Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Hobo Racket in Michigan

     It's amazing what you can find in a church jumble sale! My mother came back with an ancient publication entitled, The Autobiography of a Super Tramp by W. H. Davies, the first paperback reprint of what was claimed to be a classic. It certainly possessed a foreword by George Bernard Shaw in the original 1907 edition, and had been reprinted in both1920 and 1923 at least, so it had some claim to fame.
    The author was a Welshman who sailed to America and almost at once fell in with a crowd who introduced him to life on the bum. I regret to report that Mr Davies and his comrades were social parasites: work-shy loafers sponging off the misplaced kindness and generosity of Americans. They had all the soft touches down pat: first a free breakfast from Mrs Jones, then a free lunch from Mrs Brown, followed by a relaxing afternoon before hiking to Mrs White's for a free dinner. The genuine down-and-outers - the involuntary homeless and unemployed - didn't appear on his horizon. No doubt they were busy scrounging for work between meals.
     All this is not to say that Mr Davies was averse to work - even dirty, disgusting, and dangerous work - if need be to. Whenever he wanted to return home, he would book passage on a cattle ship, his job being to handle the dangerous beasts on the trans-Atlantic voyage. He picked fruit and berries, which wasn't so bad, but also took employment on the  Chicago Canal, among what he called, "the riff-faff of America and the scum of Europe", on work so arduous that nearly all of them required a week of rest after a month's labour. But when they left, they normally did so in groups, for the canal was infested with gangs intent on murdering - yes, murdering! - them for their wages. Nearly every day the body of a victim was pulled out of the water.
     Down in the deep South, he met elderly black people who informed him they were worse off than when they had been slaves. (It was a not uncommon response of those interviewed in the 1930s for the Slavery Narratives as well.) He was witness to the results of a lynching for a black man arrested for a crime of violence. Also, in a saloon in Paris, Texas he came across something really macabre: a glass case in which was hanging by a cord somewhat the size and shape of a walnut. The printed matter next to it informed him that it was the heart of a negro. Apparently, this fellow had been arrested and imprisoned for a minor offense. Upon his release, he had taken revenge on the sheriff by seizing his small child on her way to school, and dismembered her in the woods. When the townsfolk caught up with him, they burnt him alive, the mother of the little girl applying the torch. I mention all this to remind you that not all the victims of lynchings were innocent.
     However, the main point of this essay was how the hobos spent the winter. He assumed they would head south, but his friends suggested Michigan. With January minimums regularly descending to -7° C (20° F) in Michigan, you might assume it to be an inconvenient place to overwinter, particularly if you are sleeping rough, but it turns out a peculiar legal situation existed which made it all worthwhile. A town marshal would typically be paid a dollar for every arrest he made - and that was a lot of money in those days. A judge would receive three or four dollars for each conviction, while the prison sheriff got a dollar a day for board for each prisoner in his charge, for which he could expect to keep anything left over from the expenses. Thus, there were quite a few people with a vested interest in maximising the number of prisoners, and a select band of wanderers who could do with a warm bed, stout walls, free food and tobacco, and jolly companions. It was a marriage made in heaven.
     Therefore, Mr Davies allowed his friends, Brum and Australian Red, to persuade him to jump a moving freight train to Michigan. I shall now let the author take up the story from when they arrived at a station in a small town known for its pleasant hotel  jail.
     We had been here some fifteen minutes, when we saw the marshal coming down the road leading to the station, the bright star of his authority being seen distinctly on his breast. 'Now,' said Brum. 'let me be the spokesman, and I will arrange for a month's comfort.' By this time the marshal stood before us. 'Boys', he began, 'cold weather for travelling, eh?' 'We don't feel the cold,' was Brum's reply. 'You will though,' said the marshal, 'this is but the beginning, and there is a long and severe winter before you, without a break. You would certainly be better off in jail. Sixty days in our jail, which is considered one of the best, if not the best in Michigan, would do you no harm, I assure you.' 'As for that,' said Brum, 'we might take thirty days each, providing of course, that you made it worth while. What about tobacco and a drink or two for whiskey?' 'That'll be all right,' said the marshal, 'here's half a dollar for a drink, and the sheriff will supply your tobacco.' 'No, no, objected Brum, 'give us a dollar and three cakes of tobacco, and we will take thirty days, and remember, not a day over.'
     With that, the marshal handed over the tobacco, and a dollar - you have to spend money to make money - and told them to meet him later at Donovan's saloon, and to remember to be "merry". With that, they repaired to the said saloon for drinks, and when the marshal arrived, they put on an act of being merry. Indeed, it is recorded that Australian Red, as befits a compatriot of mine, had drunk enough so that he didn't have to put on an act; he was merry. At sight of them, the marshal crossed the road, and in a loud voice announced for the benefit of the passers-by that he was arresting them for being drunk and disorderly.
     The prison sheriff welcomed them with open cells, so to speak. To be precise, they were ushered into a common room where thirty or forty prisoners were pacing around, or else reading, playing cards, or chatting, and they started asking around about old friends. The meals, they discovered, were quite substantial. You must, after all, keep your guests happy. It is easy to calculate that, with so many prisoners, even if the sheriff were able to save only ten cents of every dollars for himself, he could make quite a considerable addition to his salary. At night time they retired to their cells, but were never locked in - except, of course, for the odd prisoner charged with a real crime.
     Come the morning, they were marched down to the courthouse, where the sheriff whispered something in the judge's ear. Interestingly, the coming trial of a local citizen on a genuine charge had attracted a number of onlookers, so the judge had to keep a straight face when dealing with our three musketeers. But he knew his job; he fined them each seven dollars with costs, with thirty days in jail if they defaulted. Of course, they defaulted. (This, incidentally, should give you some idea of the value of money in those days.)
     Every day the sheriff required half a dozen convicts to sweep and clean the courthouse a half a mile away. Davies and Australian Red volunteered a few times to get a little fresh air. It was generally accepted that any convict could just walk out of the jail if he wanted to, but why would he want to? If he had, the sheriff would have hardly called out the hounds. He probably got his dollar whether they were there or not. Besides, as the author pointed out, rounding up an escapee might result in some "awkward disclosures".
     At the end of their sentence, the sheriff exacted from them a promise to return later in the winter, if not the following year, exactly like a hotelier seeking to drum up repeat custom. They then moved off to another town where it wasn't even necessary to go through the farce of arrest. The local sheriff just received them at his own home. One wonders what the marshal of that town was up to! As for the author and his friends, they kept this up until the end of April.
     Reading back on this, I wonder what used to go on during summer. Did the forces of the law arrest transients on trumped up charges, sacrificing justice to personal greed? That might also have led to awkward disclosures if too frequently applied. Or else, did no-one notice that the jails were regularly full over winter and nearly empty the rest of the year? In any case, all good rackets must come to an end, and the following year it all fell apart.
     It turned out that one sheriff had become too greedy, and cut down on the quality and quantity of his guests' cuisine. Now, it so happened that certain respectable citizens used to visit the prisoners every Sunday as part of their exercise in philanthropy. Only this time, the jail birds complained that they were guilty of no offense, but had entered prison on the promise of enjoyment, and they had been cheated. Suddenly, it was all out in the open, and the visiting do-gooders were distinguished enough to get the whole rotten system cleaned up, and some of the chief offenders discharged.
     After that, there were no more hobos overwintering in Michigan. They would have had to jump train for sunnier climes. Indeed, some of them might have been reduced to doing work!

    I have followed this up elsewhere with an essay entitled, What We Can Learn From Hobos.

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