Friday, July 20, 2012



“Our systems of poor relief provide bountifully for all cases of real need, and in all ordinary times there is work enough for every one to do in this paradise of the poor man.”
                                        - A. O. Wright, Wisconsin State Board of charities and Reform, 1895

“Ay, 'tis God's will! That's what you'd have me say,
'Tis Heaven's decree that I should starve to-day!
'Tis Heaven-born justice you are rich, I poor,
That you, with curses, drive me from your door!”
                                - From “Rags to Riches” in the book “Low Down”, by Two Tramps, 1886

     In the early 1870’s something new happened in America.  The tramp appeared on the scene, seemingly as if from nowhere.  Suddenly headlines like: A Railway Train Captured in Wisconsin – Great Excitement prevails throughout Southern Wisconsin on account of a sudden invasion of tramps from Iowa….They captured two freight trains going south through Madison.  At Madison a company of Militia and a large body of citizens met them yesterday morning, and after quite a tussle in the driving rain storm captured 47 of the tramps.  They were sentenced to 90 days’ work at breaking stones for streets…The tramps are fierce fellows, and in capturing trains they jump on the engines and direct engineers when to stop, manage brakes themselves, and stop in country places and raid on farm-houses for food, returning to trains when satisfied.  The Governor says …they will be driven from the state at the point of a bayonet.” 1 Who were they?  Where did they come from?

     In 1873 both Europe and the United States were thrown into a depression as investment firms and banks failed, over invested in railroad bonds and hurt by government tight money policies that caused interest rates to rise.  The result was massive unemployment and a seven year depression.  In Chicago the unemployment rate rose to over 30% as workers, who had helped rebuild the city after the great fire of 1871, were thrown out of work.  All these, combined with huge numbers of new immigrants led to epidemic homelessness.  Between 1868 and 1873 33,000 miles of new track were added by the railroads, and these provided the means for penniless armies of men, many Civil War veterans, to move about the country seeking work.  It also provided similar mobility to criminals and beggars. 

     Tramps wandered America for generations.  They were called “tramps” after the Civil War term that was used commonly to describe a long march.  The middle and upper classes reacted to tramps in a uniformly hostile manner.  Only the labor publications pointed out that many of these “tramps” were victims of hard times, out of work and penniless.  A typical response was that of the Wisconsin State Journal in an editorial of July 20, 1878:  “Tenderness toward tramps is condolence with communism and sympathy with scoundrels.  The horde of vicious ruffians now attempting to overrun this State deserve the severest treatment at the hands of the people and authorities of the commonwealth.  No tramp should be harbored even for a single night, or fed with a single meal; he will repay charity with murder, rape or robbery, and will revenge himself on his spurner with burning his house over his head, and maiming his animals or his orchard…The tramp, especially he who travels in a gang, is thoroughly bad and beyond redemption; he should receive no countenance beyond what the sheriff and an armed posse can give him.”2

Because anyone riding the rails or on the road was termed a tramp, it is hard to ascertain what their ranks were composed of.  No real attempts were made to study the causes of individual homelessness, and in fact a uniform distain prevailed which was very similar to the attitudes of the day toward African-Americans, namely that they were lazy, criminal, and a cancer on society.  “The tramp is a man who can be approached by no other motive but pain,” one author said “the pain of a thrashing or the pain of hunger.” 3  The newspapers did their part by sensationalizing each event and exaggerating the facts.  Fifty tramps became five hundred or five thousand waiting at the gates to invade and plunder.  The Milwaukee Journal carried this story: “TRAMPS STONE TRAINS – Three Sent to Lancaster Jail for Three Months.  BOSCOBEL, WIS., May 5 – Three tramps were arrested and committed to the county jail today for three months for throwing stones through moving passenger car windows.”4  The magic word “tramps” apparently made it more than a local news story. 

     The national hysteria continued well into the twentieth century.  Tramps were blamed for many acts that were no doubt those of local toughs.  One popular tendency was to blame fires on tramps.  Since there seemed to be no definition of “tramp”, other than that he was presumably not a local citizen, it was convenient to point the finger at the outsider.  A review of the newspapers shows that there were in fact plenty of local incendiaries.  In November of 1916 the Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported: “VILLAGE OF POTOSI NEARLY WIPED OUT.  CONFLAGRATION SWEEPS THE TOWN DESTROYING SIX BUSINESS HOUSES.  Potosi, Wi,.  Nov 13  Special – Fire, supposedly started by a tramp in the town Bastille and who is believed to have perished in the flames, nearly wiped out the business section of this city at an early hour this morning”   The Milwaukee Journal trumpeted “TRAMP SETS FIRE: NEARLY RUINS TOWN.”  Our local Lancaster Teller told a more mundane story.  The alleged “tramp” was one John Cranitch, described as “well known in this vicinity.”  Indeed, Cranitch was a resident of Potosi, and had been sentenced to Waupun three times by Judge Clementson.  Cranitch died in the fire.  Several years later (June 1919) another local business woman, Mrs. Sarah Swale, a restaurant operator after having increased her fire insurance burned down her business and with it six others.

