Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The term Hobo or Tramps

Hoboes sometimes are thought to be homeless, a clown or a bum. I wish to set you straight about the word hobo and related terms to a hobo such as a tramp or a bum.

Hobos they were called…a word with many meanings. The Latin words homo bonus means Good Man and might have been coined to make the word hobo. Some say that soldiers returning home from the Civil War needed to find work thus they traveled doing migratory agricultural work referring to them as “hoe boys” and later changed to hobo.

Tramps are often called hoboes or bums, but although all three are migrants, they are not the same thing. Ben L. Reitman, who tramped a good deal himself, remarked that a hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders. Migratory workers, if they apply any of the terms to themselves, are more likely than not to say they are hoboes. (Quote is from the Story of American Railroads by Stewart H. Holbrook.)

The definition of a hobo that some of the hobo family of today use is:

A Hobo travels and works

A Tramp travels but won’t work

A Bum neither travels nor works (such as a home guard or homeless person)

Home guard in the hobo culture is a person who does not travel but stays put in the same area or town and won’t work. I don’t like the definition a tramp will travel but won’t work. In today’s hobo culture most of the people who ride the rails refer to themselves as Tramps. I recently asked a rail rider about their definition. This is what I was told:

A Hobo is our forefather who rode the rails

A Tramp is a brotherhood of people who ride the rails of today

A Bum is a person who has no tobacco

I like this definition best. It is more fitting of rail riders known as hoboes of today. Tramps do work at city markets unloading trucks; doing day labor temporary work such at a ball stadium, etc; and sometime if no work will fly a sign (pan handle) stating Traveling need help for food and personal provisions. The jobs a tramp usually gets are just for a few days and then they are back to riding the rails. It is an honor to be accepted to the brotherhood or sisterhood of the tramps. They are a tight caring group of people.

One tramp in particular comes to Kansas City and works as a brick mason and does beautiful work during the summer and then moves on during the winter months.

There is another type person who rides the rails who does not fit the description above of a hobo or tramp. This person is dangerous and in some cases has been serial killers riding the rails and giving the hobos or tramps a bad name. A good example was Ramirez the Mexican riding the rails a few years ago robbing and killing people in their homes. He is now on death row. His publicity of riding the rails harmed the good name of a hobo or tramp. Unfortunately today there are several people who ride the rails who are there only to rob or kill hobos. The old hobo glossary from years ago would term this class of people who robbed or were bad as yeggers.

Today there are several Mexican fleeing their country for America. They are not considered hobos but a person who has selected to ride the rails to get to their destination.

In the book The Alabama Hobo by Horace Hampton, SR. who rode the rails at one point in his life gives definition.

A few words need to be written to acquaint the reader with the definition of a hobo. It has been said that the word hobo is shortened term for “hoe boy”. Many years ago the hoe boys were migrant farm workers who followed the seasonal crops and worked on farms, orchards or vineyards until the season was over and then they moved on to other work. The farm owners would speak of them as hoe boys and eventually the word “hobo”. A hobo is different from a bum, tramp, or wino. He is an itinerant worker who satisfies his wanderlust to be free.

Hobo from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hobo is a term that refers to a subculture of wandering homeless people, particular 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. Bindle stiff is an alternative term for hobo.

The hobo imagery has been employed by entertainers to create wildly successful characters in the past, two of them being Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willy” and Red Skelton’s “Freddy the Freeloader”.

Hobos, themselves seem to differentiate themselves as travelers who are willing to do work, whereas a “tramp” will travel but will not work and a “bum” will do neither.

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”.


It is unclear exactly when hobos appeared on the American railroading scene. With

The end of the American Civil War in the mid 19th Century, many soldiers looking to return home took to hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed railroads westward aboard freight trains in the late 19th Century.

The population of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free via freight trains and try their luck elsewhere.

Nowadays there are very few railroad-riding hobos left. Some itinerant individuals today travel by car rather than rail, but still identify themselves as hobos.

Life as a hobo was dangerous one. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, far from home and support, and the hostile attitude of many train crews, the railroads employed their own security staff, often nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation for being rough with trespassers. Also, riding on a freight train is a dangerous enterprise. One can easily fall under the wheels; get trapped between cars, or freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed. Hobos tended to band together for protection and formed an informal “brotherhood”.

Knight of the road is a person who rides the rails known as a hobo or tramp.

Flintstone Kids are the young kids who run away from home to ride the rails. Several of the kids have tattoos and body piercing. Some hobos call them road kids.

Road Kids are young kids riding the rails today and also during the Great Depression.

Recreation Hobo Rail Rider is a person who lives in a dwelling (house or apartment) and works. He or she uses their vacation time from work to ride the rails. Sometimes the person is retired from work and rides the rails on occasion.

Hobo at Heart is a person who has the passion to want-to-be a hobo but realizes it is too dangerous to ride the rails. He or she loves to hear hobo stories and music.

Friend of the hoboes is a person who participates in the National Hobo Convention or Hobo Gatherings keeping the hobo history alive.

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