On the Fly! in Cynical Reflections

By Ian Cutler
Cynthical Reflections: thoughts from a tub
October 17th, 2020

I discovered this phenomenal collection of hobo writing shorty after my own book about 15 tramp writers, The Golden Age of Vagabondage, had been published by Feral House in February 2020. McIntyre’s anthology includes the prose, poetry and song lyrics from 85 ‘hobo’ writers, only 20 of whom are classified as unknown. The latter include the original authors of popular song classics such as Railroad Bill and Wabash Cannonball, the provenance of which is impossible to establish. The book is all the more remarkable because it contains 130 illustrations, many full page, of individual characters, hobo jungles, chain gangs, soup and unemployment lines, beating trains, etc., including the remarkable photography of Dorothea Lange who documented the Great Depression era which formed the back story to much of the writing that emerged.

Many of the selected excerpts of writings collected by McIntyre were originally published in book form, yet others appeared in publications such as Hobo News, Industrial Pioneer, Industrial Union Bulletin, Industrial Worker, The New Republic, and The Liberator. So in addition to collecting a comprehensive archive of hobo literature, McIntyre has also chronicled a unique history of the US labour protest movement covering the same period. That many of these writers were labour activists, sociologists, or journalists, rather than hobos by ‘profession’, does not minimise their contribution to tramp literature. Some spent part of their youth on the road, yet others engaged in ethnographic activity as participant observers that involved considerable time beating trains, living alongside hobos, and in many cases doing serious jail time for vagrancy or other ‘un-American’ activities.

The narrow inclusion criteria I used for Golden Age of Vagabondage, meant that many of the extraordinary characters featured in On the Fly could not be discussed in my own book. The list below is included here to acknowledge those other prose writers, and to assist McIntyre in rescuing them from the trash can of history. It should also be noted that every time one picks up a book on hobohemia, the works of yet other tramp writers—not previously mentioned by myself or McIntyre—comes to light. In this sense the discovery of forgotten tramp literature remains ongoing. So how did I decide which writers to include in my own volume?

Firstly, I included only prose writers and not poets or those who penned song lyrics, of which McIntyre’s book abounds. Secondly, with the single exception of Tom Kromer, I considered only published writing from those who at some point of their lives had embraced tramping or ‘hobohemia’ as a lifestyle choice—in contrast to the tramp of circumstances. They were, as Josiah Flynt’s friend Emily Burbank describes him, “the tramp writing, not the literary man tramping”. And so I excluded those who engaged in a single hobo adventure purely for research purposes as a journalist, sociologist, political activist, etc. On the Fly ignores such narrow categorisations to provide the most comprehensive collection of ‘hobo literature’ available in a single volume, so for those looking for a comprehensive account of this much overlooked genre, the two volumes together should provide a complementary and comprehensive account of this unique cultural phenomena.

On the Fly includes writing from 9 of those who did make it into Golden Age of Vagabondage and so they are not listed below but can be found in the links to the right of this post. Those omitted from McIntyre’s anthology were Thomas Manning Page, Bart Kennedy, Trader Horn, Stephen Graham, Jim Phelan, and Kathleen Phelan. Again they are linked on the right. 

McIntyre also refers the ‘tramp of choice’ in his Introduction, acknowledging that although many who rode the rails during America’s depressions did so out of economic necessity, assisted by the expansion of the railroads, this was not the only motive for free rail travel: 

Lured by a desire for action and excitement combined with the call of a passing train  many sought to escape the boredom of everyday life. Others wished to opt out of the mainstream altogether, as the life of a tramp, despite its hardships and dangers, offered an alternative for working-class Americans otherwise condemned to domestic drudgery and the factory floor.

McIntyre also acknowledges those middle and upperclass Americans who turned to the same lifestyle as a way rebelling against the boredom and stifling conformity of their otherwise bourgeois existence. Here then, is a parallel culture to that described by Luis E. Navia in his 1996 book Classical Cynicism: a critical study; a need that has existed in one form or another down through the ages. When discussing the attraction of the Cynic philosophy and lifestyle two and a half thousand years earlier, Navia tells us this extended to, ‘men and women who were or felt illegitimate and foreign everywhere, and who lived ill at ease within the established civic community’. McIntyre describes hobohemia as presenting just such an alternative lifestyle choice by accepting into its sub-culture the odd, the eccentric, and those with sexual preferences outside of ‘accepted’ societal norms. 

