See also an interview with Todd DePastino.
"Todd DePastino has produced a fascinating history of the American hobo. His study of tramps and migrant workers brings vividly to life an important element of American society that has too often been neglected by historians."—Kenneth L. Kusmer, author of Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History
"Anyone who wants to understand the 'homeless' of today should disregard any of the hundreds of books on the subject and start with this one. Citizen Hobo provides much-needed historical context on hoboes and the army of dispossessed now on America's streets. Todd DePastino has done a stunning amount of research, and he has created a vital and highly readable book. Citizen Hobo is not simply about hoboes or the homeless—it's a story about America."—Dale Maharidge, author of And Their Children After Them
An excerpt from
The Politics of Hobohemia
On September 1, 1908, a barnstorming band of nineteen hoboes departed Portland, Oregon, on a 2,500-mile journey across the wageworkers' frontier. Led by J. H. Walsh, one of hobohemia's premier labor activists and sidewalk impresarios, the gang jumped aboard a cattle car and rode to Seattle, where they spent a night in jail for trespassing. A few days later, they headed east and continued hopping freights across the Great Plains, preaching the gospel of revolutionary industrial unionism in every main stem, hobo jungle, and boxcar they encountered along the way. Unlike the Industrial Armies of 1894, the self-described "Overalls Brigade" had their sights set not on the nation's capital of Washington, D.C., but rather on the hobo capital of Chicago, where the fourth annual convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was about to open.
Flamboyant propagandists and fund-raisers, members of the Overalls Brigade were also active delegates seeking to wrest control of the conflict-ridden IWW from what they derisively termed the "homeguard," a faction that favored the ballot box as a path to socialism. As migratories without home or vote, the hobo delegation rejected ward and parliamentary politics, as well as the binding contracts painstakingly negotiated by traditional trades unions. Instead, they advocated direct action, embracing strikes, sabotage, and other forms of on-the-job protest as the only political weapons capable of destroying capitalism. The hoboes' detractors called them the "bummery," warning that a floating population of seasonal workers could hardly be relied upon as a revolutionary vanguard. But the hour belonged to the bummery. Proclaiming a millennial vision of "One Big Union," the hobo insurgents won the day, ousting the homeguard and dedicating the IWW to direct economic action exclusively.
The Overalls Brigade's triumphant return to the West heralded the dawn of a new era in hobohemia. No longer mere symbols or foot soldiers in the struggle against the wage system, hoboes now possessed an independent political movement of their own, one that promised the emancipation of all labor. Grave concerns remained, however, about the effectiveness of a revolution headquartered in the hobo's "Rialto." After all, job shirking, binge drinking, sexual promiscuity, and family desertion were not exactly qualities that recommended themselves to leading an international movement aimed at fundamental social change. But instead of burnishing their reputations as "honest workingmen," J. H. Walsh and his floating fraternity celebrated their identities as "sons of rest" who preferred the "simple life in the jungles" to the workaday world of the homeguard. In so doing, the bummery propagated a folklore of the hobo that would outlive both the IWW and the subculture from which it emerged.
The Overalls Brigade itself gave birth to this folklore on its hobohemian tour of the West. Shortly before the trip, Walsh had organized his men into a red-uniformed Industrial Union Band that parodied popular gospel hymns and sentimental ballads for street-corner crowds. In route to Chicago, the floating delegation peddled ten-cent song sheets that contained four of their most popular numbers, including "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," a decade-old hobo song that the activists transformed into a revolutionary anthem:
Whenever I getHaving "sold like hotcakes" on the road, the song sheets inspired Walsh to issue an entire book of such parodies upon his return from the 1908 convention. Given the provocative title, Songs of the Workers, on the Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops—Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, the Little Red Songbook, as the volume came to be known, went through dozens of editions and remains hobohemia's most important cultural artifact. Along with the stories and commentaries of the road published in the IWW's numerous newspapers and pamphlets, the Little Red Songbook provided hobohemia with a powerful set of myths to enhance its group definition, vindicate its countercultural status, and mobilize its members for political action. The impact of this propaganda was swift and far-reaching. "Where a group of hoboes sit around a fire under a railroad bridge," noted Carleton Parker in 1914, "many of them can sing I.W.W. songs without a book."
