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On the Road Again: Pinkerton on the Tramp

The word “tramp” came into common usage in the 1870s as a disparaging description of homeless men thrown out of work by the economic depression and forced to take to the road in search of a job or food. Fears of the “tramp menace” were revived during the even more devastating depression that began in 1893. Many Americans viewed tramps with a combination of fear and disgust. The 1878 work Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives, written by the famous detective Allan Pinkerton, presented a somewhat more mixed portrait of the tramp. In this chapter on “Tramp Printers and Tramp Encampments,” Pinkerton expressed some sympathy for the plight of people thrown out of work by the depression, grudgingly admired the audacity of the tramping printers, and argued against treating all tramps as criminals. Still, like other middle-class observers before and since, Pinkerton wanted to separate those he saw as the “deserving” poor from poor people he viewed as undeserving and possibly dangerous.

While there are numberless distinct classes of tramps in our country, all deserving of notice, I have not the space to treat of them separately; and, before passing from the subject, will only briefly refer to one class which in my opinion stands pre-eminent as representative of tramps. These are the tramp-printers. Never was there another such a shrewd, good-natured, harmless, and yet reckless class of strollers on earth. It is also a fact with printers as a body of workmen, that there is scarcely a man among their tens of thousands that has not at some time “tramped it.” In fact, a printer is ordinarily considered “no good” when he cannot definitely refer to this mark of graduation and proficiency, and there is not a newspaper or job office in the world that has not its tramp-printer, and that does not count upon periodical visitations from that irrepressible individual. There have been bright exceptions where printers have secured a competency, as they are all able to, and social standing, as any man can do; but, as a rule, they are inclined to a frequent use of the “flowing bowl,” almost invariably are gamblers, or rather are a source of great profit to professional gamblers, and are, one and all, from a subtle and unexplainable spirit of adventure of which the craft seem possessed, full of a chronic restlessness that permits of no stability or reliability. Watch any printing office in America for a month. It may retain the same foreman for that length of time, but what a change has there been at the “cases”! Every day or two a new face appears, and one that has become familiar disappears. They have gone to “carry the banner.” (“Carrying the banner ” is a slang phrase among printers, denoting that the ensign-bearer is living without work, upon his wits, which are usually equal to every emergency.) No one has ever seen this mysterious emblem of the craft, but every printer has patriotically borne it with a heroism worthy of a better cause.

Printers are not all tramps, but, as stated, there is scarcely a printer who has not at some time been upon the road. The fraternity are quite proud of their accomplishments in this direction. Half the chatting among the employees of an office is upon the adventures of certain of their number, or of some particularly chronic old walker who has made a national reputation for himself on account of some noteworthy achievement in the tramp line, or who has some interesting personal characteristics. There are often among these confirmed tramp-printers, men of most brilliant minds and winning manners; but they long ago gave up the idea of it being necessary for them to labor, and they would scorn to do a square day’s work at the “case;” but they are always tolerated, for tramping is a recognized pleasure and necessity among printers.

The course taken by the regular tramp when he “strikes a town,” as it is called, is to immediately hunt up the printing-offices—and he usually has learned how the land lays from some compatriot upon the road who has too recently “worked” the same offices to return. Climbing to the aromatic quarters usually occupied as the composing-room, he sneaks about the door until he has “piped off” the foreman, and has mentally taken his measure, when he boldly approaches that petty tyrant with some assurance and the question:

“How’s business, boss?”

The foreman may want a man, and may give the tramp work at once. As a rule, however, there is not much to be done, and the tramp has no deep desire for it, if there is. It is immediate financial aid that he wants; and his whole talent is to be used with that end in view. He will probably get a bluff reply from the foreman.

“Well,” says the tramp, “the office is good for a night, isn’t it?”

This means: “If I can’t get work, I can get lodging and a little lift on the road, can’t I?” and, after he has sacredly promised to “throw in” three or four “thousand” (distribute three or four thousand “ems” of type) in the morning, he considers himself quite at home.

He will then immediately edge around among, the boys and “nick the office.” "Nicking“ the office consists in begging among the printers for nickels, or any other loose change they may have to bestow; and the tramp under these circumstances will not despise even coppers. He may not get a quarter all together. Often he gets several dollars. But the good fortune of getting anything always depends upon whether the foreman is good-natured or not. At night the strolling guest usually rests his classic form on the composing-room floor, sometimes upon the ”imposing stone,“ if it is large enough, for the rats cannot reach this safe elevation, oftener upon the ”stock"—the piles of printing-paper—and, if the foreman is soft-hearted enough, the knight of the road may be favored with a luxurious couch upon the floor of the editor’s sanctum, or, if he has a sofa, upon that convenient piece of furniture.

