons stood
within two feet of her. Already the hall-men were picking up the
bundles they were to carry away. The moment was passing. I delayed with
my bundle, making believe that it was not tied securely. Would that
matron ever look away? Or was I to fail? And just then another woman
cut up playfully with one of the hall-men — stuck out her foot and
tripped him, or pinched him, or did something or other. The matron
looked that way and reprimanded the woman sharply. Now I do not know
whether or not this was all planned to distract the matron's attention,
but I did know that it was my opportunity. My particular woman's hand
dropped from her lap down by her side. I stooped to pick up my bundle.
From my stooping position I slipped the letter into her hand, and
received another in exchange. The next moment the bundle was on my
shoulder, the matron's gaze had returned to me because I was the last
hall-man, and I was hastening to catch up with my companions. The
letter I had received from the woman I turned over to the fireman, and
thence it passed through the hands of the barber, of the convict who
had smuggled in my things, and on to the long-timer at the other end.
Often we conveyed letters, the chain of communication of which was
so complex that we knew neither sender nor sendee. We were but links in
the chain. Somewhere, somehow, a convict would thrust a letter into my
hand with the instruction to pass it on to the next link. All such acts
were favors to be reciprocated later on, when I should be acting
directly with a principal in transmitting letters, and from whom I
should be receiving my pay. The whole prison was covered by a network
of lines of communication. And we who were in control of the system of
communication, naturally, since we were modelled after capitalistic
society, exacted heavy tolls from our customers. It was service for
profit with a vengeance, though we were at times not above giving
service for love.
And all the time I was in the Pen I was making myself solid with my
pal. He had done much for me, and in return he expected me to do as
much for him. When we got out, we were to travel together, and, it goes
without saying, pull off "jobs" together. For my pal was a criminal —
oh, not a jewel of the first water, merely a petty criminal who would
steal and rob, commit burglary, and, if cornered, not stop short of
murder. Many a quiet hour we sat and talked together. He bad two or
three jobs in view for the immediate future, in which my work was cut
out for me, and in which I joined in planning the details. I had been
with and seen much of criminals, and my pal never dreamed that I was
only fooling him, giving him a string thirty days long. He thought I
was the real goods, liked me because I was not stupid, and liked me a
bit, too, I think, for myself. Of course I had not the slightest
intention of joining him in a life of sordid, petty crime; but I'd have
been an idiot to throw away all the good things his friendship made
possible. When one is on the hot lava of hell, he cannot pick and
choose his path, and so it was with me in the Erie County Pen. I had to
stay in with the "push," or do hard labor on bread and water; and to
stay in with the push I had to make good with my pal.
Life was not monotonous in the Pen. Every day something was
happening: men were having fits, going crazy, fighting, or the hall-men
were getting drunk. Rover Jack, one of the ordinary hall-men, was our
star "oryide." He was a true "profesh," a "blowed-in-the-glass" stiff,
and as such received all kinds of latitude from the hall-men in
authority. Pittsburg Joe, who was Second Hall-man, used to join Rover
Jack in his jags; and it was a saying of the pair that the Erie County
Pen was the only place where a man could get "slopped" and not be
arrested. I never knew, but I was told that bromide of potassium,
gained in devious ways from the dispensary, was the dope they used. But
I do know, whatever their dope was, that they got good and drunk on
Our hall was a common stews, filled with the ruck and the filth,
the scum and dregs, of society — hereditary inefficients, degenerates,
wrecks, lunatics, addled intelligences, epileptics, monsters,
weaklings, in short, a very nightmare of humanity. Hence, fits
flourished with us. These fits seemed contagious. When one man began
throwing a fit, others followed his lead. I have seen seven men down
with fits at the same time, making the air hideous with their cries,
while as many more lunatics would be raging and gibbering up and down.
Nothing was ever done for the men with fits except to throw cold water
on them. It was useless to send for the medical student or the doctor.
They were not to be bothered with such trivial and frequent
There was a young Dutch boy, about eighteen years of age, who had
fits most frequently of all. He usually threw one every day. It was for
that reason that we kept him on the ground floor farther down in the
row of cells in which we lodged. After he had had a few fits in the
prison-yard, the guards refused to be bothered with him any more, and
so he remained locked up in his cell all day with a Cockney cell-mate,
to keep him company. Not that the Cockney was of any use. Whenever the
Dutch boy had a fit, the Cockney became paralyzed with terror.
The Dutch boy could not speak a word of English. He was a farmer's
boy, serving ninety days as punishment for having got into a scrap with
some one. He prefaced his fits with howling. He howled like a wolf.
Also, he took his fits standing up, which was very inconvenient for
him, for his fits always culminated in a headlong pitch to the floor.
Whenever I heard the long wolf-howl rising, I used to grab a broom and
run to his cell. Now the trusties were not allowed keys to the cells,
so I could not get in to him. He would stand up in the middle of his
narrow cell, shivering convulsively, his eyes rolled backward till only
the whites were visible, and howling like a lost soul. Try as I would,
I could never get the Cockney to lend him a hand. While he stood and
howled, the Cockney crouched and trembled in the upper bunk, his
terror-stricken gaze fixed on that awful figure, with eyes rolled back,
that howled and howled. It was hard on him, too, the poor devil of a
Cockney. His own reason was not any too firmly seated, and the wonder
is that he did not go mad.
All that I could do was my best with the broom. I would thrust it
through the bars, train it on Dutchy's chest, and wait. As the crisis
approached he would begin swaying back and forth. I followed this
swaying with the broom, for there was no telling when he would take
that dreadful forward pitch. But when he did, I was there with the
broom, catching him and easing him down. Contrive as I would, he never
came down quite gently, and his face was usually bruised by the stone
floor. Once down and writhing in convulsions, I'd throw a bucket of
water over him. I don't know whether cold water was the right thing or
not, but it was the custom in the Eric County Pen. Nothing more than
that was ever done for him. He would lie there, wet, for an hour or so,
and then crawl into his bunk. I knew better than to run to a guard for
assistance. What was a man with a fit, anyway?
In the adjoining cell lived a strange character — a man who was
doing sixty days for eating swill out of Barnum's swill-barrel, or at
least that was the way he put it. He was a badly addled creature, and,
at first, very mild and gentle. The facts of his case were as he had
stated them. He had strayed out to the circus ground, and, being
hungry, had made his way to the barrel that contained the refuse from
the table of the circus people. "And it was good bread," he often
assured me; "and the meat was out of sight." A policeman had seen him
and arrested him, and there he was.
Once I passed his cell with a piece of stiff thin wire in my hand.
He asked me for it so earnestly that I passed it through the bars to
him. Promptly, and with no tool but his fingers, he broke it into short
lengths and twisted them into half a dozen very creditable safety pins.
He sharpened the points on the stone floor. Thereafter I did quite a
trade in safety pins. I furnished the raw material and peddled the
finished product, and he did the work. As wages, I paid him extra
rations of bread, and once in a while a chunk of meat or a piece of
soup-bone with some marrow inside.
But his imprisonment told on him, and he grew violent day by day.
The hall-men took delight in teasing him. They filled his weak brain
with stories of a great fortune that had been left him. It was in order
to rob him of it that he had been arrested and sent to jail. Of course,
as he himself knew, there was no law against eating out of a barrel.
Therefore he was wrongly imprisoned. It was a plot to deprive him of
The first I knew of it, I heard the hall-men laughing about the
string they had given him. Next he held a serious conference with me,
in which he told me of his millions and the plot to deprive him of
them, and in which he appointed me his detective. I did my best to let
him down gently, speaking vaguely of a mistake, and that it was another
man with a similar name who was the rightful heir. I left him quite
cooled down; but I couldn't keep the hall-men away from him, and they
continued to string him worse than ever. In the end, after a most
violent scene, he threw me down, revoked my private detectiveship, and
went on strike. My trade in safety pins ceased. He refused to make any
more safety pins, and he peppered me with raw material through the bars
of his cell when I passed by.
I could never make it up with him. The other hall-men told him that
I was a detective in the employ of the conspirators. And in the
meantime the hall-men drove him mad with their stringing. His
fictitious wrongs preyed upon his mind, and at last he became a
dangerous and homicidal lunatic. The guards refused to listen to his
tale of stolen millions, and he accused them of being in the plot. One
day he threw a pannikin of hot tea over one of them, and then his case
was investigated. The warden talked with him a few minutes through the
bars of his cell. Then he was taken away for examination before the
doctors. He never came back, and I often wonder if he is dead, or if he
still gibbers about his millions in some asylum for the insane.
At last came the day of days, my release. It was the day of release
for the Third Hall-man as well, and the short-timer girl I had won for
him was waiting for him outside the wall. They went away blissfully
together. My pal and I went out together, and together we walked down
into Buffalo. Were we not to be together always? We begged together on
the "main-drag" that day for pennies, and what we received was spent
for " shupers " of beer — I don't know how they are spelled, but they
are pronounced the way I have spelled them, and they cost three cents.
I was watching my chance all the time for a get-away. From some bo on
the drag I managed to learn what time a certain freight pulled out. I
calculated my time accordingly. When the moment came, my pal and I were
in a saloon. Two foaming shupers were before us. I'd have liked to say
good-by. He had been good to me. But I did not dare. I went out through
the rear of the saloon and jumped the fence. It was a swift sneak, and
a few minutes later I was on board a freight and heading south on the
Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad.
Hoboes That Pass in the Night
In the course of my tramping I encountered hundreds of hoboes, whom
I hailed or who hailed me, and with whom I waited at water-tanks,
"boiled-up," cooked "mulligans," "battered" the "drag" or "privates,"
and beat trains, and who passed and were seen never again. On the other
hand, there were hoboes who passed and re-passed with amazing
frequency, and others, still, who passed like ghosts, close at hand,
unseen, and never seen.
It was one of the latter that I chased clear across Canada over
three thousand miles of railroad, and never once did I lay eyes on him.
His "monica" was Skysail Jack. I first ran into it at Montreal. Carved
with a jack-knife was the skysail-yard of a ship. It was perfectly
executed. Under it was " Skysail jack." Above was "B.W. 9-15-94." This
latter conveyed the information that he had passed through Montreal
bound west, on October 15, 1894. He had one day the start of me.
"Sailor jack" was my monica at that particular time, and promptly I
carved it alongside of his, along with the date and the information
that I, too, was bound west.
I had misfortune in getting over the, next hundred miles, and eight
days later I picked up Skysail jack's trail three hundred miles west of
Ottawa. There it was, carved on a water-tank, and by the date I saw
that he likewise had met with delay. He was only two days ahead of me.
I was a "comet" and " tramp-royal," so was Skysail jack; and it was up
to my pride and reputation to catch up with him. I "railroaded" day and
night, and I passed him; then turn about he passed me. Sometimes he was
a day or so ahead, and sometimes I was. From hoboes, bound east, I got
word of him occasionally, when he happened to be ahead; and from them I
learned that he had become interested in Sailor jack and was making
inquiries about me.
We'd have made a precious pair, I am sure, if we'd ever got
together; but get together we couldn't. I kept ahead of him clear
across Manitoba, but he led the way across Alberta, and early one
bitter gray morning, at the end of a division just east of Kicking
Horse Pass, I learned that he had been seen the night before between
Kicking Horse Pass and Rogers' Pass. It was rather curious the way the
information came to me. I had been riding all night in a "side-door
Pullman" (box-car), and nearly dead with cold had crawled out at the
division to beg for food. A freezing fog was drifting past, and I "hit"
some firemen I found in the round-house. They fixed me up with the
leavings from their lunch-pails, and in addition I got out of them
nearly a quart of heavenly "Java" (coffee). I heated the latter, and,
as I sat down to eat, a freight pulled in from the west. I saw a
side-door open and a road-kid climb out. Through the drifting fog he
limped over to me. He was stiff with cold, his lips blue. I shared my
Java and grub with him, learned about Skysail Jack, and then learned
about him. Behold, he was from my own town, Oakland, California, and he
was a member of the celebrated Boo Gang — a gang with which I had
affiliated at rare intervals. We talked fast and bolted the grub in the
half-hour that followed. Then my freight pulled out, and I was on it,
bound west on the trail of Skysail Jack.
I was delayed between the passes, went two days without food, and
walked eleven miles on the third day before I got any, and yet I
succeeded in passing Skysail Jack along the Fraser River in British
Columbia. I was riding "passengers" then and making time; but he must
have been riding passengers, too, and with more luck or skill than I,
for he got into Mission ahead of me.
Now Mission was a junction, forty miles east of Vancouver. From the
junction one could proceed south through Washington and Oregon over the
Northern Pacific. I wondered which way Skysail Jack would go, for I
thought I was ahead of him. As for myself I was still bound west to
Vancouver. I proceeded to the water-tank to leave that information, and
there, freshly carved, with that day's date upon it, was Skysail Jack's
monica. I hurried on into Vancouver. But he was gone. He had taken ship
immediately and was still flying west on his world-adventure. Truly,
Skysail Jack, you were a tramp-royal, and your mate was the "wind that
tramps the world." I take off my hat to you. You were
"blowed-in-the-glass" all right. A week later I, too, got my ship, and
on board the steamship Umatilla, in the forecastle, was working my way
down the coast to San Francisco. Skysail Jack and Sailor Jack -gee! if
we'd ever got together.
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
"Monicas" are the nom-de-rails that hoboes assume or accept when
thrust upon them by their fellows. Leary Joe, for instance, was timid,
and was so named by his fellows. No self-respecting hobo would select
Stew Bum for himself. Very few tramps care to remember their pasts
during which they ignobly worked, so monicas based upon trades are very
rare, though I remember having met the following: Moulder Blackey'
Painter Red, Chi Plumber, Boiler-maker, Sailor Boy, and Printer Bo.
"Chi" (pronounced shy), by the way, is the argot for "Chicago."
A favorite device of hoboes is to base their monicas on the
localities from which they hail, as: New York Tommy, Pacific Slim,
Buffalo Smithy, Canton Tim, Pittsburg Jack, Syracuse Shine, Troy
Mickey, K. L. Bill, and Connecticut Jimmy. Then there was "Slim Jim
from Vinegar Hill, who never worked and never will." A "shine" is
always a negro, so called, possibly, from the high lights on his
countenance. Texas Shine or Toledo Shine convey both race and nativity.
