A DESIRE for adventure and a season of ill-health furnished the excuse, not long ago, for an unusual walking-tour through northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. My itinerary began at Liberal, Kansas.
While on this hike, I encountered that secretive group of men known to the newspapers as yeggs, but among themselves as tramps, and of this mysterious tribe I became, for the time being, an honorary member. Since it seldom happens that an outsider becomes intimate enough with tramps to learn their mode of life, I must explain that my association with them was largely due to my ignorance of the existence of this gens hominis ambulantis; for, all unaware, I had been making friends with one for a week or more before I left Liberal for the first few miles of my journey through the back country of the Bible Belt. This fellow was fifty years old, broad and heavily built, still agile despite his years, and possessed of a pair of keen, peering blue eyes, which sometimes reminded me of the eyes of a railway engineer. His monicker was ‘Old Fox’; and he was aptly named.
I had been with him scarcely a week when he informed me that I would make a ‘fine tramp kid,’and that he would be d— glad to make one of me! A confidence which he may have regretted when he discovered that I had neither the intention nor the desire to learn the gentle art of ‘cracking boxes’ in ‘obies’ for my own enrichment and Uncle Sam’s loss. But the old rascal was no fool. He did not rise up heroically as they do in the movies and denounce me; he accepted my decision as final, and permitted himself the liberty of philosophizing over it as we lay beneath the shade trees of an unfrequented roadside, our stomachs gorged with a tramp Ritz-Carlton dinner. We remained companions and roamed together for nearly three months, and our relations remained cordial, through his kindness and a pledge of secrecy on my part, whereby I agreed to divulge nothing of what I heard, at least until I went East. While I was with him I met other tramps, one or two of them notorious, famous even. I attended their séances, listened to their jargon about ‘boxes’ and ‘screws’ and ‘obies’ and ‘cracksmen’ and ‘hog’s-eyes’ and ‘mortises,’ and became expert in recognizing a ‘box’ as a safe, an ‘obie’ as a post office, a ‘hog’s-eye’ as a kind of lock, in general use in the South, resembling the eye of a pig.
To explain the status under which I masqueraded, let me say that a ‘ tramp kid’ is a young man, usually between eighteen and twenty-two or -three, who for a variety of reasons becomes the apprentice of an old and recognized master-tramp, from whom the kid, in return for obedient and loyal service, learns the profession of tramping in all its specialties, from the simple ‘con’ game to the highly particularized art of cracking a box. Though they are often confused by the townsmen and the uninitiate — and even by bums themselves— with bums and hobos, tramps are neither bums nor hobos; they are a distinct and closed group, whose members undergo an arduous apprenticeship which usually includes a test term in a penitentiary to determine the ultimate fitness of the candidate for the ‘holy orders’ of trampery. Tramps do not work for wages, while bums and hobos sometimes do. A good tramp almost never begs meals or money; what a tramp wants he steals, or borrows without leave. The stealing and borrowing are carried on in various ways, one or two of which are unique and as yet, I believe, unknown to outsiders and even to the tramps’ friends and enemies, the Federal sleuths.
Unless you engage in a fairly long conversation with a tramp and try to draw him out, you cannot from his appearance or manner tell him from the Chautauqua-going, free-silver Kansas farmer, or from the lean, shiftless rentfarmer of Oklahoma. As far as possible, the tramp may be said, in the words of Saint Paul, to be a true Christian, for he is ‘all things to all men’: if you are a farmer, he whines about weather and crops or goin’ wages; if you are in business, it is of business conditions and the market he talks; if you are the silver-starred sheriff with the hardboiled countenance, he will converse about jails, bad men, and penal laws. But if you are a fellow tramp or a kid, and you arc not planning something big, he will talk over the day’s news, foreign affairs, women, men, and ‘heaven’ — the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth. One single physical characteristic may be said to distinguish a large number of them — their eyes, which are unusually keen and peering, no doubt because of their night life of pillage, for they depend very little upon torches or matches. Religiously, they are affiliated with the atheists; ethnologically, Irish and American strains are predominant. Their boyhood environment usually has been that of orphanages, reformatories, and juvenile asylums.
