The Children of the Road


THE real “road ” is variously named and variously described. By the “ ambulanter ” it is called Gypsyland, by the tramp Hoboland ; the fallen woman thinks it is the street, the thief that it means stealing and the penitentiary ; even the little boy who reads dime novels and fights hitch in g-posts for desperadoes believes momentarily that he too is on the real road. All these are indeed branches of the main line. The road proper, or “the turf,” as the people who toil along its stretches sometimes prefer to call it, is low life in general. It winds its way through dark alleys and courts to dives and slums, and wherever criminals, hoboes, outcast women, stray and truant children congregate ; but it never leads to the smiling windows and doorways of a happy home, except for plunder and crime. There is not a town in the land that it does not touch, and there are but few hamlets that have not sent out at least one adventurer to explore its twists and turnings.

The travelers, as I have said, are of all kinds, conditions, and ages : some old and crippled, some still in their prime, and others just beginning life. To watch in thought the long and motley procession marching on is to see a panorama of all the sins, sorrows, and accidents known to human experience. Year after year they trudge on and on, and always on, seeking a goal which they never seem to find. Occasionally they halt for a while at some halfway house, where they have heard that there is a restingplace of their desire; but it invariably proves disappointing, and the tramp, tramp, tramp, begins afresh. Young and old, man and woman, boy and girl, all go on together; and as one dies or wearies of the march another steps into his heel-tracks, and the ranks close up as solidly as ever.

The children of the road have always been to me its most pitiful investiture, and I have more than once had dreams and plans that looked to the rescue of these prematurely outcast beings. It needs skilled philanthropists and penologists, however, for such a work, and I must content myself with contributing experiences and facts which may perhaps aid in the formation of theory, and thus throw light upon the practical social tasks that are before us.

There are four distinct ways by which boys and girls get upon the road : some are born there, some are driven there, others are enticed there, and still others go there voluntarily.

Of those who are born on the road, perhaps the least known are the children of the ambulanters. The name is a tramp invention, and not popular among the ambulanters themselves. They prefer to be called gypsies, and try at times, especially when compelled by law to give some account of themselves, to trace their origin to Egypt; but the most of them. I fear, are degenerated Americans. How they have become so is a question which permits of much conjecture, and in giving my own explanation I do not want it to be taken as applicable to the entire class. I know only about fifty families, and not more than half of these at all familiarly ; but those whom I do know seem to me to be the victims of a pure and simple laziness handed down from generation to generation until it has become a chronic family disease, from what they have told me confidentially about their natural history, I picture their forefathers as harmless village “ do-nothings,”who lounged in corner groceries, hung about taverns, and followed the fire-engine and the circus. The second generation was probably too numerous for the home parish, and, inheriting the talent for loafing, started out to find roomier lounges. It must have wandered far and long, for upon the third generation, the one that I know, the love of roaming descended to such a degree that all North America is none too large for it. Go where one will, in the most dismal woods, the darkest lanes, or on the widest prairies, there the ambulanter may be found tenting with his large and unkempt family. He comes and goes as his restless spirit dictates, and the horse and wagon carry him from State to State.

It is in Illinois that I know his family best. Cavalier John, as he proudly called himself, I remember particularly. He gave me shelter one night in his wagon, as I was toiling along the highway south of Ottawa, and we became such good friends that I traveled with his caravan for three days. And what a caravan it was I A negro wife, five little mulattoes, a deformed white girl, three starved dogs, a sore-eyed cat, a blasphemous parrot, a squeaking squirrel, a bony horse, and a canvas-topped wagon, and all were headed “ Texas way.” John came from Maine originally, but he had picked up his wife in the West, and it was through their united efforts in trickery and clever trading that they had acquired their outfit. So far as I could learn, neither of them had ever done an honest stroke of business. The children ranged from three years to fourteen, and the deformed girl was nearly twenty. John found her among some other ambulanters in Ohio, and, thinking that he might make money out of her physical monstrosities at “ side-shows.” cruelly traded off an old fox for her. She ought to have been in an insane asylum, and I hope John has put her there long ago. The other “ kidlets,” as they were nicknamed, were as deformed morally as was the adopted girl physically. They had to beg in every town and village they came to, and at night their father took the two oldest with him in his raids on the hen-roosts. It was at town and county fairs, however, that they were the most profitable. Three knew how to pick pockets, and the youngest two gave acrobatic exhibitions. None of them had ever been in school, none could read or write, and the only language they spoke was the one of their class. I have never been able to learn it well, but it is a mixture of Rom and tramp dialects with a dash of English slang.

On the journey we met another caravan, bound west by way of Chicago. There were two families, and the children numbered sixteen ; the oldest ranging from fifteen to twenty, and the youngest had just appeared. We camped together in a wood for a night and a day, and seldom have I sojourned in such company. John had given me a place with him in the wagon, but now the woman with the babe was given the wagon, and John and I slept, or tried to, “ in the open.” In the other wagon, both sexes, young and old, were crowded into a space not much larger than the ordinary omnibus, and the vermin would have made sleep impossible to any other order of beings. The next day, being Sunday, was given over to play and revel, and the poor horses had a respite from their sorrows. The children invented a queer sort of game, something like “ shinny,” and used a dried-up cat’s head as block. They kicked, pounded, scratched, and cursed one another ; but when the play was over all was well again, and the block was tucked away in the wagon for further use. Late at night the journeys were taken up once more, one caravan moving on toward Dakota, and the other toward the Gulf.

