Famous Hobos and their Sad Deaths, from Alexander Supertramp to T Bone Slim

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sat, November 10th, 2012

This past August the 112th National Hobo Convention was held in Britt, Iowa. A friend of mine attended the event in true hobo style, that is, by riding freight trains there.

He observed a parade with floats, the coronation of the Hobo King and Queen, a Hobo Museum, a Hobo Auction and a Hobo Jungle, where hobos strummed their instruments on a grass stage. Drifters, bums, tramps and the like are often buried in potter’s fields without anyone taking notice, but several American hobos have earned great fame and even inspired books and movies that glamorize their lives, and deaths. Digital Dying examined a few examples..

T Bone Slim – T bone was perhaps the twentieth century’s most famous hobo writer. Born Matti Valentinpoika Huhta in 1880 to Finnish immigrant parents, he grew up in Eerie, Pennsylvania but at a young age left to travel the northern United States as a migrant worker. He was a member of the famous socialist group, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies and worked as a reporter for a radical Finnish newspaper in Duluth called the Industriallisti. He penned regular columns for newspapers like Industrial Solidarity, Industrial Worker and Industrialisti. His work later inspired the American surrealist movement as well as the Civil Rights Movement. “Never exhaust yourself,” wrote T Bone. “There is nothing more disgusting than a man staggering home from work ‘dog-tired’…grabbing a hasty feverish supper; saying good-night to his family and rolling into bed half-washed, to repeat the same thing three hundred and twelve times per-year…” In 1940, while living in New York City, T Bone slipped off the docks near where he was staying at a boardinghouse for seamen and drowned.

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Utah PhillipsUtah was a legendary hobo singer, avid train hopper and poet as well as a strong union supporter and member of the Wobblies. He ran for U.S. Senate in Utah as a candidate with the Peace and Freedom Party and ran for president of the United States in 1976 as a candidate with the Do-Nothing Party. But Utah was best known for his music. He recorded tracks with Rosalie Sorrels, a famous folk singer from Idaho and penned many songs of his own, such as, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum”, “Bread and Roses”, “Daddy, what’s a train?” and “Moose Turd Pie”, his most famous composition, which tells the tale of his work as a gandy dancer, or rail worker, laying tracks across the Southwest. The CD he recorded with Ani DiFranco was nominated for an Emmy Award, other songs have been played by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Tom Waits. Utah died on May 23, 2008 at the age of 73, in Nevada City, California, from complications of heart disease.

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Alexander SupertrampChristopher McCandless grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and attended Atlanta’s prestigious Emory University. After graduating he donated $25,000 a family friend gave him to pursue a law degree to charity, then changed his name to Alexander Supertramp and headed west in a beat up Datsun. He traveled through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked in a grain elevator and made several friends. In the desert Southwest flashfloods washed out his car. He left it in the desert and continued his journey by canoe, paddling down the lower Colorado River with nothing much more than a bag of rice. Inspired by the rugged wilderness and spectacular isolation he planned an even grander trip, to Alaska. McCandless hitchhiked to Fairbanks and hiked into the wilderness near Mount Denali with a 10 pound bag of rice, a rifle with 400 rounds of ammunition and some books. He spent the next few months living in an abandoned bus. He foraged for wild plants and hunted small game like birds and porcupines but after a few months he had lost significant weight and was starving to death.

“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD,” read a note he left to the world just before he died. “GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!” Alaskan natives said McCandless was foolish and unprepared. Nevertheless, his story touched the hearts of many. Jon Krakauer’s book about him, “Into the Wild“, spent more than 100 weeks on the best seller’s list, and was later turned into an award-winning movie directed by Sean Penn. The abandoned bus he lived in is a now a shrine for drifters, bums, tramps and the like.

2 thoughts on “Famous Hobos and their Sad Deaths, from Alexander Supertramp to T Bone Slim”

  1. Brian

    Not every person out there riding now is a “Dirty Kid” traveling in a punk vest, dreadlocks, face tattoos and shitty stick and poke tats all over their body. You’re kind of generalizing all tramps into this group when that’s not at all true. I agree, a lot of it is a fashion statement and fuck-the-world mentality. But a lot of those kids don’t even really ride freight. They sit around getting high and drunk all day. Most your riders today who rip miles travel solo and work whatever jobs they can find. Some of them fit the profile you’ve described, but several don’t. The posers you speak of like a friend told me, are 2-year-turnarounds. You won’t see em after two years. Posers in every generation of riding, who cares, it’ll always be around.

  2. K-Bar

    This is a very sparse list, and mentions virtually none of the men and women that actual hobos consider noteworthy and important. The National Hobo Cemetery in Britt, Iowa, contains the cremated remains of numerous tramps, but many of the most influential are not there, as they were identified and claimed by their families, and buried in plots close to their surviving relatives. “Steamtrain” Maury Graham, Feather River John, Fry Pan Jack, Lord Open Road, Mountain Dew and scores of others are honored among genuine tramps, but unknown to the general public, and also unknown to the vast majority of the clueless young “punks” of today. Many of the people widely considered representative of hobos and hoboing are people who were/are really kind of poseurs, and spent far more time self-promoting than they did riding freight trains.
    Time and again newspapers do this phony “expose” articles that sensationalize trainhopping and then piously intone “the death of hoboing,” as if people catching out from some jungle give a flip about the opinion of some news editor. Railroad cars undergo constant technological change. Trains get faster, accommodations for human beings sparser, hi-tech methods of catching tramps more common, and yet people still find ways to catch out. Tramps are the penultimate survivors, and like coyotes, they adapt to whatever environment in which they find themselves.
    In 1970, when I first caught out, there were very few people riding freight trains, but the railroad employees (even the bulls) were much more accommodating. We built fires and cooked up chow right in the middle of the rail yards. Train crews invited us to wash up in the yard shack crew rooms. This has changed dramatically, and I think largely because of the weird appearance and bizarre anti-social attitudes of the young, punk-rock, “Flintstone Kid” riders. Back in the day, plenty of American families had a brother or an uncle or a cousin who had ridden the rails, demobilized veterans, unemployed workers looking for a new start. The general public was sympathetic to us. They felt we were down on our luck (which was true.) The average person looks at some weird kid with his hair in dreadlocks and tattoos on his face with distaste, if not revulsion. If hoboing is dying, it’s the Road Kids, the so-called “traveling kids” that are killing it, by their weird, anti-social behavior and attitudes.

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