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Some Gang of Hobos

One night in August, 1897, a wooden railroad bridge over a dry coulee near St. Thomas, North Dakota, was consumed by fire. “There is no clue to the origin of the fire,” said press reports, which appeared in papers across the state, “but it is likely that some gang of hobos camping under the bridge fired it either intentionally or through error.”

Newspaper exchange items ignored the adverb “likely” in the news report and affixed headlines categorically stating that hobos had set fire to the bridge. Never mind there was no observation of actual hobos being under the bridge, let alone any evidence they had set a fire--it was considered safe to assume hobos were the arsonists.

Last week’s Plains Folk outlined how by close of the nineteenth century, hobos, or tramps, while still sometimes referred to as “knights of the open road,” came to be derided as vagrants who populated hobo jungles, generally under railroad bridges or in othered sheltered spots along the railroad. Whence the tramps sallied forth to annoy, even terrorize prairie folk on their farms or in their towns.

Mainly in the towns, because farmers knew the value of transient labor and got to know the transients. Farmers particularly needed them for harvest and threshing in summer and fall--which was convenient, since hobos tended to spend winters in more southerly climes, then come north for seasonal work. There were such things as hard-core hobos who would not work, but most would be better described as transients in search of work. Welcomed when needed, despised when not.

In 1923 the University of Chicago Press published a treatise, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man, by Nels Anderson. The author ascribes the existence of the hobo class to a combination of economic conditions--the search for seasonal employment--and individual traits. “The industrial attractions of seasonal work often make a powerful appeal to the foot-loose man and boy,” writes Anderson. “A new railroad that is building, a mining camp just opening up, an oil boom widely advertised, a bumper crop to be harvested in Kansas or the Dakotas fire the imagination and bring thousands of recruits each year into the army of seasonal and migratory workers.”

The swelling of the hobo tide was a problem that appeared locally, but could only be solved nationally. “To deal with him [the hobo] even as an individual, society must deal also with the economic forces which have formed his behavior, with the seasonal and cyclical fluctuations in industry.” says Anderson. “This means that the problem of the homeless man is not local but national.” Still, Anderson recognizes a culture of the road extant among the hobos. He devotes an entire chapter to “Hobo Songs and Ballads.” One hobo poem declares, “The bum on the rods is hunted down / As the enemy of mankind.”

Because local people saw hobos not as a sociological phenomenon, but as a recurrent situation to be managed. There even was alarm that contact with hobos was a danger to children. The same sociologist, Anderson, published an article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology entitled, “Juvenile and the Tramp.” He warned, “There are intimate contacts between the tramp and the boy in town, but they are usually relationships that revolve about sex. Sex perversion is very prevalent among the tramp population.”

Thus items such as this one, in August 1906, became common across the northern plains:

A hobo camp with several gents of the road as inhabitants was broken up near Cando by the officers.

“Breaking up” a hobo camp generally entailed violence. By the early twentieth century, prairie folk and their officers of the law had defined hobos as a public danger.

-Tom Isern

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