“ Salawakkee ! ” 1 cried John, as he drove away ; and the strangers cried back, “ Chalamu ! ” 2

I wonder what has become of that little baby for whom I sat the night out? It is nearly ten years ago now, and he has probably long since been compelled to play his part in crime, and scratch and fight as his older brothers and sisters did on that autumn Sunday morning. Certainly there is nowhere in the world a more ferocious set of children than these of the ambulanters. From morning till night it is one continual snap and bite, and the depraved fathers and mothers look on and grin. They have not the faintest ideal of home, and their only outlook in life is to some day have a “ rig ” of their own and prowl throughout the land seeking whom they may devour. To tame them is a task requiring almost divine patience. I should not know how to get at them. They laugh at tenderness, never say “ thank you,” and obey their parents only when driven with boot and whip. I wish that I could suggest some gentle method by which they could be rescued from the road and made good men and women. It always seems harsh to apply strict law to delinquents so young and practically innocent, but it is the only remedy I can offer. They must be put under stiff rule and order, and trained long and hard. Although lacking gypsy blood they have acquired gypsy character, and it will take generations to get it out of them. Just how many children are born on the road is a question which even the ambulanter would find difficult to answer. They are scattered so widely and in such out-of-the-way places that a census is almost impossible. In the families that I have met there have never been less than four children. Gypsy Sam once told me that he believed there were at least, two hundred ambulanter families in the United States, but this will strike every one as a low estimate ; however, if this is true, and each family has as many boys and girls as those that I have met, then there must be at least a thousand of their kind.

Another kind of ragamuffin, also born on the road, and in many ways akin to the ambulanter, although wanting such classification, is the one found so often in those families which every community supports, but relegates to its uttermost boundary lines. They are known as “ the McCarthys,” "the Night Hawks,” or “ the Holy Frights,” as the case may be. I have found no town in the United States of twenty thousand inhabitants without some such little Whitechapel in its vicinity, and, like the famous original, it is often considered dangerous to enter unarmed. Speaking generally, there is a great deal of fiction afloat concerning these tabooed families, a number of them being simply poor or lazy people whom the boys of the vicinity have exaggerated into gangs of desperadoes. There are, however, some that are really very bad, and I have found them even in new little villages. They are not exactly out-andout criminals whom the police can get hold of, but moral lepers who by public consent have been sentenced to live without, the pale of civilization.

Some years ago I had occasion to visit one of these miniature Whitechapels. It was situated in a piece of woods not far from St. Paul, Minnesota, and belonged by right of appropriation to three families who were called “ the Stansons.” A tramp friend of mine had been taken sick in their camp, and I was in duty bound to go out to see him. I managed to find the settlement all right, but was stopped about a hundred yards from the log shanties by a bushybearded man, barefooted and clad only in trousers, who asked my errand. My story evidently satisfied him, for he led the way to the largest of the shanties, where I found my friend. He was lying in the middle of the floor on some straw, the only furniture in the room being a shaky table and a three-legged chair; all about him, some even lying in the straw beside him, were half-clothed children of both sexes, playing “ craps ” and eating hunks of bread well daubed with molasses. I counted nine in that shanty alone, and about as many again in the other two. They belonged severally to six women who were apportioned alter Mormon custom to three men. The tramp told me in his dialect that they really were Mormons and came from Utah. He was passing by their “hangout,” as he called it, when taken ill, and they hospitably lodged him. He said they had not been there long, having come up the river from Des Moines, low a, where they had also had a camp ; but long enough, I discovered on my return to St. Paul, to acquire a reputation among the city lads for all kinds of “ toughness. I suppose they were “ tough when considered from certain view-points, but, as the tramp said, it was the silliest kind he had known. They were not thieves, and only lukewarm beggars, but they did seem to love their outlandish existence. The children interested me especially, for they all spoke a queer jargon which they had invented themselves. It was something like the well - known "pig Latin ” that all sorts of children like to play with, but much more complicated and difficult to understand. And, except the very youngest, who naturally cried a little, they were the jolliest children I have ever seen in such terrible circumstances. The mothers were the main bread-winners, and while I was there one of them started off to town on a begging trip, with a batch of children as “ guy.” The men sat around, smoked, and talked about the woods. The tramp told me later, however, that they occasionally raided a hen-roost. Since my visit to the Stansons I have seen three of the children in different places: one, a cripple, was begging at the World’s Fair; another was knocking about the Bowery; and the third, a girl, was traveling with an ambulanter in the Mohawk Valley-

