newly-public-domain hobo-related news
February 8, 2019 5:24 PM   Subscribe

From the Tucson Daily Star, February 18, 1923:
GIRL HOBO CROSSING CONTINENT THREE TIMES ENDS HER TRAIL IN THE OLD PUEBLO 19 YEAR OLD WIFE LEAVES HUSBAND TO MAKE HER OWN WAY BY BUMMING AROUND. Mrs. Virginia W. Stopher, Adopted Daughter of Wealthy Parents, Forsakes Mate Rather Than Work For Him. Three times across the continent in seven months! Riding the “blinds” during heavy rains! Reading poetry by the firelight of the “jungle”! Traveling on the same train as dozens of hobos, bums, criminals, and escaped convicts! These, all these and more, are the experiences of Mrs. Virginia W. Stopher, girl hobo, who spent part of the past week in Tucson. Yes, a girl hobo, for she is but 19 years old.
posted by ChuraChura (30 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man I just realized “Girl Hobo” is my true username

It’s the username on my heart

Thanks for this post!
posted by schadenfrau at 5:55 PM on February 8 [27 favorites]

Boned in this context most likely means begged from as per the 1920's slang, not what it means now. I really like the idea of gentlemanly hobos who beat guys up if they cuss in front of women.
posted by gryftir at 6:02 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]

But I don’t want to be too harsh with him for he comes of a southern family and is slow, lazy, and just naturally a poor and a lagging thinker


I wonder where her life ended up, and how much of the story was true.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]

But I don’t want to be too harsh with him for he comes of a southern family and is slow, lazy, and just naturally a poor and a lagging thinker,” she continued.

Must...resist....snarky comment....
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:42 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Oh fuck it.

See! Florida's *always* been this way!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:43 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]

The inspiration for my next Call of Cthulhu character
posted by Merus at 6:48 PM on February 8 [7 favorites]

Hobo code is a nifty little thing to investigate. It is a whole wacky subculture.

A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.

Okay, got it.

Three diagonal lines mean it's not a safe place.

Okay, but is there still a dog?

A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.

Okay, I'll have a nap now. Safe to camp. More bo codes here.
posted by vrakatar at 6:51 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Ooh I know this one! So the old stereotype of Southerners being lazy and slow might have *some* basis in fact, because prior to like the 50s hookworm was SUPER common in the southern states. Some people theorize this had to do with outdoor toilets in rural areas coupled with a tendency of children to not wear shoes (either because they couldn't afford them until they stopped growing, or because of the heat in summer) So kids would get infected young and that would affect their brains their whole lives, especially before the proper anti-parasitics were developed. Eventually hookworm was largely eradicated by a combo of medicines/indoor plumbing/shoe wearing. So her husband might have had a hookworm infection!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 6:52 PM on February 8 [29 favorites]

Adoptee superhero(ine), as per my thesis
posted by mwhybark at 6:56 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]

posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:05 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]

My mom and dad were declared Duke and Dutchess of The Hobos because of the support my family gave to the hoboing community. That honorific was given by the hobos themselves at their annual convention in Britt, Iowa.

When we moved to Britt in the mid-1970s, Steam Train Maury Graham - quite possibly the greatest hobo of the 20th century - remembered my grandfather’s generosity during the Great Depression and we subsequently became friends with he and many other hobos over the years.

Along with Steam Train, I can count Fry Pan Jack, Mountain Dew, Virginia Slim, and Slow Poke Shorty among the genuine characters who populated my childhood.

The passing of hobo culture is a real loss to our cultural heritage.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 7:11 PM on February 8 [91 favorites]

Called hobos or bums then, called homeless now. I'd guess -- but it is a guess -- I'd guess that there is less of riding trains today then there was a hundred years ago.

Her telling of learning how to grab on, and when to grab on when jumping those trains, seems that would be an important piece. She really did have guts. Make a mistake and lose a leg, or both legs, probably your life.

Living outdoors in southern Arizona means remarkably tough cacti of every description, scorpions, black widow spiders, rattlesnakes. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet but it's that raw, elemental beauty. Sleep outdoors in southern Arizona and you maybe won't sleep well. If at all. There are scorpions and black widow spiders *indoors* in southern Arizona; outdoors you are in their house now.

It would be great to have a followup, how did Virginia spend the rest of her life. I don't see her settling for a dull life, she's too much of a character and has too much character. I don't see her going back into that dead marriage. I'm glad she didn't have a child with that boat anchor of a husband.

I love how she described getting charity from Mexican families, when gringo families turned their backs on a hungry baby. Get to a park here at 8 AM and you'll see a few people gathering then moving together a bunch of picnic tables, taking from their vehicles coolers of food and ice and beer and soft drinks and more food, great picnic food, nobody is going to leave hungry for sure. By 11 AM everybody is there, noon at the latest, and there is cooking now, and children chasing and screeching, and mothers putting bandaids on scraped knees and elbows, and then they're back to throwing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball or whatever.

