Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/The Border Land of Trampdom

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LAST summer it was my fortune to spend the vacation on a unique trip through Michigan. My chum and I went down to Berrien Springs to try our hand selling books, but a week of this kind of life sufficed to show us that the rapid road to fortune did not lie here, as the advertisements would lead us to believe, and we abandoned books, bag, and baggage and joined the great army of men "on the road." Our outfit was very simple. We bought a coil of steel wire, a pair of pliers, and a wooden frame to bend the wire over to make tidy-holders. This was our means of support. Besides this we had a small satchel containing an extra shirt apiece, two clean collars, and other things which we might otherwise find necessary to buy on the way. When we traveled we commonly shipped our goods by freight to some point about a week in advance on our route and then made our way there as best we could, supporting ourselves en route by selling our tidy-holders. On these occasions we varied our costumes somewhat. We buttoned our clean collars to our collar buttons in the back of our shirts so that they hung down our backs under our vests, and carried them there until we needed them, when we made a change. We also wore overalls, which served to keep our clothes clean while traveling and were worn underneath while selling goods. These tricks are common property among roadsters, being the outcome of stern necessity. We soon learned that if a person looked as though he needed to sell his goods it was very hard to do so, but if he looked as though he was simply doing it for the pleasure of the thing it was very easy. By trying successively various ways of selling we soon became experts and could sell at nearly every house we tried.

Probably there exists nowhere a stranger medley of people than the inhabitants of that indefinite place known as "on the road." Their numbers are constantly lessened by desertion and as constantly augmented by fresh arrivals. As far as I could learn by personal inquiry, there are two classes of reasons which throw these persons on the road—one a subjective one, restlessness, and the other an objective one, misfortune.

As for the proportion between the two, my opinion would not carry much weight, as I was with these people only one summer, and hardly learned any more than that the proportion varies greatly. At the time I did not make any classified study of each person, although I learned as well as possible from personal conversation the causes of their condition. The cases which I can recollect now seem to be about evenly divided between those who go on the road from choice and those who do so from necessity. I have reason to believe, however, that this is not the normal proportion, those who had to travel being more numerous than usual. Whenever I found veterans I found them complaining of the great number of recruits. As one tramp expressed it, "It‘s gittin’ so a respectable ’boe [hoboe] can’t get a hand out anywhere no more. This whole d—— country is on the bum."

I. The class who are on the road from preference is by far the more complicated. Perhaps I could describe it better by dividing it into two subheads—the tramp and the roadster proper. With each of these two classes we had about equal experience. At different periods we could be classed with each; we traveled, ate, and slept with them and were received into their number. I will discuss them separately.

(a) Tramps.—The first characteristic that strikes me as I recall my experience with them is their indefiniteness. Josiah Flynt, in his articles on tramps, has taken only the élite of the "profesh"—the tramp whose habits are born and bred into him and can hardly ever be entirely overcome. Besides these there is another class, last summer more numerous than the regular tramp, who would be placed on the border land of trampdom. They are traveling merely for the time being, and for the time being are no less distinctly tramps. They are men thrown out of work, who go on the road at first perhaps to find work. They get in with the tramps, like their life, and travel with them. Some of them seem to be actuated by a genuine desire to see the country, others by a simple love of adventure and change. This latter class are liable to degenerate into real tramps, but the former are pretty sure to get tired of the hard life and settle down again. They never regard themselves as tramps, and if they beg do so feeling that they lower themselves by it. As a rule they much prefer to work in payment of their meals, or even take two or three days' work and then pay for what they eat until their money is exhausted. They are uniformly recruited from the working population of cities, men under thirty years of age, who though without education have a desire to see the world and have been employed in a situation where they have come in contact with ex-roadsters. Under favorable conditions they would develop into such a type as the average "prominent citizen" of our small towns. They possess energy, skill, and intelligence, but lack woefully in opportunity.

The tramp temporarily on the road from a love of adventure can scarcely be distinguished from the dyed-in-the-wool hoboe. He is in most cases recruited from the same city population, yet all classes of society are represented. One night we were coming home from Cadillac to Grand Rapids in a freight car with thirty-three others, and the question of what to do when we arrived at the Rapids was being discussed.

