A Ten Cent Pork Chop

Hobos kicked out of Joplin

Joplin Police kicking out bums and hobos


Joplin’s newspaper reporters loved to write about the tramps and hoboes that often drifted through town. The lifestyle of the “weary willie” was one that reporters seemingly found colorful and romantic despite the hardships that many of the men and women who traveled the road faced on a daily basis. Long before the 1930s, and in a time when relief agencies were few and far between, hoboes and tramps often found themselves one meal away from starvation. On one occasion during an economic downtown, a News-Herald reporter sought out a hobo and asked him what the smallest amount of money was that he could live on.

The hobo, after thinking for a moment, responded, “It is possible for me to live on 25 cents a day. I have lived on that amount but I did not spend any on it for a place to sleep. Of mornings, I would eat two chilies and for dinner, a ten cent pork chop. For supper, I would eat another chili.” To get the occasional piece of meat, the hobo would visit butcher shops and obtain meat that was otherwise reserved for feeding dogs. He would sleep in the woods rather than in town, lest he be picked up by the police for vagrancy. If a tramp or hobo were fortunate, he would sleep in boxcars, barns, or on railroad platforms rather than in the open.

When asked if he ever became desperately hungry, the hobo told the reporter, “I have been so hungry that I was too weak to walk, but did not become desperate. I felt that I was near the place where I would not have to spend from twelve to eighteen hours per day being turned down by people, with the world against me and no pleasure whatever.” Instead, he confided, “I also knew that after I reached a certain stage, people would feed me, for fear I would die on their hands.”

Joplin had more than its fair share of the “knights of the road.” There were individuals that loved the lifestyle, but there were others who found themselves riding the rails because of sudden, severe economic downturns that cost them their livelihoods. Funny how some things never change.

What the Train Brings In

Any town with a railroad was bound to have its share of characters. Joplin certainly had its share. In 1897, Arthur Harrold, an eighteen year old tramp, arrived in town with a curious collection of artifacts. Harrold told a Globe reporter that he hailed from New York City and had left the Big Apple eight years and ten months earlier to see the country. With him he carried a sack full of relics that rivaled the collection of the Smithsonian: fragments of rope used to hang Cherokee Bill; a petrified potato; spectacles given to him by the first settler of Texas; the bullet that killed General James McPherson; cartridges owned by Cherokee Bill and one of the Dalton boys; saws used by Noble Shepherd when he cut his way out of the St. Louis city jail; and letters from officials from all over the country certifying his presence in their cities.

Harrold’s journey was sparked by a wager that he could not travel 65,000 miles in a ten year period and save up $6,000. At the time of his arrival in Joplin, he had reportedly saved $5,382 that was deposited in a New York bank. As part of the wager, he was not allowed to beg, steal, or borrow on his journey. Should he fulfill his mission, Harrold was to receive $5,000 from the Police Gazette magazine plus $5,000 from New York World and Associated Press.

At around the same time, another character drifted into Joplin, but not one that the police wanted to see. “Kansas City Jack” was described as a “bum” who was not “meek.” Upon arriving in Joplin, Jack immediately raised a disturbance at one of the train depots. Officer Jack Winters was called and quickly collared Kansas City Jack. But the bum was not one to go quietly as it was a “continual fight all the way from the depot to the station house.” In the course of their journey, the officer knocked Jack down “about twenty times and was about tuckered out when he reached the jail.” His neat, clean police uniform was reduced to shreds as the officer arrived at the police station wearing “only a pair of shoes and a tired looking countenance.” This, according to the Globe, was “the sort of struggle every officer is reported to have who arrests Kansas City Jack.”

After he was processed and released, Jack did not stay out of trouble. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Deputy Marshal Fones discovered some bums were passing liquor through the jail window to prisoners inside the jail. Upon going outside, Fones found that Kansas City Jack was one of the main culprits. After a struggle, and Deputy Marshal Fone’s pants being destroyed in the process, Jack was back in jail.