Not all of these families are like the Stansons. A number are simply roughand-tumble people who haunt the outskirts of provincial towns, and live partly by pilfering and partly from the municipal fund for the poor. Somehow or other the children always dodge the school commissioners, and grow up, I am sorry to say, very much like their usually unmarried parents. On the other hand, there are several well-known organized bands, and they thrive mainly, I think, in the South and West. Near New Orleans there used to be, and for aught I know they are still there, “ the Jim Jams” and “the Rincheros ; ’ near Cairo, Illinois, “ the River Rats ; near Chicago, “the Dippers;” and not far from New York, in the Rapaho Mountains. I knew of “the Sliders,” but they have since moved on to new fields. Each of these families, or collection of families, had its full quota of children. Very often the public becomes so enraged attheir petty thefts that an investigation is ordered, and then there is a sudden packing of traps and quick departure to a different neighborhood, where a new name is invented. But the family itself never dies out entirely.

There are a few children who are born in Hoboland. Now and then, as one travels along the railway lines, he will come to a hastily improvised camp where a pale, haggard woman is lying, and beside her a puny infant, scarcely clothed, blinking with eyes of wonder upon the new world about him. I know of no sadder sight than this in all trarnpdom. Not even the accident of motherhood can make the woman anything but unhuman, and the child, it he lives, grows up in a world which I believe is unequaled for certain forms of wickedness. Fortunately, his little body usually tires of the life ere he comes to realize what it is, and his soul wanders back to regions of innocence, unsoiled and unscarred.

I wonder whether there are still men in Hoboland who remember that interesting little fellow called “ the Cheyenne Baby ” ? Surely there are some who have not forgotten his grotesque vocabulary, and his utterly overpowering way of using it ? There are different stories concerning his origin, and they vary in truthfulness, I have heard, as one travels southward from the Northern Pacific to Santa Fé. I give the one told in Colorado. It may be only a “ ghost story,”and it may be true; all that I know is that it is not impossible. According to its teaching, his mother was once respectable and belonged to the politest society in the Indian Territory. When quite a young girl she carelessly fell in love with a handsome Indian chief, and, much to the disgust of her friends, married him and went away into his camp. It must have been a wild life that she led there, for within a year she was separated from him and living with another Indian. It is the same pitiful story for the next five years; she was knocked about from tent to tent, and camp to camp. Her enemies say that she liked that kind of life, but her friends know better, and claim that she was ashamed to go home. However it was, she went over to the cowboys after a while, and it was then that the baby was born, and she met the man, whoever he was, that introduced her into Hoboland. She appeared one night at a “ hang-out ” near Denver, and there was something so peculiarly forlorn about her that the men took pity on her and pressed her to stay. She did, and for some time traveled with the hoboes throughout the districts lying between Cheyenne and Santa Fé. The boy became a sort of Mascot,” and was probably the only child in Hoboland who was ever taught to be really good. The mother had stipulated with the men that they should never teach him anything bad, and the idea struck them as so comical that they, fell in with it. Though they swore continually in his presence, they invariably gave him some respectable version of the conversation ; and while about the only words he knew were curses, he was made to believe they signified the nicest things in the world. He died just as unknowing as he had lived, but it was a cruel death. He and his mother, together with some companions, were caught one night in a wreck on the Union Pacific, and all that the survivors could find of him to bury was his right arm. But that was bravely honored, and, unless the coyotes have torn down the wooden slab, the grave can still be found on the prairies.

I cannot leave this division of my theme without saying something about that large army of unfathered children who, to my mind, are just as much born on the road as the less known types. True, many of them at birth are handed over to some family to support, but the great majority of these families are not one whit better than the ambulanters. They train the orphans put into their care, in sin and crime, quite as carefully as the hobo does his beggar boy. These are the children who make up the main body of the class I have been considering, and it seems to me that they increase from year to year. At present, the only legitimate career for them is that of the outcast, and into it, they go. Few. indeed, succeed in gaining a foothold in polite society. Their little lives form the borderland of my second class, the children driven to the road.


Concerning the children who are forced upon the road there is a great deal to be said, but I am not sure that much talk should not be directed against the popular belief that their number is legion. Socialists particularly think that hundreds upon hundreds of boys and girls are compelled by hunger to beg and steal for a living. In England, I once beard a labor agitator declare that there are a million of these juvenile “victims of capital in the United States alone. I do not know where the man got his information, but if my finding counts fur anything it is deplorably unsound. I cannot claim to have studied the subject as carefully as is necessary to know it absolutely, but in most of our large cities I have given it close attention, and never have I found anything like the state of affairs which even the general public believes to exist. For every child forced by starvation to resort to the road I have met ten who were born there, and nearly the same number who were enticed there. In saying this, however, I do not want to draw emphasis or sympathy away from that certainly existing class of children who really have been driven into outlawry. But it is an injustice to our sober poor to say that they exist in those large numbers that are so often quoted. Not long ago I made it my especial business for a while to look into the condition of some of these compulsory little vagabonds in New York city. I picked out those children whom one sees so often pilfering slyly from the groceryman’s sidewalk display. It is an old, old trick. The youngsters divide themselves into “ watchers ” and “ snatchers ; ” the former keeping an eye on the police as well as the owners of the things coveted, and the latter grabbing when the wink is given. The crime itself is not a heavy one according to the calendar, but it is only a step from this to picking pockets, and only a half-step farther to highway robbery. I chose this particular class because I had often noticed the members of it in my walks through the city, and it had seemed to me the least necessary of all. Then, too, there was something in the pinched faces that made me anxious to know the children personally on grounds of charity. The great majority of youthful travelers on the road are comparatively well fed, to say the least, and, much as one pities their fate, he will seldom have cause to weep over their starved condition. But here was something different, and I fancied that I was to get a glimpse into the life of those people to whom the socialist points when asked for living examples of human woe caused by inhuman capitalists.