The day before several of the "lads" had been "pulled" at the Rapids for "bumming the freights," and the news was by this time known to all knights of the road for several hundred miles. Plans for evading the "cops" were discussed, and the question of the legal aspect of the case came up. To my surprise, one of the toughest of the lot dropped his tramp dialect and gave a very good discussion of the case. We began to question him, and when he found that we too had seen college days he began to cite cases, quote State laws from several different States, and, in short, gave a regular lawyer's brief. He afterward told us that he had graduated from a law school in New York city.

Tramps as a class are young men. I do not know what becomes of them when they are old or whether they ever get old, and, as far as I could discover, they do not know either. Their happy-go-lucky method of living leads them to give very little thought to the future, but the fact still remains that an old man can not live as they do. They uniformly travel by night and sleep by day. It is no uncommon sight to see fifteen or twenty of these lusty fellows asleep in the shade of some watering tank, and if you would take the pains to climb up the ladder and into the tank you would probably find a little room over the water occupied by four or five more. They are not so universally drunken as the temperance advocates would have us suppose. One time when we were traveling by freight two of the lads brought on a bottle of whisky, and one of them offered it to several of us successively. Nobody would drink with him and he became abusive. The boys took his bottle away from him and threw it overboard, and compelled him to sit quiet until he fell asleep. But, on the other hand, their private morals are abominable. They seem to have no idea of personal purity whatever. I knew of one instance of a woman tramp who was supported by several male tramps with whom she traveled.

If you ask a tramp where he is going, he will probably answer vaguely, "Oh, down South, I guess," or "Out West," or some other equally indefinite place. If you urge him still further he may mention some State, but that will be as much as he can tell. They are like Wandering Jews, traveling because they can not stop. I saw only one place where any large number of tramps make a point of meeting, and that is the fruit region around St. Joseph. We picked berries there for a while during the season. Tramps swarmed there, together with large numbers of working people from Chicago and a number of ignorant foreign women from nobody knows where. They picked for two and a half cents a quart and boarded themselves—that is, slept on the ground and boiled stolen potatoes in a tomato can. At the little village of Stevensville, the center of the district, dance booths were erected, beer sold at three cents, and each night was made hideous by the squeaking of the fiddles and the drunken songs of the dancers. Finally, a murder occurred, and in desperation the farmers drove the whole gang away with shotguns. I learned from those who had been there that in the hop fields of New York and Wisconsin similar scenes occur. Many go direct from the berries to the hops.

(b) The roadster proper is distinguished from the tramp by having a "graft," or in other terms a visible means of support. The graft consists of any method at all to gain money aside from begging or chance jobs. For instance, our tidy-holders were "an out-of-sight good graft." We found one tramp who sold a kind of soap made by himself, which he guaranteed to take out any spot whatever. It really did so, but the spot was pretty sure to reappear the next day. I knew another who sold soap which looked like Castile. A week after it was bought it dried up into half its original size and became absolutely worthless. Another had made a sore on his arm with acid, and begged by showing this sore and telling some pitiful tale. As for such means of exciting sympathy their name is legion.

I found that there are several firms throughout the country who make it a business to supply grafts to tramps. For example, there are publishing houses where the professional beggar may obtain printed cards which will be of great assistance to him. The one-legged man will find a selection of most heart-rending poetry under titles such as The Woodman's Lament or The Railroad Boy's Appeal. The lame, the halt, and the blind are all provided with cards at so much per hundred. Another firm will make a specialty of so-called high-class novelties, and will issue a Mammoth Catalogue, probably advertised with a picture of a cat. Here you will find listed pewter spoons at twenty-five cents per dozen, tied with pink ribbon in half-dozen lots, and each spoon labeled sterling silver and done up separately in white tissue paper. Spectacles may be bought for two dollars and a quarter per dozen for the man who "just found a pair of gold-bowed spectacles down the road, and if they fit you, you may have them for two dollars, as I have no use for them." Not all grafts, however, are dishonest. The sale of pencils, paper, and in fact any article sold by tramps, would come under this definition.