In addition to fostering communal ties, this new folklore also advanced the contentious proposition that hoboes, by virtue of their footloose detachment from the bonds of settled community, were by nature the "real proletarians" and more revolutionary than other groups of stationary workers. Assigning hobohemia the world-historical task of "labor's emancipation," IWW propagandists submerged the racial and gender components of the hobo's identity under the more potent category of class. While this strategy accorded with the IWW's official policy of color-blindness and gender inclusion, it also subtly reinforced the exclusionary biases upon which the subculture was based. By promoting hobohemia as the most authentic bearer of proletarian consciousness, Wobblies, as IWW members were nicknamed, relegated not only the homeguard, but also women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and a whole host of immigrant groups from Europe and Asia to supporting roles in the hobo revolution. The IWW's decade-long reign over the main stem delivered a floating subculture to the very center of American labor activism. One of the most enduring legacies of this reign, however, was a Wobbly frontier myth that venerated the hobo as a manly white pioneer of the industrial West.
Organizing the Main Stem
For all their talk about direct action, western Wobblies did little on-the-job organizing in the years immediately following the bummery's coup. Instead, their first order of business was to stake a claim to the main stem as the headquarters of their revolution. The same anonymity and freedom from supervision that attracted hoboes to slave market districts also drew the Wobblies, for only in the city could activists deliver their radical message to large numbers of migratories without worrying about employer interference.
The most effective such activist was J. H. Walsh, who arrived in Spokane after the 1908 convention to breathe new life into the city's IWW local. Within the space of a few months, Walsh's innovative soapboxing campaign not only recruited over a thousand new members, but also established an organizing model for other locals to follow. The songs, jokes, street theater, and fiery sermons used in Spokane soon became part of the Wobblies' stock-in-trade on main stems throughout the West. One memorable routine began with a speaker shouting, "I've been robbed! I've been robbed!" As a crowd gathered, the orator then delivered his punch line: "I've been robbed by the capitalist system!"
The IWW's claims to the main stem did not go uncontested. Indeed, Walsh's high-profile organizing efforts in Spokane sparked a fierce struggle over urban public space, a struggle that would take place in dozens of hobohemian districts over the next decade. To counter the growing power of Walsh's local, which Walsh effectively wielded to boycott Spokane's employment agencies, city officials pulled the Wobblies' soapbox out from under them by banning street-corner orations. In response, hundreds of Wobbly hoboes hitched freights to the city to defy the ban and serve their time in prison.
By the time Spokane capitulated to the protesters in March 1910, similar free speech fights were breaking out all over the wageworkers' frontier. With the notable exceptions of San Diego, where the dynamiting of the Los Angles Times building sparked the official suppression of street speaking, and Everett, Washington, where the conflict started over the IWW's support of striking sawmill workers, these pioneering free speech campaigns were launched not to protect American civil liberties or the First Amendment. Rather, Wobbly activists fought to preserve hobohemia's collective autonomy and to challenge the stranglehold that employers and their recruiting agents had on the hobo job market. As peace descended on Spokane, another fight erupted in Fresno when an agent complained to police that sidewalk agitators were damaging his efforts to recruit workers for a dam construction project. When the city revoked the IWW's speaking permit, the Industrial Worker responded with the call of "All Aboard to Fresno," and hundreds of Wobblies arrived from as far as St. Louis to join the protests.
In addition to marking their territories through free speech fights, Wobblies also set about the quieter task of delivering basic services to their hobo clientele. Strategically located in the heart of the main stem, IWW halls offered kitchens, beds, reading rooms, employment information, and large meeting halls, where hoboes congregated on a nightly basis. Wobbly halls, observed Carleton Parker, "are not so much places for executive direction of the union as much as gregarious centers where the lodging house inhabitant or the hobo with his blanket can find a light, a stove, and companionship. In the prohibition states of the West, the I.W.W. hall has been the only social substitute for the saloon to these people."
