For other uses, see Hobo (disambiguation).
Two hobos walking along railroad tracks after being put off a train. One is carrying a bindle.

A hobo is a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably NorthwesternUnited States around 1890.[1] Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a traveling worker.[1][2]


The origin of the term is unknown. According to etymologist Anatoly Liberman, the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890.[1] Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: "Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early Nineties (just then)?"[1] Author Todd DePastino has suggested it may be derived from the term hoe-boy meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as Ho, boy![3] Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America (1998) that it could either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation of "homeward bound".[4] It could also come from the words "homeless boy". H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.[2][5]


Cutaway illustration of a hobo stove, an improvised portable heat-producing and cooking device, utilizing air convection

It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many discharged veterans returning home began hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed the railways west aboard freight trains in the late 19th century.

In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in the United States at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). His article "What Tramps Cost Nation" was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911, when he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.[6]

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s.[7] With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.

Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, and far from home and support, plus the hostility of many train crews, they faced the railroads' security staff, nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation of violence against trespassers. Moreover, riding on a freight train is dangerous in itself. British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels when trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to be trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed.[8]

According to Ted Conover in Rolling Nowhere (1984), as many as 20,000 people were living a hobo life in North America. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.[9]


Expressions used through the 1940s

Hobo term Explanation
Accommodation car the caboose of a train
Angellina a young inexperienced child
Bad Road a train line rendered useless by some hobo's bad action or crime
Banjo (1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, "D" handled shovel, generally used for shoveling coal
Barnacle a person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcomber a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports
Big House prison
Bindle stick a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
Bindlestiff a hobo who carries a bindle
Blowed-in-the-glass a genuine, trustworthy individual
'Bo the common way one hobo referred to another: "I met that 'Bo on the way to Bangor last spring."
Boil Up specifically, to boil one's clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
Bone polisher a mean dog
Bone orchard a graveyard
Bull a railroad officer
Bullets beans
Buck a Catholic priest, good for a dollar
Burger today's lunch
C, H, and D indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)
California blankets newspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench
Calling in using another's campfire to warm up or cook
Cannonball a fast train
Carrying the banner keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
Catch the Westbound to die
Chuck a dummy pretend to faint
Cover with the moon sleep out in the open
Cow crate a railroad stock car
Crumbs lice
Docandoberry anything that grows on the side of a river that's edible
Doggin' it traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line
Easy mark a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
Elevated under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Flip to board a moving train
Flop a place to sleep, by extension, "Flophouse", a cheap hotel
Glad rags one's best clothes
Graybacks lice
Grease the track to be run over by a train
Gump a chicken[10]
Honey dipping working with a shovel in the sewer
Hot (1) a fugitive hobo; (2) a decent meal: "I could use three hots and a flop"
Hot Shot a train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for "Cannonball"
Jungle an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
Jungle buzzard a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
Knowledge bus a school bus used for shelter
Maeve a young hobo usually a girl
Main drag the busiest road in a town
Moniker / Monica a nickname
Mulligan a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
Nickel note a five-dollar bill
On the fly jumping a moving train
Padding the hoof to travel by foot
Possum belly to ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to avoid being blown off)
Pullman a railroad sleeper car; most were made by George Pullman company
Punk any young kid
Reefer a compression or "refrigerator car"
Road kid a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
Road stake the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency
Rum dum a drunkard
Sky pilot a preacher or minister
Soup bowl a place to get soup, bread and drinks
Snipes cigarette butts "sniped" (e.g., in ashtrays)
Spare biscuits looking for food in garbage can
Stemming panhandling or begging along the streets
Tokay blanket drinking alcohol to stay warm
Yegg a traveling professional thief, or burglar

Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as "Big House", "glad rags", "main drag", and others.

