For Santa Rosa newspaper editors and other fans of the “gentleman hobo,” 1909 had to be the greatest year ever. The traffic of tramps was more than the previous five years combined, judging by the number of articles that appeared in the papers, and local scribblers of prose dusted off their thesauri to see who could write the most magniloquent panegyric to the knights of the dusty road.
The winner – which is to say, absolutely the worst writing – was the description of a hobo scrounging food at a farm near Fort Ross: “One Sabbath morning, when a holy calm brooded somnolently over the seashore, including the ranch of Mr. Zeek, and when the tide was away out upon the distant deep, and the deputy sheriff was angling for fish in a nearby creek, came the tramp, unheralded and uninvited…” The article continues with an inventory of food stolen, including a 50 lb. ham. “Having secured this and a hammock and two or three bars of soap and a painted tin flower vase and a few other things, he betook himself away.” Not to spoil the ending, but farmer Zeek “set off through the falling ocean evening fog upon the trail of the depredator” and finds Mr. Hobo eating his ham while lounging in his hammock. Complications follow.
The runner-up is the “Conservation of Tramps” editorial, which like the other article, appeared in the Santa Rosa Republican. Written likewise with tongue firmly in cheek, it bemoans “unsentimental people, without a grain of romance in their composition, would like to put the tramp out of business…He is an American institution as indigenous and native as a Kansas cyclone or a Dakota blizzard. He is as much a part of us as Iowa’s corn and hogs, or Chicago’s smoky air and dirty streets.” Alas, no one apparently proofread this masterpiece of wit, as there is a line or three of type missing.
Honorable mention goes to another Republican item (seeing a pattern, here?) that described a vagabond beggar. “[When] he approached a house, he would literally crawl up and down the steps as if he were in utter weakness and horrible pain. Upon gaining the street again, however, he lapsed into a perpendicular attitude and his strength appear to return and his anguish assuaged.” The man also brandished a little book with a statement that he was unable to work “signed by a couple of physicians who had forgotten to append thereto their places of residence” and insisted his destitute wife and six helpless and starving children were waiting for him in a Southern California town that couldn’t be found on any map.
Also that year was a visit from “Tennessee Bill,” a well-known drunk “who has been frequently arrested for yelling at the top of his voice from the steps of the old court house.” When in jail, Bill was known to tear off his clothes and set his cell on fire.
But the bulk of 1909 hobo coverage went to Leon Ray Livingston, who called himself “A Number One.” A relentless self-promoter, he introduced himself to the local newspaper upon arriving in every town, and the Press Democrat obligingly printed all of his tall tales, including that he had only spent $7.61 on railroad fare to travel almost a half-million miles and that he supported himself by carving portraits in potatoes.
He invited himself to dessert with Luther Burbank and thanked him with an Indian profile carved out of (appropriately) a Burbank spud. The PD noted that “he is also a wood carver of ability” which sometimes got him in trouble; a pioneer graffiti artist, Livingston carved
everywhere he went, and a few weeks after his Santa Rosa visit, was given six months in the San Francisco pokey for carving his tag on the valuable mahogany doors of a major saloon.
Livingston also told the Press Democrat that he had written a book about his adventures, and that turned out to be true; the following year he self-published Life and Adventures of A No. 1, followed by Hobo Camp Fire Tales and several other books, all of which are available for free Internet download. Among his titles was From Coast to Coast with Jack London, published the year after London’s death. His memoir claimed 18-year old Jack London had proposed a “hobo partnership” with Livingston for a cross-country trip, which is possible, but not probable. Livingston had visited the famous author in 1909, and his book reproduced a very short note from the author and two post-mortem letters from his widow, thanking him for sending copies of his earlier books. The note from Jack and the letters from Charmian London printed in his book – one of hers almost completely obscured by overlapping – give no affirmation that the two men traveled together. (The undertone of Charmian’s letters is, “please remind me who you are again?”) Nor did Jack mention a partner in his exceptional collection of short stories from his hobo year, The Road. Whatever the truth about his life, Leon Ray Livingston had a long post-hobo retirement, dying at 72 in 1944.