However tramps may appear to outsiders, to one another they are recognizable on sight, even though they have never met before. What gives them away is perhaps their general air of prosperity and freedom from hurry or worry, and the fact that they really do pick up and carry from place to place tin cans for use in preparing their meals. After they have talked together to feel out the community of interests, they exchange monickers and politely laud each other in the most flattering terms.
A meal in the open, far away from the hobo jungle, well and appetizingly cooked and served, comes next. And over this meal the tramps descend to business intimacies, assuming their tramp jargon, perfectly secure while their tramp kids mount guard, looking out for or ‘catting’ strangers.
The conversation usually begins somewhat as follows: ‘John, I catted around in the obie in—City lately. Old box, soft iron, no glim burning over it at night. Not a screw in the town either. I figure that there’s five in it when all the hicks are selling their crops.’ All of which means that one of them has observed an old-fashioned iron safe in the post office in some city or town, which is easy to blow open and rob. It contains five thousand dollars, and is not watched by an officer of the law.
The tramps will compare notes on the relative advantages and profits of their respective prospects. These propositions are always considered thoughtfully and coolly, and that one is adopted which shows the most advantages and the surest signs of good money. A date and place of rendezvous are decided on for a later reunion in, say, the early fall; then, after dividing equally their respective resources, the tramps part, each disappearing as suddenly and completely as he came. After this encounter the outline of the proposition is presented to whatever tramps each one later meets, and their aid solicited if they are sufficiently impressed and not otherwise engaged.
In regard to their preference for post offices over banks, tramps say: ‘You get lighter jail-sentences in Federal pens, decenter treatment, and more friends.’
Bank-robbery is a felony punishable by the respective laws of the different States, which are in universal accord hi that they give heavier sentences than the Federal statutes for the robbery of post offices. In addition, Federal penitentiaries are notably more humane, far less harsh than Mid-Western State ‘pens’ operated by Bible-pounding wardens and surly ‘screws,’ who are noted among tramps as notoriously inhuman and brutal. Besides, the Federal pen at Leavenworth is regarded as a vacation spent among friends.
In the pen the tramp eats regularly, works leisurely, and exchanges ideas on technique with other tramps, often planning the cracking of some obie box while under the benign care of his bloated Uncle Sammy. In fact — so say tramps — many of the most celebrated yegging expeditions have been planned in the pen.
In prison, too, the tramp kid gets his final course. If he does n’t steal, stands punishment unflinchingly, and treats all other incarcerated tramps as pals, he receives the highest laudations, and his name becomes known as trustworthy among the profession elsewhere. Tramps boast that they usually become ‘trusties’ while in the penitentiary, and are thus able to evade some of the rigorous discipline of jail and to communicate with one another more easily. Most old-timers regard this phase of the kid’s apprenticeship as necessary and final in his ascent to full-fledged privileges as a master-tramp.
Should the kid prove ‘yellow,’ however, he is ostracized from the company of all prison tramps, and those on the outside are warned by underground means of his defection. I have myself met one of these ‘yellow-bellies.’ The tramps treated him cordially enough, but they did not allow him to sit in at their conferences, even though he was permitted to eat with them. No measures of reprisal are taken against the yellow-belly unless he has meanwhile become a ‘stool.’ Then he is regarded as a dangerous traitor, and revenge overtakes him. Stories are told by tramps of many historic revenges, — of year-long man-hunts, — but the writer has no knowledge of these events at first hand. He himself was once warned not to talk too much after he left the territory of trampdom.
But to return to our main subject. To become a tramp one has to serve one’s apprenticeship for varying lengths of time, depending upon the nature and disposition of both the mastertramp and the kid. Kids are chosen usually after a period of observation by the master-tramp, who may have watched his prospective quarry for a number of days or even weeks before making his announcement to the kid. The kids chosen for this signal honor are selected from runaway orphan boys or from hobo kids with more than the usual hobo intelligence. The qualities which all tramps most admire in their prospects are independence, selfreliance, and fearlessness. After the tramp has been sufficiently impressed he will usually take over the youngster by suggesting that they travel together and divide their resources, showing the boy money as bait and dividing it with him. Often the tramp will go even further, and have the kid clothed at his expense.