It was not hard to “ get in ” with the children. Finding that I was willing to play with them at their games in the alleys and on the tops of their rickety tenement-houses, they nudged up to me, and we were soon pals. There was nothing particularly new in their life, but I was struck with the great interest they took in their petty thefts. In the midst of the most boisterous play they would gladly stop if some one suggested a clever plan by which even a can of preserves could be “swiped,” as they called it, and the next instant they were trying to carry it to a finish. They were not what I could call instinctive criminals, — far from it ; hut a long intimacy with the practices of outlawry, though small in their way, had so deadened their moral sense that sneak-thieving came to them almost as naturally as it does to the kleptomaniac. Even in their games they cheated whenever it was possible, and it seemed to me that the main fun was seeing how cleverly and yet boldly they could do so without being detected. I recall distinctly one afternoon when we were playing “ Hi spy.” A little fellow called Jamie took me aside, and in the most friendly way advised me not to be so “ goody-goody.” I had been very unlucky in getting caught, and he said that it was because I gave in too quickly.

“ When ye hear yer name,” he continued, “ jus’ lie low, ’cause like as not the catcher ain’t seen ye, n’ if he has he can’t prove it; so ye ’r’ all right anyhow. Ye’ll always be ‘It’ if ye don’t do something like that; n’ there ain’t no fun in that, is there ? ” he added, winking his left eye in a truly professional manner.

So much for their native endowment. Their accomplishment in thieving, I have no doubt, kept them often from going hungry, notwithstanding the fact that there was honest industry at home, generally that of the mother, while the father’s earnings went almost bodily into the publican’s till.

I found it much more difficult to make friends with the parents, but succeeded in several cases, — that is, with the mother ; the father I usually found drunk at the saloon. I shall not try to give an account of the squalor and sorrow that I encountered ; this has been done in other places by far more able pens than mine ; but I cannot forbear making a note of one little woman whom I saw sewing her very life away, and thinking all the while that she was really supporting her hungry children, I shall never forget the picture she made as she sat there by the alley window, driving the needle with lightning-like rapidity through the cloth, — a veritable Madonna of the Needle. Her good cheer was something stupendous. Not once did she murmur, and when her brute of a husband returned, insanely intoxicated, she took care of him as if he were the best man in the world. I was careful that she did not hear from me about the tricks of her wayward children. Some day, however, I fear that one of them will be missing, and when she goes to the police station to make inquiries I should rather not confront her. The main reason why hungry boys and girls are found upon the road is drunken fathers.

There are also children who, instead of being forced to steal, are sent out into the streets by their parents to beg. From morning till night they trudge along the busy thoroughfares, dodging with catlike agility the lumbering wagons that bear down upon them, and accosting every person whom their trained eyes find at all likely to listen to their appeals. Late at night, if perchance they have had the necessary luck during the day, they crawl back to their hovels and hand over the winnings to their heavyeyed fathers. Or, as often happens, if the day has been unsuccessful and the pennies are not numerous enough to satisfy their cruel masters, they take refuge in some box or barrel, and pray to the beggar’s Providence that the next day will go better.

They come, as a rule, from our foreign population. I have never found one with American-born parents, and in many instances the children themselves have emigrated from Europe, usually from Italy. There is no doubt that they have to beg to live; but when one looks a little farther into their cases, a lazy or dissipated parent is usually the one to blame. Then, too, mendicancy is not considered disgraceful among many of our immigrants, and they send their children into the streets of our cities quite as freely as they do at home. They also are mainly at fault for that awful institution which some of our large towns support, where babies are rented to grown-up beggars to excite the sympathy of the passers-by. I looked into one of these places in San Francisco, while traveling with the hoboes, and it was the very counterpart of an African slave-market. A French-Canadian woman, old enough to be the great-grandmother of all her wares, kept it. She rented the babies from poverty-stricken mothers, and re-rented them at a profit to the begging women of the town. There were two customers in the place when I entered, and the old wretch was trying in true peddler style to bring out the good points of four little bits of humanity cuddled together on a plank bed.

“ Oh. he’s just the kind you want,” she said to one of the women ; “ never cries, and” — leaning over, she whispered in a Shylock voice — “ he don’t eat hardly anything ; half a bottle o’ milk does him the whole day.”