Among those that incorporated their race, I recollect the
following: Frisco Sheeny, New York Irish, Michigan French, English
Jack, Cockney Kid, and Milwaukee Dutch. Others seem to take their
monicas in part from the color-schemes stamped upon them at birth, such
as: Chi Whitey, New Jersey Red, Boston Blackey, Seattle Browney, and
Yellow Dick and Yellow Belly — the last a Creole from Mississippi, who,
I suspect, had his monica thrust upon him.
Texas Royal, Happy Joe, Bust Connors, Burley Bo, Tornado Blackey,
and Touch McCall used more imagination in rechristening themselves.
Others, with less fancy, carry the names of their physical
peculiarities, such as: Vancouver Slim, Detroit Shorty, Ohio Fatty,
Long Jack, Big Jim, Little Joe, New York Blink, Chi Nosey, and
By themselves come the road-kids, sporting an infinite variety of
monicas. For example, the following, whom here and there I have
encountered: Buck Kid, Blind Kid, Midget Kid, Holy Kid, Bat Kid, Swift
Kid, Cookey Kid, Monkey Kid, Iowa Kid, Corduroy Kid, Orator Kid (who
could tell how it happened), and Lippy Kid (who was insolent, depend
On the water-tank at San Marcial, New Mexico, a dozen years ago,
was the following hobo bill of fare: —
(I) Main-drag fair. (2) Bulls not hostile. (3) Round-house good for
kipping. (4) North-bound trains no good. (5) Privates no good. (6)
Restaurants good for cooks only. (7) Railroad House good for night-work
Number one conveys the information that begging for money on the
main street is fair; number two, that the police will not bother
hoboes; number three, that one can sleep in the round-house. Number
four, however, is ambiguous. The north-bound trains may be no good to
beat, and they may be no good to beg. Number five means that the
residences are not good to beggars, and number six means that only
hoboes that have been cooks can get grub from the restaurants. Number
seven bothers me. I cannot make out whether the Railroad House is a
good place for any hobo to beg at night, or whether it is good only for
hobo-cooks to beg at night, or whether any hobo, cook or non-cook, can
lend a hand at night, helping the cooks of the Railroad House with
their dirty work and getting something to eat in payment.
But to return to the hoboes that pass in the night. I remember one
I met in California. He was a Swede, but he had lived so long in the
United States that one couldn't guess his nationality. He had to tell
it on himself. In fact, he had come to the United States when no more
than a baby. I ran into him first at the mountain town of Truckee.
"Which way, Bo?" was our greeting, and "Bound cast" was the answer each
of us gave. Quite a bunch of "stiffs" tried to ride out the overland
that night, and I lost the Swede in the shuffle. Also, I lost the
I arrived in Reno, Nevada, in a box-car that was promptly
side-tracked. It was Sunday morning, and after I threw my feet for
breakfast, I wandered over to the Piute camp to watch the Indians
gambling. And there stood the Swede, hugely interested. Of course we
got together. He was the only acquaintance I had in that region, and I
was his only acquaintance. We rushed together like a couple of
dissatisfied hermits, and together we spent the day, threw our feet for
dinner, and late in the afternoon tried to "nail" the same freight. But
he was ditched, and I rode her out alone, to be ditched myself in the
desert twenty miles beyond.
Of all desolate places, the one at which I was ditched was the
limit. It was called a flag-station, and it consisted of a shanty
dumped inconsequentially into the sand and sage-brush. A chill wind was
blowing, night was coming on, and the solitary telegraph operator who
lived in the shanty was afraid of me. I knew that neither grub nor bed
could I get out of him. It was because of his manifest fear of me that
I did not believe him when he told me that east-bound trains never
stopped there. Besides, hadn't I been thrown off of an east-bound train
right at that very spot not five minutes before? He assured me that it
had stopped under orders, and that a year might go by before another
was stopped under orders. He advised me that it was only a dozen or
fifteen miles on to Wadsworth and that I'd better hike. I elected to
wait, however, and I had the pleasure of seeing two west-bound freights
go by without stopping, and one east-bound freight. I wondered if the
Swede was on the latter. It was up to me to hit the ties to Wadsworth,
and hit them I did) much to the telegraph operator's relief, for I
neglected to burn his shanty and murder him. Telegraph operators have
much to be thankful for. At the end of half a dozen miles, I had to get
off the ties and let the east-bound overland go by. She was going fast,
but I caught sight of a dim form on the first "blind " that looked like
That was the last I saw of him for weary days. I hit the high
places across those hundreds of miles of Nevada desert, riding the
overlands at night, for speed, and in the day-time riding in box-cars
and getting my sleep. It was early in the year, and it was cold in
those upland pastures. Snow lay here and there on the level, all the
mountains were shrouded in white, and at night the most miserable wind
imaginable blew off from them. It was not a land in which to linger.
And remember, gentle reader, the hobo goes through such a land, without
shelter, without money, begging his way and sleeping at night without
blankets. This last is something that can be realized only by
In the early evening I came down to the depot at Ogden. The
overland of the Union Pacific was pulling east, and I was bent on
making connections. Out in the tangle of tracks ahead of the engine I
encountered a figure slouching through the gloom. It was the Swede. We
shook hands like long-lost brothers, and discovered that our hands were
gloved. "Where'd ye glahm 'em?'' I asked. "Out of an engine-cab," he
answered; "and where did you ?" "They belonged to a fireman," said I;
"he was careless."
We caught the blind as the overland pulled out, and mighty cold we
found it. The way led up a narrow gorge between snow-covered mountains,
and we shivered and shook and exchanged confidences about how we had
covered the ground between Reno and Ogden. I had closed my eyes for
only an hour or so the previous night, and the blind was not
comfortable enough to suit me for a snooze. At a stop, I went forward
to the engine. We had on a "double-header" (two engines) to take us
over the grade.
The pilot of the head engine, because it "punched the wind," I knew
would be too cold; so I selected the pilot of the second engine, which
was sheltered by the first engine. I stepped on the cowcatcher and
found the pilot occupied. In the darkness I felt out the form of a
young boy. He was sound asleep. By squeezing, there was room for two on
the pilot, and I made the boy hudge over and crawled up beside him. It
was a "good" night; the "shacks" (brakemen) didn't bother us, and in no
time we were asleep. Once in a while hot cinders or heavy jolts aroused
me, when I snuggled closer to the boy and dozed off to the coughing of
the engines and the screeching of the wheels.
The overland made Evanston, Wyoming, and went no farther. A wreck
ahead blocked the line. The dead engineer had been brought in, and his
body attested the peril of the way. A tramp, also, had been killed, but
his body had not been brought in. I talked with the boy. He was
thirteen years old. He had run away from his folks in some place in
Oregon, and was heading east to his grandmother. He had a tale of cruel
treatment in the home he had left that rang true; besides, there was no
need for him to lie to me, a nameless hobo on the track.
And that boy was going some, too. He couldn't cover the ground fast
enough. When the division superintendents decided to send the overland
back over the way it had come, then up on a cross "jerk" to the Oregon
Short Line, and back along that road to tap the Union Pacific the other
side of the wreck, that boy climbed upon the pilot and said he was
going to stay with it. This was too much for the Swede and me. It meant
travelling the rest of that frigid night in order to gain no more than
a dozen miles or so. We said we'd wait till the wreck was cleared away,
and in the meantime get a good sleep.
Now it is no snap to strike a strange town, broke, at midnight, in
cold weather, and find a place to sleep. The Swede hadn't a penny. My
total assets consisted of two dimes and a nickel. From some of the town
boys we learned that beer was five cents, and that the saloons kept
open all night. There was our meat. Two glasses of beer would cost ten
cents, there would be a stove and chairs, and we could sleep it out
till morning. We headed for the lights of a saloon, walking briskly,
the snow crunching under our feet, a chill little wind blowing through
Alas, I had misunderstood the town boys. Beer was five cents in one
saloon only in the whole burg, and we didn't strike that saloon. But
the one we entered was all right. A blessed stove was roaring
white-hot; there were cosey, cane-bottomed arm-chairs, and a
none-too-pleasant-looking barkeeper who glared suspiciously at us as we
came in. A man cannot spend continuous days and nights in his clothes,
beating trains, fighting soot and cinders, and sleeping anywhere, and
maintain a good "front." Our fronts were decidedly against us; but what
did we care? I had the price in my jeans.
"Two beers," said I nonchalantly to the barkeeper, and while he
drew them, the Swede and I leaned against the bar and yearned secretly
for the arm-chairs by the stove.
The barkeeper set the two foaming glasses before us, and with pride
I deposited the ten cents. Now I was dead game. As soon as I learned my
error in the price I'd have dug up another ten cents. Never mind if it
did leave me only a nickel to my name, a stranger in a strange land.
I'd have paid it all right. But that barkeeper never gave me a chance.
As soon as his eyes spotted the dime I had laid down, he seized the two
glasses, one in each hand, and dumped the beer into the sink behind the
bar. At the same time, glaring at us malevolently, he said: —
"You've got scabs on your nose. You've got scabs on your nose.
You've got scabs on your nose. See!"
I hadn't either, and neither had the Swede. Our noses were all
right. The direct bearing of his words was beyond our comprehension,
but the indirect bearing was clear as print: he didn't like our looks,
and beer was evidently ten cents a glass.
I dug down and laid another dime on the bar, remarking carelessly,
"Oh, I thought this was a five-cent joint."
"Your money's no good here," he answered, shoving the two dimes
across the bar to me.
Sadly I dropped them back into my pocket, sadly we yearned toward
the blessed stove and the arm- chairs, and sadly we went out the door
into the frosty night.
But as we went out the door, the barkeeper, still glaring, called
after us, "You've got scabs on your nose, see!"
I have seen much of the world since then, journeyed among strange
lands and peoples, opened many books, sat in many lecture-halls; but to
this day, though I have pondered long and deep, I have been unable to
divine the meaning in the cryptic utterance of that barkeeper in
Evanston, Wyoming. Our noses were all right.
We slept that night over the boilers in an electric-lighting plant.
How we discovered that "kipping" place I can't remember. We must have
just headed for it, instinctively, as horses head for water or carrier-
pigeons head for the home-cote. But it was a night not pleasant to
remember. A dozen hoboes were ahead of us on top the boilers, and it
was too hot for all of us. To complete our misery, the engineer would
not let us stand around down below. He gave us our choice of the
boilers or the outside snow.
" You said you wanted to sleep, and so, damn you, sleep," said he
to me, when, frantic and beaten out by the heat, I came down into the
"Water," I gasped, wiping the sweat from my eyes, "water."
He pointed out of doors and assured me that down there somewhere in
the blackness I'd find the river. I started for the river, got lost in
the dark, fell into two or three drifts, gave it up, and returned
half-frozen to the top of the boilers. When I had thawed out, I was
thirstier than ever. Around me the hoboes were moaning, groaning,
sobbing, sighing, gasping, panting, rolling and tossing and floundering
heavily in their torment. We were so many lost souls toasting on a
griddle in hell, and the engineer, Satan Incarnate, gave us the sole
alternative of freezing in the outer cold. The Swede sat up and
anathematized passionately the wanderlust in man that sent him tramping
and suffering hardships such as that.
"When I get back to Chicago," he perorated, "I'm going to get a job
and stick to it till hell freezes over. Then I'll go tramping again."
And, such is the irony of fate, next day, when the wreck ahead was
cleared, the Swede and I pulled out of Evanston in the ice-boxes of an
"orange special," a fast freight laden with fruit from sunny
California. Of course, the ice-boxes were empty on account of the cold
weather, but that didn't make them any warmer for us. We entered them
through hatchways in the top of the car; the boxes were constructed of
galvanized iron, and in that biting weather were not pleasant to the
touch. We lay there, shivered and shook, and with chattering teeth held
a council wherein we decided that we'd stay by the ice-boxes day and
night till we got out of the inhospitable plateau region and down into
the Mississippi Valley.
But we must eat, and we decided that at the next division we would
throw our feet for grub and make a rush back to our ice-boxes. We
arrived in the town of Green River late in the afternoon, but too early
for supper. Before meal-time is the worst time for "battering"
back-doors; but we put on our nerve, swung off the side-ladders as the
freight pulled into the yards, and made a run for the houses. We were
quickly separated; but we had agreed to meet in the ice-boxes. I had
bad luck at first; but in the end, with a couple of "hand-outs" poked
into my shirt, I chased for the train. It was pulling out and going
fast. The particular refrigerator-car in which we were to meet had
already gone by, and half a dozen cars down the train from it I swung
on to the side-ladders, went up on top hurriedly, and dropped down into
But a shack had seen me from the caboose, and at the next stop a
few miles farther on, Rock Springs, the shack stuck his head into my
box and said: "Hit the grit, you son of a toad! Hit the grit!" Also he
grabbed me by the heels and dragged me out. I hit the grit all right,
and the orange special and the Swede rolled on without me.
Snow was beginning to fall. A cold night was coming on. After dark
I hunted around in the railroad yards until I found an empty
refrigerator car. In I climbed — not into the ice-boxes, but into the
car itself. I swung the heavy doors shut, and their edges, covered with
strips of rubber, sealed the car air-tight. The walls were thick. There
was no way for the outside cold to get in. But the inside was just as
cold as the outside. How to raise the temperature was the problem. But
trust a "profesh" for that. Out of my pockets I dug up three or four
newspapers. These I burned, one at a time, on the floor of the car. The
smoke rose to the top. Not a bit of the heat could escape, and,
comfortable and warm, I passed a beautiful night. I didn't wake up
once. In the morning it was still snowing. While throwing my feet for
breakfast, I missed an east-bound freight. Later in the day I nailed
two other freights and was ditched from both of them. All afternoon no
eastbound trains went by. The snow was falling thicker than ever, but
at twilight I rode out on the first blind of the overland. As I swung
aboard the blind from one side, somebody swung aboard from the other.
It was the boy who had run away from Oregon.
Now the first blind of a fast train in a driving snowstorm is no
summer picnic. The wind goes right through one, strikes the front of
the car, and comes back again. At the first stop, darkness having come
on, I went forward and interviewed the fireman. I offered to "shove"
coal to the end of his run, which was Rawlins, and my offer was
accepted. My work was out on the tender, in the snow, breaking the
lumps of coal with a sledge and shovelling it forward to him in the
cab. But as I did not have to work all the time, I could come into the
cab and warm up now and again.