He is always true to his word of the night previous, and in the morning, fulfills his promise as to the distribution of type. Sometimes he gets steady work for a week or two; but if he remained until he made five hundred dollars, he would invariably “carry the banner” out of town, having “played in” his money at the faro-bank, or lived a gay life, as printers know so well how to do; and he takes up the old tramping perfectly satisfied with his record, and philosophically looks ahead with the brightest of hope to future conquests.

Upon the road again he is the genuine tramp, and that is all. He only differs from other classes of the same genus homo in greater versatility, and possibly readier wits. He never fails, however needy he may become, to keep posted on the current events of the day; and therefore, when commingling with other tramps, holds something of the position of an oracle. The box-car, the hay-rick, the hedge, the arches of the road or railway bridge, the hen-roosts, are all familiar to him just as they are to all other tramps.

Probably one of the greatest night rendezvous for tramp-printers in this country is at the Battery, in New York city, in the summer. These careless fellows will hang about the printing-offices, hide about for printers in luck to borrow a “half-case” (a half-dollar) from them, and sun themselves in City Hall Square upon the benches until night. Then the police will drive them out, and, in company with the “panjerkers”—all that large class of loafers who subsist by rendering some slight service about restaurants—they begin “moving on.” By eight o’clock, down every approach to the lower part of the island, will be seen these squads of tramps straggling along to the Battery; and by midnight hundreds will be asleep upon the benches, leaning against lamp-posts, stretched upon the ground, and even lying upon the wharf with their ragged legs hanging over. The police permit this, because they must go somewhere. There is nobody to be molested at the Battery at night. Nothing can be stolen, for there is nothing to steal. And so through the warm summer nights these outcasts have a place that is secure from intrusion, and remain in undisturbed possession until daylight, when the awakening life of the great city is the signal for the police to rouse them, and roughly move them on again, when they straggle away north, past Trinity, to repeat their previous day’s strange experiences.

Many statements are made as to the Freemasonry of tramping. I have been told by old knights of the road that these signs and pass-words were in use, but almost wholly among those who have been born and bred tramps, and whose fathers and mothers have followed begging and tramping as a profession in the old country. Among this class every possible art and device is resorted to. Charts of the country, showing the best routes for travel, and of cities, designating the most benevolent neighborhoods, are common. This same class have a regular system of operation. In the cities they beg during the winter, and when summer comes, one of a party will start out in advance and “work a route” as a peddler or tinker. In this way, as he stops at nearly every house on a designated route, he will have learned the character of the inmates, whether they are benevolent or rude, and he seldom takes his departure without leaving some pre-arranged sign to indicate to him who follows after, just where, and where not, to make application. These scamps become such keen and correct judges of people and surroundings that they scarcely ever commit an error; and if one could read the hieroglyphics upon doorsteps, gate, fence, or tree, which is usually laid to the chalk or jackknife of the bad boy of the neighborhood, they could ascertain just what opinion was had of them by the tramps who have passed that way. But deciphering these symbols is simply impossible, for each party establishes its own signs, which are changed as often as it may be necessary; for, if this were not so, some still more characterless fellow might follow the advance courier and take the benefit of his labor.

But these things are only true of the professional tramp, who has nothing to recommend him to public interest save his shrewdness and persistency. He has no romance about him, and follows this sort of life simply because he has been bred to it. It is only the tramp who has been something better, can be something better, or that, being what he is, has humor and bravery about him, that I consider really worthy of the name.

Throughout Pennsylvania, as well as many other Eastern states, there are whole communities of outcasts who, for a better name, are called tramps.

During the great strikes of '77 one of my operatives, in the pursuance of his duty at Wilkesbarre, Pa., suddenly came upon a bivouac of tramps near a coal-shaft, which had been deserted by the miners who had struck and were participating in the general excitement at Wilkesbarre.