The woman was satisfied, and, paying her deposit of two dollars, took the sickly thing in her arms and went out into the town. The other could find nothing that suited her. but promised to return the next day, when “a new batch” was expected.

Such are the main avenues by which boys and girls are driven to the road in the United States. Hunger, I candidly admit, is the whip in many instances, but the wielder of it is more often than not the drunken father or mother. It is the hunger that comes of selfish indulgence, and not of ill-adjusted labor conditions.


Of my third class, those who are enticed to the road, — and their number is legion,— I have been able to discover three different types. The old roadster knows them all. Wherever he goes they cross his path, and beg him to stop awhile and tell them of his travels. They seem to realize that they have been swindled, — that the road is, after all, only a tantalizing delusion ; but they cannot understand why it appeals to so many of their elders, and it is in the hope that these will in the end put them on the right track for the fun they are seeking that they hail them, and cry, “ What cheer? ” It is a pitiful call, this, and even the “old stager” winces at times on hearing it, but he cannot bring himself to go back on “the profession,” and, quickly conquering his emotion, he gives the tiny traveler fresh directions. The latter starts out anew, hoping against experience that he is at last on the right route, and plods on eagerly until stopped again at some troublesome cross - road where he does not know which turn to take. Once more he asks for directions, once more receives them, and so the ceaseless trudge goes on. It is mainly at the cross-roads that I have learned to know these children. Notwithstanding my alien position, they have hailed me too, and inquired for sign-posts. I have seldom been able to help them, even in the way that I most desired, but surely there are others who can. The children of this third class that one meets oftenest are what the older travelers call “ worshipers of the tough.” They have somehow got the idea into their heads that cowboy swagger and the criminal’s lingo are the main features of a manly man, and, having an abnormal desire to be such an one as quickly as possible, they go forth to acquire them. The hunt soon lures them to the road, and up and down its length they scamper, with faces so eager and intent that one is seldom at a loss to know what they are seeking. There are different explanations of the charm that this wild life has for them. A great many people believe that it is purely and simply the work of the devil on their evil-bent natures; others, that it is the result of bad training ; and still others, that it is one form of the mimicry with which every child is endowed in larger or smaller degree. I favor the last opinion. In the bottom of their hearts they are no worse than the average boy and girl, but they have been unfortunate enough to see a picture or hear a story of some famous rascal, and it has lodged in their brains, until the temptation “ to go and do likewise ” has come upon them with such overwhelming force that they simply cannot resist. Each one has some particular pattern continually before his eyes, and only as he approaches it does he feel that he is becoming “tough.” Now it is “ Blinkey” Morgan that fascinates them, and, despite his terrible end, they strive to be like him ; then it is “ Wild Bill,” whoever he may be ; and not unfrequently it is a character that has existed only in dime novels, or not even so substantially as that.

I remember well a little fellow, about thirteen years old, who appeared in Indian-scont attire one night at a “ hang-out’ near McCook, Nebraska. He dropped in while the tramps were cooking their coffee, and seldom has there been such a laugh on the “ Q ” railway as they gave on seeing him. It was impolite, and they begged his pardon later, but even his guardian angel would have smiled. He was dressed from head to foot in leather clothes, each piece made by himself, he said, and at his belt hung an enormous revolver, which some one had been careful enough to make useless by taking out an important screw. It was in the hope of finding one at the camp that he visited it, but the men made so much of him that he remained until his story was told. It was not remarkably new, for all that he wanted was a chance to shoot Indians, but his hero was a little unusual, — Kalamazoo Chickamauka, he called him. When asked who he was and where he had lived, all that the youngster could say was that he had dreamed about him! I saw him again a week or so later, not far from Denver, tramping along over the railway ties with long strides far beyond his measure, and he hoped to be at “ Deadtown,” as he miscalled Dead wood, in a few days. He had not yet found a screw for his “gun,” but he was sure that “ Buffalo Charlie ” would give him one.

Of course this is a unique case, in a way, for one does not meet many lads in such an outfit, but there are scores of others just as sincere and fully as innocent. If one could only get hold of them ere they reach the road, nearly all could be brought to reason. They are the most impressionable children in the world, and there must be a way by which this very quality may be turned to their advantage. What this way shall be can be determined only by those who know well the needs of each child, but there is one suggestion I cannot forbear making. Let everything possible be done to keep these sensitive boys and girls, but particularly the former, from familiarity with crime. Do not thrust desperadoism upon them from the shop windows through the picture-covered dime novels and the flaring faces of the Police Gazette. It is just such teaching by suggestion that starts many an honest but romantic boy off to the road, when a little cautious legislation might save him years of foolish wandering, and the state the expense of housing him in its reformatories later on. I "write with feeling at this point, for I know from personal experience what tantalizing thoughts a dime novel will awaken in such a boy’s mind. One of these thoughts will play more havoc with his youth than can be made good in his manhood, and lucky is he whom it does not lure on and on until the return path is forever lost.

