King of the Road






James Eads How was the grandson of James Buchanan Eads, designer of the world-famous Eads Bridge.

James Eads How lived as a hobo.

His bindle (bedroll) was a black and white buffalo plaid, tied to a stick. At least, that is how it was represented in Warehouse 13, a science fiction show in which a vast, secret warehouse preserves all manner of relics and artifacts found by the U.S. government.

This James Eads How bindle has a magic effect: “The user’s hard work will create money and food for the needy.” Downside? “User will reject their own wealth and wellbeing.”

A fitting bit of magical realism, inspired by a St. Louisan who, in real life, turned down his family’s fortune to ride the rails, created a mutual aid association for hoboes, and set up a Hobo College system and Hobo News magazine. And who then died young, of pneumonia and malnutrition.


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James Eads How studied at Meadville Theological School, where he gave most of his allowance to people in need. Then he went to Harvard, where he ignored the ivied hijinks and tried to found a monastic order, the Brotherhood of the Daily Life. And then he went to Oxford University, where he joined George Bernard Shaw’s socialist Fabian Society.

At the age of twenty, he would later recall, he “realized that the tramps of this country are one of the biggest problems in our social life…. I do believe that the ‘hobo’ of this country is not getting a ‘square deal.’” Let the tension vibrate there for a moment. This son of privilege turned himself into a hobo, wearing a shaggy beard and threadbare clothes, riding the rails, and laboring as he went—yet he wanted to reform and educate the other hoboes.


Marc Blanc, a doctoral candidate in American literature here at Washington University, points out that James would have heard from childhood about these nuisances who train-hopped, denying his father (vice president of the Wabash Railroad) the profit of train fares and his mother’s family the bridge tolls. He may also have felt the influence of the social gospel drawing him toward the most precarious workers in the country.

Fascinated by his refusal to use family money for anything other than the mutual aid society he founded for hoboes—the International Brotherhood Welfare Association—newspapers christened him “the millionaire tramp.” They were quick to report his Hobo Colleges, the first opened at 202 Bowery in New York. “The idea has taken hold in other cities,” he told The New York Times in 1919, “and if we can educate discharged soldiers and inveterate hoboes so that they can get jobs, our purpose will be accomplished.” His goal was to teach economics and sociology so that the students could understand the world of work; public speaking so they could apply for better jobs with confidence.

He may not have realized that most did not want better jobs.


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There was a bit of macho romance to being a hobo, back in the day. A man hit the road, found a enough work here and there to buy food and cigs and whiskey, hopped trains that let him crisscross the country for risk instead of cash. He might not look fancy, but his independence earned him the right to swagger. Just listen to Roger Miller’s wry “King of the Road” lyrics: “I don’t pay no union dues.”

Plenty of men were drawn to the self-reliance and spontaneity, the freedom from soul-killing routine, the easy rhythm of work at your own discretion, the natural sort of community. Hoboes gathered in “hobo jungles,” the slang carrying that sense of wildness, of a world apart from society, a world where you had to know how to survive. Their Hobo Code, written in 1894, outlined ethics, communal etiquette, and self-respect.

Self-respect came easier then, because the country needed hoboes. They were a mobile work force ready to do anything at a moment’s notice.

But then the railroad boom quieted, and hoboes became a bit of a problem. Officials characterized them as tramps, unwanted, shorn of romance. Masculinity was now defined as conformity, wanderlust as a threat. On July 12, 1877—I would not believe this if I had not seen the article—the Chicago Tribune suggested that people “put a little strychnine or arsenic in the meat and other supplies furnished to tramps.” In 1895, the mayor of Indianapolis urged use of the whipping post as cheaper and more sanitary than incarcerating filthy tramps. A guy in Maine actually designed a “tramp chair,” a hinged cage that could be padlocked, so any newcomer without proof of employment could be rolled down Main Street and publicly shamed.


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Today, self-identified hoboes gather for nostalgia but rarely live the life 24/7. If you are unhoused in the twenty-first century, you are assumed to be inept, addicted, mentally ill, and/or dangerous. You will get swept off city sidewalks, shooed into shelters crammed tight with men who cannot stand to be crowded. Itinerant work is done by those who are undocumented (and can therefore be taken advantage of). They do not travel to feel free; they follow the crops. Avoiding the aptly named ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is far more urgent than relying on adventure, strangers, and the pictographs your comrades have carved into fences to show you where a hot meal might be had. Besides, trains are nearly impossible to hop, post-9/11, and nobody hitchhikes anymore. The dignity is gone. A “hobosexual” is defined by the venerable Urban Dictionary as “a person of the opposite sex who come to visit you and wants to stay and live with you and start a relationship because they are homeless.”


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After putting the IBWA and the Hobo College system in place, James Eads How started a monthly magazine, the Hobo News, printed in St. Louis and later in Cincinnati. A forerunner of the now familiar street papers, it was bankrolled by his inheritance but written “by the hoboes, for the hoboes, of the hoboes.” The January 1918 front cover bore an illustration of hoboes gathered beneath his granddad’s Eads Bridge—and below them a big, bold, definitely wry “Happy New Year.”

Hobo slang was not “cleaned up,” as copy editors like to say. A regular contributor wrote this about chain gangs: “If a gink gets arrested and sentenced to time in the Cally if he has a few dollars or a good Benny, they give him every opportunity to get away from the working gang, so they can appropriate his money or clothes.” This was the world James Eads How entered, the world where he made himself comfortable. But here is a twist: at fifty, he married a woman named Ingeborg and moved to L.A. Where he commissioned a famous architect to build them a house in the suburbs.

The marriage lasted only four years. Two years later, he “caught the westbound” (hobo slang for dying), brought down by pneumonia and malnutrition. Was he depressed? Unable to fend for himself as a bachelor again? Or just foiled by his old habit of throwing himself headlong into his projects, his attention so consumed he forgot to eat? The creature comforts that had swaddled his childhood had never appealed.

The millionaire tramp is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. His prestigious family’s trove of papers barely mentions him.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.