"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche



2 Apr 2022

A Philosophy of Tramping—Dolly Kennedy Yancey

Review of The Tramp Woman by Dolly Kennedy Yancey (1869-1952), St Louis: Britt Publishing Company (1909)


Dolly Kennedy Yancey


Chapter 1 of Yancey’s book opens with a characterisation from her Georgia friends who, she says, dubbed her “A Woman Tramp”. But Yancey was born and raised in Charleston to a wealthy and influential family, and so before following the narrative of her autobiography—which opens with a tirade against capitalism and the mediocrity of mannered society—it is interesting to note the following family history. For this information I am indebted to Dennis Yancey, a distant relative, who has undertaken his own research of the family, and also to Charleston County Genealogy Trails. See one of Dennis Yancey's Website pages HERE 


Kennedy/Yancey Family History


Michael Francis Kennedy


Dolly Kennedy Yancey’s father, Michael Francis Kennedy, was a native Charlestonian descended from the aristocratic Kennedy family bloodline of Tipperary, Ireland. Michael Francis Kennedy, Sr. was the son of landowners, John D'Arcy Kennedy (French Royal House of D'Arcy) and Caroline de Rodriques (de Rodriques lineage from Caracas, Venezuela) of Charleston, South Carolina. 


Yancey’s father has been described as a statesman, philanthropist, “veteran real estate dealer”, banker and  “fraternalist of Charleston”. Congressman Kennedy was the first of his family to be involved in American politics and the patriarch of the Charleston Kennedy clan. There is no apparent link, however, between this Kennedy clan and the more famous political Kennedys (JFK, etc.) of Brookline Massachusetts. Yancey’s father served two-terms in South Carolina's House of Representatives from 1882-1886.


From the age of 17, Michael Francis Kennedy served for four years in the Confederate Army with the Jamison Rifles and later in the Torpedo Service with the Eighth Battalion, South Carolina troops. Following the Civil War he was County Assessor of Charleston County for 25 years, Real Estate Broker, Secretary-Treasurer of Hibernian Mutual Fire and Life Company, and Director of Dime Savings Bank of Charleston. He also served as Grand Dictator of the Knights of Honor of South Carolina, Grand Master of the Ancient Order of Workman, President of St. Patrick's Benevolent Society, State President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a member of the Knights of Columbus, and a member of the Irish-American Historical Society of New York. 


In 1867 Kennedy married Margaret C. Butterly of New York (who died in 1912). They had eight children who, in addition to Yancey, included Dr. Michael Francis Kennedy, Jr., Congressman Patrick Henry Kennedy I, and Dr. Josephine St. Bernadette Kennedy. We learn from the newspaper article below (Buffalo Courier, 31 July 1910) that there was a second son named Michael, Michael J. Kennedy. 


It is interesting, then, to note the orthodox achievements and positions in society of Yancey’s family, if only to contrast these with the story related below and Yancey’s own philosophy on life which embodies a clear rejection of the world she left behind in Charleston—not that she ever cut herself off from her family entirely. 



The Tramp Woman


The first four pages of the book provide a very clear description of Yancey’s rational for embracing the tramping lifestyle and why she rejected that of her family: 


I seemed always to be ‘in trouble,’ so it appeared to the onlooker. To me, it was all interesting.” 


I wanted peace; I grew tired of hearing daily the pessimistic cry of ‘bills, bills, notes in the bank, debts, debts.’ Was this living? Why incur such obligations when they bring in their wake, unrest, bickering, and daily mental tortures? Why this mad chase after the ‘Money God?’ Does it pay only to live to accumulate property and junk, which to a traveller would prove expensive ‘excess baggage?’ Does it pay to harden one’s heart against the cultivation of healthy, human instincts, and to live a narrow, selfish life in a conservative community where one is always subjected to unkind criticism? Why unkind? Oh, Conservatism, what sins are committed in thy name!” 


Yancey’s rejection of her conservative upbringing did not include a liberal attitude towards Afro and Indian Americans as her bigoted comments in Chapter 9, and her newspaper report from The Greenville News, 13 Aug 1901 (see below), testify—although this did not extend to “people of the Orient” as evidenced in Chapter 3. Today’s readers will find her comments shocking, and I was particularly disappointed to discover her patronising and racist attitudes as they are not shared by most of the other tramp writers on this blog, writers who held a particular affinity towards ALL those who, like themselves, were discriminated against by ‘mainstream’ society. Had Yancey been a historical celebrity, no doubt her contribution to writing would have been reappraised today along with many others now associated with the pernicious side of colonialism. Contemporaries of Yancey, such as the famous tramp explorer John Muir, credited with the establishment of many of America’s national parks and founder of the Sierra Club, has been vilified in recent years; in Muir’s case for his “derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes” (Sierra Club’s current Executive Director). As an unknown tramp writer with no tributes or statues to celebrate her life, I’ll simply leave it to the reader to make their own judgement on Yancey’s character. I include her in my collection ‘A Philosophy of Tramping’ because of her unique, if not curious, contribution to tramp literature and also women’s suffrage.