Santa Rosa was not alone in experiencing 1909 as a hobo year. While our local papers romanticized the rambling life and made light of theft and other hobo crimes, a Jan. 13 San Francisco Call article headlined “Army of Tramps Invading State” quoted a Southern Pacific special agent who claimed “vicious, idle men” were pouring into California and that the railroad was currently tracking the movements of 3,100 hoboes around the state. Solutions to the vagabond problem were widely discussed; a popular 1908 pamphlet, The Elimination of the Tramp, called for anyone without steady employment to be forced into labor camps, potentially for life.
What caused the explosion of the hobo population? Answers are not clear; as discussed here before, the bank panic of 1907 nearly destroyed the U.S. economy; unemployment in New York state reached 36 percent – 200,000 were estimated to be out of work in New York City alone – causing a vast number of men to seek work wherever they could find it.
A landmark 1911 study published by a New York charity, One Thousand Homeless Men, looked at 220 tramps and found that most drifted into the vagabond life. About a third took to the road out of wanderlust and many were well-educated, some with college degrees. Others couldn’t find work in their home communities or were outcasts; some were drunks or otherwise broken men, and a small number were on the run from the law. The study reprinted without dispute a widely-held guesstimate that there had been a fairly persistent population of over 500,000 hoboes nationwide for years.
CONSERVATION OF TRAMPS
Some unsentimental people, without a grain of romance in their composition, would like to put the tramp out of business. Their way of accomplishing this reform is through the instrumentality of rockpiles and shotguns. Other very ultra-sentimental people, hopelessly addicted to altruistic notions, would eliminate the aforesaid specimen of tired humanity by kindness. By various unaccountable means, not particularized, they think to make him abominate rest and spirituous things and to get him in love with soap and toil.
Both of these classes of people need suppressing as bad as any tramp. What would we do without the “bum”? In this new country we have no scenes of ruin to show the traveler. But we have Niagara, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the tramp. The latter serves as a national feature and a piece of local color all in one. He is an American institution as indigenous and native as a Kansas cyclone or a Dakota blizzard. He is as much a part of us as Iowa’s corn and hogs, or Chicago’s smoky air and dirty streets. tive benius [sic] of a country can produce, make him uninteresting or commonplace.
Why do away with him? He wants to stay and he has his uses after all. What would the poor dog do lying lonely in the monotony of the back porch without a chance to exercise his jaws, or give vent to the exuberance of his feelings upon the person of an occasional hobo? How would the hundreds of thousands of housewives exhibit their hospitable and other traits of character unless opportunities were presented them to break bread for the wanderer or to break a broomhandle over his headpiece? Who else would supply the authorities in the country towns with jobs? And who would wrest free transportation from the grinding railroad monopolies?
A more striking spectacle can be hardly imagined than the one presented for weeks last winter all along the Southern Pacific line from Puget Sound to San Francisco. During that time on the road, more troops could be seen riding on top of the passenger trains than there were passengers sitting on the cushioned chairs inside.
If this personage inhabited Santa Rosa, the water question would not bother him. So long as the saloons ran beer, he would not care if the municipal and other water plants were made away with entirely.– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, March 13, 1909
WORLD FAMOUS TRAMP IN TOWN“A No. 1” in Santa Rosa Yesterday–Visits Burbank–Has a Remarkable Record
Have you ever seen a queer cabalistic sign painted on fences and barns along the railroad lines, or carved artistically into shanties or water tank supporters, etc., etc., “A No. 1” with a date and arrow underneath it?
If you have never seen it, watch and look for it and you will be surprised to notice for how many years some of these marks have been decorating those above mentioned places. It is a queer sign, yet it means that “A No. 1,” the world’s most famous tramp, has passed through Santa Rosa, and has left behind him this mark, showing the date and the direction he was journeying. This man, whose only known name is this sobriquet, “A No. 1,” visited the Press Democrat office yesterday and gave some very interesting experiences of his roving life.
“A No. 1” is interesting because:
He has hoboed 458,193 miles.