If Fones expected the rest of the day to go smoothly, he was wrong. At five o’clock that afternoon, while Fones was talking to a friend on Main Street between Second and Third streets, a little boy named Ira Chubb ran up and told him that prisoners were escaping from the city jail. Fones, together with Officer Winters and Deputy Constable Hopkins, took off in hot pursuit. Their chase was made all the easier by a group of young boys who were following the escapees. The prisoners were captured at Third and Byers. Upon inspecting the jail, it was discovered that one of the prisoners was a “mechanical genius” who had managed to unlock the jail door using only a simple wire.

There was never a dull moment in early Joplin!

The Hobo Dog

In the past we’ve covered hoboes creating problems in Joplin, but this time we’ve found the story of a hobo dog. Brakemen and conductors who worked the run between Joplin and Mena, Arkansas, reported that a large Newfoundland dog was riding the rails. Although it was unknown if the dog jumped on the train in Mena, it was first noticed there “sneaking in and out of boxcars.” A brakeman, checking the cars for tramps, found the dog asleep in one of the cars and left it in peace. At the next stop, however, the dog was shooed off the train.
The dog, though, had other ideas and jumped unobserved back on board the train. At the next stop, however, the Newfoundland was once again discovered, and was put in charge of the stationmaster. Somehow the crafty dog managed to sneak away and jumped on board the next train. He was discovered by a porter who ushered him off the train. The dog could not be deterred and continued hopping trains until he was discovered in Neosho. A brakeman who had previously kicked the dog off a train in Arkansas was surprised to find the Newfoundland perched inside of a large furniture car. The brakeman decided to let the dog ride the train to Joplin.
As the engine pulled into Joplin, the dog began to bark, and once the train had stopped, it jumped from the car, and headed off to parts unknown. The Globe remarked, “It is the only incident of the kind that ever happened on the Kansas City Southern line, and perhaps the only one that ever did happen; and a dog that would have intelligence enough to ride in such a manner, instead of walking, should be highly valued by his master.”

As a present day aside, stray dogs in Moscow have also learned the benefits of riding the train.

Source: Joplin Globe

Shredded Wheat

An early advertisement for Shredded Wheat from the Library of Congress

Joplin was a stopping point for many hoboes and railroad tramps and one can only assume that they hoped to find a square meal as they roamed its streets and alleys. On one occasion, hoboes were able to secure themselves a free meal, but probably not the feast they had hoped for.

Early one morning, young boys roamed the streets of Joplin with free samples of shredded wheat biscuits. At every doorstep the boys visited, they left a small box that contained two shredded wheat biscuits. It was not long, however, before a tramp caught on and began to trail behind the boys collecting the boxes of shredded wheat. Before noon “over two dozen tramps had been told the joyful tidings” and soon each tramp had at least “half a dozen boxes.”

Armed with plenty of shredded wheat, the tramps and hoboes fled to the safety of the Kansas City Bottoms, where “cans, old buckets, cups, and in fact anything that would hold liquid were pressed into use.” A nearby farmer was talked out of a “gallon or so of milk.”

The newspaper, which often frowned upon weary willies, declared that perhaps the boxes of shredded wheat “did more good to mankind” that day than if it had remained on the doorsteps of its intended recipients. One has to wonder if hoboes reminisced years later about the time they feasted on shredded wheat in Joplin.

Rochester Kate

train tracks in Joplin

In the winter of 1907, Joplin received a visit from “Rochester Kate” a female hobo who ran away from home sometime in the late 1880s at the tender age of twelve. She claimed to have visited “in every state and territory in the union and made two trips through Europe, paying her way in the steerage once and hiding in the hold the second time.” According to Kate, her fare “across the Atlantic in the steerage was the only money she ever paid for transportation in her life.”