"Say," I said to the fireman, at my first breathing spell, "there's
a little kid back there on the first blind. He's pretty cold."
The cabs on the Union Pacific engines are quite spacious, and we
fitted the kid into a warm nook in front of the high seat of the
fireman, where the kid promptly fell asleep. We arrived at Rawlins at
midnight. The snow was thicker than ever. Here the engine was to go
into the round-house, being replaced by a fresh engine. As the train
came to a stop, I dropped off the engine steps plump into the arms of a
large man in a large overcoat. He began asking me questions, and I
promptly demanded who he was. just as promptly he informed me that he
was the sheriff. I drew in my horns and listened and answered.
He began describing the kid who was still asleep in the cab. I did
some quick thinking. Evidently the family was on the trail of the kid,
and the sheriff had received telegraphed instructions from Oregon. Yes,
I had seen the kid. I had met him first in Ogden. The date tallied with
the sheriff's information. But the kid was still behind somewhere, I
explained, for he had been ditched from that very overland that night
when it pulled out of Rock Springs. And all the time I was praying that
the kid wouldn't wake up, come down out of the cab, and put the
"kibosh" on me.
The sheriff left me in order to interview the shacks, but before he
left he said: —
"Bo, this town is no place for you. Understand? You ride this train
out, and make no mistake about it. If I catch you after it's gone . .
I assured him that it was not through desire that I was in his
town; that the only reason I was there was that the train had stopped
there; and that he wouldn't see me for smoke the way I'd get out of his
While he went to interview the shacks, I jumped back into the cab.
The kid was awake and rubbing his eyes. I told him the news and advised
him to ride the engine into the round-house. To cut the story short,
the kid made the same overland out, riding the pilot, with instructions
to make an appeal to the fireman at the first stop for permission to
ride in the engine. As for myself, I got ditched. The new fireman was
young and not yet lax enough to break the rules of the Company against
having tramps in the engine; so he turned down my offer to shove coal.
I hope the kid succeeded with him, for all night on the pilot in that
blizzard would have meant death.
Strange to say, I do not at this late day remember a detail of how
I was ditched at Rawlins. I remember watching the train as it was
immediately swallowed up in the snow-storm, and of heading for a saloon
to warm up. Here was light and warmth. Everything was in full blast and
wide open. Faro, roulette, craps, and poker tables were running, and
some mad cowpunchers were making the night merry. I had just succeeded
in fraternizing with them and was downing my first drink at their
expense, when a heavy hand descended on my shoulder. I looked around
and sighed. It was the sheriff.
Without a word he led me out into the snow.
"There's an orange special down there in the yards," said he.
"It's a damn cold night," said I.
"It pulls out in ten minutes," said he.
That was all. There was no discussion. And when that orange special
pulled out, I was in the ice-boxes. I thought my feet would freeze
before morning, and the last twenty miles into Laramie I stood upright
in the hatchway and danced up and down. The snow was too thick for the
shacks to see me, and I didn't care if they did.
My quarter of a dollar bought me a hot breakfast at Laramie, and
immediately afterward I was on board, the blind baggage of an overland
that was climbing to the pass through the backbone of the Rockies. One
does not ride blind baggages in the daytime; but in this blizzard at
the top of the Rocky Mountains I doubted if the shacks would have the
heart to put me off. And they didn't. They made a practice of coming
forward at every stop to see if I was frozen yet.
At Ames' Monument, at the summit of the Rockies, — I forget the
altitude, — the shack came forward for the last time.
"Say, Bo," he said, "you see that freight side-tracked over there
to let us go by?"
I saw. It was on the next track, six feet away. A few feet more in
that storm and I could not have seen it.
"Well, the 'after-push' of Kelly's Army is in one of them cars.
They've got two feet of straw under them, and there's so many of them
that they keep the car warm."
His advice was good, and I followed it, prepared, however, if it
was a "con game" the shack had given me, to take the blind as the
overland pulled out. But it was straight goods. I found the car — a big
refrigerator car with the leeward door wide open for ventilation. Up I
climbed and in. I stepped on a man's leg, next on some other man's arm.
The light was dim, and all I could make out was arms and legs and
bodies inextricably confused. Never was there such a tangle of
humanity. They were all lying in the straw, and over, and under, and
around one another. Eighty-four husky hoboes take up a lot of room when
they are stretched out. The men I stepped on were resentful. Their
bodies heaved under me like the waves of the sea, and imparted an
involuntary forward movement to me. I could not find any straw to step
upon, so I stepped upon more men. The resentment increased, so did my
forward movement. I lost my footing and sat down with sharp abruptness.
Unfortunately, it was on a man's head. The next moment he had risen on
his hands and knees in wrath, and I was flying through the air. What
goes up must come down, and I came down on another man's head.
What happened after that is very vague in my memory. It was like
going through a threshing-machine. I was bandied about from one end of
the car to the other. Those eighty-four hoboes winnowed me out till
what little was left of me, by some miracle, found a bit of straw to
rest upon. I was initiated, and into a jolly crowd. All the rest of
that day we rode through the blizzard, and to while the time away it
was decided that each man was to tell a story. It was stipulated that
each story must be a good one, and, furthermore, that it must be a
story no one had ever heard before. The penalty for failure was the
threshing-machine. Nobody failed. And I want to say right here that
never in my life have I sat at-so marvellous a story-telling debauch.
Here were eighty-four men from all the world — I made eighty-five; and
each man told a masterpiece. It had to be, for it was either
masterpiece or threshing-machine.
Late in the afternoon we arrived in Cheyenne. The blizzard was at
its height, and though the last meal of all of us had been breakfast,
no man cared to throw his feet for supper. All night we rolled on
through the storm, and next day found us down on the sweet plains of
Nebraska and still rolling. We were out of the storm and the mountains.
The blessed sun was shining over a smiling land, and we had eaten
nothing for twenty-four hours. We found out that the freight would
arrive about noon at a town, if I remember right, that was called Grand
We took up a collection and sent a telegram to the authorities of
that town. The text of the message was that eighty-five healthy, hungry
hoboes would arrive about noon and that it would be a good idea to have
dinner ready for them. The authorities of Grand Island had two courses
open to them. They could feed us, or they could throw us in jail. In
the latter event they'd have to feed us anyway, and they decided wisely
that one meal would be the cheaper way.
When the freight rolled into Grand Island at noon, we were sitting
on the tops of the cars and dangling our legs in the sunshine. All the
police in the burg were on the reception committee. They marched us in
squads to the various hotels and restaurants, where dinners were spread
for us. We had been thirty-six hours without food, and we didn't have
to be taught what to do. After that we were marched back to the
railroad station. The police had thoughtfully compelled the freight to
wait for us. She pulled out slowly, and the eighty-five of us, strung
out along the track, swarmed up the side-ladders. We "captured" the
We had no supper that evening — at least the "push" didn't, but I
did. just at supper time, as the freight was pulling out of a small
town, a man climbed into the car where I was playing pedro with three
other stiffs. The man's shirt was bulging suspiciously. In his hand he
carried a battered quart-measure from which arose steam. I smelled "
Java." I turned my cards over to one of the stiffs who was looking on,
and excused myself. Then, in the other end of the car, pursued by
envious glances, I sat down with the man who had climbed aboard and
shared his " Java " and the handouts that had bulged his shirt. It was
At about ten o'clock in the evening, we arrived at Omaha.
"Let's shake the push," said the Swede to me.
"Sure," said I.
As the freight pulled into Omaha, we made ready to do so. But the
people of Omaha were also ready. The Swede and I hung upon the
side-ladders, ready to drop off. But the freight did not stop.
Furthermore, long rows of policemen, their brass buttons and stars
glittering in the electric lights, were lined up on each side of the
track. The Swede and I knew what would happen to us if we ever dropped
off into their arms. We stuck by the side-ladders, and the train rolled
on across the Missouri River to Council Bluffs.
"General" Kelly, with an army of two thousand hoboes, lay in camp
at Chautauqua Park, several miles away. The after-push we were with was
General Kelly's rearguard, and, detraining at Council Bluffs, it
started to march to camp. The night had turned cold, and heavy
wind-squalls, accompanied by rain, were chilling and wetting us. Many
police were guarding us and herding us to the camp. The Swede and I
watched our chance and made a successful get-away.
The rain began coming down in torrents, and in the darkness, unable
to see our hands in front of our faces, like a pair of blind men we
fumbled about for shelter. Our instinct served us, for in no time we
stumbled upon a saloon — not a saloon that was open and doing business,
not merely a saloon that was closed for the night, and not even a
saloon with a permanent address, but a saloon propped up on big
timbers, with rollers underneath, that was being moved from somewhere
to somewhere. The doors were locked. A squall of wind and rain drove
down upon us. We did not hesitate. Smash went the door, and in we went.
I have made some tough camps in my time, "carried the banner" in
infernal metropolises, bedded in pools of water, slept in the snow
under two blankets when the spirit thermometer registered seventy-four
degrees below zero (which is a mere trifle of one hundred and six
degrees of frost); but I want to say right here that never did I make a
tougher camp, pass a more miserable night, than that night I passed
with the Swede in the itinerant saloon at Council Bluffs. In the first
place, the building, perched up as it was in the air, had exposed a
multitude of openings in the floor through which the wind whistled. In
the second place, the bar was empty; there was no bottled fire-water
with which we could warm ourselves and forget our misery. We had no
blankets, and in our wet clothes, wet to the skin, we tried to sleep. I
rolled under the bar, and the Swede rolled under the table. The holes
and crevices in the floor made it impossible, and at the end of half an
hour I crawled up on top the bar. A little later the Swede crawled up
on top his table.
And there we shivered and prayed for daylight. I know, for one,
that I shivered until I could shiver no more, till the shivering
muscles exhausted themselves and merely ached horribly. The Swede
moaned and groaned, and every little while, through chattering teeth,
he muttered, "Never again; never again." He muttered this phrase
repeatedly, ceaselessly, a thousand times; and when he dozed, he went
on muttering it in his sleep.
At the first gray of dawn we left our house of pain, and outside,
found ourselves in a mist, dense and chill. We stumbled on till we came
to the railroad track. I was going back to Omaha to throw my feet for
breakfast; my companion was going on to Chicago. The moment for parting
had come. Our palsied hands went out to each other. We were both
shivering. When we tried to speak, our teeth chattered us back into
silence. We stood alone, shut off from the world; all that we could see
was a short length of railroad track, both ends of which were lost in
the driving mist. We stared dumbly at each other, our clasped hands
shaking sympathetically. The Swede's face was blue with the cold, and I
know mine must have been.
"Never again what?" I managed to articulate.
Speech strove for utterance in the Swede's throat; then, faint and
distant, in a thin whisper from the very bottom of his frozen soul,
came the words:
"Never again a hobo."
He paused, and, as he went on again, his voice gathered strength
and huskiness as it affirmed his will.
"Never again a hobo. I'm going to get a job. You'd better do the
same. Nights like this make rheumatism."
He wrung my hand.
" Good-by, Bo," said he.
"Good-by, Bo," said I.
The next we were swallowed up from each other by the mist. It was
our final passing. But here's to you, Mr. Swede, wherever you are. I
hope you got that job.
Road-Kids and Gay-Cats
Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical
dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately
phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became
a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is
inaccurate. I became a tramp — well, because of the life that was in
me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology
was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet
skin follows a ducking. I went on "The Road" because I couldn't keep
away from it; because I hadn't the price of the railroad fare in my
jeans; because I was so made that I couldn't work all my life on "one
same shift"; because — well, just because it was easier to than not to.
It happened in my own town, in Oakland, when I was sixteen. At that
time I had attained a dizzy reputation in my chosen circle of
adventurers, by whom I was known as the Prince of the Oyster Pirates.
It is true, those immediately outside my circle, such as honest
bay-sailors, longshoremen, yachtsmen, and the legal owners of the
oysters, called me "tough," "hoodlum," "smoudge," "thief," "robber,"
and various other not nice things — all of which was complimentary and
but served to increase the dizziness of the high place in which I sat.
At that time I had not read " Paradise Lost, and later, when I read
Milton's "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven," I was fully
convinced that great minds run in the same channels.
It was at this time that the fortuitous concatenation of events
sent me upon my first adventure on The Road. It happened that there was
nothing doing in oysters just then; that at Benicia, forty miles away,
I had some blankets I wanted to get; and that at Port Costa, several
miles from Benicia, a stolen boat lay at anchor in charge of the
constable. Now this boat was owned by a friend of mine, by name Dinny
McCrea. It had been stolen and left at Port Costa by Whiskey Bob,
another friend of mine. (Poor Whiskey Bob! Only last winter his body
was picked up on the beach shot full of holes by nobody knows whom.) I
had come down from "up river" some time before, and reported to Dinny
McCrea the whereabouts of his boat; and Dinny McCrea had promptly
offered ten dollars to me if I should bring it down to Oakland to him.
Time was heavy on my hands. I sat on the dock and talked it over
with Nickey the Greek, another idle oyster pirate. "Let's go," said I,
and Nickey was willing. He was "broke." I possessed fifty cents and a
small skiff. The former I invested and loaded into the latter in the
form of crackers, canned corned beef, and a ten-cent bottle of French
mustard. (We were keen on French mustard in those days.) Then, late in
the afternoon, we hoisted our small spritsail and started. We sailed
all night, and next morning, on the first of a glorious flood-tide, a
fair wind behind us, we came booming up the Carquinez Straits to Port
Costa. There lay the stolen boat, not twenty-five feet from the wharf.
We ran alongside and doused our little spritsail. I sent Nickey forward
to lift the anchor, while I began casting off the gaskets.
A man ran out on the wharf and hailed us. It was the constable. It
suddenly came to me that I had neglected to get a written authorization
from Dinny McCrea to take possession of his boat. Also, I knew that
constable wanted to charge at least twenty-five dollars in fees for
capturing the boat from Whiskey Bob and subsequently taking care of it.