He has spent only $7.61 on railroad fare.
He has traveled 10,738 miles since January 1, 1908, without paying a cent in fare.
He has been around the world three times.
He is a linguist; speaks and writes in four languages.
Has prevented twenty wrecks.
Wears a $40 suit of clothes.
Wears a gold watch.
Keeps his name secret.
Carves potatoes for a living.
Does not smoke, drink, chew, swear or gamble.
How did he adopt this queer name? That is a story, too. When he first started on the road it was with an older man. The latter was attracted by the ingeniousness of the younger companion, by his bright ways, his natural attitude for a life in box cars and riding the rods beside the grinding wheels underneath the heavy freight, where release for a moment of the bar of iron would have meant a horrible death. “Kid, you’re all right,” declared the older one at the end of a particularly hard journey, “you’re A No. 1.” The title has since stuck, and the wanderer has more than lived up to it, for ever a hobo’s life could be said to be a success it is that of this fellow.
He travels in overalls and jumpers, but after arriving in Santa Rosa yesterday he divested himself of these and appeared neat in a brown suit, is always clean shaven and has a prosperous appearance.
“A No. 1” has been “on the road” since elven years of age, and he is now thirty-five. His real name is not known, and of his family connection he does not speak. He has a profession, which is carving potatoes, and in this he has no equal. Hundreds of times he has carved faces for persons in return for small favors. He is also a wood carver of ability.
From the Press Democrat office “A No. 1” went over to call at the Burbank residence in the hope that he could get a look at the great scientist. He did more. He had a chat with Mr. Burbank and had the time of his life. “I had supper there, too,” he told a Press Democrat representative–that is he had some coffee and cake on the porch of the residence. He carved for Mr. Burbank an Indian’s head out of a huge Burbank potato, and he thanked Mr. Burbank for having produced such large potatoes.
Many railroad officials who have given him cards freely state that he has prevented the loss of many lives in frequent cases. By telling train operators, when beating his way, of broken car wheels or other disasters, or other disarrangements, he has prevented serious wrecks. He has been in four wrecks, but has never been badly hurt.
During his travels “A No. 1” has learned four languages–English, German, French and Spanish. His parents were of French and German descent,
His toilet set is complete, though it takes little room to carry it. It consists of a tooth brush and soap, shaving soap, comb and a few other necessaries. His carving tools are two knives kept very sharp. Blackening and shining rags occupy a part of his pockets.
“A No. 1” has written a book telling of his adventures and experiences, and some copies will be on sale at the local bookstores. He keeps a book system, showing where he has been and the distance traveled from one city to another. He showed this register in the Press Democrat office. The total distance traveled is equal to eighteen trips around the world. With pride the visitor produced a gold medal which signifies that “A No. 1” has won a $1000 prize from the Police Gazette for beating his way from New York to San Francisco in less time than six competitors: His time was 11 days and 6 hours.
“You would not believe me,” he said, “yet it is a fact that I realize that my end will be the same as ninety per cent of all tramps–an accident. This is why I have at least provided for a decent burial. In 1894, of the $1,000 I received as a prize from the Police Gazette I bought for $750 a tombstone and lot at Cambridge, Pa. Seems strange that almost every night that silent monument seems to beckon from yonder green hillside in my dreams entreating me to stop my roving. This I have tried to do many a time, but in vain, and my epitaph, which I hope, will be a silent, everlasting warning to the restless, is simple: ‘A No. 1, the Rambler, Resting at Last.'”
“A No. 1” leaves for Sacramento this morning.— Press Democrat, March 28, 1909
“A NO. 1” LANDED IN JAIL IN ‘FRISCOFamed Tramp Who Visited Santa Rosa Some Time Ago Gets Into Trouble For Carving Name
Some weeks ago the Press Democrat contained an interesting story of the visit paid Santa Rosa by the world-famous tramp, “A No. 1,” whose autograph, “A No. 1,” can be found on fences, posts and sides of buildings all over the continent and in foreign lands. His penchant for inscribing his name got him into trouble in San Francisco on Thursday and led to his arrest. A San Francisco newspaper has this to say of the incident:
“An attempt to carve his tramp sign “A No. 1” upon all the doors in San Francisco has landed Leon R. Livingston, gentleman tramp, in the city prison. Complaint after complaint reached the police of the appearance of the tramp sign upon expensive doors. At a prominent downtown bar three mahogany doors worth $75 each were marred.