Here Yancey reprints an article about her from a “reporter in Augusta, Georgia”: 


She hailed from the bonny Southland but a long sojourn ‘mid the cold commercial cohorts of the frozen North had vested her with the mannish independence of the gonna fide Northern woman, while a certain gypsy strain in her hot Southern blood, coupled with untoward circumstances of her life had made of her a wanderer, in common parlance, ‘a tramp.’ ” p. 4


The newspaper article continues to provide the following biographical information on Yancey. “When no more than a child”, Yancey had been wooed by a young man from a well-to-do background (Dr. William B. Yancey in 1897) resulting in a runaway marriage followed by desertion. “Since that time she has lived the untrammelled existence of a woman without physical attractions, but a clear mentality and the keen insight and daring of a man.” The article acknowledges that Yancey craved excitement and rebelled against convention, had wandered from city to city until, “longing once more to view the scenes of her youth”, she worked her passage back to Augusta, reaching that city penniless. One of her relatives who owned a store there gave her a dime: 


Gratefully accepting and realizing that this munificent gift would not tide her over many days, she sought the home of a relative blessed with the world’s goods, and again stating the condition of her resources, she told him she did not want help, but work, and would scrub the floors, put his house in order, etc., for lodging, until she had gotten employment.


Eventually, Yancey secured employment as a stenographer at a large wholesale house, impressing her new employer not only with her skills and speed at stenography but by taking apart and overhauling the machine she was given. However, after only a week, her wanderlust had returned and Yancey headed out West resigning her position as a “tramp stenographer.” So ends the newspaper article on Yancey’s early life as a vagabond, which is followed by her setting the record straight: “I never eloped and was twenty-seven years old when I married. Had a real wedding, high noon affair, and my friends threw rice and old shoes after me. Meddling women, my new relations caused my husband’s desertion.” 


And we also know, from as early as page 8, that Yancey was associated with temperance movement, discussed later in her book. Here she notes, “I was Carrie Nation’s secretary, but one night, with a party of newspaper correspondents, went slumming with her in St. Louis.” Slumming seems like an odd term to use to describe going out with Carrie Nation. Also known as ‘Hatchet Granny', Nation was a fanatical temperance campaigner—even before the advent of prohibition—so named because of her habit of attacking premises servicing alcohol with the said weapon.


Carrie Nation


Chapter 3, ‘A Resuscitated Corpse’, finds Yancey “back again in Charleston” attending the the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition. The chapter opens by noting that Gaston Akoun asked her if she would work as his secretary. Akoun produced an attraction at the exposition called "A Street in Cairo” which featured snake charmers, camel rides, and a scandalous dancer known as Little Egypt.


Gaston is a polished Frenchman. Ah! I shall always have a warm spot in my heart for the Akouns, and Madame Zitoun, Gaston’s mother, the Timimes and Madame Roditi, they are all so kind to me. What a fine opportunity to mingle among the people of the Orient; it is just as if I were taking a trip to that far-off country of myths and mysticisms.”    


The main story attached to this Chapter concerns an enterprising showman who tried to attract some publicity for the Exposition which had failed to draw the crowds anticipated. He arranged for a person describing himself as Professor Wilcox to be hypnotised and buried for three days and give 40% of the proceeds to the Exposition Company from those paying to watch the ‘burial’.  Yancey was standing near the grave after the Professor had been buried for 24 hours and overheard a voice from below ground shouting “ ‘Jimmy, how much we took?' Whereupon a man standing nearby replied, forty five cents.” The voice from the coffin shouted back, then “dig me up and let me go, I’m sick of this damned Exposition.” On being dug up, an Exposition official came up and demanded his 40% of the forty five cents:


But when the coffin containing the ‘resuscitated corpse’ was about to be lifted from its temporary resting-place, an Exposition guard halted the ‘grave digger’ and told him that the ‘awakening’ could not take place anywhere but in the Auditorium.”


The Captain of the Police Guards then served an order “for the ‘corpse’ to be brought into the Auditorium, where a crowd awaited the awakening seance”, and demanded  that the Professor, by now having removed himself from the coffin, get back into it until it arrived at the auditorium. At this point the Professor let forth a howl of dismay and refused to continue with the charade. 


