A tramp is not a hobo, and a hobo is not a tramp. And whatever you do, don’t call either one a “bum.”
Not that you would. We don’t really have tramps and hobos anymore. When’s the last time you saw someone carrying his belongings in a bandanna tied at the end of a stick? Even “bum” has a vintage ring to it. That man who shakes an empty Big Gulp cup on the street corner? We might call him a “panhandler,” but we’re more likely to think of him as just “that homeless guy.”
But there was a time when — to paraphrase Cher — gypsies, tramps and thieves were a common feature of life in Washington. It’s a time that fascinates Bill DeCosta, a retired D.C. librarian who spent more than two years trolling through old D.C. newspapers to assemble a list of hobo-related stories from the 1890s.
He wrote on index cards the names and details of more than 3,000 hobos, tramps and vagrants, from Emma Abbott, who after being detained in 1891 insisted that she was a police detective, to Bernard Zimmerman, a one-legged man who was sentenced to the workhouse for sleeping in the woods near the Eckington neighborhood in Northeast.
Zimmerman had $90 in his pocket when he was arrested. He presumably could have rented an apartment or sprung for a hotel room. But he didn’t. Perhaps the romance of the open road — that American urge to light out for the territory — was too much.
Or perhaps he was just nuts. That clearly seems to be the case with many of the hobos whose stories Bill came across. In those less-enlightened times, newspapers regularly recounted the exploits of tramps, turning them into colorful characters. There was Ludwig Eisenger, who after being arrested on the Capitol steps told authorities that he was “ruler of the earth.” There was the “Reverend” W.C. Brooks, a self-proclaimed voodoo doctor. There was Count Rocco Dianovich, who claimed to be an Austrian aristocrat.
Bill became enchanted with hobos as a boy after seeing a picture book called “The Jungle” his mother had checked out for him from the library. She hadn’t looked too closely and thought it was about jungle animals or Tarzan. In fact, it was about “jungles,” the makeshift camps that hobos and tramps stayed in.
“I was fascinated by this, the fact you could move around the country and not answer to anybody,” Bill said. “For some reason it just captured my imagination.”
Hobo camps were once common, especially after 1893, when a severe depression gripped the United States. Rock Creek Park had several hobo settlements. The space behind the Corcoran Building at 15th and F streets NW (now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery) was known as “Heat Alley” for the warmth that gusted from the boiler room and made it popular in winter. “Hobo Hollow” was the name for a camp at Dyke Marsh south of Alexandria.
There was a hierarchy among these men (and some women). “Some of them were hobos, skilled or unskilled workers who were genuinely seeking employment,” Bill said. “Some were tramps, who were looking for a couple days’ work at most, for the simple reason of getting a little cash and being on their way to continue their tramping. Then you had the bums, people who didn’t go anywhere, stayed local, begged and stole to support drinking habits and other habits.”
Wanderlust lurks in nearly every heart, even, it turns out, Bill’s.
“For a brief period in my life, when I was teetering around a divorce from my first marriage, I roamed the country a bit,” said Bill, 69, who lives with his second wife, Ann, in a Bethesda condo. Bill went from the Washington area to California to check out a commune and then down to Tennessee to a place called the Farm. Neither worked out. He then spent 21 / 2 years as a caseworker to homeless people in Richmond.
Just as he did with a previous project on the early days of automobiles in Washington, Bill had his thousands of index cards microfilmed and gave copies to the Washingtoniana Collection at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and the Historical Society of Washington’s Kiplinger Research Library. He also self-published a 42-page pamphlet with some highlights.
Bill thinks his index will be useful for people doing genealogies. I found at least two men named John Kelly among his index cards. One was an Englishman charged in 1896 with “waylaying.” The other was known as “Kelly the bum.” In September of 1895, he was knocked down in the street after repeatedly asking sailors for money.
“Dissipation continues” was the newspaper’s verdict.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.