And my last fifty cents had been blown in for corned beef and French
mustard, and the reward was only ten dollars anyway. I shot a glance
forward to Nickey. He had the anchor up-and-down and was straining at
it. "Break her out," I whispered to him, and turned and shouted back to
the constable. The result was that he and I were talking at the same
time, our spoken thoughts colliding in mid-air and making gibberish.
The constable grew more imperative, and perforce I had to listen.
Nickey was heaving on the anchor till I thought he'd burst a
blood-vessel. When t e constable got done with his threats and
warnings, I asked him who he was. The time he lost in telling me
enabled Nickey to break out the anchor. I was doing some quick
calculating. At the feet of the constable a ladder ran down the dock to
the water, and to the ladder was moored a skiff. The oars were in it.
But it was padlocked. I gambled everything on that padlock. I felt the
breeze on my check, saw the surge of the tide, looked at the remaining
gaskets that confined the sail, ran my eyes up the halyards to the
blocks and knew that all was clear, and then threw off all
"In with her!" I shouted to Nickey, and sprang to the gaskets,
casting them loose and thanking my stars that Whiskey Bob had tied them
in square-knots instead of "grannies."
The constable had slid down the ladder and was fumbling with a key
at the padlock. The anchor came aboard and the last gasket was loosed
at the same instant that the constable freed the skiff and jumped to
"Peak-halyards!" I commanded my crew, at the same time swinging on
to the throat-halyards. Up came the sail on the run. I belayed and ran
aft to the tiller.
"Stretch her!" I shouted to Nickey at the peak. The constable was
just reaching for our stern. A puff of wind caught us, and we shot
away. It was great. If I'd had a black flag, I know I'd have run it up
in triumph. The constable stood up in the skiff, and paled the glory of
the day with the vividness of his language. Also, he wailed for a gun.
You see, that was another gamble we had taken.
Anyway, we weren't stealing the boat. It wasn't the constable's. We
were merely stealing his fees, which was his particular form of graft.
And we weren't stealing the fees for ourselves, either; we were
stealing them for my friend, Dinny McCrea.
Benicia was made in a few minutes, and a few minutes later my
blankets were aboard. I shifted the boat down to the far end of
Steamboat Wharf, from which point of vantage we could see anybody
coming after us. There was no telling. Maybe the Port Costa constable
would telephone to the Benicia constable. Nickey and I held a council
of war. We lay on deck in the warm sun, the fresh breeze on our cheeks,
the flood-tide rippling and swirling past. It was impossible to start
back to Oakland till afternoon, when the ebb would begin to run. But we
figured that the constable would have an eye out on the Carquinez
Straits when the ebb started, and that nothing remained for us but to
wait for the following ebb, at two o'clock next morning, when we could
slip by Cerberus in the darkness.
So we lay on deck, smoked cigarettes, and were glad that we were
alive. I spat over the side and gauged the speed of the current.
"With this wind, we could run this flood dear to Rio Vista," I
"And it's fruit-time on the river," said Nickey.
"And low water on the river," said I. "It's the best time of the
year to make Sacramento."
We sat up and looked at each other. The glorious west wind was
pouring over us like wine. We both spat over the side and gauged the
current. Now I contend that it was all the fault of that flood-tide and
fair wind. They appealed to our sailor instinct. If it had not been for
them, the whole chain of events that was to put me upon The Road would
have broken down. We said no word, but cast off our moorings and
hoisted sail. Our adventures up the Sacramento River are no part of
this narrative. We subsequently made the city of Sacramento and tied up
at a 'wharf. he water was fine, and we spent most of our time n
swimming. On the sand-bar above the railroad bridge we fell in with a
bunch of boys likewise in swimming. Between swims we lay on the bank
and talked. hey talked differently from the fellows I had been used to
herding with. It was a new vernacular. They were road-kids, and with
every word they uttered the lure of The Road laid hold of me more
"When I was down in Alabama," one kid would begin; or, another,
"Coming up on the C. A. from K.C."; whereat, a third kid, "On the C. A.
there ain't no steps to the 'blinds."' And I would lie silently in the
sand and listen. " It was at a little town in Ohio on the Lake Shore
and Michigan Southern," a kid would start; and another, "Ever ride the
Cannonball on the Wabash?"; and yet another, "Nope, but I've been on
the White Mail out of Chicago." "Talk about railroadin' — wait till you
hit the Pennsylvania, four tracks, no water tanks, take water on the
fly, that's goin' some." "The Northern Pacific's a bad road now."
"Salinas is on the 'hog,' the 'bulls" is 'horstile.'" "I got 'pinched'
at El Paso, along with Moke Kid." "Talkin' of 'poke- outs,' wait till
you hit the French country out of Montreal — not a word of English —
you say, 'Mongee, Madame, mongee, no spika da French,' an' rub your
stomach an' look hungry, an' she gives you a slice of sow-belly an' a
chunk of dry 'punk."'
And I continued to lie in the sand and listen. These wanderers made
my oyster-piracy look like thirty cents. A new world was calling to me
in every word that was spoken — a world of rods and gunnels, blind
baggages and " side-door Pullmans ... .. bulls" and "shacks,"
"floppings" and "chewin's," "pinches" and "get-aways," "strong arms"
and "bindle-stiffs," " punks" and "profesh." And it all spelled
Adventure. Very well; I would tackle this new world. I "lined" myself
up alongside those road-kids. I was just as strong as any of them, just
as quick, just as nervy, and my brain was just as good.
After the swim, as evening came on, they dressed and went up town.
I went along. The kids began "battering" the "main-stem" for "light
pieces," or, in other words, begging for money on the main street. I
had never begged in my life, and this was the hardest thing for me to
stomach when I first went on The Road. I had absurd notions about
begging. My philosophy, up to that time, was that it was finer to steal
than to beg; and that robbery was finer still because the risk and the
penalty were proportionately greater. As an oyster pirate I had already
earned convictions at the hands of justice, which, if I had tried to
serve them, would have required a thousand years in state's prison. To
rob was manly; to beg was sordid and despicable. But I developed in the
days to come all right, all right, till I came to look upon begging as
a joyous prank, a game of wits, a nerve-exerciser.
That first night, however, I couldn't rise to it; and the result
was that when the kids were ready to go to a restaurant and eat, I
wasn't. I was broke. Meeny Kid, I think it was, gave me the price, and
we all ate together. But while I ate, I meditated. The receiver, it was
said, was as bad as the thief; Meeny Kid had done the begging, and I
was profiting by it. I decided that the receiver was a whole lot worse
than the thief, and that it shouldn't happen again. And it didn't. I
turned out next day and threw my feet as well as the next one.
Nickey the Greek's ambition didn't run to The Road. He was not a
success at throwing his feet, and he stowed away one night on a barge
and went down river to San Francisco. I met him, only a week ago, at a
pugilistic carnival. He has progressed. He sat in a place of honor at
the ring-side. He is now a manager of prize-fighters and proud of it.
In fact, in a small way, in local sportdom, he is quite a shining
"No kid is a road-kid until he has gone over 'the hill'" — such was
the law of The Road I heard expounded in Sacramento. All right, I'd go
over the hill and matriculate. "The hill," by the way, was the Sierra
Nevadas. The whole gang was going over the hill on a jaunt, and of
course I'd go along. It was French Kid's first adventure on The Road.
He had just run away from his people in San Francisco. It was up to him
and me to deliver the goods. In passing, I may remark that my old title
of "Prince" had vanished. I had received my "monica." I was now "Sailor
Kid," later to be known as "'Frisco Kid," when I had put the Rockies
between me and my native state.
At 10.20 P.M. the Central Pacific overland pulled out of the depot
at Sacramento for the East — that particular item of time-table is
indelibly engraved on my memory. There were about a dozen in our gang,
and we strung out in the darkness ahead of the train ready to take her
out. All the local road-kids that we knew came down to see us off —
also, to "ditch" us if they could. That was their idea of a joke, and
there were only about forty of them to carry it out. Their ring-leader
was a crackerjack road-kid named Bob. Sacramento was his home town, but
he'd hit The Road pretty well everywhere over the whole country. He
took French Kid and me aside and gave us advice something like this:
"We're goin' to try an' ditch your bunch, see? Youse two are weak. The
rest of the push can take care of itself. So, as soon as youse two nail
a blind, deck her. An' stay on the decks till youse pass- Roseville
junction, at which burg the constables are horstile, sloughin' in
everybody on sight."
The engine whistled and the overland pulled out. There were three
blinds on her — room for all of us. The dozen of us who were trying to
make her out would have preferred to slip aboard quietly; but our forty
friends crowded on with the most amazing and shameless publicity and
advertisement. Following Bob's advice, I immediately "decked her," that
is, climbed up on top of the roof of one of the mail-cars. There I lay
down, my heart jumping a few extra beats, and listened to the fun. The
whole train crew was forward, and the ditching went on fast and
furious. After the train had run half a mile, it stopped, and the crew
came forward again and ditched the survivors. I, alone, had made the
Back at the depot, about him two or three of the push that had
witnessed the accident, lay French Kid with both legs off. French Kid
had slipped or stumbled -that was all, and the wheels had done the
rest. Such was my initiation to The Road. It was two years afterward
when I next saw French Kid and examined his "stumps." This was an act
of courtesy. "Cripples" always like to have their stumps examined. One
of the entertaining sights on The Road is to witness the meeting of two
cripples. Their common disability is a fruitful source of conversation;
and they tell how it happened, describe what they know of the
amputation, pass critical judgment on their own and each other's
surgeons, and wind up by withdrawing to one side, taking off bandages
and wrappings, and comparing stumps.
But it was not until several days later, over in Nevada, when the
push caught up with me, that I learned of French Kid's accident. The
push itself arrived in bad condition. It had gone through a train-wreck
in the snow-sheds; Happy Joe was on crutches with two mashed legs, and
the rest were nursing skins and bruises.
In the meantime, I lay on the roof of the mail-car, trying to
remember whether Roseville Junction, against which burg Bob had warned
me, was the first stop or the second stop. To make sure, I delayed
descending to the platform of the blind until after the second stop.
And then I didn't descend. I was new to the game, and I felt safer
where I was. But I never told the push that I held down the decks the
whole night, clear across the Sierras, through snow-sheds and tunnels,
and down to Truckee on the other side, where I arrived at seven in the
morning. Such a thing was disgraceful, and I'd have been a common
laughing-stock. This is the first time I have confessed the truth about
that first ride over the hill. As for the push, it decided that I was
all right, and when I came back over the hill to Sacramento, I was a
Yet I had much to learn. Bob was my mentor, and he was all right. I
remember one evening (it was fair-time in Sacramento, and we were
knocking about and having a good time) when I lost my hat in a fight.
There was I bare-headed in the street, and it was Bob to the rescue. He
took me to one side from the push and told me what to do. I was a bit
timid of his advice. I had just come out of jail, where I had been
three days, and I knew that if the police "pinched" me again, I'd get
good and "soaked." On the other hand, I couldn't show the white
feather. I'd been over the hill, I was running full-fledged with the
push, and it was up to me to deliver the goods. So I accepted Bob's
advice, and he came along with me to see that I did it up brown.
We took our position on K Street, on the corner, I think, of Fifth.
It was early in the evening and the street was crowded. Bob studied the
head-gear of every Chinaman that passed. I used to wonder how the
road-kids all managed to wear "five-dollar Stetson stiff-rims," and now
I knew. They got them, the way I was going to get mine, from the
Chinese. I was nervous — there were so many people about; but Bob was
cool as an iceberg. Several times, when I started forward toward a
Chinaman, all nerved and keyed up, Bob dragged me back. He wanted me to
get a good hat, and one that fitted. Now a hat came by that was the
right size but not new; and, after a dozen impossible hats, along would
come one that was new but not the right size. And when one did come by
that was new and the right size, the rim was too large or not large
enough. My, Bob was finicky. 1 was so wrought up that I'd have snatched
any kind of a head- covering.
At last came the hat, the one hat in Sacramento for me. I knew it
was a winner as soon as I looked at it. I glanced at Bob. He sent a
sweeping look-about for police, then nodded his head. I lifted the hat
from the Chinaman's head and pulled it down on my own. It was a perfect
fit. Then I started. I heard Bob crying out, and I caught a glimpse of
him blocking the irate Mongolian and tripping him up. I ran on. I
turned up the next corner, and around the next. This street was not so
crowded as K, and I walked along in quietude, catching my breath and
congratulating myself upon my hat and my get-away.
And then, suddenly, around the corner at my back, came the
bare-headed Chinaman. With him were a couple more Chinamen, and at
their heels were half a dozen men and boys. I sprinted to the next
corner, crossed the street, and rounded the following corner. I decided
that I had surely played him out, and I dropped into a walk again. But
around the corner at my heels came that persistent Mongolian. It was
the old story of the hare and the tortoise. He could not run so fast as
I, but he stayed with it, plodding along at a shambling and deceptive
trot, and wasting much good breath in noisy imprecations. He called all
Sacramento to witness the dishonor that had been done him, and a goodly
portion of Sacramento heard and flocked at his heels. And I ran on like
the hare, and ever that persistent Mongolian, with the increasing
rabble, overhauled me. But finally, when a policeman had joined his
following, I let out all my links. I twisted and turned, and I swear I
ran at least twenty blocks on the straight away. And I never saw that
Chinaman again. The hat was a dandy, a brand-new Stetson, just out of
the shop, and it was the envy of the whole push. Furthermore, it was
the symbol that I had delivered the goods. I wore it for over a year.
Road-kids are nice little chaps — when you get them alone and they
are telling you "how it happened"; but take my word for it, watch out
for them when they run in pack. Then they are wolves, and like wolves
they are capable of dragging down the strongest man. At such times they
are not cowardly. They will fling themselves upon a man and hold on
with every ounce of strength in their wiry bodies, till he is thrown
and helpless. More than once have I seen them do it, and I know whereof
I speak. Their motive is usually robbery. And watch out for the "strong
arm." Every kid in the push I travelled with was expert at it. Even
French Kid mastered it before he lost his legs.