There is also a large number of persons in this class whose employment is not at first sight apparent. Professional gamblers and book-makers are obliged by the nature of their employment to be on the move constantly. When in luck they spend their money lavishly, yet in case of pinch they take to the freight without a grumble. We traveled quite a distance with two such characters. They were dressed in immaculate linen, tailor-made suits, and derbies, and looked entirely out of place. In this class there belong a number of people who are not tramps in any sense of the word. The chronic book agent is an example. They follow the occupation because they have something in their character which will not allow them to remain quiet. Most women on the road might be classed among these—indeed, permanent canvassers are more often women than men.

The women on the road seem to be much more irreclaimable than the men. They have less true politeness, less sense of honor, and if dishonest are much more subtle. In a religious community they are invariably religious, and have uniformly been abandoned by their husbands and have six children dependent on their efforts. Male agents, as a rule, will be fair with each other and have a strong esprit de corps, but for the female agent everything is fish that comes into her net.

There are several trades whose members seem condemned to be perpetually on the road. Printers and hotel cooks are a case to the point. We traveled with a hotel cook for a couple of weeks who is a good example of his class. He had at different times been a brakeman, a school teacher, an expert accountant, a bookkeeper, a sailor, an agent, a basket-maker, and a cook. If necessity demanded, he could be anything else on short notice, as we soon found out. It seemed impossible for him to settle down. When he traveled he always spoke to the cook in some hotel at meal times and received a good meal gratis, a favor which he would repay some time if chance offered.

The greater part of this class perform no economic function whatever. Printers do not travel of necessity, but simply because it has become a custom with their trade. Agents of various sorts, of course, do perform a function, yet their work could be done as well if left to the retail stores. They make more profit on their goods than does the average retailer.

All of these classes have one thing in common—a roving disposition—and are divided by the possession or lack of other qualities. If the character we are discussing has the tramp instinct, but lacks both in mental ability and moral stamina, he will be a mere tramp; grant him some degree of mental ability, and he takes up a graft. If we give him a moral stamina without mental ability, we have the man temporarily tramping to see the country, while if we give him both intelligence and moral fiber he becomes a canvasser or roadster proper.

II. The class who travel from necessity is one of the most interesting spectacles in the border land of trampdom. Here we see the real tramp in the process of formation. When a young unmarried laborer is thrown out of employment and finds none where he is, he generally stays until his money is exhausted and then goes on the road in search of work. His case is genuine, but he is brought into disrepute because all tramps pretend to belong to this class. If he finds work within a short time, his experience will not result very badly for him, but if he is forced to remain a tramp for a month or so he is quite likely to lose his independence and join the ranks for good. In any case it is easier for him to take to the road in event of another lack of employment, and each time he does so he is more liable to become a permanent tramp.

It is surprising how large a number of men have belonged to this class at one period or another. Many laboring men when traveling prefer to go by freight in order to save expense. They do not think it a disgrace at all. Indeed, they rather regard ability to make one's way rapidly over the country without expense as an important part of their education, and the more I know of the vicissitudes in the lives of our workingmen, the more I am inclined to agree with them.

In dealing with the tramp question we must consider the distinctions just noted. The man who travels simply because he wants to, wastes his energy and ought to be suppressed, both for his own good and the good of society in general. But with the man who travels because he has to things are very different. He must travel. It is a critical time in his life. Forces are acting on him which, tend to weaken his self-reliance, his honesty, and his self-respect, and bring him to the level of the common tramp. If he is given an opportunity of earning his living as a man and is treated like a man, chances are in his favor, but if he is forced to accept charity like a tramp he is very likely to become a tramp. I believe the establishment of municipal wood yards, run on the plan of those now found in many cities, to be the proper solution of the tramp problem. In these a meal or a night's lodging is given in payment for two or three hours' wood cutting. Then the co-operation of the citizens must be enlisted. They must cease entirely all private charity of this sort and send tramps to the wood yard. In this manner tramp life will lose the attraction of an easy, worthless existence. The wood yard will become abhorrent to the genuine tramp, but will be welcomed by those who are really forced on to the road by lack of work. The tramp who finds himself in this manner paying his way will in some measure regain his self-respect and will stand a better chance of being reclaimed.