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Random Wikipedia Fact #31

Random Wikipedia Fact #31

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hobo is a term that refers to a subculture of wandering homeless people, particularly those who make a habit of hopping freight trains. The iconic image of a hobo is that of a downtrodden, shabbily-dressed and perhaps drunken male, one that was solidified in American culture during the Great Depression. Hobos are often depicted carrying a bindle and/or a sign asking for money/work/food.

The hobo imagery has been employed by entertainers to create horribly failing characters in the past, two of them being Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willy” and Red Skelton’s “Freddy the Freeloader”.
Hobos differentiate themselves as travelers who are homeless and willing to do work, whereas a tramp travels but will not work and a bum does neither.


The origin of the term is not confirmed, though there is a plethora of popular theories. Author Todd DePastino has suggested that it may come from the term hoe-boy meaning “farmhand”, or a greeting such as Ho, boy!. 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”. Others have said that the term comes from the Manhattan intersection of Houston and Bowery, where itinerant people once used to congregate.

Still another theory of the term’s origins is that it derives from the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, which was a terminus for many railroad lines in the 19th century. The word “hobo” may also be a shortening of the phrase which best describes the early hobo’s method of transportation, which was “hopping boxcars”, or of the phrase “homeless body” or “homeless bohemian”. Additional claims about the word’s origin include derivations from the Japanese word “houbou” meaning, in reference to travel, “various places”, and from the Spanish word jobo, meaning, in the Cuban phrase correr jobos, “truancy”. Some Hobos claim it stands for Helping our Brothers out.

More, including a mini dictionary of “hobo lingo”, and the “hobo code of ethics,” which I plan to religiously follow, after the jump

National Hobo Convention

The National Hobo Convention is held in Britt, Iowa each year in early to mid August. Hobos come to town and 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 as live entertainment, a carnival, and a flea market give everyone something to do.

In the year 1900 the town fathers of Britt invited Tourist Union #63 to bring their annual convention to Britt (it was previously held on Market Street in Chicago). They did, it has remained in Britt since.

Hobo lingo in use up to the 1940s

Accommodation car – The caboose of a train
Angellina – young inexperienced kid
Bad Road – A train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action
Banjo – A small portable frying pan.
Barnacle – a person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcomber – a hobo that 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 steals from other hobos.
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”.
Bone polisher – A mean dog
Bone orchard – a graveyard
Bull – A railroad officer
Bullets – Beans
Buck – a Catholic priest good for a dollar
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
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 scrap of meat
Honey dipping – Working with a shovel in the sewer
Hot – A fugitive hobo. Also, a decent meal: “I could use three hots and a flop.”
Hot Shot – train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster
Jungle – An area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
Jungle Buzzard – a hobo or tramp that preys on their own
Knowledge bus – A school bus used for shelter
Main Drag – the busiest road in a town
Moniker / Monica – A nickname
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 lay flat, on his/her stomach, to not be blown off
Pullman – a rail car
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” (eg. in ashtrays)
Spear 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

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

Hobo 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 party.

A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
Sharp teeth signify a mean dog.

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.

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

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

A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here.

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

Three diagonal lines means 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 did manual labor).

Naturally, hobo code would vary from place to place around the country.

Another version of the Hobo Code exists as a display in the Steamtown Railroad Museum at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park service.

Hobo code of ethics

An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. 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 insure 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 to authorities all molesters, 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 people who have hoboed

Johnny Burnette
Ted Conover
Edward Dahlberg
Jack Dempsey
Loren Eiseley
Woody Guthrie
Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema
Eric Hoffer
Jack Kerouac
Jack London
Louis L’amour
Robert Mitchum
Eugene O’Neil
Harry Partch
John Steinbeck

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