Chapter 4 relates a trip down the Mississippi on the steamship Chester, departing from St. Louis. Yancey relates the joys of the scenery and a supper on board, so presumably she was again in funds unless those who had invited her to join the party on board where funding the trip—we are not told. First stop was Fort Chartres where we are given a brief history of the fort and the battles between the English and French for its possession. Then onwards to Little Rock Landing and another history lesson of the towns of Ste. Genevieve and Kaskasia located on opposite banks and the role of hobos in the construction work of the area. Then a nighttime trip to Chester, Illinois, and onward to Cape Girardeau.


In Chapter 5 Yancey describes the difficulties of getting enough peace and quiet to write and the perils of boarding houses and hotels. She answers an advertisement for a furnished room in exchange for light housekeeping, “Hoping for a chance of being ‘let alone,’ ” but the experience was a disaster and she packed up and left, ending the chapter with a quote from Owen Meredith:


A woman is too slight a thing

To trample the world

Without feeling its sting.”


Chapter 6 commences as follows:


The struggle for existence has become so great, I have been compelled to side-track my literary work and buckle down to stenographic work, which will pay me a weekly salary, and I shall be able to satisfy the monetary demands of my impatient landlord.” 


The title of the chapter is ‘Afloat’ and Yancey says people refer to her as ‘a floater'. But so far there is little evidence that she is living the life of a hobo in the sense that, say, Kathleen Phelan (link) does: living for the most part without money and few possessions and frequently sleeping under the stars. Had Yancey been able to fully embrace the hobo life, as did Kathleen, things may have been easier, but that is to ignore the perils a single woman on the road faced at the turn of the 19th Century. Yancey is certainly ever on the move but her life appears more that of an itinerant worker, stopping a while to earn money before moving on again, and usually sleeping in boarding houses and cheap hotels.


I was never let alone and was thus forced into hotel life. I found that I could be allowed to remain in my room without molestation, and that my baggage was security at least for a week’s rent, without constantly being subjected to annoying criticism and uncalled-for suspicions.”


Here Yancey keeps repeating the conflicts of this way of life and the “weariness of unnecessary worry and annoyance”.


Chapter 7 was of particular interest, being an account of Ike Clanton (Gunfight at the OK Corral) as told to Yancey in Charleston by someone she describes as “a cowboy, an old timer … who remembered the days of ‘49”. Ike’s brother Billy was killed in the shootout whereas Ike survived, only to be shot in the back six years later by a lawman straight out of a mail-order private detective course wearing the tin badge that came with the course for twenty-five cents extra.


I have written about the Clantons in my biography, Jim Christy: A Vagabond Life. Jim being Ike and Billy’s great-nephew, not something I was aware of until starting my research. By further coincidence, Jim met Kathleen Phelan (mentioned above) on a boat from Spain to Morocco in 1966.


But back to Yancey’s tale of Ike Clanton. It concerns a robbery in 1885—so four years following the OK Corral shoot out and two years before Ike was himself shot. Yancey’s informant describes how the County Treasurer of St. John’s, Apache County, Arizona, had been sentenced to fifteen years for stealing thirty thousand dollars because no evidence could be found that the actual culprits, Clanton and his gang, had been the actual robbers. Two of Ike Clanton’s accomplices had gone to the County Treasurer’s home and forced him to walk barefoot to the local jail where they locked him in a cell while the robbery took place.


The tale told by the ‘old timer’ was a long winded explanation of how Clanton created alibis for several of his crimes by getting third parties, of whom the storyteller was one, by staking them at gambling to win enough money to buy their own saloons. At these establishments Clanton would be involved in both gambling and drinking in front of numerous witnesses while his accomplices carried out their robberies. In the case of the Apache County treasury theft, following the robbery there was no evidence to support the treasurer’s explanation of what happened. Following an exhaustive search, no tracks could be found of the escaping bandits who had taken advantage of quick sand and riding through a shallow river to hide them. Yancey was told by the old timer that the following day, Clanton and eight or nine of his men came back to town and gave themselves up to the authorities, fully aware that there would be no evidence linking them to the crime—even though they were the principal suspects. Such was Clanton’s modus operandi for several such robberies.


In Chapter 8, ‘Perplexities’, Yancey describes how she is forced to survive laundering and ironing clothes after she had been the victim of a confidence trickster who, believing that she would not survive an operation for appendicitis during the Jamestown Exposition in Norfolk. Virginia of 1907, had forged an engraving of her signature which he attached to thousands of circulars asking for donations for a News Boys Fund identifying Yancey as secretary of the News Boys Association. Being under investigation by the Post Office Inspector in St. Louis, she was confined to a hotel unable to work as a stenographer or borrow money due to the allegations against her. Two days after finally getting work again as a stenographer, she was again laid low by illness, this time ptomaine poisoning contracted from eating chicken dressing at a nearby restaurant. But for the attentions of the hotel physician, Yancey claims she would have likely died. A few days following her recovery from this illness she was bitten by ‘a decrepit dog’ and also received the news that her mother was desperately ill in Charleston. “After a fusillade of telegrams home, transportation was telegraphed to me. I had but ten cents and my railroad ticket when I left St. Louis for Charleston.” 


