When the great westward push of settlement in the United States was finally completed, a process that occurred roughly between 1890 and 1920, it left in its wake a large number of people who couldn’t stop moving. They were cow-boys, miners, loggers, scouts—itinerant workers who had spent their lives migrating toward the next frontier. When there were no frontiers left to breach, they found themselves constitutionally incapable of settling into town or farm life, and so they became hoboes, ceaselessly crisscrossing the country by freight train, taking work along the way. They were joined by a host of others who had any number of reasons for avoiding the constraints of a fixed residence, and these mostly became tramps: adventurers, thrill-seekers, petty criminals, drug addicts, confidence men, itinerant gamblers, anarchists, Wobblies, remnants of various communal experiments, victims of different sorts of discrimination (blacks, homosexuals, Germans during World War I, Russians after 1917), victims of primogeniture, sons cast out by fathers, runaway husbands, runaway wives, debtors, pariahs. In hard times the ranks would be swelled by the unemployed, for whom vagrancy was a temporary condition.
All these groups and types intersected and overlapped. In the popular mind they dissolved into the image of the alcoholic chicken thief; in their own world the distinctions were finer. According to Ben L. Reitman, the Chicago physician, anarchist fellow-traveler, and sometime tramp who for nearly a decade was Emma Goldman’s lover and road manager: “There are three types of the genus vagrant: the hobo, the tramp, and the bum. The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” An author who called himself “A No. 1, The Famous Tramp” further identified forty-seven subclasses, from the Mush Faker (“Umbrella mender who learned trade in penal institution”) to the Wangy (“Disguised begging by selling shoestrings”) and from the Wires (“Peddling articles made of stolen telegraph wires”) to the Jungle Buzzard (“The dregs of vagrantdom”), which still represent only a fraction of the wandering population. Jack Black, whose autobiography was originally published in 1926, was a singularly articulate representative of subtype number 41, the Yegg, a “roving desperado.”
His book, written from the vantage of his reform in later life, is rare for its time in being, while rueful enough, almost completely devoid of real contrition. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most criminals’ memoirs were of the kind published by tract houses in cheap editions, serving up a small amount of titillation buffered by a great deal of testifying unto Jesus Christ, thus swindling the young readers they lured with titles like My Thirty Years on the Bowery and Confessions of a Bunco Artist. The youthful Black was just the sort of kid who would have raced through such documents looking for the good parts.
Growing up motherless in St. Louis, the only child of a remote and forbidding father, he was nursed on dime novels, the Police Gazette, newspaper accounts of the exploits of Frank and Jesse James, and reminiscences of Civil War veterans about the likes of Quantrill the guerrilla. This literature far outdid the influence of the nuns who taught him in school, and it guided him by degrees to the underworld. He worked as an errand boy in a saloon, then as collection agent for a dairyman, and in a mix-up was imprisoned for the first time, albeit wrongfully. This incident led through convoluted circumstances to his rescuing an unwilling prostitute from her brothel, but then the two were intercepted by his father, who had a godlike habit of turning up suddenly at uncomfortable moments. That night, Black took to the road.
He was a naive and self-conscious youth when he started out, and in a way he remained one throughout his career of crime and vagrancy. When he wrote his book he was finally pursuing the narrow path, working as the librarian of the San Francisco Call after twenty-five years of trains, flophouses, saloons, opium dens, and jails; his voice is that of someone who has just awakened from a dream. He is amazed by his former life, and he recounts it as a long education, in which he is always making mistakes, being trusting or impetuous or overeager, benefiting from the instruction of older men, and trying not to repeat earlier errors. There is a rich tension in his writing between the sober adult who feels cheated of the comforts of the square life but is determined to be proud of his past and the adolescent fantasist, impressed and dazed by exploits he can’t believe were his:
Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about by the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgement in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.
Before my twentieth birthday, I was in the dock of a criminal court, on trial for burglary…. At twenty-five I was an expert house burglar, a nighttime prowler…. At thirty I was a respected member of the “yegg” brotherhood…. At forty I found myself a solitary, capable journeyman highwayman.
His prose has the simplicity not of naiveté, but of sophistication; everything marks him as a reader.
Although his book is stingy with dates, it seems probable that Black set out on his journey around 1890. It is possible that he crossed paths with the equally youthful Jack London, who wrote up his own tramping experiences in The Road (1907), although Black headed west and then mostly traveled longitudinally from Arizona to British Columbia with only scattered ventures eastward, whereas London wandered latitudinally, from sea to sea. London, whether conscious or not of training for his future career, earned his bread by imaginative lying, while Black by his account quickly got involved with the road’s active criminal element and always gravitated toward the underworld wherever he landed. London was morally affected by what he saw, and his espousal of social causes in later life may owe something to his experiences with Charles P. Kelly’s Industrial Army, the western branch of General Jacob Coxey’s widely publicized but ultimately doomed 1894 mass movement of the migratory unemployed from the Midwest to Washington, DC. Black only got deeper into crime, meeting the same characters again and again in the jails and flops of the West and learning from them the finer points of all the sciences of larceny, as well as acquiring addictions to booze and hop that made him doubly dependent on theft.