The process of initiation is slow, but enough is told the kid to give him some idea of what is expected of him in manners and habits. Nothing is misrepresented; the kid’s questions are usually answered frankly, and if he feels that he is unequal to the new manner of life he is allowed to return to the old, and is even urged to do so. But before going away he must give a pledge of silence, and he is advised to go ‘straight’ and always think of his friends, the tramps, as still cordial to him. These meetings with prospects who have not the wish to follow the tramp life are always quite friendly and sincere. This is the rule of the tramps’ conduct, for the tramp life demands nerve, coolness, and fearlessness, as well as a strong sense of loyalty.
The first lesson taught the kid is how to be clean while traveling on the road as a tramp, for absolute cleanliness is demanded by the tramps. Meals are served in clean utensils, and good manners are observed while eating. The personal appearance of the kid is criticized and corrected. He is next taught to use his powers of observation accurately, so that in any given test there is no error. He is taught to look coolly for things and to make no deductions unless he has a fact of value upon which to base his statements. This is known among tramps as ‘catting’ or ‘cattin’ around.’
‘Cattin’ around’ demands close and swift observation. It is absolutely necessary that while the kid is catting he shall arouse no untoward suspicion of any sort on the part of the casual observer in town or village, above all of the ‘constabule’ or sheriff. No guesses are allowed; only definite, unconfused information must be brought back. A boy must be able to name by its proper tramp-designation the lock of any door he is sent out to cat; he must be able to tell the number and kind of windows, their position in reference to the ground and the street, and the situation of any house in relation to the store, obie, or bank which he has catted; and he must be able to hold in his mind a definite picture of the roads near the objective, and other related facts. While exercising himself in obtaining a coup d’æil of the town, he must also attempt to learn the nature of the townsmen, whether they are suspicious or cordial to strangers and watchful or lax in regard to the safety of the town. Often on the basis of such information supplied by a kid, dangerous and highly doubtful yegging expeditions have been attempted and carried out.
Early in his career the kid learns the science of boiling dynamite to extract the ‘ soup,’ or nitroglycerin. But before this is done either he or the tramp, his mentor, has stolen from a hardware store, oil well, or construction camp some sticks of gelatin dynamite, and has carefully concealed them until all danger of discovery seems past. He then chooses an isolated spot in the midst of a small grove of trees at some distance from any habitation, and begins his operations by starting a fire underneath a huge tin or dishpan. Into this utensil the dynamite is carefully dumped, and it is allowed to come to a boil, when the grease begins to rise to the top. This substance is the precious nitroglycerin, the essence of the explosive power of the dynamite — the ‘soup.’ This soup is then poured carefully into half-pint bottles, which can be conveniently carried in one’s pocket. When bottled and cold, it is taken possession of by the mastertramp and placed, in what seems a careless manner, in one of his pockets, hip or inside breast, and carried about on his person until needed.
Kid-training such as this requires time and practice on the part of the tramp, especially since much of the information must be acquired at long range and in the fewest possible number of glances, so as not to excite suspicion. The kid is taught to have no fear of the law, and any unnecessary brutality toward a kid on the part of an officer of the law is promptly revenged by his mentor. If necessity demands, a jail will be blown loose to free the kid. In sections of the Southwest the hardboiled ‘bulls’ who scare the bums to death never molest tramps.
But the really important business of the tramp is safe-blowing. Tramps refer to it as cracking a box. But this occupation is seasonal, depending, in the farming country, on the great harvest of grain and, in the cattle country, on the sale of stock. It is in the fall that the farmer has money, which he has obtained from the sale of his grain; and the banks must have cash to move the crop and enable the farmer to pay off his bills. For that reason the tramp plans to do his big business at this time, in the peak of prosperity, planning his get-away so as to reach the city in time to enjoy a wild and expensive winter.
Because of the fact that safe-blowing is the important business of the tramp, and because it is also a seasonal affair, it must always be borne in mind that a tramp on the road at any other season is a tramp living by his wits, comparatively poor, awaiting patiently the advent of fall, when bank vaults and post offices are full to overflowing. Since the tramp must live in a leisurely fashion in order to plan his future operations, and be free to wander at will to look over the terrain and plan his fall campaign, he cannot accept a job which will tie him to some particular locality. Moreover, he must feel free to meet and entertain other members of his calling, because yegging, being a specialized profession, demands the help of at least five or six men for an ordinary small-time safe yielding not more than five thousand dollars. All these considerations demand time and some ready cash; therefore the problem of the tramp is how to make money enough and still not work for wages and be tied to one spot.