On reaching Charleston, and still being unwell herself, the strain of caring for her mother became too much. Yancey does not mention her mother’s fate but later, in June that year, she travelled to Chicago at the invitation of a friend, only to have to travel south to Richmond, Va, to recover from a severe attack of hay fever. There, a newspaper editor friend sent her on an assignment to Washington for the Evening Journal and on her return offered her work in preparing a special edition of the paper. However, as her clothing consisted of a single faded blue skirt and she could not admit to her vagabond status, she declined the offer and returned to Charleston. So ends Chapter 8.


Chapter 9 titled ‘Pests’ opens with the following diatribe about a certain class of man which Yancey herself describes as having no souls, “Their sprit becomes metallic, they live for money accumulation, and nothing else can charm them”. The opening lines of the chapter she attributes to the English writer and wit Sydney Smith (1771-1845):


the lemon-sneezers of society … predictors of evil, extinguishers of hope, who, when there are two sides see only the worst; people whose very look curdles the milk and sets your teeth on edge so hard that you might drive a broad-wheeled wagon over them and it will probably make no impression, and if you were to bore holes in them with a gimlet, sawdust would come out of them.


But we never find out who is responsible for triggering this invective, which then continues to list among other annoyances in Yancey’s life, mosquitoes, fleas, and the climate, before reinforcing the tramps rejection of materialism in the following passage:


I have had so many hard knocks and vicissitudes out of the ordinary, that I have become a veritable tramp through these accidents of fortune and misfortune. I would revel in life under a tent the whole summer through. I am a lover of nature [though not mosquitoes and fleas it seems], and even were I financially able to procure them, I would eschew some of the habiliments and gewgaws that are so desirable in polite society.” 


She then refers to an old white haired lady, “a distinguished society leader” who on noticing an antique writing desk, raised a pair of lorgnettes to her eyes and declared, “the real Sheridan legs”. Yancey responds, “I wonder if she would ever look that long at the bare legs of some poor child that needed stockings and shoes.”


But before getting seduced by what appeared to be Yancey’s social conscience and awareness, she reveals in the same chapter some comments about black Americans that brought me up sharp and forced me me to re-evaluate someone whom hitherto I believed had a genuine concern and appreciation about injustices in society. The following paragraph continues Yancey’s theme about her craving for freedom and nature:


When I go back West I am going to throw myself down in a field, roll like a dog, and breath pure air. I crave freedom—freedom to grow, to think, to feel, to get out of life all that my God intended. I want to get as far away from yelling coons, fiendish mosquitos and impudent fleas; back again amongst human beings, where a fellow, when he says ‘Howdy’ means it.” 


Well, I had assumed the writer was referring to racoons when she lumped the term yelling coons” together with fiendish mosquitos and impudent fleas, and talked about wanting to be back again amongst human beings. But from the bottom of the following page it becomes clear that Yancey does not include black Americans in the category of human beings but rather the pests described earlier. I was then forced to undergo a complete reappraisal of this writer whose view of the world I had hitherto believed had parallels with that of Kathleen Phelan:


From the streets below I hear the fiendish yell of a coon, crying out T-o-m-a-toes! interspersed with the cries of all the seasons vegetables. All law is not enforced here. Two thirds of the inhabitants are negroes and quietude is a curiosity in the summer time. Even now, while I write, I hear a brass-sounding phonograph piercing the night air, and I cannot shut out the ‘Eeley o’ey, eeley o’ey!’—oh, if I could choke that yodler! … I can hear the coon chorus above the din of my typewriter.” 


No need to indulge Yancey’s deeply held prejudices further. What makes these comments particularly shocking is that they are uttered by someone who in all other respects identified with and gave a voice to those who were victims of oppression and injustice, and, as the opening quote of this chapter and the feminist diatribe of the next testifies, was openly critical of those with power and privilege in America. I will leave the reader here to make their own judgement of Yancey the woman and the writer (not to mention any wider debate on censorship at the turn of the last century)—I simply reveal the stark contradictions of being ‘human’ and inhuman in a single soul. But maybe that is one of the greatest flaws of humanity itself, as evident in Nietzsche’s aphorisms and philosophy.