The world traveler, who was in her early thirties, arrived in Joplin via a car on the Kansas City Southern freight train. As the train passed the Frisco crossing she jumped off and walked into Joplin through the Frisco yards. She must have been an object of curiosity as the Globe noted she “despises dresses and wears a pair of corduroy trousers.” When interviewed by a Globe reporter, she was wearing a “very heavy sweater of good quality” and a coat. The only giveaway as to her gender was her long hair of which she was “very proud.”

Rochester Kate told the reporter, “I’ve been moochin’ since I was a kid. One day I got mad at Ma and got on a freight that was standing on a side track back of our shack. We hadn’t gone far when the brakey [hobo slang for brakeman] spotted me and put me off at the next stop. A guy let me ride on a wagon with him back home and I got a beating.”

But wanderlust was in Kate’s blood and she soon took to the rails again. She remembered, “I kept running off after that and when I was about 15, I guess, I lined out one day and didn’t come back. I couldn’t stand staying around a place very long after I lined out the first time. I mooched up to Buffalo and got a job in a factory and saved up a little and mooched it to Chicago on the blind most of the way, and I been a going since.”

The reporter observed, “Aside from the professional slang words picked up on the road, Rochester Kate does not use the rough language that would be expected from such a life, nor is her appearance as rough as would be thought.”

Kate would not tell the reporter how long she planned to stay in Joplin or where she was headed next, saying that “she did not care to have the police know too much about her movements, as she had spent too many days in jail for vagrancy.”

Source: Joplin Globe, 1907

No Rest for the Weary Willie

Today many Americans, unless they live in an urban metropolitan center, have little interaction with the country’s rail system.  Once in a while, one might find themselves stopped at a railroad crossing watching a train roll past, but gone are the days when the train would stop at the town depot to take on coal, passengers, mail, and freight before heading to its next destination.  Peruse an old Joplin newspaper and ads from the St.  Louis and San Francisco “Frisco” Railway touting summer excursions to Eureka Springs, St.  Louis, and Chicago spring from the pages.  Joplin was fortunate that it not only had an extensive interurban trolley system, but was home to a handful of rail lines that carried lead and zinc to industrial centers in the east.

With the trains came hoboes and tramps.  Just a few years after the turn of the century, the Joplin Daily Globe reported that local train crews were having problems with hoboes.  “According to trainmen,” the Globe recounted, “they are having more trouble with tramps this winter than for a great many years.  They are of the worst class and are exceedingly dangerous customers.  They are traveling around stealing rides when they can and endeavoring to find the most favorable places for looting stores or cracking safes.”

The trainmen claimed that the “harmless hoboes who would go out of their way rather than harm a human being are very much in the minority.” Instead, many trainmen told the Globe reporter that they had engaged in “hand to hand fights in an effort to rid the train of them.” Many of the fights broke out during the night when hoboes boldly roamed the rail yards in groups of four to six men.

Later that year, the Globe reported that the, “rail road yards have been especially infested with the merry willies of late.” Nels Milligan, a Joplin police officer detailed to keep an eye on the hoboes told a Globe reporter, “All up along the Kansas City Southern embankment from Broadway to Turkey Creek, you could see the bums lying stretched out in the warm afternoon air sunning themselves like alligators or mud turtles on a chilly afternoon, and here and there was a camp.”  According to Milligan, a hobo’s camp consisted of a “small fire that you could spit on and put out, between two or three blackened rocks, and a blackened old tin can, and an improvised pan or skillet made out of another tin can melted apart and flattened out.”

Hobo getting a free meal

Sometimes a hobo succeeded in getting a free meal.

The officer admitted there were too many hoboes and not enough room in the jail to house them.  He worried they would be “working the residence district for grub, hand-outs, punk, pie, panhandle, pellets, and any old thing they can get together.” Once they had food, Milligan claimed, the hoboes would “feed and gorge and lie around there like fat bears dormant in the winter time” until a bout of bad weather would send them on their way.