The problem is usually solved in one of two ways, depending, of course, upon circumstances and upon the cleverness of the tramp. The less dangerous method and the more popular one among the younger tramps is vulgarly known as the ‘con game of the watches.’ From a firm which specializes in this sort of jewelry, tramps obtain an assortment of watches with seventeen or more glass jewels and presumably guaranteed gold cases. Each watch bears on its dial a standard name spelled with one letter changed. For example, an ‘Elgin’ becomes an ‘Elgen,’ or a ‘Waltham’ a ‘Walthem.’ The watches cost two or three dollars apiece. Armed with one of these, a tramp goes from house to house in smaller villages or railroad-division towns. He knocks on the front door and politely inquires for the man of the house. When the latter comes he is met with a hard-luck story that runs somewhat as follows: —
‘Do you want to buy a railroad watch? An Elgin? Cheap?’
While talking, the tramp takes out the watch, exhibiting the jewels, the name, and the works.
‘ I’m down on my luck and gotta sell it. Cost me forty’ (or more if the prospect looks sufficiently gullible). ‘It’s yours for twenty dollars.’
Well, many people are looking for something for nothing. Here is a good standard timepiece, the name right on it, for half the price, or even less. The number of people who fall for this simple fake, year in and year out, is astounding. New customers seem to be born every minute for the smart young tramp with a ‘phony’ watch to sell. The tramp may sell only four or five a week; but five to ten hundred per cent profit on two or three dollars outlay is easy money. It suffices for ordinary tramp-needs during the slack season.
The watch game in addition furnishes the tramp with valuable information concerning local affairs. Usually after the sale is made the buyer has a friendly talk with the tramp in which he may innocently tell him many things about the local constabulary and the people of the town. These scraps of information are utilized by the tramp, who may be planning, even as he sells the watch, to blow the box of the town obie or the national bank. There are many variations of this game. The most usual one is that in which two or three smart young men, fairly well dressed, conduct a jewelry auction of a lot of fake jewelry in some small town that is without a jeweler.
The more ingenious scheme, and the second way by which tramps earn their living in the slack season, is known as ‘weeding a dump.’ Probably the despised nickel-pincher and the ‘cockroach’ business man who may chance to read this article will learn for the first time why and whither his stock has been mysteriously disappearing for many years. Most of it, he will find, is worn by Mexican section-hands, who have purchased it at really cut-rate prices. Some places have been weeded steadily for years, especially the larger and more prosperous stores that serve an extensive rural area.
Weeding is an art requiring nicety of judgment, a sense of balance and distribution, and, especially, rare self-control — all characteristically lacking in the ordinary robber. It is nothing more or less than the golden rule applied to thieving; for the tramp always allows the owner by courtesy to retain the lion’s share, while taking away merely garments enough to clothe himself and perhaps a half-dozen Mexicans, food enough to last for several days, and some spending-money for the week-ends.
After the tramp kid has catted the store and learned that the owner himself, his dog, or his wife does not sleep on the premises, the tramp designs a key to fit the lock of the door to the store. Let us suppose that the lock is what is termed a hog’s-eye. The tramp takes a twenty-penny nail and lays it carefully upon a railway track for an oncoming train to flatten out. Then he takes this flattened nail and files it into a hog’s-eye key, which will generally fit any such lock. No method of turning a Yale lock has ever been perfected by tramps. In cases where there is a lock of this sort, the kid looks for an open transom or small window. Through this the youngster enters and opens Yale-lock doors from the inside. The case of the half-Yale is more interesting. This type of lock is so termed because its bolt is beveled. It is the easiest of any known locks to pick, as it can be pried open by inserting a piece of whalebone from an old corset or a piece of thin steel or iron between the door and the doorpost, and carefully working this down until it fits between the bolt and the iron hood which usually holds the bolt in place. This method has the additional advantage of needing no previous preparation on the part of the weeders, and does not, in the case of arrest on suspicion, lead to any embarrassing questions on the part of the sheriff or his deputy. Forsooth, almost anyone may carry a piece of steel or whalebone from a corset without necessarily falling under suspicion as a robber or tramp.