Chicago organizer Ralph Chaplin kept the distinct needs of hoboes in mind as he planned to open IWW offices on West Madison Street. "The outlook of the stiffs on life was different from that of homeguard mass-production workers," explained Chaplin. "The true migratory had no home. He needed a place to park his bindle' and to brew an occasional pot of java' in addition to flopping on the floor." It was the need to provide lodging, as well as a social center, that especially prompted Chaplin to organize a West Madison Street hall. Although Chicago was the site of the IWW's founding convention, its general headquarters, and both the Russian propaganda and Jewish recruiting centers, the city had no place expressly for English-speaking migratory workers until 1914. Russian and Jewish members, stated Chaplin, were contemptuous of migratories who showed up with their packs and expected to flop at their halls overnight. So Chaplin and others raised funds for a hobohemian hall on West Madison that quickly became a mecca for hoboes throughout the wageworkers' frontier.
In establishing their presence, Wobblies challenged not only city officials, the chamber of commerce, and employment agencies, but also the main stem's notoriously popular commercial life. Through their cultural programs and institutions, the IWW sought to rival the saloons, theaters, gambling dens, and prostitution resorts for control over the hearts, minds, and dollars of wintering migratories. Indeed, Wobblies castigated municipal officials for not enforcing anti-vice codes on the main stem. Sounding more like Anthony Comstock or Carry Nation than Joe Hill, the Industrial Worker complained that "little is said by the respectable citizens about the permanent dens of vice which smell to heaven, and which line the streets of the tenderloin quarter, and which need a thorough fumigation like that dealt out to Sodom and Gomorrah." Less strident was a migratory who testified that he joined the IWW for the cultural alternative it offered to the "Rialto":
Have you ever thought of how we, the workers in the woods, mines, construction camps or agricultural fields, are really approached and "entertained" when we visit our present centers of "civilization" and "culture"? What is the first thing we meet? The cheap lodging house, the dark and dirty restaurant, the saloon or the blind pig, the prostitutes operating in all the hotels, the moving picture and cheap vaudeville shows with their still cheaper, sensational programs, the freaks of all descriptions who operate on the street corners, from the ones selling "corn removers" and shoestrings to various religious fanatics and freaks. Did you ever see a sign in the working class district pointing the way to the public library? I have not. Did you ever meet a sign in any one of the rooming houses where we are forced to live, advertising a concert or a real play of any of our great writers, such as Ibsen, Shaw, Suderman, Gorky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare or others? Never.
Responding to this perceived need for cultural uplift, the IWW nurtured a remarkably far-reaching intellectual life on the main stem. In prominent hobohemian cities like Chicago and San Francisco, hobo districts gained reputations as centers of cultural activity, drawing intellectuals and bohemians from bordering neighborhoods. In addition to the Wobbly halls themselves—which ran regular programs of films, concerts, plays, lectures, debates, and discussion groups—radical bookstores also played an important role in organizing hobohemia's intellectual life. "In every large city there are hobo book stores which make a specialty of radical periodicals," explained one migratory, "for even if the hobo does not generally belong to a socialistic society, he has been taught to think about class struggle. He may read the Hobo News, or he may read Jack London, or the Masses, or the Industrial Standard." Nels Anderson concurred that the hobo was "an extensive reader" who disapproved of the "Capitalist press," adored Jack London, and passed along reading material as soon as he finished it. Anderson also attributed the popularity of radical bookstores on the main stem to the hobo's hesitation to use the public library, "dressed as he usually is."
Possessing the flexibility typical of hobohemian institutions, bookstores not only served as a substitute for the library, but also for the saloon, restaurant, and even lodging house. Bookstores on Chicago's main stem, for example, collected mail, held items for safekeeping, and sometimes hosted lodgers. Virtually all served as meeting places for radicals. The Radical Book Shop on Chicago's North Clark Street, for example, was a favorite haunt of IWW organizers and officers, and also "a hangout for radicals of all shades of red and black, as well as for the Near North Side intelligentsia." The Clarion Book Shop, on the other hand, had only loose ties to Wobblies, although the store's owner was active in hobohemian politics. Perhaps the most prominent bookstore on Chicago's main stem was the Hobo Bookstore, also called the Proletariat, located on West Madison Street one block away from the IWW general headquarters. Daniel Horsley, the store's proprietor, gave frequent lectures "along Marxian lines" and entertained activists of all political affiliations.
