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The Cook and the Governor: Seeing Eye-to-Eye on Unemployment

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. In this 1893 letter to Kansas governor Lorenzo Dow Lewelling, out-of-work cook R. L. Robinson expressed dismay for the harsh treatment he and a traveling companion received while looking for work in Kewanee, Kansas. Lewelling was far more sympathetic to jobless travelers than other government officials, in part, from personal experience. He himself had wandered the roads in search of work in the 1870s depression.

We managed to pay all expenses until we arrived at Sponset but being unable to make a sale there, we became stranded, but at night a good hearted conductor allowed us to rideto Kewanee which he though[t] would be a good town, at the same time advising us to stay in the calaboose over night. After arriving at Kewanee we went to the calaboose and explained our circumstances and ask permission to stay over night, to which the officer in charge readily consented, so after being searched we were placed in a cell there being no covering but simply an iron bench to lay upon but we were thankful for even that and tried to sleep. about one o’clock we were commanded to get up and go into the office where we were subject to a cross-examination as to where we had worked & after which we were told to get into the cell again and talking in a [tone] much worse than a man would talk to a dog he said we had come to town on the bridge and we would have to get out in the same manner the first thing in the morning. My friend explained that he wanted to see the Mayor in the morning and secure permit to sell or else look for work, but was told if we tried to sell or look for work, he would arrest us, at the same time calling my friend an impudent pup e[t]c. . . .

I think such treatment as that would soon make a criminal of me, and I really believe that many criminals are made in this manner.

Source: R. L. Robinson to Lorenzo D. Lewelling, 5 December 1893, Lewelling Papers, Kansas State Historical Society. Reprinted in Norman Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (Indianapolis, New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), 333–334.

See Also:"If A Diogenes Prefers Poverty": Lewelling Defends the Rights of the Unemployed
On the Road Again: Pinkerton on the Tramp