I have strong upon me now a vision of what I once saw in "The
Willows." The Willows was a clump of trees in a waste piece of land
near the railway depot and not more than five minutes walk from the
heart of Sacramento. It is night-time, and the scene is illumined by
the thin light of stars. I see a husky laborer in the midst of a pack
of road-kids. He is infuriated and cursing them, not a bit afraid,
confident of his own strength. He weighs about one hundred and eighty
pounds, and his muscles are hard; but he doesn't know what he is up
against. The kids are snarling. It is not pretty. They make a rush from
all sides, and he lashes out and whirls. Barber Kid is standing beside
me. As the man whirls, Barber Kid leaps forward and does the trick.
Into the man's back goes his knee; around the man's neck, from behind,
passes his right hand, the bone of the wrist pressing against the
jugular vein. Barber Kid throws his whole weight backward. It is a
powerful leverage. Besides, the man's wind has been shut off. It is the
The man resists, but he is already practically helpless. The
road-kids are upon him from every side, clinging to arms and legs and
body, and like a wolf at the throat of a moose Barber Kid hangs on and
drags backward. Over the man goes, and down under the heap. Barber Kid
changes the position of his own body, but never lets go. While some of
the kids are "going through" the victim, others are holding his legs so
that he cannot kick and thresh about. They improve the opportunity by
taking off the man's shoes. As for him, he has given in. He is beaten.
Also, what of the strong arm at his throat, he is short of wind. He is
making ugly choking noises, and the kids hurry. They really don't want
to kill him. All is done. At a word all holds are released at once, and
the kids scatter, one of them lugging the shoes — he knows where he can
get half a dollar for them. The man sits up and looks about him, dazed
and helpless. Even if he wanted to, bare- footed pursuit in the
darkness would be hopeless. I linger a moment and watch him. He is
feeling at his throat, making dry, hawking noises, and jerking his head
in a quaint way as though to assure himself that the neck is not
dislocated. Then I slip away to join the push, and see that man no more
— though I shall always see him, sitting there in the starlight,
somewhat dazed, a bit frightened, greatly dishevelled, and making
quaint jerking movements of head and neck.
Drunken men are the especial prey of the road-kids. Robbing a
drunken man they call "rolling a stiff"; and wherever they are, they
are on the constant lookout for drunks. The drunk is their particular
meat, as the fly is the particular meat of the spider. The rolling of a
stiff is oft-times an amusing sight, especially when the stiff is
helpless and when interference is unlikely. At the first swoop the
stiff's money and jewellery go. Then the kids sit around their victim
in a sort of pow-wow. A kid generates a fancy for the stiff's necktie.
Off it comes. Another kid is after underclothes. Off they come, and a
knife quickly abbreviates arms and legs. Friendly hoboes may be called
in to take the coat and trousers, which are too large for the kids. And
in the end they depart, leaving beside the stiff the heap of their
Another vision comes to me. It is a dark night. My push is coming
along the sidewalk in the suburbs. Ahead of us, under an electric
light, a man crosses the street diagonally. There is something
tentative and desultory in his walk. The kids scent the game on the
instant. The man is drunk. He blunders across the opposite sidewalk and
is lost in the darkness as he takes a short-cut through a vacant lot.
No hunting cry is raised, but the pack flings itself forward in quick
pursuit. In the middle of the vacant lot it comes upon him. But what is
this? — snarling and strange forms, small and dim and menacing, are
between the pack and its prey. It is another pack of road-kids, and in
the hostile pause we learn that it is their meat, that they have been
trailing it a dozen blocks and more and that we are butting in. But it
is the world primeval. These wolves are baby wolves. (As a matter of
fact, I don't think one of them was over twelve or thirteen years of
age. I met some of them afterward, and learned that they had just
arrived that day over the hill, and that they hailed from Denver and
Salt Lake City.) Our pack flings forward. The baby wolves squeal and
screech and fight like little demons. All about the drunken man rages
the struggle for the possession of him. Down he goes in the thick of
it, and the combat rages over his body after the fashion of the Greeks
and Trojans over the body and armor of a fallen hero. Amid cries and
tears and wailings the baby wolves are dispossessed, and my pack rolls
the stiff. But always I remember the poor stiff and his befuddled
amazement at the abrupt eruption of battle in the vacant lot. I see him
now, dim in the darkness, titubating in stupid wonder, good-naturedly
essaying the role of peacemaker in that multitudinous scrap the
significance of which he did not understand, and the really hurt
expression on his face when he, unoffending he, was clutched at by many
hands and dragged down in the thick of the press.
"Bindle-stiffs" are favorite prey of the road-kids. A bindle-stiff
is a working tramp. He takes his name from the roll of blankets he
carries, which is known as a "bindle." Because he does work, a
bindle-stiff is expected usually to have some small change about him,
and it is after that small change that the road-kids go. The best
hunting-ground for bindle-stiffs is in the sheds, barns, lumber-yards,
railroad-yards, etc., on the edges of a city, and the time for hunting
is the night, when the bindle-stiff seeks these places to roll up in
his blankets and sleep.
"Gay-cats" also come to grief at the hands of the road-kids. In
more familiar parlance, gay-cats are short-horns, chechaquos, new
chums, or tenderfeet. A gay-cat is a newcomer on The Road who is
man-grown, or, at least, youth-grown. A boy on The Road, on the other
hand, no matter how green he is, is never a gay-cat; he is a road-kid
or a "punk," and if he travels with a " profesh, " he is known
possessively as a "prushun." I was never a prushun, for I did not take
kindly to possession. I was first a road-kid and then a profesh.
Because I started in young, I practically skipped my gay-cat
apprenticeship. For a short period, during the time I was exchanging my
'Frisco Kid monica for that of Sailor Jack, I labored under the
suspicion of being a gay-cat. But closer acquaintance on the part of
those that suspected me quickly disabused their minds, and in -a short
time I acquired the unmistakable airs and ear-marks of the blowed-in-
the-glass profesh. And be it known, here and now, that the profesh are
the aristocracy of The Road. They are the lords and masters, the
aggressive men, the primordial noblemen, the blond beasts so beloved of
When I came back over the hill from Nevada, I found that some river
pirate had stolen Dinny McCrea's boat. (A funny thing at this day is
that I cannot remember what became of the skiff in which Nickey the
Greek and I sailed from Oakland to Port Costa. I know that the
constable didn't get it, and I know that it didn't go with us up the
Sacramento River, and that is all I do know.) With the loss of Dinny
McCrea's boat, I was pledged to The Road; and when I grew tired of
Sacramento, I said good-by to the push (which, in its friendly way,
tried to ditch me from a freight as I left town) and started on a
passear down the valley of the San Joaquin. The Road had gripped me and
would not let me go; and later, when I had voyaged to sea and done one
thing and another, I returned to The Road to make longer flights, to be
a "comet" and a profesh, and to plump into the bath of sociology that
wet me to the skin.
Two Thousand Stiffs
A "stiff" is a tramp. It was once my fortune to travel a few weeks
with a "push" that numbered two thousand. This was known as "Kelly's
Army." Across the wild and woolly West, clear from California, General
Kelly and his heroes had captured trains; but they fell down when they
crossed the Missouri and went up against the effete East. The East
hadn't the slightest intention of giving free transportation to two
thousand hoboes. Kelly's Army lay helplessly for some time at Council
Bluffs. The day I joined it, made desperate by delay, it marched out to
capture a train.
It was quite an imposing sight. General Kelly sat a magnificent
black charger, and with waving banners, to the martial music of fife
and drum corps, company by company, in two divisions, his two thousand
stiffs counter-marched before him and hit the wagon-road to the little
burg of Weston, seven miles away. Being the latest recruit, I was in
the last company, of the last regiment, of the Second Division, and,
furthermore, in the last rank of the rear-guard. The army went into
camp at Weston beside the railroad track — beside the tracks, rather,
for two roads went through: the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St.. Paul, and
the Rock Island.
Our intention was to take the first train out, but the railroad
officials "coppered" our play — and won. There was no first train. They
tied up the two lines and stopped running trains. In the meantime,
while we lay by the dead tracks, the good people of Omaha and Council
Bluffs were bestirring themselves. Preparations were making to form a
mob, capture a train in Council Bluffs, run it down to us, and make us
a present of it. The railroad officials coppered that play, too. They
didn't wait for the mob. Early in the morning of the second day, an
engine, with a single private car attached, arrived at the station and
side- tracked. At this sign that life had renewed in the dead roads,
the whole army lined up beside the track.
But never did life renew so monstrously on a dead railroad as it
did on those two roads. From the west came the whistle of a locomotive.
It was coming in our direction, bound east. We were bound east. A stir
of preparation ran down our ranks. The whistle tooted fast and
furiously, and the train thundered at top speed. The hobo didn't live
that could have boarded it. Another locomotive whistled, and another
train came through at top speed, and another, and another, train after
train, train after train, till toward the last the trains were composed
of passenger coaches, box-cars, flat-cars, dead engines, cabooses,
mail-cars, wrecking appliances, and all the riff-raff of worn-out and
abandoned rolling-stock that collects in the yards of great railways.
When the yards at Council Bluffs had been completely cleaned, the
private car and engine went cast, and the tracks died for keeps.
That day went by, and the next, and nothing moved, and in the
meantime, pelted by sleet, and rain, and bail, the two thousand hoboes
lay beside the track. But that night the good people of Council Bluffs
went the railroad officials one better. A mob formed in Council Bluffs,
crossed the river to Omaha, and there joined with another mob in a raid
on the Union Pacific yards. First they captured an engine, next they
knocked a train together, and then the united mobs piled aboard,
crossed the Missouri, and ran down the Rock Island right of way to turn
the train over to us. The railway officials tried to copper this play,
but fell down, to the mortal terror of the section boss and one member
of the section gang at Weston. This pair, under secret telegraphic
orders, tried to wreck our train-load of sympathizers by tearing up the
track. It happened that we were suspicious and had our patrols out.
Caught red-handed at train-wrecking, and surrounded by twenty hundred
infuriated hoboes, that section-gang boss and assistant prepared to
meet death. I don't remember what saved them, unless it was the arrival
of the train.
It was our turn to fall down, and we did, hard. In their haste, the
two mobs had neglected to make up a sufficiently long train. There
wasn't room for two thousand hoboes to ride. So the mobs and the hoboes
had a talkfest, fraternized, sang songs, and parted, the mobs going
back on their captured train to Omaha, the hoboes pulling out next
morning on a hundred-and-forty-mile march to Des Moines. It was not
until Kelly's Army crossed the Missouri that it began to walk, and
after that it never rode again. It cost the railroads slathers of
money, but they were acting on principle, and they won.
Underwood, Leola, Menden, Avoca, Walnut, Marno, Atlantic, Wyoto,
Anita, Adair, Adam, Casey, Stuart, Dexter, Carlham, De Soto, Van Meter,
Booneville, Commerce, Valley junction — how the names of the towns come
back to me as I con the map and trace our route through the fat Iowa
country! And the hospitable Iowa farmer-folk! They turned out with
their wagons and carried our baggage; gave us hot lunches at noon by
the wayside; mayors of comfortable little towns made speeches of
welcome and hastened us on our way; deputations of little girls and
maidens came out to meet us, and the good citizens turned out by
hundreds, locked arms, and marched with us down their main streets. It
was circus day when we came to town, and every day was circus day, for
there were many towns.
In the evenings our camps were invaded by whole populations. Every
company had its campfire, and around each fire something was doing. The
cooks in my company, Company L, were song-and-dance artists and
contributed most of our entertainment. In another part of the
encampment the glee club would be singing — one of its star voices was
the "Dentist," drawn from Company L, and we were mighty proud of him.
Also, he pulled teeth for the whole army, and, since the extractions
usually occurred at meal- time, our digestions were stimulated by
variety of incident. The Dentist had no anaesthetics, but two or three
of us were always on tap to volunteer to hold down the patient. In
addition to the stunts of the companies and the glee club, church
services were usually held, local preachers officiating, and always
there was a great making of political speeches. All these things ran
neck and neck; it was a full-blown Midway. A lot of talent can be dug
out of two thousand hoboes. I remember we had a picked baseball nine,
and on Sundays we made a practice of putting it all over the local
nines. Sometimes we did it twice on Sundays.
Last year, while on a lecturing trip, I rode into Des Moines in a
Pullman — I don't mean a "side- door Pullman," but the real thing. On
the outskirts of the city I saw the old stove-works, and my heart
leaped. It was there, at the stove-works, a dozen years before, that
the Army lay down and swore a mighty oath that its feet were sore and
that it would walk no more. We took possession of the stove-works and
told Des Moines that we had come to stay — that we'd walked in, but
we'd be blessed if we'd walk out. Des Moines was hospitable, but this
was too much of a good thing., Do a little mental arithmetic, gentle
reader. Two. thousand hoboes, eating three square meals, make six
thousand meals per day, forty-two thousand meals per week, or one
hundred and sixty-eight thousand meals per shortest month in the
calendar. That's going some. We had no money. It was up to Des Moines.
Des Moines was desperate. We lay in camp, made political speeches,
held sacred concerts, pulled teeth, played baseball and seven-up, and
ate our six thousand meals per day, and Des Moines paid for it. Des
Moines pleaded with the railroads, but they were obdurate; they had
said we shouldn't ride, and that settled it. To permit us to ride would
be to establish a precedent, and there weren't going to be any
precedents. And still we went on eating. That was the terrifying factor
in the situation. We were bound for Washington, and Des Moines would
have had to float municipal bonds to pay all our railroad fares, even
at special rates, and if we remained much longer, she'd have to float
bonds anyway to feed us.
Then some local genius solved the problem. We wouldn't walk. Very
good. We should ride. From Des Moines to Keokuk on the Mississippi
flowed the Des Moines River. This particular stretch of river was three
hundred miles long. We could ride on it, said the local genius; and,
once equipped with floating stock, we could ride on down the
Mississippi to the Ohio, and thence up the Ohio, winding up with a
short portage over the mountains to Washington.
