On the Road – A History of the Hobo, 2015

Hobo History

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A hobo is a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is penniless.

The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States during the last decade of the 19th century.[1] Unlike “tramps”, who work only when they are forced to, and “bums”, who do not work at all, “hobos” are workers who wander.[1][2]


Portrait of three hobos sitting under a covered structure in Chicago, Illinois, in 1929

The origin of the term is unknown. Etymologist Anatoly Liberman says that the only details certain about its origin is that the word emerged in American English and was first noticed around 1890.[1] Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: “Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early Nineties (just then)?”[1] Author Todd DePastino has suggested that it may come from the term hoe-boy meaning “farmhand”, or a greeting such as Ho, boy!.[3] Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America that it could either come from the railroad greeting, “Ho, beau!” or a syllabic abbreviation of “homeward bound”.[4] H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Apart from either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when propelled to motion by the police.[2]


It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans looking to return home took to hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th Century.

In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in America at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). His article “What Tramps Cost Nation” was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911, when he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.[5]

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s.[6] With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.

Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, far from home and support, plus a hostile attitude of many train crews, they faced the railroads’ security staff, nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation of violence against trespassers.[citation needed] Riding on a freight train is dangerous in itself. British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to be trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.[7]

According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere (1984), as many as 20,000 people were living a hobo life in North America. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.[8]

National Hobo Convention

In 1900, the town fathers of Britt, Iowa invited Tourist Union #63 to bring their annual convention to town, and the National Hobo Convention has been held in August each year ever since.[9] Hobos stay in the “Hobo Jungle” telling stories around campfires at night. A hobo king and queen are named each year and get to ride on special floats in the Hobo Day parade. Following the parade, mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park. Live entertainment, a carnival, and a flea market are also part of the festivities.


Expressions used through 1940s

It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with Wobbly lingo. (Discuss) Proposed since December 2012.

Hobo term             Explanation

Accommodation car            the caboose of a train

Angellina               young inexperienced child

Bad Road               a train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action

Banjo      (1) a small portable frying pan. (2) a short, “D” handled shovel

Barnacle                a person who sticks to one job a year or more

Beachcomber       a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports

Big House              prison

Bindle stick            collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick

Bindlestiff              a hobo who carries a bindle.

Blowed-in-the-glass             a genuine, trustworthy individual

‘Bo          the common way one hobo referred to another: “I met that ‘Bo on the way to Bangor last spring.”

Boil Up   specifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs. Generally, to get oneself as clean as possible

Bone polisher       a mean dog

Bone orchard       a graveyard

Bull         a railroad officer

Bullets    beans

Buck       a Catholic priest good for a dollar

Buger     today’s lunch

C, H, and D             indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)

California Blankets               newspapers, intended to be used for bedding

Calling In                using another’s campfire to warm up or cook

Cannonball            a fast train

Carrying the Banner            keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing

Catch the Westbound         to die

Chuck a dummy    pretend to faint

Cover with the moon          sleep out in the open

Cow crate              a railroad stock car

Crumbs lice

Docandoberry      anything that grows on the side of a river that’s edible

Doggin’ it               traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line

Easy mark              a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight

Elevated                 under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Flip          to board a moving train

Flop        a place to sleep, by extension, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel.

Glad Rags               one’s best clothes

Graybacks              lice

Grease the Track to be run over by a train

Gump     a chicken [10]

Honey dipping      working with a shovel in the sewer

Hot          (1) a fugitive hobo. (2) a decent meal: “I could use three hots and a flop.”

Hot Shot                 train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for “Cannonball”

Jungle     an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate

Jungle Buzzard      a hobo or tramp who preys on their own

Knowledge bus     a school bus used for shelter

Main Drag              the busiest road in a town

Moniker / Monica                a nickname

Maeve    a child hobo usually a girl

Mulligan                 a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect

Nickel note            five-dollar bill

On the Fly              jumping a moving train

Padding the hoof                 to travel by foot

Possum Belly         to ride on the roof of a passenger car. One must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to not be blown off

Pullman a railroad sleeper car. Most were made by George Pullman company.

Punk       any young kid

Reefer    a compression of “refrigerator car”.

Road kid                 a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road

Road stake             the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency

Rum dum               a drunkard

Sky pilot                 a preacher or minister

Soup bowl             a place to get soup, bread and drinks

Snipes    cigarette butts “sniped” (e.g. in ashtrays)

Spare biscuits       looking for food in garbage cans

Stemming              panhandling or mooching along the streets

Tokay Blanket       drinking alcohol to stay warm

Yegg        a traveling professional thief, or burglar


Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as “Big House”, “glad rags”, “main drag”, and others.