Here, in the opening of the first piece in On the Fly, ‘A Tight Squeeze’, McIntyre also introduces us to the raison d’être for ‘beating’ trains and writing about it: 

The ability to travel and find work, as well as build a reputation as a “profesh” or master rider, all hinged upon locating a locomotive and then hanging on for dear life while evading railroad police and unsympathetic workers. Little surprise then that almost every memoir and study of any length included one, if not many, tales of train hopping, as well as philosophising on the subject.

Tramp writers and their work from On the Fly! not included in my own book: 

William Staats, author of A Tight Squeeze; Or, The Adventures of a Gentleman, Who, On a wager of ten thousand dollars undertook to go from New York to New Orleans in three weeks without money as a professional tramp (1879)Based on a real-life adventure, this original full title of the book identifies it’s central storyline; although whether it is an autobiography written in the third person or biographical is difficult to establish. In any event, it is the only tramp recorded by Staats’ who worked as a journalist for the Chicago Telegraph. eBook of the original volume

Sam T. Clover is author of Leaves From a Diary, 1884: A Tramp Around the World and the semi-fictional Paul Travers Adventures: Being a Faithful Narrative of a Boy’s Journey Around the World (1897). Born in 1859 in Bromley, Southeast London, Clover’s family migrated to the town of Oregon, Illinois in 1873. By 1978 Clover was already engaged in journalism for the Chicago Board of Trade but by 1880, at the age of 19, he set out on a world trip lasting sixteen months and covering 40,000 miles. As both a sailor tramp and a road tramp, he supported himself labouring and as a circus performer. On his return he married and embarked on his career as a journalist and writer, first on publications in the Dakota Territory and then as a special correspondent for the Chicago Herald. By 1893 he had become editor of the Chicago Evening Post. In 1901 Clover moved to Los Angeles with his wife and family where he became editor of the Express, before launching his own paper, the Los Angeles Evening News.  Working for a string of other LA publications followed until, in 2016, Clover relocated to Virginia, after buying the Richmond Evening Journal.

Following only a brief time in Virginia, Clover returned to Los Angeles in 1920 where he became editor, and 2 years later owner, of the publication Los Angeles Saturday Night.He was assisted in this last venture by his wife, Mabel Hitt and employed several women writers on the staff. Clover continued working until his death in 1934. His wife died following a car accident  that year, shortly after the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary, and a month and a half later, Clover himself died of a heart attack in work at his desk. He was 74. No eBook available but full story on Clover can be read here

William Z. Foster (1881 – 1961) is best known as a former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA from 1945 to 1957. Although a life long political activist (he had previously been a member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World), Foster served an apprenticeship as a hobo and had his own experience of beating trains. His prolific writings include his tramping adventures in his 1939 Pages from a Worker’s Life. There is no shortage of biographical information on Foster which does not need to be repeated here.

Harry Kemp
(1883 – 1960) was a poet and prose writer popularly known as the “Vagabond Poet”. His writing, tramping and bohemian lifestyle made him a cult figure for many young Americans during the 20s and 30s. His two autobiographical prose works are Tramping on Life: An Autobiographical Narrative (1922), and More Miles: An Autobiographical Novel (1926). Again, there is no shortage of biographical information on Kemp. Tramping on Life is available as an eBook here

Ben “Windy Bill” Goodkind, wrote 2 autobiographies, An American Hobo in Europe: A True Narrative of the Adventures of a Poor American at Home and in the Old Country (1907), and A Poor American In Ireland And Scotland (1913). McIntyre’s excerpt in On the Fly comes from the first, and describes Bill’s adventures on being desperate for work, blagging to a cattle herd boss that he was an experienced cowboy. Both books are available as eBooks: An American Hobo in Europe and A Poor American In Ireland and Scotland

                                                               Edwin Brown before and after donning hobo attire

Edwin A. Brown, born in 1857, was a social reformer who campaigned against poverty, homelessness and an improvement of housing conditions in America. In 1909, in his early 50s, he embarked on a 3 year trek across the Country in hobo apparel and documented his findings in his book, “Broke”: The Man Without the Dime (1913), available as an eBook here, complete with dozens of stark photographs in support of his report. 

I am determined to create a systematic and popular sympathy for the great mass of unfortunate wage-earners, who are compelled by our system of social maladjustment to be without food, clothing, and shelter. I am determined our city governments shall recognize the necessity for relief.”