Something like these children in temperament, but. totally different in most other respects, are those lads that one meets so often on our railways, drifting about for a month or so from town to town, seldom stopping in any of them over a day, and then suddenly disappearing, no one knows where, to appear again, later, on another railway, frequently enough a thousand miles distant. Occasionally they are missed from the road for over a year, and there is absolutely no news of their whereabouts ; but just as they are almost forgotten they come forward once more, make a few journeys on the freight trains, and vanish again. There are cases on record where they have kept this up for years, some of them coming and going with such regularity that their appearances may be calculated exactly. Out West, not very long ago, there was a little chap who “ showed up ” in this way, to use the expression that the brake men applied to him, every six weeks for three years, but this was all that was known concerning him. When asked who he was and where he belonged, he gave such evasive answers that it was impossible to come to any trustworthy conclusion about him. He would have nothing to do with the people he met, and I have heard that he always rode alone in the box cars. In this last respect lie was a notable exception, for, as a rule, these little nomads take great pleasure in talking with strangers, but they are careful not to say too much about themselves. They ask questions principally, and skip from one subject to another with a butterfly rapidity, but manage to pick up a great deal of knowledge of the road.

The tramp’s theory of them is that they are possessed of “the railroad fever,” and I am inclined to agree with them, but I accept the expression in its broader sense of Wanderlust. They want to get out into the world, and at stated periods the desire is so strong and the road so handy that they simply cannot resist the temptation to explore it. A few weeks usually suffice to cool their ardor, and then they run home quite as summarily as they left, but they Stay only until the next runaway mood seizes them. I have been successful in getting really well acquainted with several of these interesting wanderers, and in each case this has been the situation. They do not want to be “ tough,” and many of them could not be if they tried ; but they have a passion for seeing things on their own hook, and if the mood for “a trip” comes it seems to them the most natural thing in the world to indulge it. If they had the means they would ride on Pullman cars and imagine themselves princes, but lacking the wherewithal they take to the road.

I knew in New York State a boy of this sort who had as nice a home as a child could wish, but he was cursed with this strange Wanderlust, and throughout his boyhood there was hardly a month that he did not run away. The queerest things ent iced him to go. Sometimes the whistle of a railway engine was enough to make him wild with unrest, and again the sight of the tame but to him fascinating village street was sufficient to set him planning his route of travel. In every escapade it was his imagination that stampeded him. Many a time, when he was in the most docile of moods, some fanciful thought of the world at large, and what it held in waiting for him, would dance across his brain, and before he could analyze it, or detect the swindle, he was scampering off for “ the depot.” Now it was a wish to go West and play trapper and scout, and then it was the dream of American boyhood. — a life cramped but struggling, and emerging in glorious success as candidate for the presidency. Garfield’s biography, I remember, once started him on such a journey, and it took years to get the notion out of his head that sunply living and striving as Garfield did was not sure to bring the same results. Frequently his wanderings ended several hundred miles from home, but much oftener in some distracting vagabond’s hang-out ” in a neighboring city. Fortunately the fever burned itself out ere he had learned to like the load for its own sake, and he lived to wonder how he had harbored or indulged such insane impulses. A large number of these truants, however, have no good homes and indulgent parents to return to, and after a while the repeated punishment seems to them so unjust and cruel that there comes “ a trip ” which never ends. The Wanderlust becomes chronic, and mainly because it was not treated properly in its intermittent stage. There is no use in whipping these children ; they are not to blame; all that one can do is to busy their imaginations in wholesome ways, watch them carefully, and, if they must wander, direct their wanderings. In many cases this is possible, for the fever breaks out among children of the best birth as well as among those of the lowest; and in these instances, at least, the parents have much to answer for if the children reach the road. I look upon this fever as quite as much of a disease as the craze to steal which is found now and then in some child’s character, and it deserves the same careful treatment. Punishment only aggravates it, and develops in the boy a feeling of hatred for all about him. I firmly believe thatsome day this trouble in so many boys’ lives will be pathologically treated by medical men, and the sooner that day comes the better will it be for many unfortunate children.

It is a different story that I have to tell of the children decoyed into Hoboland. True, they also are, in a measure, seized with this same Wanderlust, and without this it would be impossible for the tramp to influence them as he does ; but, on the other hand, without him to excite and direct this passion, very few of them would ever reach trampdom. He happens along’ at their very weakest moments, and, perceiving his advantage, cruelly fires their imagination with tales of adventure and travel, and before they discover their danger he has them in his clutches. It is really one of the wonders of the world, the power that this ugly, dissipated, tattered man has over the children he meets. In no other country that I have visited is there anything like it. He stops at a town for a few hours, collects the likely boys about him at his “hang-out,” picks out the one that he thinks will serve him best, and then begins systematically to fascinate him. If he understands the art well (and it is a carefully studied art), he can almost always get the one he wants. Often enough his choice is some well-bred child, unaccustomed, outside his dreams, to any such life, but the man knows so perfectly how to piece out those dreams and make them sedueingly real that in a moment of enthusiasm the youngster gives himself up to their bewitching influence and allows the wretch to lead him away. As a rule, however, his victims are the children of the poor, for they are the easiest to approach, A few hours of careful tactics, provided they are in the mood, and he has one of them riding away with him, not merely in the box car of a freight, but on the through train to Hoboland.