Des Moines took up a subscription. Public-spirited citizens
contributed several thousand dollars. Lumber, rope, nails, and cotton
for calking were bought in large quantities, and on the banks of the
Des Moines was inaugurated a tremendous era of shipbuilding. Now the
Des Moines is a picayune stream, unduly dignified by the appellation of
"river." In our spacious western land it would be called a "creek." The
oldest inhabitants shook their heads and said we couldn't make it, that
there wasn't enough water to float us. Des Moines didn't care, so long
as it got rid of us, and we were such well-fed optimists that we didn't
On Wednesday, May 9, 1894, we got under way and started on our
colossal picnic. Des Moines had got off pretty easily, and she
certainly owes a statue in bronze to the local genius who got her out
of her difficulty. True, Des Moines had to pay for our boats; we had
eaten sixty-six thousand meals at the stove- works; and we took twelve
thousand additional meals along with us in our commissary-as a
precaution against famine in the wilds; but then, think what it would
have meant if we had remained at Des Moines eleven months instead of
eleven days. Also, when we departed, we promised Des Moines we'd come
back if the river failed to float us.
It was all very well having twelve thousand meals in the
commissary, and no doubt the commissary "ducks" enjoyed them; for the
commissary promptly got lost, and my boat, for one, never saw it again.
The company formation was hopelessly broken up during the river-trip.
In any camp of men there will always be found a certain percentage of
shirks, of helpless, of just ordinary, and of hustlers. There were ten
men in my boat, and they were the cream of Company L. Every man was a
hustler. For two reasons I was included in the ten. First, I was as
good a hustler as ever " threw his feet," and next, I was " Sailor
Jack." I understood boats and boating. The ten of us forgot the
remaining forty men of Company L, and by the time we had missed one
meal we promptly forgot the commissary. We were independent. We went
down the river "on our own," hustling our "chewin's," beating every
boat in the fleet, and, alas that I must say it, sometimes taking
possession of the stores the farmer-folk had collected for the Army.
For a good part of the three hundred miles we were from half a day
to a day or so in advance of the Army. We had managed to get hold of
several American flags. When we approached a small town, or when we saw
a group of farmers gathered on the bank, we ran up our flags, called
ourselves the "advance boat," and demanded to know what provisions had
been collected for the Army. We represented the Army, of course, and
the provisions were turned over to us. But there wasn't anything small
about us. We never took more than we could get away with. But we did
take the cream of everything. For instance, if some philanthropic
farmer had donated several dollars' worth of tobacco, we took it. So,
also, we took butter and sugar, coffee and canned goods; but when the
stores consisted of sacks of beans and flour, or two or three
slaughtered steers, we resolutely refrained and went our way, leaving
orders to turn such provisions over to the commissary boats whose
business was to follow behind us.
My, but the ten of us did live on the fat of the land! For a long
time General Kelly vainly tried to head us off. He sent two rowers, in
a light, round-bottomed boat, to overtake us and put a stop to our
piratical careers. They overtook us all right, but they were two and we
were ten. They were empowered by General Kelly to make us prisoners,
and they told us so. When we expressed disinclination to become
prisoners, they hurried ahead to the next town to invoke the aid of the
authorities. We went ashore immediately and cooked an early supper; and
under the cloak of darkness we ran by the town and its authorities.
I kept a diary on part of the trip, and as I read it over now I
note one persistently recurring phrase, namely, "Living fine." We did
live fine. We even disdained to use coffee boiled in water. We made our
coffee out of milk, calling the wonderful beverage, if I remember
rightly, "pale Vienna."
While we were ahead, skimming the cream, and while the commissary
was lost far behind, the main Army, coming along in the middle,
starved. This was hard on the Army, I'll allow; but then, the ten of us
were individualists. We had initiative and enterprise. We ardently
believed that the grub was to the man who got there first, the pale
Vienna to the strong. On one stretch the Army went forty-eight hours
without grub; and then it arrived at a small village of some three
hundred inhabitants, the name of which I do not remember, though I
think it was Red Rock. This town, following the practice of all towns
through which the Army passed, had appointed a committee of safety.
Counting five to a family, Red Rock consisted of sixty households. Her
committee of safety was scared stiff by the eruption of two thousand
hungry hoboes who lined their boats two and three deep along the river
bank. General Kelly was a fair man. He had no intention of working a
hardship on the village. He did not expect sixty households to furnish
two thousand meals. Besides, the Army had its treasure-chest.
But the committee of safety lost its head. "No encouragement to the
invader" was its programme, and when General Kelly wanted to buy food,
the committee turned him down. It had nothing to sell; General Kelly's
money was "no good" in their burg. And then General Kelly went into
action. The bugles blew. The Army left the boats and on top of the bank
formed in battle array. The committee was there to see. General Kelly's
speech was brief.
"Boys," he said, "when did you eat last?"
"Day before yesterday," they shouted.
"Are you hungry?"
A mighty affirmation from two thousand throats shook the
atmosphere. Then General Kelly turned to the committee of safety: —
"You see, gentlemen, the situation. My men have eaten nothing in
forty-eight hours. If I turn them loose upon your town, I'll not be
responsible for what happens. They are desperate. I offered to buy food
for them, but you refused to sell. I now withdraw my offer. Instead, I
shall demand. I give you five minutes to decide. Either kill me six
steers and give me four thousand rations, or I turn the men loose. Five
The terrified committee of safety looked at the two thousand hungry
hoboes and collapsed. It didn't wait the five minutes. It wasn't going
to take any chances. The killing of the steers and the collecting of
the requisition began forthwith, and the Army dined.
And still the ten graceless individualists soared along ahead and
gathered in everything in sight. But General Kelly fixed us. He sent
horsemen down each bank, warning farmers and townspeople against US.
They did their work thoroughly, all right. The erstwhile hospitable
farmers met us with the icy mit. Also, they summoned the constables
when we tied up to the bank, and loosed the dogs. I know. Two of the
latter caught me with a barbed-wire fence between me and the river. I
was carrying two buckets of milk for the pale Vienna. I didn't damage
the fence any; but we drank plebeian coffee boiled with vulgar water,
and it was up to me to throw my feet for another pair of trousers. I
wonder, gentle reader, if you ever essayed hastily to climb a
barbed-wire fence with a bucket of milk in each hand. Ever since that
day I have had a prejudice against barbed wire, and I have gathered
statistics on the subject.
Unable to make an honest living so long as General Kelly kept his
two horsemen ahead of us, we returned to the Army and raised a
revolution. It was a small affair, but it devastated Company L of the
Second Division. The captain of Company L refused to recognize us; said
we were deserters, and traitors, and scalawags; and when he drew
rations for Company L from the commissary, he wouldn't give us any.
That captain didn't appreciate us, or he wouldn't have refused us grub.
Promptly we intrigued with the first lieutenant. He joined us with the
ten men in his boat, and in return we elected him captain of Company M.
The captain of Company L raised a roar. Down upon us came General
Kelly, Colonel Speed, and Colonel Baker. The twenty of us stood firm,
and our revolution was ratified.
But we never bothered with the commissary. Our hustlers drew better
rations from the farmers. Our new captain, however, doubted us. He
never knew when he'd see the ten of us again, once we got under way in
the morning, so he called in a blacksmith to clinch his captaincy. In
the stern of our boat, one on each side, were driven two heavy
eye-bolts of iron. Correspondingly, on the bow of his boat, were
fastened two huge iron hooks. The boats were brought together, end on,
the hooks dropped into the eye-bolts, and there we were, hard and fast.
We couldn't lose that captain. But we were irrepressible. Out of our
very manacles we wrought an invincible device that enabled us to put it
all over every other boat in the fleet.
Like all great inventions, this one of ours was accidental. We
discovered it the first time we ran on a snag in a bit of a rapid. The
head-boat hung up and anchored, and the tail-boat swung around in the
current, pivoting the head-boat on the snag. I was at the stern of the
tail-boat, steering. In vain we tried to shove off. Then I ordered the
men from the head-boat into the tail-boat. Immediately the head-boat
floated clear, and its men returned into it. After that, snags, reefs,
shoals, and bars had no terrors for us. The instant the head- boat
struck, the men in it leaped into the tail-boat. Of course, the
head-boat floated over. the obstruction and the tail-boat then struck.
Like automatons, the twenty men now in the tail boat leaped into the
head- boat, and the tail-boat floated past.
The boats used by the Army were all alike, made by the mile and
sawed off. They were flat-boats, and their lines were rectangles. Each
boat was six feet wide, ten feet long, and a foot and a half deep.
Thus, when our two boats were hooked together, I sat at the stern
steering a craft twenty feet long, containing twenty husky hoboes who
"spelled" each other at the oars and paddles, and loaded with blankets,
cooking outfit, and our own private commissary.
Still we caused General Kelly trouble. He had called in his
horsemen, and substituted three police-boats that travelled in the van
and allowed no boats to pass them. The craft containing Company M
crowded the police-boats hard. We could have passed them easily, but it
was against the rules. So we kept a respectful distance astern and
waited. Ahead we knew was virgin farming country, unbegged and
generous; but we waited. White water was all we needed, and when we
rounded a bend and a rapid showed up we knew what would happen. Smash!
Police-boat number one goes on a boulder and hangs up. Bang!
Police-boat number two follows suit. Whop! Police-boat number three
encounters the common fate of all. Of course our boat does the same
things; but one, two, the men- are out of the head-boat and into the
tail-boat; one, two, they are out of the tail-boat and into the
head-boat; and one, two, the men who belong in the tail-boat are back
in it and we are dashing on. "Stop! you Blanquette-blank-blanks!"
shriek the police-boats. "How can we? — blank the Blanquette-blank
river, anyway!" we wail plaintively as we surge past, caught in that
remorseless current that sweeps us on out of sight and into the
hospitable farmer-country that replenishes our private commissary with
the cream of its contributions. Again we drink pale Vienna and realize
that the grub is to the man who gets there.
Poor General Kelly! He devised another scheme. The whole fleet
started ahead of us. Company M of the Second Division started in its
proper place in the line, which was last. And it took us only one day
to put the "kibosh" on that particular scheme. Twenty-five miles of bad
water lay before us — all rapids, shoals, bars, and boulders. It was
over that stretch of water that the oldest inhabitants of Des Moines
had shaken their heads. Nearly two hundred boats entered the bad water
ahead of us, and they piled up in the most astounding manner. We went
through that stranded fleet like hemlock through the fire. There was no
avoiding the boulders, bars, and snags except by getting out on the
bank. We didn't avoid them. We went right over them, one, two, one,
two, head-boat, tail-boat, head-boat, tail-boat, all hands back and
forth and back again. We camped that night alone, and loafed in camp
all of next day while the Army patched and repaired its wrecked boats
and straggled up to us.
There was no stopping our cussedness. We rigged up a mast, piled on
the canvas (blankets), and travelled short hours while the Army worked
over-time to keep us in sight. Then General Kelly had recourse to
diplomacy. No boat could touch us in the straight-away. Without
discussion, we were the hottest bunch that ever came down the Des
Moines. The ban of the police-boats was lifted. Colonel Speed was put
aboard, and with this distinguished officer we had the honor of
arriving first at Keokuk on the Mississippi. And right here I want to
say to General Kelly and Colonel Speed that here's my hand. You were
heroes, both of you, and you were men. And I'm sorry for at least ten
per cent of the trouble that was given you by the head-boat of Company
At Keokuk the whole fleet was lashed together in a huge raft, and,
after being wind-bound a day, a steamboat took us in tow down the
Mississippi to Quincy, Illinois, where we camped across the river on
Goose Island. Here the raft idea was abandoned, the boats being joined
together in groups of four and decked over. Somebody told me that
Quincy was the richest town of its size in the United States. When I
heard this, I was immediately overcome by an irresistible impulse to
throw my feet. No "blowed-in-the- glass profesh" could possibly pass up
such a promising burg. I crossed the river to Quincy in a small dug-
out; but I came back in a large riverboat, down to the gunwales with
the results of my thrown feet. Of course I kept all the money I had
collected, though I paid the boat-hire; also I took my pick of the
underwear, socks, cast-off clothes shirts, "kicks," and "sky-pieces";
and when Company M had taken all it wanted there was still a
respectable heap that was turned over to Company L. Alas, I was young
and prodigal in those days! 1 told a thousand "stories" to the good
people of Quincy, and every story was "good"; but since I have come to
write for the magazines I have often regretted the wealth of story, the
fecundity of fiction, I lavished that day in Quincy, Illinois.
It was at Hannibal, Missouri, that the ten invincibles went to
pieces. It was not planned. We just naturally flew apart. The
Boiler-Maker and I deserted secretly. On the same day Scotty and Davy
made a swift sneak for the Illinois shore; also McAvoy and Fish
achieved their get-away. This accounts for six of the ten; what became
of the remaining four I do not know. As a sample of life on The Road, I
make the following quotation from my diary of the several days
following my desertion.
"Friday, May 25th. Boiler-Maker and I left the camp on the island.
We went ashore on the Illinois side in a skiff and walked six miles on
the C.B. Q. to Fell Creek. We had gone six miles out of our way, but we
got on a hand-car and rode six miles to Hull's, on the Wabash. While
there, we met McAvoy, Fish, Scotty, and Davy, who had also pulled out
from the Army.
"Saturday, May 26th. At 2.11 A.M. we caught the Cannon-ball as she
slowed up at the crossing. Scotty and Davy were ditched. The four of us
were ditched at the Bluffs, forty miles farther on. In the afternoon
Fish and McAvoy caught a freight while Boiler-Maker and I were away
getting something to eat.
"Sunday, May 27th. At 3.21 A.M. we caught the Cannon-ball and found
Scotty and Davy on the blind. We were all ditched at daylight at
Jacksonville. The C.runs through here, and we're going to take that.
Boiler-Maker went off, but didn't return. Guess he caught a freight.
"Monday, May 28th. Boiler-Maker didn't show up. Scotty and Davy
went off to sleep somewhere, and didn't get back in time to catch the
K.C. passenger at 3.30 A.M. I caught her and rode her till after
sunrise to Masson City, 25,000 inhabitants. Caught a cattle train and
rode all night.
"Tuesday, May 29th. Arrived in Chicago at 7 A.M. . . . "
And years afterward, in China, I had the grief of learning that the
device we employed to navigate the rapids of the Des Moines — the
one-two-one-two, head-boat-tail-boat proposition — was not originated
by us. I learned that the Chinese river-boatmen had for thousands of
years used a similar device to negotiate "bad water." It is a good
stunt all right, even if we don't get the credit. It answers Dr.
Jordan's test of truth: "Will it work? Will you trust your life to it?"