Glen Hawthorne Mullin’s book Adventures of a Scholar Tramp (1925), is described by Nels Anderson (American Journal of Sociology, Volume 31, Number 4, Jan., 1926) as follows: “Perhaps no American has pictured more realistically such experiences as riding [the rods] under a passenger train or fighting sleep while riding the tops.” Unfortunately, as there is no free eBook of this volume available, the reader will need to obtain a copy to discover Mullin’s four month adventures as a hobo. The excerpt in McIntyre’s book is testimony to Mullin’s remarkable descriptive prose style as well as his neurosis fuelled imagination.

Charles Ashleigh (1892–1974) was a political activist, writer, poet and translator. Hissemi-autobiographical novel, Rambling Kid (1930), was reprinted by Charles H. Kerr in 2004, and has been described as, “one of the best and most informative books concerning the IWW.” IWW refers to ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ (Wobblies), the international labour union founded in Chicago in 1905; and of whom many of those featured in McIntyre’s book were activists and members.

The characters in Rambling Kid: “ride alongside IWW job delegates, bindle-stiffs, and gandy dancers [railroad section hands] as they crisscross the country hopping freights en route to jobs and strikes and everything in between.” Ashleigh also published poetry and several non-fiction texts on socialism and communism including Russia’s Second Front in 1914-1916 (1943), a country he spent time in following his time in America. We also know he must have been fluent in German and Russian as he translated several books from those languages into English.

Ashleigh had travelled to Argentina from Britain to work on the railways, arriving in the US in 1912. During his time there as a political activist, Ashleigh worked to defend other activists at trial until, while working as a journalist in San Francisco, he was himself arrested in October 1917 as part of a national crackdown on radical leaders and organisers. He was put on trial for seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to injure civil rights and obstructing military service, and sentenced to 10 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary where he joined around 90 other IWW members. His sentence was commuted in 1921 on agreeing to be deported to the UK, however, in the event he did not immediately return to Britain but spent time living in New York supported by The Liberator. The magazine had helped raise Ashleigh’s bail money after publishing his prison poems. 

We are told that during his stay in New York, Ashleigh commenced a relationship with the Jamaican poet, Claude McKay, and later travelled with him to the 4th World Congress of the Communist International in Petrograd in 1922, Russia, then on to Berlin the following year, meeting up again in Nice in 1926.

William J. (Bill) Quirke, not to be confused with the University of South Carolina professor and former contributing editor of The New Republic, or the former Irish Republican Army Intelligence Officer who traveled in the Americas and later became Vice-President of Fianna Fáil—both of the same name. Bill Quirke was best known for his role on the editorial board of Hobo News and one of its main contributors, publishing both articles and poetry. What particularly got for my attention was McIntyre’s description of the tattoo that identified Quirke’s body after he had been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and which read “No God, No Master, No Country”—a sentiment probably shared by many dedicated to the hobo sub-culture.

William Edge. As with Bill Quirke above and some others listed here, there is little biographical information to identify his own life as a hobo and itinerant worker. It is included here for his description of hobohemia in his novel, The Main Stem (1927), a lively excerpt of which is included in On the Fly.

Samuel Milton Elam, who ran away to become a road kid at the age of 12, relates his encounters with four women hobos in an excerpt in On the Fly from the original piece published in New Republic in 1930. Again little biographical information is available on Elam. His obituary (aged 56) in the NY Times on February 19, 1963, describes him as editor of The American Satiricon, “a quarterly journal of sardonic commentary”. He was also author of a biography on the English writer and drifter, George Borrow (1929), Watch the Stars Immortal (1931), and his collection of bitterly satirical invectives on American life Hornbook of the Double Damned: an American Satiricon published the year before his death in 1962.

William Attaway (1911—1986), was an Afro-American novelist, essayist, songwriter, playwright, and screenwriter. He is included here because on the death of his father, Attaway dropped out of college and spent 2 years as a hobo, itinerant worker and political activist, before returning to his studies in 1933. The excerpt from his novel Blood on the Forge (1941) in McIntyre’s anthology, describes a boxcar trip north based on Attaway’s own 1916 involvement The Great Migration of Afro-Americans escaping the inequalities of the South, only to encounter equal cruelty in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Attaway’s earlier novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939), also deals with the life and adventures of hobos. His most lasting legacy is probably the song “Day-O” (Banana Boat Song) which he co-wrote for Harry Belafonte.

Edward Dahlberg (1900—1977), was another novelist and essayist with 20 published works to his credit and plenty of biographical references that need not be repeated here. McIntyre includes an excerpt from Dahlberg’s first novel, Bottom Dogs (1929), drawn on his own time as an orphan and vagabond a decade earlier.

