JF Ptak Science Books
There have been many Kings of the Hoboes, and Emperor of the Hoboes, in the history of American Hobodom. The most widely recognized of all this royalty is, probably, Mr. Jeff Davis, who was elected King of Hoboes each year from 1908 to 1935--in that year at the Pittsburgh meeting of the annual "Hoboes of America" his minions gave up elected him King for Life. Of hoboes, that is, the Knights of the Road. Davis was also a real hobo, unlike the pretenders and throne-seekers, who in general were not. (Nels Anderson, in his Men On The Move, written just as the Depression was broken, (1940) observed: "Whatever else may be said of King Jeff, his romanticizing the hobo is not without a basis in reality, and his poetic interest in the species arose from experience. But King Jeff has placed on a pedestal a man who belongs to the past. The hobo belongs with the pre-Hollywood cowboy and the lumberjacks of the Paul Bunyan legends.”)
Mr. Davis was certainly very effective in getting the message out—on freedom and responsibility to irresponsibility—and was a great organizer and popularizer. He helped to establish hobo meetings, newspapers and literature (a sample of which is at left). He also had a few movie appearances: in The Arkansas Traveler, 1938 and The Bridge of Sighs, 1915, he ably played the role of a hobo.
And what about the missing counterpart of Jeff Davis--Queen of the Hoboes? There were certainly alot of women hoboes during the Depression--Harry Hopkins estimated that there were something like 13,000 “sisters of the road” who were out and about in the 1930’s. I guess the most famous of them though was one who did not exist; and what parts of her that were real were mostly those of one man: Ben Reitman. Sister of the Road (1940) was supposed to be an autobiography of legendary Boxcar Bertha, but it was really an assimilation of Reitman’s own experiences sprinkled about those of women from his life. Reitman, who was described (by himself) as a “hobo, whorehouse physician, musician and tour manager/lover of Emma Goldman” (??) was probably not without enough experiences to float another character or two, had his story of Bertha wound up in the hands of exploitation movie maker Roger Corman. The good news about that though was that Corman gave the project to the very young Martin Scorcese who produced an odd and not bad film on no budget, and Boxcar got to live again.
But what brought me here to begin with was Davis' breakdown of some very colorful hobo slang, all of which was found in the little yellow pamphlet (pictured above), and published as a "reference manual" in 1947. And so some examples fo adventurous words and phrases from the hobo life, real or imagined:
Gay Cat. Someone who “beats it from town”, settles down with a job and puts together some money so that he can get on the road again.
Gandy Dancer. “Is a hobo shovel stiff, a muck-stick artist”, a common laborer
Pearl Diver. A hobo dishwasher and who works for his meal.
Mush fakir. A hobo umbrella mender with a patch kit and a second-hand umbrella strapped to his back. (Evidently these guys were put out of business when larger stores began offering umbrella repair on their own.)
Bindle stiff. A hobo who carries his stuff in a sack on a stick, including toothbrush, “but he does NOT carry blankets”.
Kywah. An honest hobo pitchman peddling soap, perfume, jewelry, novelties, pens, knives and potatoes peelers.
Kewah. :Makes and sells articles such as willow stands…”
Scenery Bum. “A young tramp who bums it around the country, just for the fun of it.”
Ring-tail. “An ignorant, harmless tramp."
Fuzzy tail. “A smart aleck tramp, jack of all trades, a fourflusher, big bluff, false alarm, and piker of the worst sort, who most always carries a “punk kid” or “road kid” (a runaway boy).”
Dingbat. “An old tramp professional beggar who dings the main stem (begs on the main street).”
Stew bum. “An elderly tramp who wastes his time continually drinking rot booze.”
Jungle Buzzard. “A tramp who loves to eat but is too lazy to get the ingredients for a mulligan stew. He eats what is left when the gang leaves the jungle fire.” Yum.
Road Yegg. “A vicious tramp of the petty larceny type, a cheap crook.”
I like the collection—it has a high color, not terrible low cant at all.
Mr. Davis would go on to publish another book (1961 or slightly before) which was a poetry/helpful service advice work beautifully titled Pucker Up Your Kisser.
A Few Books on the History of Hoboes:
Allsop, Kenneth Hard Travellin': The Hobo and his History. 1967.
Black, Jack. You Can't Win. 1926.
Bruns, A. Knights of the Road. 1980.
Davies, W.H. The Autobiography of a Supertramp. 1929.
Drew, Betina. The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. 1995.
Etulain, Richard W. Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other
Flynt, Josiah. Tramping With Tramps. 1969 reprint.
Flynt, Josiah. My Life. 1908.
Graham, "Steam Train" Maury Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the
Kemp, Harry. Tramping On Life: An Autobiographical Narrative, 1922.
Kerr, Lenox. Back Door Guest [Foreign Travelers in America
Kromer, Tom. Waiting for Nothing. 1935.
Monkkonen, Eric H. Walking To Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935.
Ormser, Richard. Hoboes.1994.
Tully, Jim. Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography. 1924