Hobo signs (symbols)

Hobo signs, California, c. 1870s
Hobo code at a Canal Street Ferry entrance in New Orleans, Louisiana
Key to a few hobo signs, displayed at the National Cryptologic Museum

To cope with the uncertainties of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a visual code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in "the brotherhood". A symbol would indicate "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on. Some commonly used signs:

Another version of the hobo code exists as a display in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service. There is an exhibit of hobo codes at the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland.[13][14]

The Free Art and Technology Lab released a QR Hobo Code, with a QR stenciler, in July 2011.[15]

Ethical code

An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri.[16] This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nationwide Hobo Body; it reads this way:

  1. Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.
  2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
  3. Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
  4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
  5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of other hobos.
  7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
  8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
  10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
  11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
  12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
  13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
  14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
  15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
  16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!



There are numerous hobo conventions throughout the United States and the year. The ephemeral ways of hobo conventions are mostly dependent on the resources of their hosts. Some conventions are part of railroad conventions or "railroad days". Others are quasi-private affairs, hosted by long-time hobos. Still others are ad hocthat is they are held surreptitiously on private land. Some of these conventions are held in abandoned quarries, along major rivers.

Most non-mainstream conventions are held at current or historical railroad stops. The most notable is the National Hobo Convention held in Britt, Iowa. The town first hosted the Convention in 1900, but there then followed a hiatus of thirty-three years. Since 1934 the Convention has been held annually in Britt, on the second weekend in August.[17]

National Hobo Convention

The Britt Hobo Museum exhibits a smattering of hobo history and lore. Initially just a "Hobo Convention" museum, in the late 1990s it evolved into a fuller Hobo History museum. LeAnn Castillo, a local artist and the hobo painter, exhibits her portrait collection of hobo kings and queens since 1900. All of her paintings are made from photoseven current kings and queens. Most hobos cannot sit still long enough to have a portrait painted. None has been painted live.

Formal entertainment at the annual Convention begins before dusk, and is provided by a mix of active hobos, extended hobo families and non-hobo wannabees. Late after dark, the crowd leaves and the campfire becomes more informal. Satellite groups spring up. Stories are toldsmall and tall, poetry is recited, and cants are sung to the muted vibrations of banjos, guitars and harmonicas.

Activities officially begin the Thursday of the convention weekend with a lighting of the campfire and exercise of some hobo cultural traditions (Honoring the Four Winds) before the opening entertainment. On Friday morning many visit the hobo-corner of the cemetery to pay tribute to those who have "Caught the Westbound," with a hobo memorial service preceded by a local contingent of ex-military colorguard. Names of deceased hobos are recited (Roll Call). At around five o'clock on Friday afternoon a poetry reading attracts participants and a small crowd of onlookers.

Hobo-king candidates are screened the days before the annual King and Queen election and coronation. They are expected to have knowledge and experience in riding trains, and are evaluated for how well they would represent the hobo community. A quasi-qualified candidate is occasionally allowed to run. Any woman who is part of the hobo community may run for hobo Queen. On the Saturday morning there is a parade in the town pavilion, allowing onlookers to see those running for hobo king and queen in a last chance to campaign before the election in the early afternoon. Following the parade, mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park, cooked by local Boy Scouts. In early afternoon, the hobo King and Queen are elected by means of the volume of crowd applause.

A carnival, flea market, and an annual auto show are also part of the festivities. There is also stock-car racing.