Henri Tascheraud wrote two articles for H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury about his life as a hobo, “The Art of Bumming a Meal” (1925) and an unnamed article about “celebrating high-speed hoboing”, featured in On the Fly. All searches for Taschereaud default to the Canadian lawyer, politician and judge Sir Henri-Thomas Taschereau—and so it was not possible to find an image for our Taschereaud!

James Lennox Kerr (alias Peter Dawlish) was a Scottish author of 32 children’s books and 23 for adults. But he started his writing career with an autobiography, Back Door Guest (1930), of his experiences, between being at sea and as a vagabond drifting around the US and Canada during the 1920s.

Barbara Starke, according to her ‘autobiography’, Born in Captivity: The Story of a Girl’s Escape (1931), is an account of the 17 year old’s flight from the tedium of upper-class life in New England for the life of a hobo, tramping and hitching up the East Coast into Canada and back. However, some doubt has been raised that the book was in fact a fictional work by an English writer Helen Card. Regardless of this, Card or Starke clearly had an authentic knowledge of life on the road. Wearing corduroys and carrying only a few spare clothes in a small pack, she discusses the practicalities of being on the road, including keeping herself and her clothes clean. As with the only tramp writer in my own book, Kathleen Phelan, The Story of a Girl’s Escape describes the shift from train hopping to walking or hitching rides with motorists, with all of the added dangers and unexpected liaisons that such a mode of transport invited. Unlike Phelan, Starke admits to never raising her thumb for a lift, but like Phelan, she was very particular about what cars she got into and turned down lifts if she had any doubts about the intentions of the driver (see further note on women tramp writers below).

George Milburn (1906–1966) started his journalistic career in his home town of Coweta, Oklahoma, at the age of 16. We are told he dropped out of university (Oklahoma A&M College) because “wanderlust prompted him to drop out and take to the road”. He then spent 4 years hoboing, doing itinerant work, writing joke books and pulp fiction before enrolling at the University of Oklahoma. His success with The Hobo Hornbook (1930) while at OU, an anthology of songs and poetry, led to writing a series of stories and articles for publications such as Vanity Fair and Harper’s Magazine, launching a more serious career as a novelist add screenwriter. McIntyre’s piece in On the Fly from American Mercury describes the often abusive and exploitative relationship between older experienced tramps (jockers) and their youthful ‘apprentices’ (prushuns). McIntyre explains that this piece later appeared in two anthologies: No More Trumpets and Other Stories (1933) and Hoboes and Harlots (1954).

Thomas Minehan, as with Edwin A. Brown and Glen Hawthorne Mullin, Minehan was a sociologist who embraced the hobo life, in his case for 2 years during 1933 and 1934, as part of his research. Minehan’s specific interest was the lives of child and adolescent hobos of which he compiled the stories of 500, both male and female. McIntyre claims that between twenty thousand and a million of these children hit the road during the Great Depression. The result of Minehan’s research was published in Boy and Girl Tramps of America (1934) and also provided material for his 1941 children’s novel, Lonesome Road.

‘Minehan estimated that 10 percent of those he met were girls, dressed in overalls or army breeches and boys’ coats. They traveled in pairs, sometimes with a boyfriend, sometimes with a tribe of ten or twelve boys. Minehan described “Kay,” who was fifteen: 

 “Her black eyes, fair hair, and pale cheeks are girlish and delicate. Cinders, wind and frost have irritated but not toughened that tender skin. Sickly and suffering from chronic undernourishment, she appears to subsist almost entirely upon her fingernails, which she gnaws habitually.” ‘ From

A Note on Women Tramp Writers

                             Kathleen Phelan

Other than Kathleen Phelan, and in spite of rigorous research, I have failed to identify a single woman tramp who has documented her own life and adventures. Biographies and fictions there certainly are, such as Barbara Starke referred to above.

Ethel Lynn’s The Adventures of a Woman Hobo (1917), while certainly authentic, describes a single trip she made with her husband by tandem bicycle and boxcars. Having said which, the trip was prompted by the triple disasters of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1907 financial ‘panic’, then receiving a diagnosis of tuberculosis, all of which succeeded in putting an end, for a time at least, to her work as a medical doctor. Yet this is not the biography of someone who has chosen tramping as a lifestyle choice for any extended period of time. Kathleen Phelan spent the best part of 70 years on the road, dying alone in her caravan two days before her 97th birthday. eBook available here 

Bertha Thompson’s adventures in Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha (2010), while a fascinating and informative read, was written by former hobo and radical activist Dr. Ben Reitman (later a medical doctor and husband of the anarchist Emma Goldman). The character Bertha is based on a composite of the many women hobos that Reitman encountered, both as a hobo and in his role as “whorehouse physician”—he served a 6 month jail sentence for advocating birth control. Reitman included a thirty-page classification of women tramps in his book.