This grotesque company numbered thirty or forty persons, and had evidently been gathered at this particular point in anticipation of possible opportunities for raids in every direction while the locality was deserted. They were cooking their supper at the edge of the timber among the rocky bluffs and beneath overarching, protecting trees. The moon, rising above the lonesome old breaker, fell across the camp, giving its inmates a weird, witch-like appearance as they moved about in the lights and shadows. They seemed to be a tired dreary, wretched lot, and had the marks of travel and weary wandering upon them. Most of them had fallen upon the ground for rest, and in all sorts of sluggish positions were dozing in a stupid, sodden way that told of brutish instincts and experiences. In the centre of the encampment a huge kettle was placed over a bright fire, and from the longing looks around it, it evidently contained some stirabout that would prove palatable upon being served. Some were dressing chickens lately foraged from convenient hen-roosts; some were husking green corn for roasting in the coals; others were munching potatoes that had been baked in the ashes; others were making rude toilets with almost toothless combs, and old rags for towels; while some, the most fortunate of all from the tramp standpoint, were indulging in copious draughts of liquor to drown their sorrows, raise their spirits, and whet their appetites. There were old men, abandoned women, the wretchedest of wretched hags, young persons in the heyday of health and strength, and little children, prematurely old and shrewish; but all seemed as contented and satisfied with their fortunes as though it was all they deserved and better than they expected.

The next morning the encampment broke up, and Gypsy-like, its members went different ways, possibly to again meet at some pre-arranged retreat the same night, and possibly to never again form another like vagabond assemblage.

In a strip of wood on the Darby road, near Philadelphia, and in a most picturesque spot, is a regular settlement of tramps, who live in the same place winter and summer. Sometimes a portion of them are away upon the road, but it always seems that others come from a mysterious somewhere to take their places; so that; though the members are ever changing, the number is nearly the same throughout the year. During the day they lounge around fires made of dry limbs gathered from the forest, and built between convenient crevices in the rocks. Sometimes they are singing, sometimes cooking, washing, or mending, and very often drinking. When they get out of provisions, they either take to the roads and beg or steal a supply from the farmers, or stroll into the meadows and gather mint and other herbs, or flowers, which they take into the city and sell for whatever they can get, the proceeds of which they usually invest in nine parts whiskey and one part food, and then, returning to camp, inaugurate a regular debauch, when they make the woods ring and ring again with songs and laughter. They have a cabin built of limbs of trees and bark for the more aristocratic of their number, but the majority sleep upon the ground, with any arrangement for protection which their ambition may suggest. One would naturally think that in time they would exhaust their resources and become starved out. But this is not the case. They fare well, and are apparently the happiest and jolliest dogs under the sun. They have women among them, many that yet bear the traces of beauty, and the men seem to show them a rude yet certain kind of respect, though of course these women are always ready for debauch and revelry. At nights, quite like the Gypsies, they lie about the fires, play cards, or sing and dance, and seem to enjoy themselves to the utmost. They have a sort of a leader, and also a woman who holds the relation of a semi-barbaric queen. All that is requisite for admission to this Druidical tribe is the certain evidences which a tramp or outcast wears; the lower you are, the more sure of a welcome you are. While you remain, you may have as good as they have, providing you show yourself willing, to assist to the extent of your ability. You may possibly pay your way with well-sung songs or well-told tales; but otherwise, you must do enough pilfering or begging to contribute your share to the common fund, or you must take to the road again of your own accord to avoid a broken head and summary ejection.

It is also a fact, which is probably unknown to a hundred people within that city, that within the limits of Philadelphia, on the banks of the Schuylkill river, near Grey’s Ferry, and immediately back of and below the almshouse, is a long reach of swampy land known as “The Reeds,” which, during the summer, is completely filled with tramps. The spot has hundreds of clump willows which afford shade and protection for these outcasts, who flock here from the city, as also from the country, in large numbers. The almshouse is conveniently near, and these lazy crowds, from some unexplainable reason, are kept pretty well supplied from that institution. This rendezvous is a regular hotel for both male and female tramps—if a spot where men and women of this class may be entirely free from police molestations, and are able to loll about day and night to their hearts' content, may be called a hotel. This spot, however, is a perfect heaven for tramps. The river is at hand for a bath after night; the almshouse is close by, and from it abundant supplies can be begged; they are within the city, where all sorts of tramp tricks may be played with an immediate opportunity to escape consequences. Every advantage and facility is here offered, and they are all taken advantage of. If one could happen in upon this spot at mid-day and could remain unobserved, he could get a view of these outcasts at their best as tramps. Sequestered in the dark, cool recesses, beneath these heavy clump willows, would be gathered between fifty and a hundred tramps of all ages, conditions, and sex, and all lying about promiscuously, alone or in little knots, near smoldering fires. Here may be an old man, all alone and glad of it; there, a young fellow with his head upon his bundle, lazily smoking and contemplating the clouds through the trembling leaves of the trees above. At another spot are gathered three or four men and women, joking and chatting, and possibly making love in their rude fashion. Another party may be playing cards; another, earnestly discussing some project for future execution; while others are relating with evident relish some adventure upon the road or within the city, where a simpleton had been outwitted, or an officer evaded and outgeneraled. But the stick and bundle are everywhere. The lazy, contented vagabond leer and look are everywhere. It matters little how the elections go, whether the banks break, or whether revolutions occur. They are all contented, at least for the time being, and are well satisfied with life from what it has brought for the day.