In Chapter 10, titled ‘Flight’, Yancey is writing for the Enquirer, of which city we are not told, but is being kept waiting for payment because, as she believes, the editor is holding back on the cheques to keep her “at it”. A strategy that is clearly working because she is struggling to exist:


I have but one outfit, and when the skirt and belongings are soiled I must launder them. Now how can I be dignified when I am thus forced into a tramp’s existence by stingy folk?


Neither are we told if it is the same newspaper but on the next page Yancey announces that she, “was once associate editor of a suburban journal in St. Louis.” Not a significant career break as it seems the paper must have folded shortly afterwards: “The editor did the best he could, however. He was a dreamer. Poor fellow, he finally cut his throat.” We then get a taste of Yancey the feminist—even if this feminism does not extend to her black sisters in spite of her use of the words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ in the following passage:


Some men in this town believe that women should be satisfied with shelter and grub, a monotonous diet at that, and then slave like bow down to the brute who furnishes the feed. Opportunities for feminine independence are rare, and a good weapon to use against the unfortunate female who dares assert a right to do her own thinking instead of following the mandates of antecedents who lived in slavery days, is to call her insane. Yet these men are steady church-goers and some of them are members of the church vestry.” 


We now hear that after begging and scraping together a few dollars, Yancey buys a train ticket for as far as her money will take her, which turns out to be Spartanburg, South Carolina. The final sentence of this chapter finds her waiting for her single blue skirt from the laundry: “It is the only one I have and I must stay indoors of necessity.”


Chapter 11 opens with Yancey receiving the long awaited cheque for her services at the Enquirer. The grand sum of $5.25. After penning a newspaper article on a three year old boy from a mission orphanage who had advertised for a home (she now appears to be in ‘In Knoxville’, Tennessee, the title of the chapter), and being dined two nights running by a local newspaper editor—“Talk about being treated white!”—Yancey is next headed for Cincinnati.


In Chapter 12, titled, ‘All In, Down and Out’ finds Yancey in Cincinnati but still writing articles for the editor of the St Louis Enquirer. Accounts show that this newspaper closed down in 1825 or 1826 and so not sure if Yancey is confusing this publication with another. In any case, she confirms her recent itinerary when she observes:


I have hit some combinations since I left 13 Coming Street, Charleston [currently identified as Students Residence]. At Spartanburg my room number was 231, in Knoxville it was 313, and here it is 423


We then hear that Yancey is eating out with friends from Charleston still wearing the aforementioned blue dress. “It takes courage to wear a faded cheap blue linen dress the entire summer, not to mention the tawdry black hat.” And now a nod to the title of the chapter:


I am going to live my own life in my own way in spite of lawlessness, ignorance, prejudice, greed, avarice, stupidity, fear and general cussedness. It is when a fellow is ‘all in, down and out’ that he can define the meaning of the two words, religion and friendship.”


Chapter 13 finds Yancey soliciting work from the Managing Editor of the Tribune for a piece entitled, “A Female Tramp in Cincinnati”. It is assumed Chicago but she does not specify. At any rate, the outcome was that the Managing Editor, in spite of gruff speech “tinged with cynicism”, arranged free passage for Yancey on the Queen and Crescent railroad company bound for Lexington, Kentucky.


Chapter 14, titled ‘In Kentucky’ continues to leave only cryptic clues as the reason for Yancey’s stay in Lexington but in transit we discover that Yancey has some rudimentary knowledge of fortune telling. She is staying at the Hotel Rand, Cincinnati, en route to Lexington, when the hotel housekeeper introduces her to another hotel resident who is seeking to have her fortune told. Clearly the lady from Peru, Indiana must have been pleased with the reading as she invites Yancey to join her on a trip down the Ohio River to Coney Island Park. 


Yancey arrives in Lexington the following morning and inquires as to the whereabouts of a certain Judge Siler. The mystery of Yancey’s mission deepens when we hear that the judge settled Yancey’s hotel stay and breakfast and provided her with a “charity ticket” on the L & N Railroad, under the name of Mrs Brown, for onward travel to Louisville. Why she did not proceed directly from Cincinnati to Louisville we cannot know. The rest of the Chapter is a long digression on stories of the misery of Kentucky mountain folk as told to Yancey by the “matron at the L & N depot”. Whether intended or not, this is one of the most enlightening pieces of ‘journalism’ in the entire book.