If the tramp were suddenly to pass away from the United States,
widespread misery for many families would follow. The tramp enables
thousands of men to earn honest livings, educate their children, and
bring them up God-fearing and industrious. I know. At one time my
father was a constable and hunted tramps for a living. The community
paid him so much per head for all the tramps he could catch, and also,
I believe, he got mileage fees. Ways and means was always a pressing
problem in our household, and the amount of meat on the table, the new
pair of shoes, the day's outing, or the text-book for school, were
dependent upon my father's luck in the chase. Well I remember the
suppressed eagerness and the suspense with which I waited to learn each
morning what the results of his past night's toil had been — how many
tramps he had gathered in and what the chances were for convicting
them. And so it was, when later, as a tramp, I succeeded in eluding
some predatory constable, I could not but feel sorry for the little
boys and girls at home in that constable's house; it seemed to me in a
way that I was defrauding those little boys and girls of some of the
good things of life.
But it's all in the game. The hobo defies society, and society's
watch-dogs make a living out of him. Some hoboes like to be caught by
the watch-dogs — especially in winter-time. Of course, such hoboes
select communities where the jails are "good," wherein no work is
performed and the food is substantial. Also, there have been, and most
probably still are, constables who divide their fees with the hoboes
they arrest. Such a constable does not have to hunt. He whistles, and
the game comes right up to his hand. It is surprising, the money that
is made out of stonebroke tramps. All through the South — at least when
I was hoboing — are convict camps and plantations, where the time of
convicted hoboes is bought by the farmers, and where the hoboes simply
have to work. Then there are places like the quarries at Rutland,
Vermont, where the hobo is exploited, the unearned energy in his body,
which he has accumulated by "battering on the drag" or "slamming
gates," being extracted for the benefit of that particular community.
Now I don't know anything about the quarries at Rutland, Vermont.
I'm very glad that I don't, when I remember how near I was to getting
into them.. Tramps pass the word along, and I first heard of those
quarries when I was in Indiana. But when I got into New England, I
heard of them continually, and always with danger-signals flying. "They
want men in the quarries," the passing hoboes said; "and they never
give a 'stiff' less than ninety days." By the time I got into New
Hampshire'I was pretty well keyed up over those quarries, and I fought
shy of railroad cops, "bulls," and constables as I never had before.
One evening I went down to the railroad yards at Concord and found
a freight train made up and ready to start. I located an empty box-car,
slid open the side-door, and climbed in. It was my hope to win across
to White River by morning; that Would bring me into Vermont and not
more than a thousand miles from Rutland. But after that, as I worked
north, the distance between me and the point of danger would begin to
increase. In the car I found a "gay-cat," who displayed unusual
trepidation at my entrance. He took me for a "shack" (brakeman), and
when he learned I was only a stiff, he began talking about the quarries
at Rutland as the cause of the fright I had given him. He was a young
country fellow, and had beaten his way only over local stretches of
The freight got under way, and we lay down in one end of the
box-car and went to sleep. Two or three hours afterward, at a stop, I
was awakened by the noise of the right-hand door being softly slid
open. The gay-cat slept on. I made no movement, though I veiled my eyes
with my lashes to a little slit through which I could see out. A
lantern was thrust in through the doorway, followed by the head of a
shack. He discovered us, and looked at us for a moment. I was prepared
for a violent expression on his part, or the customary "Hit the grit,
you son of a toad!" Instead of this he cautiously withdrew the lantern
and very, very softly slid the door to. This struck me as eminently
unusual and suspicious. I listened, and softly I heard the hasp drop
into place. The door was latched on the outside. We could not open it
from the inside. One way of sudden exit from that car was blocked. It
would never do. I waited a few seconds, then crept to the left-hand
door and tried it. It was not yet latched. I opened it, dropped to the
ground, and closed it behind me. Then I passed across the bumpers to
the other side of the train. I opened the door the shack had latched,
climbed in, and closed it behind me. Both exits were available again.
The gay-cat was still asleep.
The train got under way. It came to the next stop. I heard
footsteps in the gravel. Then the left-hand door was thrown open
noisily. The gaycat awoke, I made believe to awake; and we sat up and
stared at the shack and his lantern. He didn't waste any time getting
down to business.
"I want three dollars," he said.
We got on our feet and came nearer to him to confer. We expressed
an absolute and devoted willingness to give him three dollars, but
explained our wretched luck that compelled our desire to remain
unsatisfied. The shack was incredulous. He dickered with us. He would
compromise for two dollars. We regretted our condition of poverty. He
said uncomplimentary things, called us sons of toads, and damned us
from hell to breakfast. Then he threatened. He explained that if we
didn't dig up, he'd lock us in and carry us on to White River and turn
us over to the authorities. He also explained all about the quarries at
Now that shack thought he had us dead to rights. Was not he
guarding the one door, and had he not himself latched the opposite door
but a few minutes before? When he began talking about quarries, the
frightened gay-cat started to sidle across to the other door. The shack
laughed loud and long. "Don't be in a hurry," he said; "I locked that
door on the outside at the last stop." So implicitly did he believe the
door to be locked that his words carried conviction. The gay-cat
believed and was in despair.
The shack delivered his ultimatum. Either we should dig up two
dollars, or he would lock us in and turn us over to the constable at
White — and that meant ninety days and the quarries. Now, gentle
reader, just suppose that the other door had been locked. Behold the
precariousness of human life. For lack of a dollar, I'd have gone to
the quarries and served three months as a convict slave. So would the
gay-cat. Count me out, for I was hopeless; but consider the gay-cat. He
might have come out, after those ninety days, pledged to a life of
crime. And later he might have broken your skull, even your skull, with
a blackjack in an endeavor to take possession of the money on your
person — and if not your skull, then some other poor and unoffending
But the door was unlocked, and I alone knew it. The gay-cat and I
begged for mercy. I joined in the pleading and wailing out of sheer
cussedness, I suppose. But I did my best. I told a "story" that would
have melted the heart of any mug; but it didn't melt the heart of that
sordid money-grasper of a shack. When he became convinced that we
didn't have any money, he slid the door shut and latched it, then
lingered a moment on the chance that we had fooled him and that we
would now offer him the two dollars.
Then it was that I let out a few links. I called him a son of a
toad. I called him all the other things he had called me. And then I
called him a few additional things. I came from the West, where men
knew how to swear, and I wasn't going to let any mangy shack on a
measly New England "jerk" put it over me in vividness and vigor of
language. At first the shack tried to laugh it down. Then he made the
mistake of attempting to reply. I let out a few more links, and I cut
him to the raw and therein rubbed winged and flaming epithets. Nor was
my fine frenzy all whim and literary; I was indignant at this vile
creature, who, in default of a dollar, would consign me to three months
of slavery. Furthermore, I had a sneaking idea that he got a "drag" out
of the constable fees.
But I fixed him. I lacerated his feelings and pride several
dollars' worth. He tried to scare me by threatening to come in after me
and kick the stuffing out of me. In return, I promised to kick him in
the face while he was climbing in. The advantage of position was with
me, and he saw it. So he kept the door shut and called for help from
the rest of the train-crew. I could hear them answering and crunching
through the gravel to him. And all the time the other door was
unlatched, and they didn't know it; and in the meantime the gay-cat was
ready to die with fear.
"Oh, I was a hero — with my line of retreat straight behind me. I
slanged the shack and his mates till they threw the door open and I
could see their infuriated faces in the shine of the lanterns. It was
all very simple to them. They had us cornered in the car, and they were
going to come in and manhandle us. They started. I didn't kick anybody
in the face. I jerked the opposite door open, and the gay-cat and I
went out. The train-crew took after us.
We went over — if I remember correctly — a stone fence. But I have
no doubts of recollection about where we found ourselves. In the
darkness I promptly fell over a grave-stone. The gay- cat sprawled over
another. And then we got the chase of our lives through that graveyard.
The ghosts must have thought we were going some. So did the train-crew,
for when we emerged from the graveyard and plunged across a road into a
dark wood, the shacks gave up the pursuit and went back to their train.
A little later that night the gay-cat and I found ourselves at the well
of a farmhouse. We were after a drink of water, but we noticed a small
rope that ran down one side of the well. We hauled it up and found on
the end of it a gallon-can of cream. And that is as near as I got to
the quarries of Rutland, Vermont.
When hoboes pass the word along, concerning a town, that "the bulls
is horstile," avoid that town, or, if you must, go through softly.
There are some towns that one must always go through softly. Such a
town was Cheyenne, on the Union Pacific. It had a national reputation
for being "horstile," — and it was all due to the efforts of one Jeff
Carr (if I remember his name aright). Jeff Carr could size up the
"front" of a hobo on the instant. He never entered into discussion. In
the one moment he sized up the hobo, and in the next he struck out with
both fists, a club, or anything else he had handy. After he had
manhandled the hobo, he started him out of town with a promise of worse
if he ever saw him again. Jeff Carr knew the game. North, south, east,
and west to the uttermost confines of the United States (Canada and
Mexico included), the man-handled hoboes carried the word that Cheyenne
was "horstile." Fortunately, I never encountered Jeff Carr. I passed
through Cheyenne in a blizzard. There were eighty-four hoboes with me
at the time. The strength of numbers made us pretty nonchalant on most
things, but not on Jeff Carr. The connotation of "Jeff Carr" stunned
our imagination, numbed our virility, and the whole gang was mortally
scared of meeting him.
It rarely pays to stop and enter into explanations with bulls when
they look "horstile." A swift get-away is the thing to do. It took me
some time to learn this; but the finishing touch was put upon me by a
bull in New York City. Ever since that time it has been an automatic
process with me to make a run for it when I see a bull reaching for me.
This automatic process has become a mainspring of conduct in me, wound
up and ready for instant release. I shall never get over it. Should I
be eighty years old, hobbling along the street on crutches, and should
a policeman suddenly reach out for me, I know I'd drop the crutches and
run like a deer.
The finishing touch to my education in bulls was received on a hot
summer afternoon in New York City. It was during a week of scorching
weather. I had got into the habit of throwing my feet in the, morning,
and of spending the afternoon in the little park that is hard by
Newspaper Row and the City Hall. It was near there that I could buy
from push-cart men current books (that had been injured in the making
or binding) for a few cents each. Then, right in the park itself, were
little booths where one could buy glorious, ice-cold, sterilized milk
and buttermilk at a penny a glass. Every afternoon I sat on a bench and
read, and went on a milk debauch. I got away with from five to ten
glasses each afternoon. It was dreadfully hot weather.
So here I was, a meek and studious milk-drinking hobo, and behold
what I got for it. One afternoon I arrived at the park, a fresh
book-purchase under my arm and a tremendous buttermilk thirst under my
shirt. In the middle of the street, in front of the City Hall, I
noticed, as I came along heading for the buttermilk booth, that a crowd
had formed. It was right where I was crossing the street, so I stopped
to see the cause of the collection of curious men. At first I could see
nothing. Then, from the sounds I heard and from a glimpse I caught, I
knew that it was a bunch of gamins playing pee-wee. Now pee-wee is not
permitted in the streets of New York. I didn't know that, but I learned
pretty lively. I had paused possibly thirty seconds, in which time I
had learned the cause of the crowd, when I heard a gamin yell "Bull!"
The gamins knew their business. They ran. I didn't.
The crowd broke up immediately and started for the sidewalk on both
sides of the street. I started for the sidewalk on the park-side. There
must have been fifty men, who had been in the original crowd, who were
heading in the same direction. We were loosely strung out. I noticed
the bull, a strapping policeman in a gray suit. He was coming along the
middle of the street, without haste, merely sauntering. I noticed
casually that he changed his course, and was heading obliquely for the
same sidewalk that I was heading for directly. He sauntered along,
threading the strung-out crowd, and I noticed that his course and mine
would cross each other. I was so innocent of wrong-doing that, in spite
of my education in bulls and their ways, I apprehended nothing. I never
dreamed that bull was after me. Out of my respect for the law I was
actually all ready to pause the next moment and let him cross in front
of me. The pause came all right, but it was not of my volition; also it
was a backward pause. Without warning, that bull had suddenly launched
out at me on the chest with both hands. At the same moment, verbally,
he cast the bar sinister on my genealogy.
All my free American blood boiled. All my libertyloving ancestors
clamored in me. "What do you mean?" I demanded. You see, I wanted an
explanation. And I got it. Bang! His club came down on top of my head,
and I was reeling backward like a drunken man, the curious faces of the
onlookers billowing up and down like the waves of the sea, my precious
book falling from under my arm into the dirt, the bull advancing with
the club ready for another blow. And in that dizzy moment I had a
vision. I saw that club descending many times upon my bead; I saw
myself, bloody and battered and hard-looking, in a police- court; I
heard a charge of disorderly conduct, profane language, resisting an
officer, and a few other things, read by a clerk; and I saw myself
across in Blackwell's Island. Oh, I knew the game. I lost all interest
in explanations. I didn't stop to pick up my precious, unread book. I
turned and ran. I was pretty sick, but I ran. And run I shall, to my
dying day, whenever a bull begins to explain with a club.
Why, years after my tramping days, when I was a student in the
University of California, one night I went to the circus. After the
show and the concert I lingered on to watch the working of the
transportation machinery of a great circus. The circus was leaving that
night. By a bonfire I came upon a bunch of small boys. There were about
twenty of them, and as they talked with one another I learned that they
were going to run away with the circus. Now the circus-men didn't want
to be bothered with this mess of urchins, and a telephone to police
headquarters had "coppered" the play. A squad of ten policemen had been
despatched to the scene to arrest the small boys for violating the nine
o'clock curfew ordinance. The policemen surrounded the bonfire, and
crept up close to it in the darkness. At the signal, they made a rush,
each policeman grabbing at the youngsters as he would grab into a
basket of squirming eels.
Now I didn't know anything about the coming of the police; and when
I saw the sudden eruption of brass-buttoned, helmeted bulls, each of
them reaching with both hands, all the forces and stability of my being
were overthrown. Remained only the automatic process to run. And I ran.
I didn't know I was running. I didn't know anything. It was, as I have
said, automatic. There was no reason for me to run. I was not a hobo. I
was a citizen of that community. It was my home town. I was guilty of
I was a college man. I had even got my name in,. the papers, and I
wore good clothes that had never been slept in. And yet I ran —
blindly, madly, like a startled deer, for over a block. And when I came
to myself, I noted that I was still running. It required a positive
effort of will to stop those legs of mine.