Watch him at his preliminary work. He is seated on the top of an ash-barrel in a filthy back alley. A crowd of gamins gaze up at him with admiring eyes. When he tells his ghost stories, each one thinks that he is being talked to just as much as the rest, and yet somehow, little by little, there is a favorite who is getting more and more than his share of the winks and smiles ; soon the most exciting parts of the stories are gradually devoted to him alone, but in such an artful way that he himself fails to notice it at first. It is not long, however, before he feels his importance. He begins to wink, too, but just as slyly as his charmer, and his little mouth curls into a return smile when the others are not looking. “ I ’m his favorite, I am,” he thinks. “ He ’ll take me with him, he will, and show me things.”

He is what the hobo calls “ peetrified,” which means, as much as anything else, hypnotized. The stories that he has heard amount to very little in themselves, but the way they are told, the happy-golucky manner, the subtle partiality, the winning voice, and the sensitiveness of the boy’s nature to things of wonder, all combine to turn his head. Then his own parents cannot control him as can this slouching wizard.

In Hoboland the boy’s life may be likened to that of a voluntary slave. He is forced to do exactly what his “ jocker ” commands, and disobedience, willful or innocent, brings down upon him a most cruel wrath. Besides being kicked, slapped, and generally maltreated, he is also loaned, traded, and even sold, if Ins master sees money in the bargain. There are, of course, exceptions, for I have myself known some jockers to be almost, as kind as fathers to their boys, but they are such rarities that one can never count upon them. When a lad enters trampdom he must be prepared for all kinds of brutal treatment, and the sooner he forgets home gentleness the better will it be for him. In payment for all this suffering and rough handling, he is told throughout his apprenticeship that some day he too will be able to “ snare ” a boy, and make him beg and slave for him as he has slaved for others. This is the one reward that tramps hold out to their “ prushuns,” and the little fellows cherish it so long that, when their emancipation finally comes, nearly all start off to do the very same thing that was done to them when they were children. West of the Mississippi River there is a regular gang of these “ ex-kids,” as they are termed in the vernacular, and all are supposed to be looking for revenge. Until they get it there is still something of the prushun about them which makes them unwelcome in the “ old stager class. So they prowl about the community from place to place, looking eagerly for some weak lad whom they can decoy and show to the fraternity as evidence of their full membership. They never seem to realize what an awful thing they are doing. If you remonstrate with them, they reply, “ W’y, ye don’t think we’ve been slavin’ all this while fer nothin’, do ye ? It’s our turn to play jocker now,” and, with a fiendish look in their eyes, they turn and stalk away. Ten years and more of tramp life have killed their better natures, and all that they can think of is vengeance, unscrupulous and sure. In this way the number of boys in Hobolaml is always kept up to a certain standard. Every year a number are graduated from the prushun class, and go out into the world immediately to find younger children to take the places they have left. In time these do the same thing, and so on, until to-day there is no line of outlawry so sure of recruits as vagabondage. Each beggar is a propagandist, and his brethren expect of him at least one convert.


There is not much that I can say of the children who go to the road voluntarily. I am sure that there are such, for I have traveled with them, but it has been impossible for me to get into their life intimately enough to speak of it intelligently. Even the men constantly in their company can say but little about them. When asked for an explanation, they shake their heads and call them “ little devils ; ” but why they are so, what it is that they are seeking, and where they come from are questions to which they are unable to give any satisfactory replies. I know about twenty, all told, and, as far as I have been successful in observing them, they seem to me to belong to that class of children which the criminologist Lombroso finds morally delinquent at birth. Certainly it would be hard to account for their abnormal criminal sense on any other ground. They take to the road as to their normal element, and are on it but a short time ere they know almost as much as the oldest travelers. Their minds seem bent toward crime and vagabondage, and their intuitive powers almost uncanny. To hear them talk makes one think, if he shuts his eyes, that he is in the presence of trained criminal artists, and I have sometimes imagined that they were not children, but dwarfed men born out of due time. They undertake successfully some of the must dangerous robberies in the world, and come off scot-free, so that old and experienced thieves simply stare and wonder. The temptation is to think that they are accidents, but they recur so frequently as to demand a theory of origin and existence. They are, I do not doubt, the product of criminal breeding, and are just as much admired in the criminal world as are the feats of some Wunderkind, for instance, among musicians. Watch the scene in an outcast’s den when one of these queer little creatures comes in, and you may see the very same thing that goes on in the “ artist’s box ” at some concert where a prodigy is performing. The people swarm around him, pet him, make him laugh and talk, till the proprietor finds him a valuable drawing card for the establishment. The child himself seldom realizes his importance, and, when off duty, plays at games in keeping with his age. The instant business is suggested. however, his countenance assumes a most serious air, and it is then that one wonders whether he is not, after all, some skillful old soul traveling back through life in a fresh young body. Indeed, there is so much in his case that appeals to my sense of wonder that I simply cannot study him for what he is ; but there are those who can do this, and I promise them a most interesting field of observation. I know enough about it to believe that if it can be thoroughly explored there will be a great change in the punishment of criminals. These boys have in them in largest measure what the entire body of moral delinquents possesses in some degree ; and when these baffling characteristics have been definitely analyzed and placed, penology will start on a fresh course.