Chapter 15, titled ‘The Gambler’, finds Yancey arriving penniless in Louisville at 6.45 in the evening: “I borrowed a nickel from the clerk for the carfare.” She then heads directly for the office of the Times and asks for a Mr Green. On being told he was at a meeting of the Kentucky Colonels over a barroom on Market Street, Yancey heads for the said bar but is accosted by a man who tells her, “that it wasn’t customary for women in Kentucky to visit barrooms.” Yancey replied in the negative when asked by the man, who introduced himself as a gambler, if she had eaten supper. “He gave me a quarter and I really believe it was the last cent he had.”


After locating Mr Green and being given thirty cents to retrieve her luggage from the rail depot, Yancey is told to report to his office at 9.30 on Sunday morning. Having no option but to secure a hotel for the night she is directed to the Victoria by the gambler referred to earlier.


Chapter 16, ‘Adrift’, opens with the following lines: “Sunday morning found me looking wan and tired and very shabbily dressed. I wore my heavy winter skirt and my other clothing were badly soiled.” 


It seems that Green’s only part in Yancey’s adventure is to speak with the Mayor for onward transportation and provide her with fifty cents for dinner. At this point of the tale it would appear that Yancey is no more than a tramp and beggar whose line of guff is to present herself to the various ‘benefactors’ on route as a journalist in distress. How much of her journalistic career is fantasy or self-deception has yet to be deduced from the book. Even Yancey herself seems at a loss to understand the mysteries of her life and it’s purpose as it unfolds throughout her narrative:


I have come to the conclusion that life, after all, is a complex puzzle, and it takes an adept to solve its intricacies. I find myself cornered by rascals, and it is up to to me to study how I may meet them on level ground. I am not going to be satisfied with merely being shoved along from one human pillar to another. That day has gone by; I am determined to win on my merits and win honestly.” 


Next Yancey seeks work at the Remington Typewriter company who in turn passes her on the the Louisville Trust Company who take her on for a dollar a day with their legal department as a replacement for a stenographer who has been taken ill. In spite of the poor pay she notes that she is, nevertheless, “learning some points on criminal law. These lawyers are always busy.” But again she is waiting to hear from an editor in Washington for what reason we are not told, and after several days has not received any payment for her work as a stenographer. Paradoxically, at this point of the book, she admits that although she gets the “credit for being a rover”, she will be glad to “get the opportunity to settle down”, “in reality, I am the ‘homiest’ of women.” 


What drives Yancey onward in her chaotic lifestyle is something of a mystery. Unlike most of the other tramp writers I have researched, she does not seem solely driven by wanderlust and a need for adventure. Yancey seems driven by some kind of personal—and seemingly futile—feminist mission that only she understands and is aware of. Her anger at the world is all consuming and fiercely felt and yet, in spite of the fact that she clearly is a victim of the prejudice and misogyny of the times (she of course has her own deep prejudices of the times as referred to in Chapter 9), she seems to be the sole campaigner in a battle unseen and unshared by anyone else, other perhaps than her reader—who is likely as puzzled as this reader why she subjects herself to this degree of torment which other tramp writers, Kathleen Phelan included, seem to take delight in. Yet one can only admire her tenacity and resilience:


I certainly have enduring powers, the closer they crowd me the harder I fight, and I am going to win in spite of all the Hellish influence of my enemies.  The fire of my indignation has been smouldering for twelve long weary years, and it is now fanned into a flame whose blaze will not be extinguished before annihilating deep-rooted stumps of prejudice and meanness, which have barred my way to progress and all that goes with it.” 


Yancey now hears from Mr Green at the Mayor’s Office that her transportation to St. Louis has been arranged but on receiving the “charity ticket” she finds that it has expired. She can have it renewed at the ticket office but it is Saturday afternoon and the office is closed until Monday morning. Further adventures include being unable to return to her hotel until she has funds to pay the bill, and eating at a luncheonette with the starving wife of a client of the lawyers she had been working for whose husband was in jail. 


She then missed her evening train because the hotel clerk delayed her and would not let her back into her room to pack her belongings. Yancey called at Green’s but he and his wife were out and she was let in by Green’s mother-in-law and allowed to telephone the police station where she tried, without avail, to locate the attorneys she had been working with all week. It was now 10pm and she headed for the detective headquarters at City Hall. There she was treated hospitably including being dined by two detectives and a city official at a neighbouring restaurant. At midnight she left with the city official who tried to persuade Yancey to spend the night with him. She declined and walked out into the night eventually arriving at the City Court House at 1.30 am where she met two reporters and a court clerk. The latter walked her two blocks to the Eckert Hotel and gave her money for a night’s lodging. 


Chapter 17, ‘A Gentleman of Kentucky’


Yancey awoke at 5am feeling ill from being out in the cold that night and headed for an all night restaurant only able to drink a coffee. It was only after contacting the lawyer for whom she had worked the previous week that she was able to collect her belongings from the previous hotel she had stayed in. 