No, I'll never get over it. I can't help it. When a bull reaches, I
run. Besides, I have an unhappy faculty for getting into jail. I have
been in jail more, times since I was a hobo than when I was one. I
start out on a Sunday morning with a young lady on a bicycle ride.
Before we can get outside the city limits we are arrested for passing a
pedestrian on the' sidewalk. I resolve to be more careful. The nex time
I am on a bicycle it is night-time and my acetylene-gas-lamp is
misbehaving. I cherish the sickly flame carefully, because of the
ordinance. I am in a hurry, but I ride at a snail's pace so as not to
jar out the flickering flame. I reach the city limits; I am beyond the
jurisdiction of the ordinance; and I proceed to scorch to make up for
lost time. And half a mile farther on I am "pinched" by a bull, and the
next morning I forfeit my bail in the police court. The city had
treacherously extended its limits into a mile of the country, and I
didn't know, that was all. I remember my inalienable right of free
speech and peaceable assemblage, and I get up on a soap-box to trot out
the particular economic bees that buzz in my bonnet, and a bull takes
me off that box and leads me to the city prison, and after that I get
out on bail. It's no use. In Korea I used to be arrested about every
other day. It was the same thing in Manchuria. The last time I was in
Japan I broke into jail under the pretext of being a Russian spy. It
wasn't my pretext, but it got me into jail just the same. There is no
hope for me. I am fated to do the Prisoner-of-Chillon stunt yet. This
I once hypnotized a bull on Boston Common. It was past midnight and
he had me dead to rights; but before I got done with him he had ponied
up a silver quarter and given me the address of an all-night
restaurant. Then there was a bull in Bristol, New Jersey, who caught me
and let me go, and heaven knows he had provocation enough to put me in
jail. I hit him the hardest I'll wager he was ever hit in his life. It
happened this way. About midnight I nailed a freight out of
Philadelphia. The shacks ditched me. She was pulling out slowly through
the maze of tracks and switches of the freight-yards. I nailed her
again, and again I was ditched. You see, I had to nail her "outside,"
for she was a through freight with every door locked and sealed.
The second time I was ditched the shack gave me a lecture. He told
me I was risking my life, that it was a fast freight and that she went.
some. I told him I was used to going some myself, but it was no go. He
said he wouldn't permit me to commit suicide, and I hit the grit. But I
nailed her a third time, getting in between on the bumpers. They were
the most meagre bumpers I had ever seen — I do not refer to the real
bumpers, the iron bumpers that are connected by the coupling-link and
that pound and grind on each other; what I refer to are the beams, like
huge cleats, that cross the ends of freight cars just above the
bumpers. When one rides the bumpers, he stands on these cleats, one
foot on each, the bumpers between his feet and just beneath.
But the beams or cleats I found myself on were not the broad,
generous ones that at that time were usually on box-cars. On the
contrary, they were very narrow — not more than an inch and a half in
I couldn't get half of the width of my sole on them. Then there was
nothing to which to hold with my hands. True, there were the ends of
the two boxcars; but those ends were flat, perpendicular surfaces.
There were no grips. I could only press the flats of my palms against
the car-ends for support. But that would have been all right if the
cleats for my feet had been decently wide.
As the freight got out of Philadelphia she began to hit up speed.
Then I understood what the shack had meant by suicide. The freight went
faster and faster. She was a through freight, and there was nothing to
stop her. On that section of the Pennsylvania four tracks run side by
side, and my east-bound freight didn't need to worry about passing
west-bound freights, nor about being overtaken by east-bound expresses.
She had the track to herself, and she used it. I was in a precarious
situation. I stood with the mere edges of my feet on the narrow
projections, the palms of my hands pressing desperately against the
flat, perpendicular ends of each car. And those cars moved, and moved
individually, up and down and back and forth. Did you ever see a circus
rider, standing on two running horses, with one foot on the back of
each horse? Well, that was what I was doing, with several differences.
The circus rider had the reins to hold on to, while I had nothing; he
stood on the broad soles of his feet, while I stood on the edges of
mine; he bent his legs and body, gaining the strength of the arch in
his posture and achieving the stability of a low centre of gravity,
while I was compelled to stand upright and keep my legs straight; he
rode face forward, while I was riding sidewise; and also, if he fell
off, he'd get only a roll in the sawdust, while I'd have been ground to
pieces beneath the wheels.
And that freight was certainly going some, roaring and shrieking,
swinging madly around curves, thundering over trestles, one car-end
bumping up when the other was jarring down, or jerking to the right at
the same moment the other was lurching to the left, and with me all the
while praying and hoping for the train to stop. But she didn't stop.
She didn't have to. For the first, last, and only time on The Road, I
got all I wanted. I abandoned the bumpers and managed to get out on a
side-ladder; it was ticklish work, for I had never encountered car-ends
that were so parsimonious of hand-holds and foot-holds as those carends
I heard the engine whistling, and I felt the speed easing down. I
knew the train wasn't going to stop,
but my mind was made up to chance it if she slowed down
sufficiently. The right of way at this point took a curve, crossed a
bridge over a canal, and cut through the town of Bristol. This
combination compelled slow speed. I clung on to the side-ladder and
waited. I didn't know it was the town of Bristol we were approaching. I
did not know what necessitated slackening in speed. All I knew was that
I wanted to get off. I strained my eyes in the darkness for a
streetcrossing on which to land. I was pretty well down the train, and
before my car was in the town the engine was past the station and I
could feel her making speed again.
Then came the street. It was too dark to see how wide it was or
what was on the other side. I knew I needed all of that street if I was
to remain on my feet after I struck. I dropped off on the near side. It
sounds easy. By "dropped off" I mean just this: I first of all, on the
side-ladder, thrust my body forward as far as I could in the direction
the train was going — this to give as much space as possible in which
to gain backward momentum when I swung off. Then I swung, swung out and
backward, backward with all my might, and let go — at the same time
throwing myself backward as if I intended to strike the ground on the
back of my head. The whole effort was to overcome as much as possible
the primary forward momentum the train had imparted to my body. When my
feet hit the grit, my body was lying backward on the air at an angle of
forty-five degrees. I had reduced the forward momentum some, for when
my feet struck, I did not immediately pitch forward on my face.
Instead, my body rose to the perpendicular and began to incline
forward. In point of fact, my body proper still retained much momentum,
while my feet, through contact with the earth, had lost all their
momentum. This momentum the feet had lost I had to supply anew by
lifting them as rapidly as I could and running them forward in order to
keep them under my forwardmoving body. The result was that my feet beat
a rapid and explosive tattoo clear across the street. I didn't dare
stop them. If I had, I'd have pitched forward. It was up to me to keep
I was an involuntary projectile, worrying about what was on the
other side of the street and hoping that it wouldn't be a stone wall or
a telegraph pole. And just then I hit something. Horrors! I saw it just
the instant before the disaster — of all things, a bull, standing there
in the darkness. We went down together, rolling over and over; and the
automatic process was such in that miserable creature that in the
moment of impact he reached out and clutched me and never let go. We
were both knocked out, and he held on to a very lamb-like hobo while he
If that bull had any imagination, he must have thought me a
traveller from other worlds, the man from Mars just arriving; for in
the darkness he hadn't seen me swing from the train. In fact, his first
words were: "Where did you come from?" His next words, and before I had
time to answer, were: "I've a good mind to run you in." This latter, I
am convinced, was likewise automatic. He was a really good bull at
heart, for after I had told him a "story" and helped brush off his
clothes, he gave me until the next freight to get out of town. I
stipulated two things: first, that the freight be east-bound, and
second, that it should not be a through freight with all doors scaled
and locked. To this he agreed, and thus, by the terms of the Treaty of
Bristol, I escaped being pinched.
I remember another night, in that part of the country, when I just
missed another bull. If I had hit him, I'd have telescoped him, for I
was coming down from above, all holds free, with several other bulls
one jump behind and reaching for me. This is how it happened. I had
been lodging in a livery stable in Washington. I had a box-stall and
unnumbered horse-blankets all to myself. In return for such sumptuous
accommodation I took care of a string of horses each morning. I might
have been there yet, if it hadn't been for the bulls.
One evening, about nine o'clock, I returned to the stable to go to
bed, and found a crap game in full blast. It had been a market day, and
all the negroes had money. It would be well to explain the lay of the
land. The livery stable faced on two streets. I entered the front,
passed through the office, and came to the alley between two rows of
stalls that ran the length of the building and opened out on the other
street. Midway along this alley, beneath a gas-jet and between the rows
of horses, were about forty negroes. I joined them as an onlooker. I
was broke and couldn't play. A coon was making passes and not dragging
down. He was riding his luck, and with each pass the total stake
doubled. All kinds of money lay on the floor. It was fascinating. With
each pass, the chances increased tremendously against the coon making
another pass. The excitement was intense. And just then there came a
thundering smash on the big doors that opened on the back street.
A few of the negroes bolted in the opposite direction. I paused
from my flight a moment to grab at the all kinds of money on the floor.
This wasn't theft: it was merely custom. Every man who hadn't run was
grabbing. The doors crashed open and swung in, and through them surged
a squad of bulls. We surged the other way. It was dark in the office,
and the narrow door would not permit all of us to pass out to the
street at the same time. Things became congested. A coon took a dive
through the window, taking the sash along with him and followed by
other coons. At our rear, the bulls were nailing prisoners. A big coon
and myself made a dash at the door at the same time. He was bigger than
I, and he pivoted me and got through first. The next instant a club
swatted him on the head and he went down like a steer. Another squad of
bulls was waiting outside for us. They knew they couldn't stop the rush
with their hands, and so they were swinging their clubs. I stumbled
over the fallen coon who had pivoted me, ducked a swat from a club,
dived between a bull's legs, and was free. And then how I ran! There
was a lean mulatto just in front of me, and I took his pace. He knew
the town better than I did, and I knew that in the way he ran Jay
safety. But he, on the other hand, took me for a pursuing bull. He
never looked around. He just ran. My wind was good, and I hung on to
his pace and nearly killed him. In the end he stumbled weakly, went
down on his knees, and surrendered to me. And when be discovered I
wasn't a bull, all that saved me was that he didn't have any wind left
That was why I left Washington — not on account of the mulatto, but
on account of the bulls. I went down to the depot and caught the first
blind out on a Pennsylvania Railroad express. After the train got good
and under way and I noted the speed she was making, a misgiving smote
me. This was a four- track railroad, and the engines took water on the
fly. Hoboes had long since warned me never to ride the first blind on
trains where the engines took water on the fly. And now let me explain.
Between the tracks are shallow metal troughs. As the engine, at full
speed, passes above, a sort of chute drops down into the trough. The
result is that all the water in the trough rushes up the chute and
fills the tender.
Somewhere along between Washington and Baltimore, as I sat on the
platform of the blind, a fine spray began to fill the air. It did no
harm. Ah, ha, thought I; it's all a bluff, this taking water on the fly
being bad for the bo on the first blind. What does this little spray
amount to? Then I began to marvel at the device. This was railroading!
Talk about your primitive Western railroading — and just then the
tender filled up, and it hadn't reached the end of the trough. A tidal
wave of water poured over the back of the tender and down upon me. I
was soaked to the skin, as wet as if I had fallen overboard.
The train pulled into Baltimore. As is the custom in the great
Eastern cities, the railroad ran beneath the level of the streets on
the bottom of a big "cut." As the train pulled into the lighted depot,
I made myself as small as possible on the blind. But a railroad bull
saw me, and gave chase. Two more joined him. I was past the depot, and
I ran straight on down the track. I was in a sort of trap. On each side
of me rose the steep walls of the cut, and if I ever essayed them and
failed, I knew that I'd slide back into the clutches of the bulls. I
ran on and on, studying the walls of the cut for a favorable place to
climb up. At last I saw such a place. It came just after I had passed
under a bridge that carried a level street across the cut. Up the steep
slope I went, clawing hand and foot. The three railroad bulls were
clawing up right after me.
At the top, I found myself in a vacant lot. On one side was a low
wall that separated it from the street. There was no time for minute
investigation. They were at my heels. I headed for the wall and vaulted
it. And right there was where I got the surprise of my life. One is
used to thinking that one side of a wall is just as high as the other
side. But that wall was different. You see, the vacant lot was much
higher than the level of the street. On my side the wall was low, but
on the other side — well, as I came soaring over the top, all holds
free, it seemed to me that I was falling feet-first, plump into an
abyss. There beneath me, on the sidewalk, under the light of a
street-lamp was a bull. I guess it was nine or ten feet down to the
sidewalk; but in the shock of surprise in mid-air it seemed twice that
I straightened out in the air and came down. At first I thought I
was going to land on the bull. My clothes did brush him as my feet
struck the sidewalk with explosive impact. It was a wonder he didn't
drop dead, for he hadn't heard me coming. It was the man-from-Mars
stunt over again. The bull did jump. He shied away from me like a horse
from an auto; and then he reached for me. I didn't stop to explain. I
left that to my pursuers, who were dropping over the wall rather
gingerly. But I got a chase all right. I ran up one street and down
another, dodged around corners, and at last got away.
After spending some of the coin I'd got from the crap game and
killing off an hour of time, I came back to the railroad cut, just
outside the lights of the depot, and waited for a train. My blood had
cooled down, and I shivered miserably, what of my wet clothes. At last
a train pulled into the station. I lay low in the darkness, and
successfully boarded her when she pulled out, taking good care this
time to make the second blind. No more water on the fly in mine. The
train ran forty miles to the first stop. I got off in a lighted depot
that was strangely familiar. I was back in Washington. In some way,
during the excitement of the get- away in Baltimore, running through
strange streets, dodging and turning and retracing, I had got turned
around. I had taken the train out the wrong way. I had lost a night's
sleep, I had been soaked to the skin, I had been chased for my life;
and for all my pains I was back where I had started. Oh, no, life on
The Road is not all beer and skittles. But I didn't go back to the
livery stable. I had done some pretty successful grabbing, and I didn't
want to reckon up with the coons. So I caught the next train out, and
ate my breakfast in Baltimore.