In the hobo capital of Chicago, hobohemia's cultural attractions also included the Dill Pickle Club, an institution Sherwood Anderson praised in 1919 as one of "the bright spots in the rather somber aspects of our town." Founded by Jack Jones, a Wobbly organizer and former husband of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and managed for a time by the anarchist Ben Reitman, the Dill Pickle evolved from a center for labor organizing and radical agitation to a bohemian resort that attracted many kinds of intellectuals, artists, poets, and performers. Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, Clarence Darrow, Ring Lardner, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Theodore Dreiser, and Big Bill Haywood were among those who lectured, performed, and congregated at this original "little theatre" off of Washington Square on Chicago's Near North Side. In its early years, the Dill Pickle provided a place where hoboes, intellectuals, artists, and radicals of all stripes could meet and exchange ideas. "It opened its doors wide to everybody who had a message, a grievance, a hope, or a criticism, constructive or destructive," recalled one regular, "who wished to raise his voice against oppression, prejudice and injustice in all their multiforms."
By far, the largest and most popular venues for raising voices were the public parks scattered throughout most hobohemian districts. Pershing Square in Los Angeles, Pioneer Square in Seattle, and Washington Square in Chicago were all important hobo resorts, especially during temperate spring and summer months. Listening to soapboxers in "Bughouse Square," as Washington Square was nicknamed, was the single most popular daytime recreation among hoboes laying over on Chicago's main stem. Located adjacent to the Dill Pickle Club, the Newberry Library, and the countless cafs of the Near North Side, Bughouse Square was a "ragamuffin bohemia," "a pocket edition of Greenwich Village," which brought speakers and performers of all sorts together with common hoboes. "Bohemia and Hobohemia," quipped Nels Anderson, "meet at Bughouse Square.'" On Saturdays and Sundays, three or four orators performed in different corners of the park at one time, entertaining ever-changing audiences of hoboes and local residents from morning to midnight.
Most speakers preached from radical gospels, although many proselytized from the Good Book itself, exhorting hobohemia's wayward souls to answer the Lord's call. J. H. Walsh first organized his Industrial Union Band to drown out Christian evangelists, and Wobblies constantly battled the Salvation Army for control of the main stem's parks and street corners. But despite hoboes' well-known disdain for the missions, they generally abided a full spectrum of opinion in public arenas like Bughouse Square. As the ferocity of the free speech campaigns demonstrated, main stem residents jealously guarded the soapbox as a forum of free expression. "If you don't believe it," remarked Nels Anderson, "just go into a town where the soap-boxer is suppressed and see how bitter the bos' are."
Written as well as spoken words helped to spread the IWW gospel on the main stem. Wobblies were famous for their many newspapers and pamphlets, but the Industrial Worker published by J. H. Walsh's Spokane local was undoubtedly the most important for hoboes. The newspaper's advertisements alone betrayed its readership, for the names of Spokane's many lodging houses, coffee shops, and secondhand clothing stores littered its pages. The Industrial Worker also reached beyond Spokane to main stems throughout the West. In March 1909 the newspaper began a series of articles detailing the most prominent roads, jungles, and work sites of the wageworkers' frontier. This field guide to hobohemia offered tips on various local judges, residents, train crews, and police forces around the West. "Try and make them believe you are German," one article suggested to hoboes looking for a handout in Ritzville, Washington. Virtually every issue also featured "slave market news" that reported not only on the amount of hiring being done on a given main stem, but also on the hours, wages, job conditions, and fees that migratories could expect to find there. These reports channeled labor market information to workers who had previously relied upon word-of-mouth or "employment sharks," as private employment agents were nicknamed (fig. 4.1). For Wobblies, gaining some measure of control over the supply of labor to work camps was a first step toward seizing command of the camps themselves. By organizing the main stem, the IWW laid the groundwork for direct action in the field.
Workplace activism finally arrived on the wageworkers' frontier in 1913, long after the IWW had established itself in the hobohemian districts of the West. The fieldwork began in California when "camp delegates" departed the main stems of Redding, Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to recruit seasonal laborers on the job. Delegates swept through the orchards, harvest fields, and forests of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada spreading propaganda and attempting to organize the floating army of "wage slaves."