     Tramps were also reputed to beg for food and take vengeance if refused.  Stories abounded of tramps stealing from the homes where they were given shelter for a night.  Mutilated livestock and burned orchards were blamed on tramp vengeance.  Tramps were alleged to intimidate rural farm wives to get food, and supposedly stole livestock to roast with numerous companion tramps in deep woods hideaways.  In April 1886 the following story ran in The Wisconsin State Journal and other papers as far away as Miles City, Montana: “As has heretofore been reported in these dispatches, tramps are infesting Grant county, stealing sheep, hogs and horses, and causing much trouble. John Stippich, a farmer by pursuit, recovered a pair of valuable 2 year-old colts that were stolen in the northeastern part of the county. A band of tramps have headquarters in a hut on Wisconsin river, and are raising terror generally by compelling women and children to yield to their demands and helping themselves to property which they take to their den, where they hold high carnival. A posse of men armed with muskets and headed by an officer are on their track.”   What did our local Lancaster Teller say about this?  Absolutely nothing!  The only story regarding tramps reported: “Three tramps “did” the good people of Lancaster on Monday.  On various pretexts they went about town begging money, food, and clothing, and met with fair success.  One purchased a pair of goggles and played the sore eye dodge, saying he wanted to get enough money to take him where he could have his eyes doctored.  He displayed a good-sized roll of bills when he bought the goggles, but pretended to others to have no money.  He was a bright and intelligent-appearing young man, and could find better business than begging if he were so disposed.”

     Tramps were almost universally viewed as lazy and unwilling to work, but sometimes a more balanced view broke through the pages of fantastic stories.  Many men and some women rode the rails as the tracks were laid across the country.  Many were killed by railroad employees who forced them to “hit the gravel” when traveling at high speeds: “Finally the “Con” (Conductor) climbed down and stepped on my fingers, so I had to let go”  9 one man wrote.  Many of these travelers were migrant workers, working in the farm harvests, or just seeking work.  In July of 1904 in Sioux City, Iowa it was reported that up to eighteen hundred “tramps, wanderers, immigrant workmen, and ordinary vags” had passed through the city in the past week.  Reports flew that the railroad was under control of the tramps.  The railroad denied it: “We have no complaint to make.  The men are going through here by the thousand, but it happens every year.  There are more this year than ever before because there is a bumper crop to handle.  It is this class that will aid the farmer in harvesting, and this railroad has no objection to helping the farmers with the crops.” A Conductor when asked if he could control the riders said they just wanted to ride and he had no objection if they behaved.  Another Northwestern official explained “many of them have not done much work since spring and are out of money and so look for free rides.”

     In 1894 The Milwaukee Journal reported that hard times during the panic of 1873, and the long years of depression which followed caused the advent of the tramp: “banks tumbled all over the country and in a short time general business was almost paralyzed:  factories closed or reduced their working force and wages, and it was then that the gangs of tramps were first seen wandering aimlessly from town to town, begging or stealing enough to keep from starvation."  The economic conditions remained poor into the 1890’s.  Despite the Social Darwinism of the times, and the myth that any man could find work, it was not the case.  Despite the pronouncements of the authorities of the day, the systems of poor relief were wholly inadequate to ameliorate the gyrating effects of a growing industrial civilization, and of mechanization which displaced thousands of workers, rural and urban.
A tramp poet wrote the following:

                They asked me what made me so thin and so pale,
                And I told them, dear Nessy, our sorrowful tale:
                How father had died, and mother—so weak—
                Had toiled and toiled our living to seek:
                How we often went bare, and hungry oft,
                And how mamma grew thinner and paler and coughed;
               And we had no fire, and we had no bread,
               And at last mamma lay on the hearthstone dead,
               And they brought us here.—I had oft to repeat
               My story to those who have plenty to eat. 

     What happened to those civil War veterans who took to the road in the 1870’s?  In 1896, a newspaper reporter visited some of the wandering old soldiers.  “These men were “soldier tramps.”  He wrote “They seemed to be proud of their soldier records.  When the call for troops was sounded in the early sixties, they had enlisted in the army; they served until the war closed and then they became wanderers.  Some time ago this class of men was quite numerous, but is fast thinning out.  Its decrease is accounted for principally, if not entirely, by the age of the men.  The death rate among them is large, and as the weight of the years becomes increasingly heavier, they cease their meanderings and put into the soldiers’ homes…  Two were brothers, and they told with a touch of pride that they had not been separated for twenty years.  It seemed that they served throughout the war in a Wisconsin regiment.  They spent a year after the war closed at their old home, and then took to the road… They had become tramps, they said, and they enjoyed the life.” 

With time these men died.  Some died in the woods, frozen or starved.  Some died in poor houses or soldiers homes.  No doubt some found steady work, settled down, and had families.  Some were unrepentant criminals, who spend many months and years in jails and prisons all over America.  Some were alcoholics living for the next glass of rot gut. Where did they come from?  Many came from cities, and armies disbanded.  Who were they?  They were the sometimes not so invisible homeless, despised and hounded with far fewer avenues of help than exist today.  We keep our homeless out of the press, anonymous to regular “normal” citizens passing them by, and maybe that is worse