Poster for the 1972 movie, Boxcar Bertha

Former hobo and Chicago sociologist, Nels Anderson, did not go to the lengths of Reitman to categorise women vagabonds but in his own study, which included five main divisions of male tramps, with 30 subdivisions, he simply dismisses women as a subdivision of “Other Classes” along with Cripples, Stew Bums, Spongers, and Old Men, further subdividing women tramps into three groups: prostitutes, dope fiends & drunks, and mental defectives. 

It is worth noting that Reitman and Anderson’s ‘studies’ coincided, not only with Chicago becoming the hobo mecca of America, but also the birth of the Chicago School of Sociology, responsible for popularising ‘urban sociology’ as a specific research area for the first time. Consequently, many works on tramping from the time concentrate on socio-political and historical investigations rather than getting underneath the very essence of tramping itself in the way that McIntyre has done in On the Fly. 

Jacqueline Schmidt deserves a mention before leaving this discussion on women tramp writers for her contemporary collection of hobo tales, Done and Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos (1996), including biographical details of her father’s hobo adventures. 

While other children were hearing Mother Goose, I thrilled to adventures of my dad’s real-life experiences. The stories were varied accounts of his hoboing days—riding the rods, jumping a rattler, or camping in the jungles – after he left his home in 1911 at the age of thirteen.

Tramp Writers not Included in On the Fly or Golden Age of Vagabondage (listed by publication date) others of whom come to light every time I read yet another book on tramping!

Charles Dryden, On and Off the Bread Wagon: being the hard luck tales, doings and adventures of an amateur hobo (1905), is his account of several years down and out on the road before he embarked on a successful career as one of America’s foremost baseball writers. 

John R. Peele, From North Carolina to Southern California Without a Ticket and How I Did It (1907). From Preface: 

I have decided to write an account of a few of the many adventures and dangers that befell me while making my way, practically without a penny, from Tarboro, North Carolina, to Tucson, Arizona; and thence to the stricken city of San Francisco, Cal., and other points of interest throughout the West, including New Orleans, Dallas, Texas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Dalhart, Texas, Alamogordo, New Mexico, Juarez, Old Mexico, Bisbee, Arizona, Los Angeles, California, San Pedro, California, Searchlight, Nevada, Denver, Colorado, and more than a hundred other points of interest, coming back home on a telegraphed ticket, via Chicago, Cincinnati, and Richmond, Virginia.

eBook available here 

George Witten, Outlaw Trails: A Yankee Hobo Soldier of the Queen (1929). We are told Witten was an “upper-class Englishman whose family tree traces back to A.D. 800”. As a young man Witten escaped his aristocratic upbringing for the adventures of a hobo in America. 

John Brown, I Was a Tramp (1934)        no image available

John Worby, wrote two autobiographies of his tramping experiences: “The Other Half: The Autobiography of a Tramp (1937) and Spiv’s Progress (1939). In the latter “the reader meets many strange and not always desirable persons, and is enlightened as to the various methods by means of which Heaven’s irreclaimables, eke out their precarious existence.” West Australian, 10 June 1939

eBook available here 

Paul Townend, Amateur Hobo (1953)

Charles P. Barth, Hobo Trail to Nowhere (1969)     no image available

Charles Elmer Fox (“Reefer Charlie”), Tales of an American Hobo (1989), eBook available here

Oscar Dexter Brooks, Legs: An Authentic Story of Life on the Road (1991), was a Canadian hobo during the early 1900s whose part-fictional autobiography was not published until 8 years before his death at the age of 92.

From obituary in Toronto Globe and Mail, May 4, 1999. 

Oscar was orphaned in his early teens and was sent to live with relatives on a farm in Saskatchewan, but by age 15 he set out on his own and in the ensuing years he traveled all over Canada and the United States, riding the rods and working as a farm labourer, horse handler, and on railroad gangs. He also worked in traveling carnivals where he learned a wide range of con games; and at one time sold magazine subscriptions to gullible farmers.

Fred Thompson, Fellow Worker: The Life of Fred Thompson (1993), is the autobiography of the IWW historian and includes his own early experiences as a hobo.

A comprehensive list of hobo books and articles can be found on this website

NOTE: I would be pleased to hear of any other tramp writers not included above

On the Fly! Hobo Literature and Songs, 1879–1941

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