Black nevertheless sees robbery as a craft, its practice circumscribed by strict rules of conduct and workmanship, the same as plumbing or barbering or stonemasonry:
To any thief who reads this and criticizes me as being over-thoughtful of the “sucker,” I reply that he is probably one of those guys that beats his victim up after robbing him; who strikes down women and children if they get in his way; who destroys paintings, vases, tapestries, and clothing wantonly, and winds up by letting some housewife chase him under a bed, where she holds him with her broomstick till the coppers arrive. He is not a thief, but a “mental case,” and belongs in a psychopathic ward.
The regularity with which Black’s cronies—the Sanctimonious Kid, Soldier Johnnie, Foot-and-a-half George, among others—turn up in obscure Western dumps suggests the solidity of bonds in a widely scattered underworld. In fact, these thieves had something like a guild; they called themselves the Johnson Family. A Johnson would never fail to help another Johnson in trouble; they directed each other to jobs, and were scrupulous about dividing shares. In addition, Johnsons always paid their room rent, as well as for food and drink whenever possible; they consciously strove to prey only on the well-to-do. The Johnsons stop just short of a theoretical defense of their pursuit. Sometimes they sound like the individualist anarchists who were their contemporaries, like Bonnot and Georges Darien, although they had no interest in smashing the state; and sometimes they seem in thrall to middle-class notions of propriety, which makes them rather touching:
I say they [his cronies] had character because, while they did wrong things, they always tried to do them in the right way and at the right time. The thief who goes out and steals money to pay back room rent rather than swindle his poor landlady has character. The one who runs away without paying her has no character. The thief who holds out a lady’s watch on his pal to give to his girl has no character.
As a result of his connections, Black was introduced to the legendary fence Salt-Chunk Mary, of Pocatello, Idaho, so called because she always kept a pot of beans and salt pork simmering on the stove, and insisted that visitors eat before stating their business, after which she would buy whatever watches, gems, bonds, or postage stamps they unwrapped, on nonnegotiable terms.1 She was a character out of Western legend. A formidable businesswoman most of the time, she relaxed by going on periodic sprees:
Leaving her hack at the curb, she walked into her victim’s saloon and ordered all hands to drink. When the drinks were disposed of and paid for, she put both hands on the inner edge of the bar and pulled it over on the floor. Out of the wreckage she gathered an armful of bottles. One of them was accurately hurled into the mirror, and the remainder at anybody in sight. The boss, bartender, and saloon bums disappeared out the back way and Mary stalked out the front. On the sidewalk she threw away her hat, tore up whatever money she had left, and crawled into her waiting hack. Inside she kicked all the glass out, lay down on the back seat, and, with her feet out through the broken window, was driven home in state while the town stood mute.
Black’s luck later in his career got worse and worse. At one point, he carried out a solo job at great risk in a small town in Canada, buried the take, and then took a long, circuitous route to get back to his cache; when he returned, he found a new house on the site. His jail sentences were getting longer and longer, and his opium addiction more onerous. With increasing frequency he asked himself why he didn’t simply take whatever money came his way and invest it in a straight business, but the question was rhetorical. Finally a self-imposed white-knuckle detoxification cured him of his drinking and drug habits and a chance meeting with philanthropists while in prison effected his reform. These reformers appeared to have been straight-forward people who trusted Black and hated prison conditions. Certainly Black himself is as eloquently direct and unapologetic on this point as his prose is throughout: he was tired; he was not a convert. By the time he wrote his book he was fifty years old:
I would not turn backward and be young again, neither do I wish to reach the century mark and possible senility. I have no money, no wife, no auto. I have no dog. I have neither a radio set nor a rubber plant—I have no troubles.
The Johnson Family and criminals like them were one hidden layer of American life at the time when the “traditional values” were supposedly in full force. There was another, a much more various grouping of miscellaneous radicals and nonconformists. Boxcar Bertha Thompson, whose autobiography was first published in 1937 as Sister of the Road, was heir to this side stream of American culture. Her mother was a roving altruist and free spirit who never married, took her four children by four different men with her from boarding house to railroad camp, and felt comfortable among radicals and vagrants, gandy dancers and whores. She, in turn, was the daughter of an abolitionist who had worked with John Brown and who later turned his energies to promoting feminism, publishing a paper called The Woman’s Emancipator and serving jail time for distributing birth-control information through the mail.
