It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the 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.

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. 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 itinerent, 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 feight train is dangerous in itself. Many hobos were severely injured or killed as a result of falling 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.

No matter the life of the hobo though, early era hobos were known to be gracious and downright amusing when dealing with people. A national hobo convention was started in Britt, Iowa, in 1900, and continues to this day on the second weekend in August. Hobos are bound by a Hobo Ethical Code which was voted upon at the first convention. The Code is as follows:


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 whereever 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.


Special thanks to Old Tennessee Valley Magazine for permission to reprint this article. To subscribe to Old Tennessee Valley, a monthly magazine of Southern History, Humor, Tall Tales & Legends, send $19 for a one year subscription, or $34 for a two year subscription, to OTV, P.O. Box 2337, Decatur, AL 35602.

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