Hobo (sign) code

Hobo code at a Canal Street Ferry entrance in New Orleans, Louisiana

To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos. Some signs included “turn right here”, “beware of hostile railroad police”, “dangerous dog”, “food available here”, and so on. For instance:

A cross signifies “angel food”, that is, food served to the hobos after a sermon.

A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.[11]

A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.[9]

A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.

A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.

A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.

A circle with two parallel arrows means to get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.[9]

Two interlocked circles signify handcuffs. (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).

A Caduceus symbol signifies the house has a doctor living in it.

A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hobos for free.

A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here.[9]

A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.

Three diagonal lines mean it’s not a safe place.

A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been “burned” or “tricked” by another hobo and is not a trusting house.

Two shovels, signifying work was available (shovels, because most hobos performed manual labor).


Another version of the Hobo Code exists as a display in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service.


A QR Hobo Code, with a QR stenciler, was released by the Free Art and Technology Lab in July 2011.[12]

Hobo (ethical) code

An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri.[13] This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body; it reads this way:

Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.

When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.

Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.

Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.

When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.

Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.

When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.

Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.

If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.

Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.

When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.

Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.

Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.

Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.

Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Notable hobos

Jack Black (author)

Charles Elmer Fox, author of Tales of an American Hobo (Singular Lives) (1989)[14]

Maurice W. Graham, a.k.a. “Steam Train Maurie”

Joe Hill

T-Bone Slim

Monte Holm, author of Once A Hobo: The Autobiography of Monte Holm (1999)[15] Died in 2006 at age 89.[16]

Leon Ray Livingston, a.k.a. “A No.1”

Christopher McCandless, a.k.a. “Alexander Supertramp”

Harry McClintock

Utah Phillips

Robert Joseph Silveria, Jr., a.k.a. “Sidetrack”, who killed 34 other hobos before turning himself in to the authorities

Bertha Thompson, a.k.a. “Boxcar Bertha” was widely believed to be a real person. Sister of the Road was penned by Ben Reitman and presented as an autobiography.

Jim Tully, an author who penned several pulp fiction books, 1928 through 1945.

Steven Gene Wold, a.k.a. “Seasick Steve”

Notable people who have hoboed

Raul Hector Castro[17]

Ted Conover rode the rails doing research for his writing

W. H. Davies

Jack Dempsey

George Orwell[18]

U Dhammaloka

Loren Eiseley

Woody Guthrie

Harry Kemp

Louis L’amour[19]

Jack London

Jack Kerouac

Robert Mitchum

Harry Partch

Dave Van Ronk[20]

Dale Wasserman[21]


In mainstream culture

Examples of characters based on hobos include Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willy” and Red Skelton’s “Freddy the Freeloader”.


All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, by Loren Eiseley, 1975. ISBN 978-0-8032-6741-1

The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman – Humor book which features a lengthy section on “hobos”, including a list of 700 hobo names which spawned an online effort to illustrate the complete list.

Bottom Dogs, by Edward Dahlberg

Beggars of Life, (1924), by Jim Tully

Evasion by Anonymous

From Coast to Coast with Jack London by “A-No.-1” (Leon Ray Livingston)

Hard Travellin’: The Hobo and His History, by Kenneth Allsop. ISBN 978-0-340-02572-7.

Hobo, by Eddy Joe Cotton, 2002. ISBN 978-0-609-60738-1

The Hobo – The Sociology of the Homeless Man, by Nels Anderson, 1923.

The Hobo Handbook – A Field Guide to Living by Your Own Rules, by Josh Mack, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4405-1227-8 (Book on the Hobo lifestyle, written by one who has ridden the rails in recent years.)

Ironweed by William Kennedy, 1983. A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, also adapted for a 1987 film (see below).

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair contains a section in which the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, abandons his family in Chicago and becomes a hobo for a while.

Knights of the Road, by Roger A. Bruns, 1980. ISBN 978-0-416-00721-3.

Lonesome Road, by Thomas Minehan, 1941.

Lonesome Traveler, by Jack Kerouac (“The Vanishing American Hobo”)

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Muzzlers, Guzzlers, and Good Yeggs by Joe Coleman

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

Once a Hobo… (1999), by Monte Holm

One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hobos by Clifford Williams.

Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys, (Routledge, 2003)ISBN 978-0-415-94575-2

Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-125675-2

The Road, by Jack London

Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes by Ted Conover – Paperback: 304 pages, Publisher: Vintage (September 11, 2001), ISBN 0-307-72786-8

Sister of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha – (as told to) Dr. Ben Reitman

Stumptown Kid, By Carol Gorman and Ron J. Finley

Tales of an American Hobo (1989), by Charles Elmer Fox

Tramping on Life (1922) and More Miles (1926), by Harry Kemp

Waiting for Nothing, Tom Kromer

You Can’t Win, by Jack Black


Kings in Disguise (1988), by James Vance and Dan Burr

Laugh-Out-Loud Cats, webcomic by Adam Koford, featuring two anthropomorphic cats as hobos.

Many cartoons depict hobos as main or secondary characters, hobo related activities such as traveling by train, with a bindle, or in company of hobos. For example, 8 Ball Bunny (1950) with Bugs Bunny, Merrie Melodies Hobo Gadget Band (1939), Mouse Wreckers (1948) and MGM’s Henpecked Hoboes (1948).

The Avenger and master archer in Marvel Comics, Hawkeye is aware of, and can read Hobo Code in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 2012 run on the character.


Wild Boys of the Road (1933), directed by William A. Wellman
Sullivan’s Travels (1941), directed by Preston Sturges.
Emperor of the North Pole aka Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich. OCLC 70283150. Loosely based on Jack London’s The Road.
Hard Times aka The Streetfighter (1975), directed by Walter Hill (his directorial debut), and starring Charles Bronson (as a hobo turned street fighter) and James Coburn (as a gambler who becomes his manager).
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985), young girl riding the rails to find her father.
Ironweed (1987), directed by Héctor Babenco and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay. Stars Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, with Carroll Baker, Michael O’Keefe, Diane Venora, Fred Gwynne, Nathan Lane, and Tom Waits in supporting roles.
Life Stinks (1991), directed by and starring Mel Brooks.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003), an anime directed by Satoshi Kon.
The Polar Express (2004), a computer-animated feature film directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, features a gruff but helpful hobo character (one of five characters played by Hanks) who seems to be the corporeal appearance of a spirit or angel.
Into the Wild (2007), directed by Sean Penn, based on Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book about Christopher McCandless
Resurrecting the Champ (2007), starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett, directed by Rod Lurie.
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008), starring Abigail Breslin, Chris O’Donnell, Julia Ormond and Max Thieriot. Directed by Patricia Rozema.
Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), an exploitation film directed by Jason Eisener and written by John Davies, starring Rutger Hauer as a vigilante hobo.


American Experience, “Riding the Rails” (1999), a PBS documentary by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, narrated by Richard Thomas, detailing the hobos of the Great Depression, with interviews of those who rode the rails during those years.
Hobo (1992), a documentary by John T. Davis, following the life of a hobo on his travels through the United States.
“The Human Experience”, (2008), a documentary by Charles Kinnane. The first experience follows Jeffrey and his brother Clifford to the streets of New York City where the boys live with the homeless for a week in one of the coldest winters on record. The boys look for hope and camaraderie among their homeless companions, learning how to survive on the streets.
The American Hobo (2003), a documentary Narrated by Ernest Borgnine featuring interviews with Merle Haggard and James Michener.


Musicians known for hobo songs include Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Utah Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Seasick Steve, and Boxcar Willie.

Examples of hobo songs include:

“Big Rock Candy Mountain” by Harry McClintock, recorded by various artists including Tom Waits, Lisa Loeb, The Restarts and Harry Dean Stanton.

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” recorded by Harry McClintock, Al Jolson, and others

“Hard Travelin'” and “Hobo’s Lullaby” by Woody Guthrie

Here Comes Your Man by the Pixies is about hobos travelling on trains in California and dying because of earthquakes.[22]

“Hobo” by The Hackensaw Boys

“Hobo Bill”, “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life” by Cisco Houston

“Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” by Jimmy Rogers, also recorded by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

“Hobo Blues” and “The Hobo” by John Lee Hooker

“Hobo Chang Ba” by Captain Beefheart

“Hobo Flats” by Oliver Nelson

“Hobo Jungle” by The Band

“Hobo Kinda Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“The Hobo Song” by John Prine also covered by Johnny Cash

“Hobo’s Lullaby” (aka “Weary Hobo”), written by Goebel Reeves, recorded by various artists including Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot

“Hobos on Parade” by Shannon Wright

“I Am a Lonesome Hobo”, “Only a Hobo” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie” by Bob Dylan

“Jack Straw” by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” a recording of a hobo singing on a London street, by composer Gavin Bryars.