Chapter 18 and Yancey’s troubles continuing as follows:


I spent a trying day in Louisville on Sunday, waiting for the night to come. The experience of Saturday night, with all its terrors, had left me almost in a state of collapse. I have a cold which has stuck in my chest and I am quite hoarse. The chair car on which I travelled from Louisville to St. Louis was very much crowded and I was greatly annoyed by a Louisville travelling man who sat by me and wouldn’t allow me to sleep. … I lost sleep Saturday night, all of Sunday and again last night; I certainly feel worn out.”


Yancey then misses out on possible work as a stenographer with two railroad companies as her clothing has not been returned from the laundry and she blames her “shabby appearance” for her inability to support herself financially.


Chapter 19 finds Yancey in a restaurant typing menu cards when a “real hobo” enters the establishment asking for a coin. “He proceeded to earn it by making the prettiest paper roses I ever saw. … transforming some pink tissue into an American Beauty rose.” He tells Yancey that he learned the art in prison where he’d served a seven year sentence.


In Chapter 20 Yancey is in Cripple Creek, Colorado; how she got there and why we are not told but she meets two women musicians who “took an interest” in her and promised to provide her with some clothing. “Now I can go out of doors. I did not ask these young women for a ‘lift’; they understood.


Chapter 21 opens with the information that: “The Stark Brothers’ Nurseries of Louisiana, Missouri, have accepted my application for a stenographic position and I am leaving for this beautiful town to-day.” A town Yancey describes as “a resort for the rich and comfortable. If there is any poverty here it is hard to locate”. And Yancey certainly seems to have acquired a respite to her troubles and discomfort, being driven to her new lodgings: 


a pretty white cottage surrounded by shade trees, and the yard fragrant with growing flowers. A white haired, motherly appearing woman came out with her husband to greet me and brought me home. What a feast I had! Home made biscuits, cornbread, sweet potatoes and other home-grown vegetables, home-made jellies and preserves. I rubbed my eyes to ascertain whether I was really dreaming, and how I did enjoy it all!” 


The next morning brings what Yancey describes as the idyllic employment, “two charming young girls called for me to join them … the rendezvous for the office employees of the Nurseries.” They are driven by teams of horses for an enjoyable two mile drive through the country to the Nurseries, “no wonder everybody is healthy and happy-hearted.” The workers bring lunchboxes and break at noon for lunch:


Some of the girls stroll down to the orchards and gather bouquets to bring back home; some wander through the pretty grounds, until the bell rings, calling them back to their desks for the remainder of the afternoon. At 5 o’clock the carry alls start back to town with every occupant in a good humour.”


We are not told how long Yancey was to remain in this state of blissful employment but she was certainly in demand as her employer informed her that eight off his office girls were “married off” in 1908 and that he has lost a total of seventy-five to marriage during his time as employer. But this is the end of the narrative that makes up The Tramp Woman, whether it is also the end of Yancey’s life as a tramp we do not know. What we do know is that the book ends with Yancey being informed that her journals and letters written thus far will form “the history of a book that will be read … this is why I have written the story of the Tramp Woman.



Newspaper Articles by or about Dolly Kennedy Yancey


The following newspaper excerpts, in chronological order, provide further clues about Yancey’s life and journalistic activities both around the time of her tramping ‘career’ and following it.


The Greenville News, 20 Sept 1901 (Greenville, South Carolina)


An Immense Sturgeon


Article written by Yancey about a 410 pound, 10ft 2in, sturgeon caught in the Delaware river, and how the fish was provided with its own pool in an Aquarium containing 253 other specimens of “water-folk”. One must assume that the said aquarium was the New York Aquarium as the piece ends as follows: “I have learned that in Europe, Aquariums are only maintained on a small scale. The New Yorkers do everything ‘big’


The Greenville News, 13 Aug 1901 (Greenville, South Carolina)


Weird Indian Dances: Primitive Customs of the Aboriginees Illustrated at the Pan American, An Interesting-Description of the Indian Congress, With Its Notable Redmen, by a Special Correspondent.


The article opens with the following bizarre description that provides some insight into how indigenous Americans were viewed by the media of the time—yet even today, such is the manner in which the colonising races assume they are the natural order of things and the indigenous people exhibits of curiosity.     


Buffalo, N. Y., Aug. 8.—Living in teepees, wicknips and adobe houses at the head of the Midway at the Pan American Exposition are 42 tribes of Indians comprising a population of six or seven hundred which is known as the Indian Congress and Village. Geronimo and other noted captured chiefs, United States prisoners of war who by special permission of Secretary of War [Elihu] Root form a part of the Congress—attract much attention. Dressed in native or aboriginal costume the Indians perform in the Indian Theatre or Dance House some of their weird dances both war and sacred.” 