It may be worth while to say what I can about their physical appearance. The most of them have seemed to me to have fairly well-formed bodies, but something out of the ordinary in their eyes, and in a few cases in the entire face. Sometimes the left eye has drooped very noticeably, and one boy that I recall had something akin to a description I once heard of “the evil eye.” It was a gypsy who explained it to me ; and if he was right, that “ a little curtain,” capable of falling over the eyeball at will, is the main curiosity, then this boy had the evil eye. He could throw a film over his eye in the most distressing fashion, and delighted in the power to do so ; indeed, it was his main way of teasing people, He knew that it was not a pleasant sight, and if he had a petty grudge to gratify he chose this very effective torment. Concerning the faces, it is difficult to explain just what was the matter. They were not exactly deformed, but there was a peculiar depravity about them that one could but notice instantly. At times I fancied that it was in the arrangement of features rather than acquired expression of the life ; but there were cases where the effects of evil environment and cruel abuse were plain to see. I have sometimes taken the pains to look up the parents of a child who thus interested me, but I could not discover any similarity of depravity in their countenances. There was depravity there, to be sure, but of a different kind. I believe that the parents of these children, and especially the mothers, could tell a great deal concerning them, and the theorists in criminology will never be thoroughly equipped for their work till all this evidence has been heard.

The foregoing is but a partial summary of several years’ experience with the children of the road. It is far from being what I should like to write about them, but perhaps enough has been said to forestate the problem as it appears to one who has traveled with these children and learned to know them “ in the open.” Surely there is kindness and ingenuity enough in the world to devise a plan or a system by which they may be snatched from the road and restored to their better selves. Surely, too, these little epitomes of Wanderlust, and even of crime, are not to baffle philanthropy and science forever. I feel sure that whatever may be the answer to the thousand questions which centre in this problem, one thing can be done, and done at once. Wherever law is able to deal with these children, let it be done on the basis of an intelligent classification. In punishing them for their misdemeanors and crimes, let them not be tumbled indiscriminately into massive reform institutions, officered by political appointment and managed with an eye to the immediate interests of the taxpayer instead of the welfare of the inmates. The one practical resource that lies nearest to our hand as philanthropic sociologists is the reform of the reformatories. We may not hope to reach in many generations the last sources of juvenile crime, but we are deserving of a far worse punishment than these moral delinquents if, as well born and well bred, we do not set ourselves resolutely to the bettering of penal conditions once imposed.

First of all, we must have a humane and scientific separation of the inmates in all these reformatories. Sex, age, height, and weight are not the only things to be taken into consideration when dealing with erring children. Birth, temperament, habits, education, and experience are questions of far more vital importance, and it is no unreasonable demand upon the state that careful attention to each of these points be required in the scheme of such institutions. Put an ambulanter’s child with a simple runaway boy, and there will be two ambulanters ; associate a youngster with the passion to be “ tough ” with a companion innately criminal, and the latter will be the leader. The law of the survival of the fittest is just as operative in low life as in any other. In such spheres the worst natures are the fittest, and the partially good must yield to them unless zealously defended by outside help. It is suicidal to put them together, and wherever this is done, especially among children, there need be no surprise if criminals, and not citizens, are developed.

Second, the management of reformatories should be in scientific hands; and just here I am constrained to plead for the training of young men and women for the rare usefulness that awaits them in such institutions. It is to these places that the children I have been describing will have to go, and, with all respect to the officials nowin charge, I believe that there are apt and gifted young men and women in this country who could bring to them invaluable assistance, if they could only be persuaded to train for it and to offer it. I do not know why it is, but for some reason these institutions do not yet appeal to any large number of students who intend taking service in the ranks of Reform. The University Settlement attracts many, and this is one of the finest manifestations of that universal brotherhood which I believe is drawing on. Meanwhile, there is a moral hospital service to be carried on in penal and reformatory houses. Shall it be done by raw, untrained hands, or by selfish quacks, or by careful, scientific students ? Must the moral nurse and physician be chosen for his ability to control votes, or to treat his patients with skilled attention and consideration? If the treatment of physical disease offers attractions that call thousands upon thousands of young men and women into the nursing and medical professions, here may be offered a field even more fascinating to the student, and so full of opportunity and interesting employment that it will be a matter of wonder if the supply does not speedily exceed the demand.

There is one thing move. Reformatories, planned, officered, and conducted according to the principles of scientific philanthropy, should be stationed, not at the end of the road, but at the junction of every by-path that leads into it.

Josiah Flynt .

  1. So long.
  2. Live well.