Notable persons

Notable hobos

Notables who have hoboed

In mainstream culture


  • All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, by Loren Eiseley, 1975. ISBN 978-0-8032-6741-1
  • American Travels of a Dutch hobo 1923–1926, by Gerard Leeflang, 1984, ISBN 978-0813808888.[24]
  • The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman - Humor book which features a lengthy section on "hobos", including a list of 700 hobo names which spawned an online effort to illustrate the complete list.
  • Bottom Dogs, by Edward Dahlberg
  • Beggars of Life, (1924), by Jim Tully
  • Charlie's Chalk Stick by Renee Wendinger,2016. ISBN 978-0-991-36033-8.[Illustrated Children's Book about a hobo during the Great Depression based on a true story.]
  • Evasion by Anonymous
  • From Coast to Coast with Jack London by "A-No.-1" (Leon Ray Livingston)
  • The Freighthopper's Manual for North America: Hoboing in the 21st Century, by Daniel Leen. ISBN 0-9632912-7-0.
  • Hard Travellin': The Hobo and His History, by Kenneth Allsop. ISBN 978-0-340-02572-7.
  • Hobo, by Eddy Joe Cotton, 2002. ISBN 978-0-609-60738-1
  • The Hobo - The Sociology of the Homeless Man, by Nels Anderson, 1923.
  • The Hobo Handbook - A Field Guide to Living by Your Own Rules, by Josh Mack, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4405-1227-8 (Book on the Hobo lifestyle, written by one who has ridden the rails in recent years.
  • Ironweed by William Kennedy, 1983. A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, also adapted for a 1987 film (see below).
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair contains a section in which the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, abandons his family in Chicago and becomes a hobo for a while.
  • Knights of the Road, by Roger A. Bruns, 1980. ISBN 978-0-416-00721-3.
  • Lonesome Road, by Thomas Minehan, 1941.
  • Lonesome Traveler, by Jack Kerouac ("The Vanishing American Hobo")
  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
  • Muzzlers, Guzzlers, and Good Yeggs by Joe Coleman
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  • On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
  • Once a Hobo... (1999), by Monte Holm
  • One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hobos by Clifford Williams.
  • Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression[25] by Errol Lincoln Uys, (Routledge, 2003)ISBN 978-0-415-94575-2
  • Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-125675-2
  • The Road, by Jack London
  • Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes by Ted Conover - Paperback: 304 pages, Publisher: Vintage (September 11, 2001), ISBN 0-375-72786-8
  • Sister of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha - (as told to) Dr. Ben Reitman
  • Stumptown Kid, By Carol Gorman and Ron J. Finley
  • Tales of an American Hobo (1989), by Charles Elmer Fox
  • Tramping on Life (1922) and More Miles (1926), by Harry Kemp
  • Waiting for Nothing, Tom Kromer
  • You Can't Win, by Jack Black
  • Yankee Hobo in the Orient, (1943), by John Patric


  • Kings in Disguise (1988), by James Vance and Dan Burr
  • Laugh-Out-Loud Cats, webcomic by Adam Koford, featuring two anthropomorphic cats as hobos.
  • Many cartoons depict hobos as main or secondary characters, hobo related activities such as traveling by train, with a bindle, or in company of hobos. For example, 8 Ball Bunny (1950) with Bugs Bunny, Merrie Melodies Hobo Gadget Band (1939), Mouse Wreckers (1948) and MGM's Henpecked Hoboes (1948).
  • The Avenger and master archer in Marvel Comics, Hawkeye, is aware of, and can read Hobo Code in Matt Fraction and David Aja's 2012 run on the character.
  • USA Comics #2 (1941) introduced Vagabond, a police officer named Pat Murphy who created an alter ego, Chauncey Throttlebottom III, a well spoken hobo, to fight crime.
  • USA Comics #5 (1941) had a character, Butch Brogan, alias Fighting Hobo, that helps save a kidnapped puppy in the "The Dog-Nappers."


  • Hobo (1992), a documentary by John T. Davis, following the life of a hobo on his travels through the United States.
  • American Experience, "Riding the Rails" (1999), a PBS documentary by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, narrated by Richard Thomas, detailing the hobos of the Great Depression, with interviews of those who rode the rails during those years.
  • The American Hobo (2003), a documentary narrated by Ernest Borgnine featuring interviews with Merle Haggard and James Michener.
  • The Human Experience, (2008), a documentary by Charles Kinnane. The first experience follows Jeffrey and his brother Clifford to the streets of New York City where the boys live with the homeless for a week in one of the coldest winters on record. The boys look for hope and camaraderie among their homeless companions, learning how to survive on the streets.

Fictional characters

Examples of characters based on hobos include:




Musicians known for hobo songs include: Baby Gramps, Railroad Earth, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Utah Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Seasick Steve, and Boxcar Willie.


