07 March 2013

The Brotherhood of Tramps

In Michael Bellesiles' 1877: America's Year of Living Violently, the author recounts the tale of one of that year's many crises, real or imagined: the Tramp Scare, in which the newspapers whipped up a frenzy of speculation about the criminal intent of homeless labourers forced to wander across America searching for work due to the crippling Long Depression of 1873 to 1879.

There were some verifiable crimes committed by gangs of tramps, though they were rarely as dramatic or as violent as the most repeated stories. For instance, in late September a group originally reported to consist of twenty tramps robbed a building at Warrenton Junction, Virginia, and then attempted to board a passing train. Railroad employees seized what turned out to be six tramps and turned them over to authorities. Not much of a gang, these six starving tramps came from six different cities and had just recently met. A few days later five tramps attempting to board a train near Manassas were chased off by the conductor - not much of a story had the miscreants not been tramps who appeared to be operating with criminal intent. Similarly, there may be another way of looking at a story the Inter Ocean published in its crime column on the "Ingratitude of a Tramp" named Barth Hayes who was given a job by R.B. Watkins of Dixon, Illinois. Hayes repaid this kindness when "Mrs Watkins eloped with him". 
By the summer of 1877 this certainty that tramping represented a giant criminal conspiracy had reached the point that papers began reporting evidence of an extensive "brotherhood of tramps" that ominously exchanges "confidences and items of information", dividing the country into criminal fiefdoms. This brotherhood made its headquarters in New York City, from which an estimated fifteen thousand professional tramps fanned out every summer to commit crimes. Though this was a significant understatement of the number of tramps in the country, these outlaws constituted "a formidable force to let loose on the country". By splitting up, this tramp army could cover an extensive territory, ensuring that no one grasped the true size of their criminal conspiracy. Another common story reported that the state of Massachusetts or the mayor of Lowell sent undercover detectives pretending to be tramps to infiltrate this dangerous "swarm". The detectives learned from other tramps - who, one assumes, recognised cops when they saw them - that the vagrants maintained "a perfectly organised brotherhood" that controlled all illegal activity in the Northeast. "They are under orders of a chief and each tramp has a special duty assigned to him" in a precise criminal division of labour. Members of the brotherhood of tramps "are even instructed what to steal and whom to steal it from," and have secret signs and words. 
- Michael Bellesiles, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently, New York, 2010, p.119-120.  

New Zealand's newspapers were always desperate for dramatic news from overseas, and their search was aided by the arrival of the overseas telegraph cable connecting New Zealand to Australia and the rest of the wired world in 1876. While New Zealand newspapers printed stories about the famous Great Railroad Strike of 1877, a search of Papers Past for 1877 reveals no tramp-related stories from America for that year. The Otago Witness of 15 September 1877 did cover the strike disturbances, reporting that:

Fearful riots, caused by strikes, occurred all through the States. At the end of July at Chicago and St Louis three-fourths of the manufactories were stopped. The military were called out and fired on the mob at Chicago, killing fifteen and wounding over fifty. Riots occurred at Harrisburgh, Columbia, Toledo, Detroit, Sc[r]anton, Pittsburgh, Omaha, Jackson, Indianapolis, and a score of other towns. At Baltimore 8000 miners struck. A Cabinet Council was held at Washington to devise measures for the public safety. Detachments of military were sent in all directions. The destruction of property was enormous.
Wellington's Evening Post of 7 December 1878 contains a string of brief jokes of interest to the readers of the time, gleaned from an American newspaper shipped in from San Francisco or off the wires. It contained the following example of political humour, which illustrates a typical attitude to organised labour at the time:

The American Communist - The Baltimore Gazette describes the average Communist as an 'ignorant man, with warts on his nose, a vagabond from birth, who hasn't made up his mind to take to the country as a tramp, and who lacks both the nerve and ingenuity to become a burglar'.
And an edition of the Evening Post a few months earlier on 8 June 1878 may not have contained useful information regarding the tramp scare in America, but it did offer this pithy 'witticism' as the very last item on its cover page:

What is the difference between a tramp and a Grocer who weighs his vegetables? One beats his way and the other weighs his beet.
Boom boom! Wait, that's terrible.

See also:
History: Michael Bellesiles, 'The Year 1877 Looks Awfully Familiar Today', 17 May 2010
HistoryOn the road - the professional swagger, Te Ara
BiographyEdmond 'Shiner' Slattery, NZ's most famous tramp (b.1839/40 d.1927)
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