When Thompson finally tracked down her own father during her wanderings, he turned out to be the proprietor of a small radical bookstore in New York, who lived in an unorthodox but apparently satisfying arrangement, sharing rooms with another man and being visited regularly by a woman who was their common lover. Bertha was angry with him for fathering children and then abandoning them; he coolly replied that he was the “phallic” rather than the “orchitic” type of male. In the end, her anger at him had less to do with his refusal of family obligations than with his overly intellectual and defeatist approach to life.
Bertha herself had no such problems; she was that rare thing, a person unfettered by strictures and compulsions, open to all experiences, and driven by an overwhelming curiosity about life. She was primed for the road very early in her youth, much of which was spent in track-workers’ camps and hobo jungles. When her mother moved her brood, first to a cooperative colony in Arkansas and then to an anarchist settlement in Tacoma, Washington, they traveled by hopping freights. In these communes, Thompson was educated in the works of Darwin, Huxley, Emerson, Shaw, and Lenin, attended lectures and speeches by a constant parade of itinerant agitators, and with her mother’s blessing lost her virginity to a young instructor in political economy, with whom her mother was also having an affair.
When she was almost seventeen she decided to go off and see the world, taking along her younger sister Ena, and a crowd saw them off at the dock, serenading them with IWW songs. On that occasion they were merely going to Los Angeles, with the intention of getting jobs, but not long after their arrival Thompson attended a lecture by a New York anarchist, Enrico Malletini, “a short, stubby, fiery orator,” and fell in love with him. He had a lecture tour to conduct, Thompson resolved to follow him, and the only way to travel was by boxcar. Malletini was a single-minded agitator with little use for sentimental attachments, but Bertha was equally stubborn, and her intermittent pursuit of him across the country over the years is a constant subplot of the book.
Once on the road, Thompson was always talking to people, getting their stories, following up on their suggestions, and exploring any avenue of life that piqued her curiosity. She ran with a roving band of shoplifters, worked as a medical assistant, took up with a lawyer in a small southern town, worked as a prostitute in a Chicago brothel, spent time in jail, explored the lesbian demimonde, hung around the Chicago bohemia of Bughouse Square and the Dill Pickle Club and the New York bohemia of Christopher Street, contracted syphilis, had a child, saw one of her lovers hanged and another lover mashed by a train, and became actively involved in the movement to establish shelters and medical facilities for hoboes.
She plunged into these adventures with a determination that was not unmixed with a certain passivity. On the verge of becoming a prostitute, feeling alternately repelled and irresistibly drawn toward her pimp, she has a flash of self-doubt:
Was I a chameleon taking on the conditions of every new environment? I was. I recall that when I was in I.W.W. hall I thought and talked like a wobbly. When I was in Greenwich Village…I felt like a highbrow. When I was living with [the lawyer] I felt like a wife. Was it true, then,…that we are all products of environment?
Then she rationalizes her decision, telling another whore: “I’m going to get something out of this experience. I’m going to learn why women let their feelings make slaves of them.” The people she encountered make up a dizzying cross section of the alternate America of the 1920s and 1930s, the interconnected blend of crooks, drunks, leftists, whores, artists, philosophers, and assorted unclassifiables that might have been called a counterculture if anyone had been trying to market it. She met numerous female tramps, for example, while the standard literature on vagrancy, such as Nels Anderson’s The Hobo (1923), scarcely admits the existence of any. These women ran the gamut: adventuresses, labor organizers, the lesbian acrobatic dancer Yvonne the Tzigane, the sexual compulsive Leg-and-a-Half Peggy, and Lucy Parsons and Nina Van Zandt Spies, who were both widows of Haymarket Riot martyrs. It was Bertha’s gift to have instant rapport with almost every sort of person she encountered. When she was about to have her baby in Chicago, seven men appeared in her room, all of them offering to be the father:
There was Jack Jones [who ran the Dill Pickle Club, a free-form avantgarde cabaret, radical debating forum, and loosely defined commune]; Birdie Weber, a short squat Dill Pickle poet, blond with a big nose; Eddie Clasby, a black-haired Bostonian, from the Seven Arts Club; a Yogi teacher, a Hindoo called Pandin; a thick-lipped colored socialist, Harrison; Ed Hammon, a fellow who was organizer for the painters’ union; and a thin fairy called Hazel.
She called her daughter Baby Dear and thereafter traveled with her, occasionally parking her with her mother back at the anarchist commune in Tacoma.