Bolstering these efforts was the notorious Wheatland hop pickers strike at E. B. Durst's ranch near Marysville, California, in August 1913. This strike, led by several Wobbly hoboes who spoke for the multinational workforce of twenty-eight hundred, ended in a shoot-out that left four men dead, including a district attorney, a deputy sheriff, and two workers. In the wake of Wheatland, and the sentencing to life imprisonment of two Wobblies charged with murder, forty new IWW locals opened and one hundred soapboxers marched up and down the state signing up thousands of new members. Wobblies were notorious for disrupting normal labor camp routines, finding any excuse to agitate fellow workers on the job. "They stand on a nail keg and organize a strike," remarked one employer, "and inside of a day one of them hits camp, hell's a-poppin'."
While the California campaign succeeded in "fanning the flames of discontent," it failed to achieve better wages, improved living and working conditions, or increased job control for the state's seasonal workforce. Delivering real on-the-job power to hoboes became the central concern of the IWW's organizing drive in the Midwest. In April 1915 IWW delegates at special conference of harvest district locals voted to form the Agricultural Workers' Organization (AWO), which soon became headquartered in an old cheap hotel building in Minneapolis's Gateway district.
As in the California effort, the AWO used mobile job delegates to travel from town to town organizing groups of harvesters. Unlike the California movement, the AWO focused on concrete issues of wages, hours, and working conditions. By September job delegates were signing up one hundred new members per week, a rate that the campaigns of 1916 and 1917 subsequently eclipsed. So stunning was their success that the AWO effectively transformed the whole experience of harvest migration, not only securing gains on the job but also ridding jungles and boxcars of gamblers, stick-up artists, and extortionist railroad police. Claiming seventy thousand members in 1917, the AWO expanded operations into the lumber and mining districts of Montana, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest.
These organizing drives brought Wobblies to new prominence in hobohemia, a prominence far beyond the union's actual membership. The AWO channeled enough dues to the IWW that in 1917 the parent organization opened a large new general headquarters on West Madison Street equipped with an up-to-date print shop, meeting hall, scores of offices, and a twenty-foot sign atop the building. "Our new general headquarters dominated the skid road,'" recalled Ralph Chaplin.
Every migratory worker on the "skid road" wore a Wobbly button, and there were IWW stickerettes on every lamppost. Open-air meetings were blocking traffic. Halls weren't large enough to accommodate crowds that turned out for Wobbly meetings and entertainments. The revolution was on!
Less partisan observers from all over the wageworkers' frontier confirmed a dramatic rise in Wobbly power by 1915. Carleton Parker estimated that 73 percent of the "floating laborers" he talked to in California held radical views consistent with the IWW. Parker's undercover investigator Frederick Mills found IWW symbols, slogans, and messages posted on makeshift "hobo bulletin boards" wherever migratories congregated. "The extent and activity of this organization's workings are almost beyond belief," Mills wrote in his journal.
One sees notices everywhere. You hear "Wobblies" spoken of favorably in "jungle" conversations. There is widespread knowledge of and interest in its doings that is of far more than passing importance in any consideration of the problems connected with this organization.
As this "widespread knowledge" and interest attest, the IWW had infused hobo subculture with political zeal. "To-day if you will get into a box car and meet a crowd of hoboes," Ben Reitman wrote sometime after 1915, "you will almost imagine that you are in the Socialist or I.W.W. meeting." Because of the IWW, he added, "the hobo has evolved from a despised shiftless creature to a powerful useful man."
The dramatic rise of the IWW provoked an equally dramatic response on the part of employers and law enforcement officials. The assault came in 1917 as the United States entered a global war that the Wobblies denounced. The IWW's opposition to World War I gave employers the cover they needed to launch a massive counteroffensive against the union, accusing Wobblies of being traitors and even spies for Kaiser Wilhelm.
Taking leadership in strikes that curtailed wartime lumber and copper production, Wobblies also suffered attack from countless vigilante groups allied with local police departments and business interests. These attacks laid the foundation for the devastating "Big Pinch" of September 5, 1917, when United States Justice Department agents simultaneously raided IWW headquarters, halls, and private homes around the country. These agents gathered up virtually all of the union's records and property and arrested one hundred members under federal espionage laws. Subsequent prosecutions under newly passed state and federal sedition and criminal syndicate statutes sent leading Wobblies to jail or underground. The infamous Palmer Raids of 1919 and the virulent Red Scare that followed further inhibited Wobbly activities. By 1920 this once premier hobo organization stood on the verge of collapse.