Tag Archives: John Stuart King

The Fraternity of the Tramp

22 Feb

In 1897 Isabella Alden wrote about the life of a tramp in her book, As In A Mirror. In doing so, she described a true cultural phenomenon. After the American Civil War, tramp life ranged across the nation, especially in the western states where winters were mild and the living was easy. In particular, California was a tramp’s paradise where a man could sleep free under the stars at night and pluck his breakfast from an orange tree in the morning. In some ways, tramps enjoyed a unique popularity similar to the cowboy; both emerged in the public mind as stereotypes of  carefree, rough-and-tumble adventurers who embodied the American spirit.

Tramp 03

But by the 1880s the tramp’s image began to fade and society began to see tramps more as lazy thieves. Tramps who dared to beg for a meal or a place to sleep often received an answer in the form of a double-barreled shotgun pointed their direction. Some towns passed laws prohibiting tramps from entering their borders, and there are stories of police officers standing by while townspeople stoned tramps gauntlet-style as they ran them out of town.

Tramp 01

As a result, tramps developed a method of communicating to each other whether a particular town or home was friendly to tramps. They chalked crude symbols on barns, fence posts and water tanks so the tramps who came after them knew what to expect.

Here’s how Isabella Alden described the practice in her novel, As In A Mirror. The book’s hero, John Stuart King, disguised as a tramp, encountered a woman who was openly fearful of him. As he tried to understand the woman’s reaction, he met a real tramp for the first time.

For a full hour his sympathies were entirely on the side of the tramp. Then he met one so repulsive in appearance that he instantly justified the woman who had been afraid of him. It was a new experience to be accosted as he was:

“Any luck that way, pal?” nodding in the direction from which he had come.

“I haven’t found any work yet, if that is what you mean,” spoken in the tone that in his former grade of life would have been called cold.

The man gave a disagreeable sneer. “Oh, that’s your dodge, is it?” he said. “I can tell you I’ve had worse trials in life than not finding work. Did you spot any of the houses?”

“Did I what?”

“Mark the houses where they treated you decent, and gave you coffee, or lemonade, or something? You must be a green one! Don’t you carry no chalk nor nothin’ with you to mark the places? Then you’re a hard-hearted wretch. If you can’t do so much for your fellow tramps as that, you ought to go to the lockup.”

The healthy, clean young man found himself shrinking from this specimen with a kind of loathing. Would it be possible for him to fraternize with such as he, even to study human nature?

Here are a few samples of the symbols tramps used to indicate whether fellow-tramps could expect to receive a sandwich or a spray of bird shot at a particular home or town:

Tramp 02-01


The people who live here have a gun


Tramp 02-02


Handcuffs; tramps here are sent to jail


Tramp 02-03


This is a safe place


Tramp 02-04


This campsite is safe from police


Tramp 02-05


You can get a hand-out here


Tramp 02-06


Dry town; no alcohol


Tramp 02-07


Liquor sold in this town


Tramp 02-08 ..

A policeman lives here


Tramp 02-09 ..

Vicious or biting dog


Tramp 02-10 ..

A woman lives here who is kind


Tramp 02-12 ..

Police eyes shut; this is a good town

..Tramp 02-11 

Police eyes open; this is a hostile town


Writer Jenny Berlin

Faith, romance, and a place to belong

The Hall in the Grove

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Isabella Alden

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Britt Reads Fiction

Reviews and giveaways for Christian fiction and sweet, clean fiction. Bringing readers information on great stories and connecting authors with their readers.

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