Examples of hobo songs include:


  • King of the Hobos (2014), a one-man musical that premiered at Emerging Artists Theatre in New York City, is centered around the death of James Eads How, known during his lifetime as the "Millionaire Hobo".[27]


See also

Look up hobo in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hobos.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. November 12, 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
  2. 1 2 Mencken, H.L. (1937). "On the road again". The American Language (4th ed.). grammarphobia.com (July 25, 2009). Archived from the original on 2012-05-05. Retrieved 2013-05-06.
  3. Interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America from the University of Chicago Press website
  4. Bryson, Bill (1998). Made in America. . ISBN 978-0-380-71381-3.
  5. https://books.google.com/books?id=zh7Ma1SCthQC&pg=PA581&lpg=PA581#v=onepage&q&f=false
  6. New York Telegraph: "What Tramps Cost Nation", page D2. The Washington Post, June 18, 1911
  7. "Virginia.edu" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 17, 2012. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  8. "Life and Times of an American Hobo". Allvoices. 2010-09-21. Archived from the original on 2012-10-13. Retrieved 2015-11-01.
  9. Conover, Ted (1984). Rolling Nowhere. New York: Viking. p. needed. ISBN 978-0-670-60319-0.
  10. Bruns, Roger (1980). Knights of the Road: A Hobo History. New York: Methuen Inc. p. 201. ISBN 0-416-00721-X.
  11. Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", page 198. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  12. 1 2 3 Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", page 24. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  13. Rothstein, Edward (August 1, 2014). "Security Secrets, Dated but Real". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-02.
  14. "National Cryptological Museum—Virtual Tour". Retrieved 2010-10-05.
  15. "QR Code Stencil Generator and QR Hobo Codes". F.A.T., Free Art and Technology Lab. 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2012-07-18.
  16. "Hobo Code". National Hobo Museum. Archived from the original on July 24, 2011.
  17. Lammle, Rob. "Strange States: Iowa's Hobo Convention". Mental Floss. Retrieved 2015-11-01.
  18. "Monte Holm Dead at 89". Original Nickel Hobo Society. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
  19. "Tucson Citizen Morgue". Tucsoncitizen.com. 2009-04-06. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  20. "Louis L'amour: A brief biography". louislamour.com. Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  21. "Down and Out in Paris and London". Archived from the original on October 10, 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-07.
  22. Van Ronk, Dave. The Mayor of MacDougal Street. 2005.
  23. "Dale Wasserman, 94; Playwright Created 'Man of La Mancha'" obituary by Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times, printed in The Washington Post December 29, 2008.
  24. "American Travels of a Dutch Hobo, 1923–1926: Gerard Leeflang: 9780813808888: Amazon.com: Books". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  25. "The Great Depression - The Story of 250,000 Teenagers Who Left Home and Ride the Rails". Erroluys.com. 1933-04-17. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  26. "Here Comes Your Man". Frankblack.net. Retrieved 2013-05-07.
  27. . Brown Paper Tickets, accessed October 11, 2014

Further reading

  • Brady, Jonann (2005). "Hobos Elect New King and Queen". ABC Good Morning America, includes Todd "Ad Man" Waters' last ride as reigning Hobo King plus hobo slide show with Adman’s photo’s taken on the road.
  • Bannister, Matthew (2006). "Maurice W Graham 'Steam Train', Grand Patriarch of America's Hobos who has died aged 89". Last Word. BBC Radio. Matthew Bannister talks to fellow King of the Hobos "Ad Man" Waters and to obituary editor of The New York Times, Bill McDonald.
  • Davis, Jason (2007). "The Hobo", On The Road 30 minute special. KSTP television. Covers "Ad Man" Waters taking his daughter out on her first freight ride.
  • Harper, Douglas (2006)[1986]. "Waiting for a Train", Excerpt from Good Company: A Tramp Life ISBN 978-1-59451-184-4
  • Johnson, L. Anderson. "Riding the Rails for the Homeless." "The New York Times." July 12, 1983, sec B page 3, col 3. Story on "Ad Man" Waters The Penny Route.
  • Oats. "Around the Jungle Fire I, II & III." 1994, 1997, 2000. Interviews with several hobos: How they got their start, and travels and travails.
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