Mexican families know way more than most other US families will ever know about family values, *everybody* is at those picnics: the entire family, and that's including the troubled aunt, the rebellious son, and the kid in the wheelchair, the old person in a wheelchair. All are there, and all are included, nobody is off to one side. If you asked them for help for a hungry baby they'd be there faster than the trains Virginia road back and forth cross the country. And they'll want to hold the baby, too, they'll gather around, and coo, and wave, and talk silly, and play peek-a-boo, and get that baby to laughing, and they'll tell you that it's a beautiful baby, even if that child has got a face that scares off the dog.


It's easy for me to be afraid of and judge harshly people who are doing the best they can. When I had this major bicycle wreck I was unconscious in the street, a lot of my belongings scattered all around -- when I came to, I found that it was homeless people who had gathered up my belongings and set them off the street, and were stopping traffic, and helping me in any way they could.


Jack London's wrote of his travels in his autobiography, wrote of crossing and re-crossing the US riding the rods as a young man. It would be great if Virginia had married Jack London, I see her as a good match, easily able to keep up with him, and like him slide from any social strata into any other, knowing that refinement is, well, fine, but grit is great, too. Together they'd become millionaire socialists in Oakland, travel the world eating out of tin cans or in the finest restaurants, and just as happy in either case.


Hell of a story. Great post. Virginia was one hell of a human being. I hope she had as great a life as it started. I really would love to know.
posted by dancestoblue at 8:07 PM on February 8 [38 favorites]

I'd guess that there is less of riding trains today then there was a hundred years ago.

While nothing like the social phenomenon a century ago, rail hopping is still very popular among the contemporary equivalent of hobos, crusties and gutter punks. In fact, there's an entire YouTube genre devoted to rail hopping across the United States, and even in Mexico and South America.

This particular video documents the trip from Seattle to Los Angeles. There's one part of the video in northern California where virtually every car on the train is occupied by rail hoppers, hitching a free ride south.

The king of the YouTube rail hoppers was Stobe the Hobo, who died about a year-and-a-half ago on an Amtrak Line I think on Rhode Island. Stobe was a true hobo. While he had family in Colorado, he chose to spend most of his time riding the rails, drinking a lot of beer. The latter habit probably resulted in his death.
posted by JamesBay at 9:40 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]

You know one half the hobos are Reds and the other half K.K.K.

Good lord, the early hobos were Extremely Online.
posted by aaronetc at 9:48 PM on February 8 [22 favorites]

Hopping freights is among the most dangerous things I've done, and I include some pretty goddamn stupid risks in that list.

Really, Do Not Do It. You can no-joke die in the blink of an eye after 22 hours of riding when you've just finally let your guard down because you're clear of all the yards, you're picking up speed and it's all going great. Next thing, you're dying for five minutes.

Maybe it was easier in days past, maybe they just didn't give a shit if you died, I dunno. She alludes to the danger (lucky to still have legs) but doesn't make it truly clear.

... but really, scoring some awesome smack and giving it a whirl despite not knowing anyone that's tried that mark before? Genius compared to freights.

Looking for cachet? Try Russian roulette, it's much more convenient.

I survived. Others didn't. It's just blind fucking luck and there is no reason for new kids to die that way.

I mean, I'm sure she was nifty, but my God please please please don't.
posted by aramaic at 11:23 PM on February 8 [14 favorites]

I found it interesting that before launching into the actual tale of her SEVEN MONTHS AMONG THE HOBOS, the paper makes sure that the first things you learn about Virginia establish her as refined, rich, educated, "womanly"... in other words, "it's OK, America- you can read about her, you're not being prurient or scandal-mongering or descending into any scandalous realms of sensationalism.... she is just one of those rich eccentrics, she's not a slut, she isn't ruined, she isn't anything terrible, trust us, we talked to her and vetted her, here are her bona fides, really- it's totally fine for you to read this story..."

Yet she comes of a refined and well-to-do family and is the adopted daughter of an elderly man and wife who are worth a half million dollars. She is a high school graduate and for five years her name was on the list for entrance into the exclusive Wellesley College, an exclusive Massachusetts college for women. She passed the entrance examinations with the exception of mathematics, for these she lacked sufficient credits.

ven after seven months association with the criminals and riffraff of the country the refinement has not been lost. There is about her an air of well breeding and womanliness which has not been marred by the light banter with men.

posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:33 AM on February 9 [7 favorites]

America On Line.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:45 AM on February 9 [6 favorites]

This is great. I am writing a novel set in 1924 and need an outside-traditional-Anglo-society character for certain plot points. First draft has an Armenian refugee in this role, but I'm having trouble making him not an Orientalist stereotype. Maybe I'll reassign to Girl Hobo.