Thompson’s capacity for taking pleasure in her experiences is as striking as the enormous range of her sympathy:
When I knew that a man was stealing, or a woman hustling, or some poor girl going nutty, or that a guy was on the lam, or learned that a pimp was living with four women—it all seemed natural to me, an attitude given me by my mother, to whom nothing was ever terrible, vulgar, or nasty.
At the same time she was no slacker when responsibilities came her way. As the story goes on, the Depression occurs, and with it that extraordinary multiplication of road dwellers that can be seen vividly depicted in William Wellman’s 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, with its armies of hundreds of youths hopping freights all at once, fighting pitched battles with railroad dicks, and setting up vast tent cities on the outskirts of towns. At that point, Thompson was galvanized into working for the cause, and she was active in many efforts to establish Hobo Colleges and support facilities, although when she tried to get a regular job as a social worker her prospective employers somehow found out she had once had syphilis and bounced her.
Finally she got a job as a statistician for a federal survey of transients, a task that oddly suited her in spite of her restlessness, and that is how the narrative leaves her: a happy unmarried mother at the age of thirty, retired from the road but working to make it smoother.
All that I had learned in these fifteen deep, rich years was a little sociology and economics, types, classifications and figures. A college student could learn it all in a semester, or in a textbook. But I had achieved my purpose—everything I had set out in life to do I had accomplished. I had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a thief, a reformer, a social worker and a revolutionist. Now I knew. I shuddered. Yes, it was all worthwhile to me. There were no tragedies in my life. Yes, my prayers had been answered.
The medium for Bertha’s memoirs was Ben Reitman, an extraordinarily selfmade character in his own right. Indeed, their stories have more than a few parallels. Reitman, the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, ran away from his Chicago home at the age of twelve, bummed his way across the country and around the world, put himself through medical school in his twenties, established a practice specializing in venereal diseases, treating mostly whores and tramps while still occasionally hitting the road himself. He was a crusader for hobo rights, a charter member of the Dill Pickle Club. He lectured at Hobo Colleges, stumped in favor of anarchism and birth control. The coincidences in Bertha’s and Reitman’s experiences have led at least one scholar, Reitman’s biographer Roger A. Bruns, to conclude that Bertha never existed, but was invented by Reitman as a screen for his own fictionalized memoirs:
Truly, there was much of Ben Reitman in Boxcar Bertha. The character of Bertha may have been inspired by an actual individual, one of the legion of wandering women Doc had encountered from his earliest days. But if Bertha was, indeed, one of that legion, Ben made her almost mythical.2
There is something to be said for this argument, and it is probable that Reitman at least augmented Bertha’s story with some of his own memories and crotchets. Still, Bertha is alive on the page, irreducible, sui generis, and very much a woman. It is sad that Bruns apparently did not see fit to try to verify her existence. Surely some of the names she cites—her grandfather, several of her lovers—and her presence in particular places at particular times would be documented and could be traced. After all, if Bertha’s experiences seem almost too diverse and dramatic to be true, so were Reitman’s. It is not impossible to imagine that two such characters may have walked the earth, one of them a woman who did not actively court publicity. To demote her from author to title without benefit of a hearing seems unjust.3
Today the radical America in which Thompson and Reitman dwelled has been almost entirely obliterated from popular memory, and the predominant current image of the tramp is probably the self-mythologizing figure of Jack Kerouac, who hopped freights in order to write about the experience just as the railroads were becoming extinct. Today, when people are dispossessed in greater numbers than ever since the 1930s, there are few means for them to travel and no greener pastures to go to. Meanwhile, as Time reported last summer, there are indeed still hoboes. These turn out to be well-to-do Californians who pursue vagrancy as a hobby. Actor Bobb Hopkins, for example, leaves his Mercedes at home and goes off wearing a plaid shirt and carrying a concealed credit card. He and his fellow travelers gather in jungles, cook mulligans, and wait for night to fall to board freights. What was once a life of radical refusal has become a leisure activity, picturesque and agreeably spiced with danger. One hobbyist quoted by Time sums it up: “All your senses are alive. You’ll love your wife, your children, and your home better.”
April 27, 1989
If some of these details sound familiar to readers of William Burroughs’s novels, it is because he read the book as a teenager and years later infiltrated bits of it into his own books, regurgitating whole slabs in The Place of Dead Roads (1984). ↩
Roger A. Bruns, The Damndest Radical: The Life and World of Ben Reitman, Chicago’s Celebrated Social Reformer, Hobo King, and Whorehouse Physician (University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 263. ↩
Martin Scorsese took little more than the book’s premise for his 1972 film Boxcar Bertha, an episodic late hippie road saga in the Easy Rider mode, albeit set in the Depression. Bertha has just seen her father killed and, in her grief, takes to the road and a tedious parade of bedroom scenes decorated with period impedimenta. ↩