They are a study, for one cannot help wondering what misery has been experienced before this stolid and philosophic acceptance of a vagabond condition was reached. The mind of the ordinary looker-on naturally inquires if it is possible for these outcasts to really enjoy their degrading experiences; and it will puzzle you to decide whether in all the world there is any place for them to go to if they would, or if among them all there are not some who would be gladly received among the old friends, were this kind of life abandoned.

Many pathetic and tragic incidents are daily occurring to add interest to this subject. One has not to go far beyond the daily newspapers to find this true.

A tramp once hung himself at Columbus, Ohio, by twisting a spool of cotton into a rope and suspending himself from a nail in the wall.

Another writes to the Philadelphia Times that he may manage to beg his way perhaps two weeks more, but that he has become desperate and will make his mark upon something before he “caves.”

Peter B. Lee, the noted tramp-printer, met his death by attempting to board a train and steal a ride. He had been a man of a good deal of independence of character, and had never before made an effort of this kind. Nearly his last words were: “Served me right for goin' back on principle!”

During the passage of the celebrated fast train sent from New York to San Francisco, by Jarrett & Palmer, in '77, a tramp, desiring to reach San Francisco, boarded the train at Cheyenne, climbed to the top of the coach, and enjoyed hugely his elegant and rapid manner of making the journey until Sherman was reached. At that point the engineer got a glimpse of him and he at once began throwing a heavy shower of cinders and increasing the speed of the train to the utmost power of the engine. The rapidity of the train and the rolling and lurching of the coach caused the tramp to wind his arms and legs around a stove-pipe and hang on for dear life. His hat flew off quickly, and left his head and face almost wholly unprotected. His coat-tails flapped so hard that he saw he must lose them, but he dared not loosen his grip upon the pipe to tuck them under him, and they were shortly torn off like leaves whipped from a limb by a terrific storm. The lighter cinders passed over him, but the heavier ones pelted him like the fiercest hail, burned into his clothes, cut his arms, legs, and face, and beat upon the poor fellow’s head remorselessly. So great was his actual physical suffering, and so terrible his fear lest he be hurled from the train and killed, that when the train reached Green River, and he was let down more dead than alive, his hair had turned gray, and he looked more like an old man of sixty than a lad of nineteen as he was.

Instances illustrating the risks run, the dangers encountered, the sacrifices made, the suffering, privation, and terror that frequently come with the tramp’s experience, as well as an occasional exhibition of the better human traits which are developed, could be repeated indefinitely.

In leaving this subject, I can only express a most earnest conviction, founded on personal observation and study of this peculiar class of people, that no severe measures will ever eradicate the evils to society which arise from tramps and tramping. Like the poor, we shall always have them with us. If you throw a man in prison as a vagabond, you leave the prison taint upon him, and forever after he is embittered and at war with his fellows. It may be desirable—indeed, it may be found necessary, to provide some measures for weeding out the more dangerous of tramps. But as a class they are not criminals, and we have no right to take such measures against them as will make them such. They have always existed; will always exist. Their rapid increase, which is so alarming to certain kid-gloved social scientists, is the direct result of unprecedented hard times and conditions which a great and protracted war has left as a legacy. When these pass away, and brighter days return to our industries, people will see tramps disappear from the highways and byways—not altogether, for this will never be, but the thousands among them who have trades and professions will gradually but surely return to them.

But during this period, when the hard hand of necessity bears down so heavily alike upon business man and workingman, and when we, who may be situated in comfort, are so apt to forget the keen needs of thousands of our fellows who have fought the fight against persistent and relentless misfortune, and fallen, there should be a more general leniency towards a class who are made up of people often as good as we; and some charity should be exercised, rather than a relentless war inaugurated, the result of which will only be to reclaim no one of them, and rapidly increase crime and criminals.

Source: Alan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives (New York: G.W. Carleton and Co., Publishers, 1878).

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