“Detectives Taylor and Macphee arrested Livingston while he was apparently waiting an opportunity of carving his sign upon a door at the Western National Bank.
“The man said he was an expert carver. He was living at the Hotel Langham, was well attired when arrested and had a suit of hobo clothing at the hotel.”— Press Democrat, April 17, 1909
WAS GUEST OF HONORJack London Entertains Notable Tramp at Home
Jack London, Sonoma County’s celebrated son, is entertaining at his Glen Ellen ranch this week a guest whom he delights to honor. No, it is neither a potentate nor a philosopher, nor any of the mighty and distinguished of the earth, that one would think would benefit the company of one of the two or three great creative literary artists of the country and generation. It is a tramp, just a tramp. Nevertheless through a tramp he be, he is no ordinary everyday sort of one. He is no less than the celebrated A No. One, whose reputation like his travels has eucircled the earth.
When A No. One arrives at any big city in the land, though he arrives not in purple and fine linen nor in a Pullman coach, but in a box car. A hobo in attire he is received by the representatives of the newspapers as if he were a whole congressional delegation, and his picture and story are always given publicity by the press. He appreciates all this complimentary mention made of him and has a complete collection of all such clippings, and treasures them above silver and gold and precious stones. Apropos of which it may be noted that he has kindly consented to accept a copy of the issue of this paper containing the tale of him.
Mr. A No. One has not confined his attention, time and energies to traveling, though he has been around the earth on a half dozen different occasions. He is something of a carver, having the ability to do sculpturing, not in wood, stone or marble, but in potato. He can cut any physiognomy out of that vegetable. Furthermore he is quite a writer himself. He has written a book on the Life and Adventures of A No. One.
He was unable to extend his stay with London longer than a few days, as he is an ardent devotee of the “strenuous life,” and to tarry in ease and luxury has no attraction for him. He makes visits to the great novelist’s Sonoma county home periodically. Readers of London have sought to connect A No. One with the much traveled and versatile hobo who appears in several of the former’s short stories.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 15, 1909
HOBOES ROAST STOLEN PIGConstable Sullivan Lands Sextette in Jail
Six hoboes were arrested by Constable James Sullivan at Denman’s Friday morning, and have been charged with vagrancy. The men killed a porker belonging to a farmer in that vicinity and roasted the carcass, that they might have a feast. When the rancher discovered the loss of the pig he sent for the officers and had the men arrested.
Constable Sullivan, being the nearest officer to the scene of the trouble, was dispatched to bring the culprits in, and he captured the sextette without difficulty.
At Petaluma the rumor had spread around that the men were bold burglars and that they would put up considerable resistance before they would be captured. The return of Constable Sullivan was awaited with interest when this report gained currency.– Santa Rosa Republican, April 23, 1909
GOFORTH COMES TO TOWN
William Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, well known to the residents of Santa Rosa, came to town Sunday. His first act was to hunt up Chief of Police Fred J. Rushmore and ask to be taken to the county jail for a rest. He was accommodated and Jailer Charles Meyers is now his guardian temporarily. Goforth also wanted to be remembered to the newspaper boys. He is the man who has been frequently arrested for yelling at the top of his voice from the steps of the old court house.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 28, 1909
BEGGAR GETS TEN DAYSMendicant is Subject to Temporary Sickness
An Italian, going about from house to house about town, soliciting coin, and representing himself as sick, disabled, the husband of one destitute wife and six helpless and starving children, was brought before Judge Bagley by Chief of Police F. J. Rushmore on Saturday morning on the charge of public begging, and was sent for ten days to sojourn at the county jail. He had a little book with a statement signed by a couple of physicians who had forgotten to append thereto their places of residence. These were in English and Latin and besought the public to assist pecuntarily the bearer, who was worthy and unable to work, assuring them that the Lord would bless them if they would.