Once inside the dump, the tramp and his kid reconnoitre in order to reassure themselves that all is quiet and safe. Then, if a gunny sack is not available, an old shirt is made into a bag; the collar of the shirt is buttoned up and the sleeves are tied about the neck. This impromptu suitcase is filled with clothing, shoes, ties, tinned goods, food, and such other articles as are deemed needful. Usually the tramp fills one shirt for himself and another for the kid. All the pilfered articles are removed from shelf, rack, or case in such a way as not to excite the suspicion of the owner when he opens his store in the morning. No telltale signs are left behind; no bit of merchandise not needed is carelessly discarded. The store is left apparently just as it was found. The result is that the number of detections of tramp robbery is almost nil. Only the merest accident or some bit of carelessness proves the undoing of the weeder. When everything has been closely packed in the shirts or gunny sacks and the tramps are about to leave, the till of the cash register is opened. By the same principle of selection used in weeding the dump, money is removed from the drawer. The amount taken is determined by the amount in the register; never is enough taken to cause the owner of the store to suspect at once that there is something wrong.
The tramp and his kid then depart, taking a route along the railroad right of way, keeping down behind the embankments whenever a house is passed. By dawn they usually reach some favorable spot, a wood or a ravine, where all the stolen goods are quickly buried, but enough food is taken from the cache to last the day. With enough to eat, they lie in the shade of a tree and read and wait for the passing of the day to tell them that all danger of pursuit is over, that the owner of the store is still ignorant of his loss. Never, even under what seem the most favorable conditions, do they relax vigilance or talk about what was done the night before.
That night they sally forth to some near-by town, sometimes taking the loot with them, sometimes leaving it buried. Upon arriving, they drop in upon some Mexican shack at the time of the evening meal. There, among the so-called ‘greasers,’the tramps are welcomed and fed. During the course of the meal the master-tramp, who nearly always speaks Mexican, recites the list of materials on hand, mentions the quality and style, and states the price of sale. If the Mexicans are willing to purchase, the kid goes back for the hidden goods, which are then laid out piece by piece and sold. Sometimes the Mexicans give their orders’, stating their price in advance, so that when the tramp weeds a dump he does it to meet the orders of his customers. All that is sold is disposed of at ridiculously low prices.
By all tramps in the Southwest the Mexican is held in the highest esteem. In his dealing with the gentlemen of the road the greaser never takes a mean advantage, never ‘snitches’ on the tramp. The dark-skinned men from across the Rio are very fond of tramps, from whom it may be said that they receive about the only fair treatment they ever receive in these grand democratic States. I have listened for hours at a stretch to tramps and Mexicans as they talked politics and manners. Sometimes tramps hide their stolen property in the shacks of the greasers, accepting the word of honor of the head man for its return intact. Such a trust is
never abused. The rest of the Mexicans would probably knife the compatriot who tried to make away with the goods or go to the local police. It may be said that the Mexican is the tramp’s sole friend in all the Southwest.
That is t he lighter and comparatively interesting side of trampery. All old tramps too aged for active work in cracking safes make their living by weeding dumps. But the grim side of tramping, and its raison d’être, is opening obies and cracking boxes.
On the day and date, at the place previously agreed upon, all those invited to participate in the forthcoming robbery assemble. When everything is in readiness, and a leader has been chosen, the tramps move in upon the town and hide themselves. Between two and four in the morning is the time usually chosen for blowing the box. This allows for the explosion and robbery and the get-away. It may be said parenthetically that the get-away from the scene of the crime is always the most carefully worked-out feature of the whole act, excepting, of course, the acquisition of the money. It is the more important since tramps live and operate in a sparsely settled land, affording few places of concealment, and having but few roads and still fewer railroads. The get-away nearly always involves flight by rail on a fast freight to some junction point where another fast train is boarded. By morning as much space as possible is put between the tramps and the scene of the theft. This part of the programme presupposes a knowledge of the movements of railroad freights and their speed and destination. Contrary to popular conception, tramps rarely make use of high-powered cars, as these are too easily traced and identified. A hidingplace is chosen that neither man nor dog can trace, and it must be filled with sufficient food to last at least a week. In the hiding-place the loot is divided by equal shares among all the participants, the tramp kid receiving a share from his master, usually one quarter to one half of the latter’s portion.