“King of the Road” by Roger Miller

“Kulkurin Valssi” (Hobo Waltz) by Arthur Kylander

“Lännen lokari” (Western Logger) by Hiski Salomaa

“Last of the Hobo Kings” by Mary Gauthier

“Like a Hobo” by Charlie Winston

“Mary Lane” by Fred Eaglesmith

“Morning Glory” by Tim Buckley lyrics by Larry Beckett

“Papa Hobo” and “Hobo’s Blues” by Paul Simon

“Ramblin’ Man” by Hank Williams Sr.

“Streets of London” by Ralph McTell

“Waiting for a Train” by Jimmie Rodgers

“Hopscotch Willie” by Stephen Malkmus



Criminal Minds (season 4), episode 5 “Catching Out” (2008)
Mad Men (season 1), episode 8, “The Hobo Code” (2007)
The Littlest Hobo

See also

Freight Train Riders of America, a brotherhood of hobos


Hobo nickel, an art form associated with hobos

Kirby, Texas, the “hobo capital of Texas”

Shoulder pole

Wobbly lingo, the jargon of the Industrial Workers of the World

Hobo (typeface), designed by Morris Fuller Benton for American Type Founders in 1910






^ a b c d “On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus”. OUPblog. Oxford University Press. November 12, 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-05.

^ a b Mencken, H.L. (1937). “On the road again”. The American Language (4th ed.). grammarphobia.com(July 25, 2009). Archived from the original on July 11, 2011. Retrieved 2009-08-05.

^ Interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America from the University of Chicago Press website

^ Bryson, Bill (1998). Made in America. [page needed]. ISBN 978-0-380-71381-3.

^ New York Telegraph: “What Tramps Cost Nation”, page D2. The Washington Post, June 18, 1911

^ Virginia.edu

^ Life and Times of an American Hobo Life and Times of an American Hobo

^ Conover, Ted (1984). Rolling Nowhere. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-60319-0[page needed]

^ a b c d Moon, Gypsy: “Done and Been”, page 24. Indiana University Press, 1996.

^ Bruns, Roger (1980). Knights of the Road: A Hobo History. New York: Methuen Inc.. pp. 201. ISBN 0-416-00721-X.

^ Moon, Gypsy: “Done and Been”, page 198. Indiana University Press, 1996.

^ “QR Code Stencil Generator and QR Hobo Codes”. F.A.T., Free Art and Technology Lab. 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2012-07-18.

^ “Tourist Union 63”. National Hobo Museum. Archived from the original on July 24, 2011.

^ ISBN 978-0-87745-251-5

^ ISBN 978-1-882792-76-4

^ “Monte Holm Dead at 89”. Original Nickel Hobo Society. Retrieved 2010-02-06.

^ Tucson Citizen Morgue

^ “Down and Out in Paris and London”. Retrieved 2012-12-07.

^ “Louis L’amour: A brief biography”. louislamour.com. Retrieved 2008-12-07.

^ Van Ronk, Dave. The Mayor of MacDougal Street. 2005.

^ “Dale Wasserman, 94; Playwright Created ‘Man of La Mancha'” obituary by Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times, printed in The Washington Post December 29, 2008.

^ Here Comes Your Man


Further reading


Brady, Jonann (2005). “Hobos Elect New King and Queen”. ABC Good Morning America, includes Todd “Ad Man” Waters’ last ride as reigning Hobo King plus hobo slide show with Adman’s photo’s taken on the road.

Bannister, Matthew (2006). “Maurice W Graham ‘Steam Train’, Grand Patriarch of America’s Hobos who has died aged 89”. Last Word. BBC Radio. Matthew Bannister talks to fellow King of the Hobos “Ad Man” Waters and to obituary editor of The New York Times, Bill McDonald.

Davis, Jason (2007). “The Hobo”, On The Road 30 minute special. KSTP television. Covers “Ad Man” Waters taking his daughter out on her first freight ride.

Harper, Douglas (2006)[1986]. “Waiting for a Train”, Excerpt from Good Company: A Tramp Life ISBN 978-1-59451-184-4

Johnson, L. Anderson. “Riding The Rails For The Homeless”. The New York Times. July 12, 1983, sec B page 3, col 3. Story on “Ad Man” Waters The Penny Route.


External links

Look up hobo in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


In Search of the American Hobo 1876-1939 from American Studies at the University of Virginia

Fran’s Hobo Page, by Fran DeLorenzo. Includes hobo history and a glossary of hobo signs.


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