I_Love_Bananas, I read that as an over-the-top satire of Good Girl Gone Wrong melodrama that was popular in the era. Maybe people in the 1920s were way naive, but it's hard to imagine anyone taking that stuff about Wellesley at face value, for instance. I bet she spun some yarn to the reporter, who then embellished it further, and there was no fact-checking of any kind. Nellie-Bly-style investigative journalism it ain't.
posted by basalganglia at 5:35 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

But how much of this tale truly takes place in outer space, I ask you.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:07 AM on February 9 [9 favorites]

aramaic: So I'd definitely add catching out on Emergency Dispatch Ships to that list. Turns out many of them are only fuelled to within an ace of zero tolerance for failure, so on a mercy mission to deliver medicines or some such there's really no option but to jettison a stowaway through the airlock!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:12 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Hopping freights is among the most dangerous things I've done, and I include some pretty goddamn stupid risks in that list.

I've done a lot of stupid things over the years, but this is the only thing that I still (20+ years later) get occasional nightmares about. I'm glad I did it and might even do it again in the right situation, but for dumb and dangerous it definitely takes the cake.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:02 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

good way to end up like Phyllis Stalnaker
posted by thelonius at 7:15 AM on February 9

Why is it so dangerous?
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:18 AM on February 9

Trains are moving a lot faster than they appear to be and they don't stop if you don't quite make it on or off the moving train while jumping.
posted by yhbc at 7:31 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Maybe it was easier in days past, maybe they just didn't give a shit if you died

Probably both. Although we don't generally think of freight trains as "fast", they accelerate a lot faster than they did during the steam era, and spend less time being shunted around in yards. Modern cars are also sturdier than the wooden boxcars that were common during the Depression, and I suspect the forces they're subject to during movements are higher.

There's a whole art to managing the "slack" in a (US style, unbuffered coupling) long freight train that's very different with steam locomotives than diesel-electric, because steam locomotives don't have as much starting torque. Also there aren't brakemen going along the train and manually working the car brakes (though there are some automated systems for selectively releasing brakes at the rear of the train). But generally, the impression I've gotten is that diesels and modern brakes allow engineers to do stuff a lot more quickly, and the danger to someone trying to ride one must be much higher.

I would definitely not want to be holding onto a grab rail at the end of a long train when it "took slack"; I think you'd easily dislocate your arm. I'm surprised people manage it at all. The timing must be very fine indeed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:50 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

There was a fascinating homeless man in this neighborhood for years. I asked him what was his prefered term for his condition/station. He said, "Hobo, or free radical."
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:19 AM on February 9 [7 favorites]

I would definitely not want to be holding onto a grab rail at the end of a long train when it "took slack"; I think you'd easily dislocate your arm. I'm surprised people manage it at all. The timing must be very fine indeed.

Slack action can be scary, but it's not as bad as you're suggesting. I've clutched a ladder at the back of a freight train several times when the slack gets pulled out. It is intense, but not in arm-dislocation territory.

One cool thing about the slack action is how you can hear it coming down the train, as each coupling snaps into tension. This gives you an opportunity to prepare psychologically. Waking up to the slack while sleeping on a freight train is one of the most jarring experiences of the whole enterprise.

Another cool thing is the effect of rear locomotives ("distributed power units" in rail jargon) on slack. You can hear the slack action domino effect propagate toward the back of the trains when the front locomotives are a bit ahead and couplings come under tension, and then the opposite as the rear units catch up and put some of them into compression. I've even had the misfortune once of being near the middle of a train on a car that was continually slamming back and forth between its front and rear couplings. The "oh that's so nifty" thrill wore off after the first hour.
posted by andrewpcone at 8:22 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

I don't know how much this was exaggerated, but I have also heard warnings about railroad gangs, and people being robbed, raped, and murdered. Certainly it seems that Joe College deciding to go slumming with a nice backpack and a wallet full of cash and a sack of weed would be an attractive target for people who aren't living down and out for adventure.
posted by thelonius at 11:10 AM on February 9

Came here to link to Squat the Planet and note how many memorial threads there are. Riding trains is dangerous.
posted by domo at 7:50 AM on February 11

Certainly it seems that Joe College deciding to go slumming with a nice backpack and a wallet full of cash and a sack of weed would be an attractive target for people who aren't living down and out for adventure.

You're confused. There is not, and never has been, a clear distinction between who is living a given way "for adventure" and who are the "real people." People may be initially attracted to something like trainhopping out of some sort of romantic impulse, but anyone who does it long term has reasons that extend beyond that. More or less no one rides trains in the US simply to get from point A to point B because they are broke. Riding trains strictly to travel inside has been barely a thing for decades. The reasons people ride trains are complex, and they do not break down into some bourgeois-v-proletarians dichotomy like Joe College weekenders versus Real™ Hard Core Salt Of The Earth Train Riders.
posted by andrewpcone at 7:54 PM on February 12

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