Menera, according to those who saw him on his way, seemed to be temporarily subject to his infirmities. For when in his capacity of a mendicant, he approached a house, he would literally crawl up and down the steps as if he were in utter weakness and horrible pain. Upon gaining the street again, however, he lapsed into a perpendicular attitude and his strength appear to return and his anguish assuaged.
Upon being questioned as to the number and location of his wife and children, he appeared at a loss to answer until his little guide book was in his hands. He finally had them placed in a town in Southern California that nobody had ever heard of being on the map before. He didn’t sort of fancy the prospect of ten days in confinement very well, but when some one remarked that the county set a substantial table three times every day, his dark complexioned visage lightened perceptibly. The thirty unsolicited meals coming to him evidently anticipatively struck him in a tender spot somewhere.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 10, 1909
BUNCH OF HOBOS COME TO TOWN
The usual morning formalities in the police court, consisting of an occasional drunk or disturber of the peace, was varied slightly Monday. Seven offenders were sent around the county jail for a few days each more or less, by Judge Bagley. Five of them were hobos–hobos of genuine, unadulterated article. They were rounded up and run in by Officer Boyes and Chief Rushmore Sunday evening. They had started in an endeavor to enliven the sabbath evening dullness in the vicinity of lower Ninth street and succeeded with a tolerable degree of success. They had not, however, proceeded far in this way before their hilarity had attracted the attention of the patrolmen. Hence their capture. Each was given three days in jail.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 16, 1909
TRAMP STEALS BARS OF SOAPHobo Appears and Makes Things Disappear
From the Sonoma county seacoast near the old fortress at Fort Ross, comes a weird and almost unbelievable tale of a tramp and his depredations. Deputy Sheriff C. E. Zeek is the bearer of the tidings and the victim of the unscrupulous and unbecoming doings of the hobo as well. In addition to his duties in preserving intact the majesty of the law in his domain, Zeek is also the proprietor of a ranch. It was at this ranch that the tramp first breaks into the story and incidentally where he breaks into a few other things. Going back to the beginning, it is like this. One Sabbath morning, when a holy calm brooded somnolently over the seashore, including the ranch of Mr. Zeek, and when the tide was away out upon the distant deep, and the deputy sheriff was angling for fish in a nearby creek, came the tramp, unhearalded and uninvited. He first proceeded to satisfy his gastronomic pangs. Though it wasn’t easter, he started with eggs. He invaded every hen’s nest on the place–there were over fifty of them–and ate the contents, leaving with a criminal extravagance, the shells and the whites of the eggs. Then he fell upon the dairy. Here sat a hundred pans of milk, with a crust of cream a half inch thick overspreading their surfaces. He consumed the cream, or what of it he could, and benignantly poured out the milk upon the ground as an offering to the cats. In the back porch of the house was a heavy wooden chest, which was the family meat repository. This was securely locked, but the hobo found the key. This he did not use, for he preferred a more sinful method yet of making an entrance into the house of ham. Hence he deliberately and maliciously cut a hole through one side of the box and through the aperature extracted a 50 pound ham. Having secured this and a hammock and two or three bars of soap and a painted tin flower vase and a few other things, he betook himself away. That evening Mr. Zeek returned. He didn’t say anything–for publication, but with evil in his heart and a double barreled shotgun in his hand, he set off through the falling ocean evening fog upon the trail of the depredator. He found him reclining in his hammock under a tree, nibbling ham. The latter denied ever having been in the vicinity of Mr. Zeek’s ranch, but was induced after a short argument to disassociate himself from his spoils. The hobo, says Zeek, was not particularly hard pressed for cash, having something more than a hundred dollars in coin and greenbacks, besides sporting a diamond ring and waring a lady’s gold watch chain five feet long, bespattered with pearls and a ruby or two. This individual has not been seen since, and it is presumed that he has left for other parts.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 1, 1909