Five years later, the Joplin News Herald interviewed a railroad employee about the tramps who traveled through Joplin.  Watching a couple of hoboes jump off of a freight train in the Joplin rail yards, the railroad employee remarked, “See those fellows getting off up there? Now there is no telling where they got on, nor where they rode.” He shook his head.  “There’s another thing connected with this hauling of tramps.  Some of the most notorious criminals of the country have occupied places on the train and eluded the crew for hundreds of miles.”  According to the man, rail workers made every effort to assist law enforcement officers in locating wanted criminals who might be catching a ride on the trains.

Joplin was still struggling with hoboes eleven years later when Chief of Police Joseph Myers directed his officers to sweep the town for any weary willies.  Six men were arrested on charges of vagrancy, jailed, and then told to move on.  But as long as there were trains rolling into Joplin, there were always tramps and hoboes to contend with.

Hobos kicked out of Joplin

Joplin Police kicking out bums and hobos

Hoboes were sometimes looked at in a humorous light.  A hobo celebration was held at the “hobo cave one mile and a half north of the union depot in the hills of Turkey Creek.  Twenty of the Ancient Sons of Leisure gathered there in the cool cave.” One of the hoboes stood up to deliver an impromptu address about the significance of the Fourth of July and said, “Fellow brothers, you all realize what this day means.  It was on this day in 1776 that George Washington crossed the Delaware, whipped fifty thousand Redcoats and whacked out the Declaration of Independence.  Since that time we have been independent.  We do not have to work.  I now propose a committee of three raid a [chicken] coop so we can have an elaborate dinner as befitting Washington’s birthday.”

By 1918, the day of the hobo in Joplin had begun to wane.  Despite Joplin remaining an “oasis  in the great American desert created by prohibition” it was no longer “possible for police to spread a drag net in the railroad yards and gather in anywhere from a dozen to fifty ‘Knights of the Open Road.’”
Tim Graney, a former Joplin police officer and station master at Union Depot, declared he had not seen more than half a dozen hoboes in the last year and not one in the past six months.  The camps where the tramps and hoboes once gathered were empty.  The Globe, unable to explain their absence, mused, “Maybe they have all gone to work…At any rate, they’re gone! The genus Hobo is no more!”

Sources: Joplin Globe, Joplin News Herald

Gypsies and Joplin

Joplin Police kicking out unwelcomed "tourists."

The Joplin Police kicking out unwelcomed "tourists."

In mid May of 1911, visitors arrived on the outskirts north of Joplin.  Their presence immediately brought about disapproval and a visit from the Joplin police.  The police had been notified of the arrival of a “tribe of Gypsies” at what was called their “usual camping ground.”  Gypsies or Roma, or Romani, as they presently prefer to be called, were not welcome visitors to Joplin.  The Joplin News Herald, captured the feelings of the Joplin police chief, Joe Myers, who claimed that most (but not all) of the gypsies were of the type who would do anything but work for a living.  Chief Myers added, “It is our intention to make life such a burden for them that they will not want to remain here long.”

One reason for the lack of hospitality came from the Joplin police department’s claim that a month long visit by the gypsies the year before had been accompanied by an explosion of “petty robberies, begging and small crimes.”  The new arrivals hardly had time to unhitch their horses before the police arrived to inform them that no license would be granted to them to fortune tell.  The News Herald reporter was told that the police force was expected to “make life miserable for them generally.”

The gypsies eventually packed up and departed Joplin only to face the likelihood of similar treatment in the next town. Their treatment at the hands of the Joplin police was not uncommon; tramps, transients, and migrant workers often faced the same fate upon arriving in town. Loafers, idlers, and hoboes were not welcome in many towns across the country, including Joplin. The gypsies that sauntered into Joplin were fortunate they were not sent to the city’s work house to break rocks like so many tramps and vagrants had before. Instead, these free spirits were encouraged to move on, lest an anticipated crime wave break out.

Source: Joplin News Herald, 1911.