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Riding The Rods With A-no.1

July 2024
5min read

During the first decade of this century the legend “A-No. 1” appeared scrawled in huge letters on water tanks, bridges, grain elevators, and depots across the West. It was the trademark of Leon Livingston, the self-proclaimed “King of the Hoboes.” Livingston bummed his way throughout America and Europe, chiefly, suggested Stewart Holbrook in his entertaining Story of American Railroads , “for the purpose of putting his experiences into … at least an even dozen of atrociously … printed books which were sold through the American News Company.” Livingston was born into a middle-class San Francisco family in 1873 and went on the road eleven years later, fleeing punishment for some schoolboy prank. According to his 1910 autobiography, The Life and Adventures of A-No.1, America’s Most Celebrated Tramp , he eventually traveled “500,000 miles for $7.61.” Sometime after the turn of the century he came out with his spate of books, among them The Trail of the Tramp, The Ways of the Hobo , and a somber harangue entitled The Curse of the Hobo . A-No. 1 knew what side his bread was buttered on; he was writing in a moral age, and he claimed his works would be useful to “restless youths” who would find “the contents of each volume an everlasting warning against the Road.” He added that “a complete set of the moral and entertaining Books should be in every home.” And indeed, save for A-No. 1 ‘s obvious pride in his tramping skills, there is little in his books to encourage youth to go on the bum. Below are two excerpts from his autobiography, the first dealing with a particularly frightening ride on a brake beam, the second with a “boodle proposition.”

When the far away whistle reached our ears we walked quickly towards the depot, and arrived there just as the train came to a stop. I had ridden the front end of baggage cars many times, but when Frenchy took me back to the Pullman, and told me to sit underneath on the narrow wooden brake beam, I nearly fainted. Frenchy had no time to lose talking about it, however, but just grabbed me and made me sit down on the beam. To encourage me, he sat on the same one and warned me to hold on. A moment later the train started. First the wheels turned slowly, then faster and faster, and after awhile the whirling noise became deafening.

People riding in coaches on rock ballasted roads cannot imagine how it feels to be rushing through space fifty miles an hour over a loose sand ballasted track seated upon a brake beam. Soon my eyes were filled with dust so that I could not open them. My ears were becoming deaf from the grinding and whirling noise. My mouth and throat were as dry as a parchment. And there I held on, while Frenchy kept his arm around me to keep me from falling off. The train went faster and faster over a perfectly level road, but light rails and as the night was very dark, I felt as though I was shut up in a barrel full of sand and rocks, which someone was rolling down an endless stairway, so terrible was the jolting and jumping at every joint of the rails.

The train’s next stop, ten miles away, was soon reached, and as it slowed up and I had’ a chance to open my eyes, I took courage again. When Frenchy praised me for my display of nerve to ride that way and told me he never saw a kid of my age and size display so much courage the first time “underneath,” I forgot all my terror and almost laughed, thinking what a coward I had been. I told Frenchy how my mouth and throat were parched, and he handed me a small piece of plug tobacco, telling me to chew it, when the dust should choke me again. He then climbed on a brake beam of the rear truck, and left me alone on the front one, thus giving me more room to hang on.

Soon we were flying again and the dust became thicker and thicker. I put the tobacco in my mouth, but just then there was an extra hard jolt, caused by a real bad joint in the rails, and before I had time to think, I swallowed that piece of tobacco. It was the first chew of the weed I had ever taken in my life. Soon I was deathly sick, and I nearly lost my grip on the truck, which was all that lay between me and death. Further explanation of the situation is unnecessary. I can truthfully add, that never since that night and ride have I touched tobacco in any shape or form.

Without a single idea which way to turn I left San Francisco. I caught a train going towards Los Angeles, intending to put as many miles between myself and home as possible. After two days out I made the acquaintance of two neat looking young fellows bound for the same city.

That evening, while we were riding in a box car, they grabbed me from behind, and tied my hands and feet. After that they took every cent I had, my hat, shoes and the suit of clothes I had on. Then they tried to throw me out of the door while the train was running fast. I begged them for my life, as only one could who is about to be killed, and they took pity on me. They gagged me by stuffing a red handkerchief into my mouth, and then dragging me into a corner left me helpless, while they jumped from the car at the next stopping place.

There I lay until two o’clock in the afternoon of the next day, when a railroad man, who by chance happened to look into the car, discovered me and cut the cords which bound me. I told him what had happened, but he told me to keep quiet about it, as I could never get the fellows convicted. “Furthermore,” he added, “if we could catch them, you would have to wait here three or four months, until the next trial, and possibly they would lock you all into one and the same filthy cell together, so you better keep quiet.”

After this experience I became even more careful, and hardly ever spoke to and never again traveled with tramps. The railroad man gave me a suit of greasy old overalls and an old cap, and thus equipped I started for Los Angeles. I was in the Mojave Desert and unable to beg even a pair of shoes.

Upon reaching Bakersfield, CaI., early one morning I saw a tramp at a camp-fire, and went over to warm myself a little. “Kid,” said the tramp, “what have you done with your shoes?” I told him I had been held up, and he gave me a good pointer.

“I will put you wise, Kid,” he said, “if you will give me the booze they hand you.” I promised to do so, and he continued: “The county jail is a ‘boodle proposition,’ and say, Kid, you get yourself pinched and they will do the square thing by you.”

Acting upon his advice, I approached the first deputy sheriff I saw and begged for my breakfast. He asked me how I would like to be arrested. I blinked my eyes and told him I was next, and willing to take the chance. He took me to the jail, and gave me a nice warm breakfast, made out some papers and then took me to the judge’s office. The judge, a white haired, solemn looking rascal sentenced me to a fine of thirty dollars and thirty days in jail for vagrancy. The deputy took me back to jail and locked me in a cell. I commenced to feel uneasy, and thought maybe I had fallen into a trap again.

An hour passed away that seemed ages, then the deputy returned and after cautioning me not to speak, he took me to a shoe store where he bought me a pair of nice shoes, then on the way back to the jail he gave me a dollar and a big bottle of whiskey, and told me to hustle out of town by side streets and alleys as quickly as possible, and not to forget to call again some other time. I was overjoyed, for I now had shoes and a dollar besides. I hustled back to the camp and delivered the booze to the tramp who had told me what to do.

“Well,” he asked, not satisfied with the booze alone, “didn’t they hand you any dough?” I denied having received money. “We big ones,” he continued, “usually get a five dollar note, but they are getting scared, as some of us have been pinched too often.”

I asked him why the officials did this, and he explained it as follows: “Ah, Kid, you aint wise at all. They have these boodle jails all over the United States. It’s graft, Kid, don’t you see? They fined you thirty dollars and thirty days; you can’t pay the thirty dollars, but the sheriff gets one dollar a day for every day you are supposed to be locked up; the judge, five dollars for your sentence; the lawyer, five dollars for your conviction; the clerk, five dollars for your commitment, and the deputy-sheriff five dollars for arresting you, so you see it is all graft. None of them receive a regular salary, so an officer has to steal all the fees he can to make a living.”

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