After the leader has been chosen, the men are placed strategically, according to the needs of proper defense. Each man carries a sawed-off rifle or shotgun, loaded. No matter what the size of the party, on the inside of the obie or bank there are always three men. Of these three men the head is the cracksman. He carries the soup. His kid carries a kit of tools, consisting of a steel drill, files, chisels, hammer, and a cake of ordinary washing-soap.
The cracksman takes his position before the box, sitting in front of the door and bracing his feet against it. On the floor before him — or at one side — lie the soup, the drill, and the soap. First he tries the knob of the safe in order to throw the tumblers of the patented lock, so as to open the door accidentally or to make easier its opening by the explosion. As soon as he is ready to drill, his kid and the assistant plant themselves behind his back, holding their knees hard against him to brace him for the arduous work of drilling a hole in the steel of the safe. The hole is made near the knob of the door, and is drilled until it penetrates far enough to blow out the bolts inside the safe and rip off the door.
When the hole has been drilled to the proper depth, the cracksman pours the soup into it, puts a fuse into the liquid, and stops up the hole with soap. An old blanket is often wrapped around the safe, both to muffle the noise of the explosion and to prevent flying debris. When everyone has carefully disposed himself either behind the furniture or outside the building, the fuse is ignited.
Generally the force of the explosion, if it is carefully prepared for, results in the dislodgment of the heavy armored door, leaving the lighter inner door exposed. This door is jimmied open with a chisel and a hammer, unless the charge has been unusually heavy and has blown a hole clean through the box. After the explosion the safe is red hot, and great care must be exercised to avoid bad burns.
The noise of the explosion never fails to arouse the entire town. But it is the duty of the tramps stationed outside to hold off the citizens until the mastercracksman and his two assistants appear outside the door with the ‘keister’ or satchel holding the money and stamps. Until everyone is outside the building, no tramp deserts his post. Sometimes a second or a third shot of the soup is necessary to complete the job. Meanwhile the whole town must be held at bay, but no one killed, while the men inside work at a feverish pace. The record number of shots ever taken at a box is the well-authenticated attempt of the celebrated ‘Heavy Alky Jimmie’ (so named because he drank raw alcohol); twelve shots were taken before he finally penetrated to the inside of the box, only to find three cents instead of the fifteen thousand dollars he had hoped to obtain.
The first offensive measure taken by the tramps is the shooting out of all the visible lights of the town. Then in the dark they keep volley after volley whizzing over the heads of the townsmen to frighten them away from the scene of operations. The truth is that, although their money is being stolen, the townsmen have an abiding fear of tramps and rarely care to meet them in an encounter of this sort.
There is a standing rule among all tramps that no bloodshed must occur at a robbery. The danger and the risk of such a happening arc entirely too great. Usually the tramps can keep the yokels at bay with a plentiful supply of shot sent just near enough to make them shiver. Only on the most extreme provocation will a tramp wound a burgher. That is why yeggs — real yeggs, not city toughs — are rarely charged with murder or homicide resulting from a box expedition. Sometimes after two or three shots have been fired, and the opposition on the part of the men of the town is growing hotter, the head tramp — the one chosen as leader — gives the command for a retreat. Then it is pell-mell and rush, every man for himself, to escape the posse that is almost certain to be organized to pursue the fleeing bandits.
Despite high-powered motor-cars, radio, telephones, and tear gas, the tramp still persists. But the frontiers of his count ry arc rapidly being delimited and his field of operation is narrowing. In the end, perhaps, only darkest and most backward Arkansas will be left as his sole hunting-ground. That will make easier the problem of his extermination. Like many another picturesque road-robber, he is passing away. Younger men are coming in, younger men who care only for science and speed. Like the highwayman of old and of romance, the tramp will become one of the gallery of historic robbers. The honor of his profession, if such it may be termed, — the recognition that the fight with society is a game with humane rules, involving generosity, loyalty, a sense of humor, and buoyant anarchical conduct, — will then be no more than a memory. But by that time trampery will have fallen into dishonor by having become brutalized, democratic, and mechanical. It will truly have fallen among thieves.