An Occasional Hobo
Josiah Flynt Willard’s Journey from Tramp to America’s Leading Expert on Hoboland to Enemy of the Tramps
In 1900, Josiah Flynt Willard, writer, amateur sociologist, and sometime hobo, published Notes of an Itinerant Policeman. In the book, he describes the often-unsavory world of fin de siècle American tramps: their begging strategies, their caste systems and codes, their hot tempers and underdeveloped intellects, their reasons for becoming tramps in the first place (number one: liquor). One of the book’s more compelling chapters is entitled What Tramps Read. This is one facet of tramp life one might not immediately think of, but its inclusion in the book makes a lot of sense. Because, really, who has more time to read than a tramp? As it turns out, they’re not all that different from the rest of us. When young, they like “dime novels and stories of adventure”; later, they graduate to pulps, for their “spicy articles and glaring pictures.” Detective stories are popular, as are the works of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and William Thackeray, even if, as one tramp tells Willard, Vanity Fair could have been much improved had it been “choked off in the middle.”
One author these wandering readers might not have cared for, however, was Willard himself. At nineteen, the Illinois native embarked on an eight-month tramp through several states, riding the rails, begging for meals and clothes, learning the hobo’s arcane language. Over the next decade, Willard entered college, left college, tramped through Germany, Italy, and Russia, met Ibsen and Tolstoy, then tramped some more. Under the pen name “Josiah Flynt,” Willard wrote stories of his adventures for magazines and journals of the day. By the time Willard published his first book, Tramping with Tramps, in 1899, he was the country’s foremost authority on the subject. Van Wyck Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Flowering of New England, called him the Audubon of the tramp world. Jack London dedicated his own tramp diary, The Road, to Willard, describing him as “the real thing, blowed in the glass.”
In his works, Willard neither romanticized tramp life nor defended it. If, as Todd DePastino noted in Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, “Willard challenged the middle class’s conventional wisdom about tramps, overturning fearsome stereotypes that had been born during the crisis years of the 1870s,” it was hardly intentional. For Willard, these men and boys were lost souls: too lazy to work, too cowardly to steal, addicted to tramping in the same desperate manner that others became hooked on alcohol and tobacco. Willard was a lot like them, as one might expect, and shared many of their shortcomings, most notably, a near-insatiable “go-fever” that called to him throughout his relatively short lifetime. “For nearly forty years,” Willard wrote, “I chased the Beyond—that misty and slippery sorceress, ever beckoning onward to the wanderer, yet never satisfying, never showing herself in her true deceitful colors, until after long years of acquaintance.”
It was this ambivalence toward tramping that brought Willard to lead the most peculiar of double lives. At twenty-eight, after years spent riding the rails, Willard became a railroad “bull,” spying on and ratting out his former colleagues as a patrolman and detective. When he wasn’t pursuing them, Willard wrote about them, denouncing them in newspapers and journals as the basest of men. “At the bottom of their hearts,” he wrote, “they know that theirs is a low world, boasting nothing that can compare with the one which they criticize and carp at.” He called for restrictions on their travel, and more brutal jail sentences for the lawbreakers among them. All the while, he befriended them, supped with them. In at least one instance, a fellow tramp saved his life.
When Willard died in a Chicago hotel room at thirty-seven—“condemned to an early death by an excessive use of stimulants,” one friend wrote—a flurry of post-mortems followed. Friends and peers remarked on Willard’s uncanny ability to transform himself from the man they thought they knew into someone, something, unrecognizable. With but a change in his gait and the way he moved his hands and eyes, a shift in speech so that the listener “could scarce understand one word in five,” Willard, the acclaimed author, became “Cigarette,” American hobo. Following his death, colleagues wondered whether the man had “gone native,” or simply lost himself in his adopted role. None of his friends, however, commented about his transformation from friend of the tramps, and a tramp himself, to one who had few moral qualms about hunting them.
- London was likely being facetious here, but his dedication reveals his acknowledgment of Willard’s status as the “authentic” hobo of his day, even if that status was, to London, unearned. ↩
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