Yancey continues by describing in a toe-curling manner, six of these dances.


St. Louis Globe-Democrat (Missouri), 23 Oct 1909


Under the title ‘Experiences of a “Tramp Woman’, this article announces the publication of Yancey’s book and includes the following lines: “Her desire appears to be in the direction of freedom and happiness, and her volume will prove how hard it is to attain these things. Most of the people Mrs. Yancey met may be described as hellagenarians (a word not found in the dictionary). They were unsympathetic and meddlesome and would not let her alone.


The publication and year in which following article appears is not named


Not written by Yancey herself, it announces that, ‘The “Tramp Woman” is in Atlanta”, and is dated April 11. The title of the piece is, ‘WOMAN TRAMP BUT STAYS IN THE BEST HOTELS: SAYS SHE HAS “HOBOED” MANY MILES GATHERING MATERIAL FOR HER BOOK. The article further notes that: “She proudly refers to herself as having a ‘checkered career'. Born of prominent and wealthy parents in Charleston, S. C., she voluntarily became a ‘globe trotter.


The article further characterises Yancey as follows: “A woman of intellectuality, refinement and aggressiveness, Mrs. Yancey is the personal friend of many men and women in public life. She carries with her friendly letters from ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, Hon. Champ Clark, speaker of the national house of representatives, Andrew Carnegie, and many senators and congressmen.” We learn further about Yancey’s family circumstances from the article that she was the sister of Mrs. Walter R. Bozeman, her father was the “well-known real estate man and capitalist”, M. F. Kennedy of Charleston, she had a brother, “Dr P. H. Kennedy, in the law class at Mercer University”, and that she married Dr. William B. Yancey in 1897, “but a year or so later he divorced her on the grounds of desertion.” Yancey’s version in the same article states, “I left my husband because his relatives made life unpleasant for me by insisting I was eccentric. In fact some of them accused me of being crazy.


Chicago Tribune, 20 July 1910


Under the title, ‘WOMAN TRAMP FLEES WOOERS: WEARY OF HER HOBO CAREER’, we are informed of the following:


To escape her countless and persistent suitors, who pestered her with proposals of marriage, Dolly Kennedy Yancey, known from coast to coast as the woman tramp, suffrage and temperance worker, and author of several novels, left St Louis three weeks ago and hoboed to Chicago … She was discovered yesterday by a reporter for THE TRIBUNE in a little room in a cheap downtown hotel, stranded and down on her luck generally.


We further learn from this article of Yancey’s intention to return to her parents  home. “I have had enough of this ragtime existence and want to be taken care of for a while.” 


Given Yancey’s resourcefulness and journalistic aspirations, it is unlikely that she was discovered by the reporter but had engaged in a further bit of self-promotion—neither is there any evidence that she ever published more than the single volume discussed here. 


We learn from the following article that Yancey did not proceed to her parents home but a week later had taken up a position with an insurance company in Indianapolis. We also learn below that Yancey must have had another brother named Michael like his father.


Buffalo Courier (NY), 31 July 1910


The following article under the title ‘DREAMS BROTHER IN JAIL AND HE SAYS HE WAS’, describes a dream Yancey had about her brother, Michael J. Kennedy which sparked a search for him by Buffalo Police. She was living at the time at 2039 College Avenue, Indianapolis. The dream was so vivid that, fearing for her brother’s welfare, Yancey wrote the following letter care of the general delivery office in Buffalo:


Dear Mike, I had a remarkable dream about you last night. I thought I had read in the newspapers an account of you having been found in the street in a helpless condition. I thought I read of where you had been sentenced to serve 148 days in the penitentiary. I thought that I had hunted and finally found the place and in my dream located in division 75. I saw you in my dream lying upon a pallet of straw and I took you up and said that I would get you out. Better send mother this letter and see what she will think about it. They say it is good to dream of prison—at any rate the dream awoke me and I could not sleep afterward.”


Yancey’s brother replied by writing his own note on the back of Yancey’s letter:


Dear Dollie: Your dream at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning was as true as day. At 3 a.m. Tuesday I was robbed in my room and chloroformed. I have written you about my case. I am penniless and starving. It is a lucky thing that I did not awake as I would have been dead now. I guess your dream for once in your life came true. Write me and help me get to Boston. This fellow took everything that I had. Where can I get a meal here? MIKE


The article concludes by confirming that the police were investigating the report but had been unable to locate Michael Kennedy.


Arizona Sentinel and Yuma weekly, 1 Feb 1912


Under the title ‘Suffragettes To Make Hot Campaign’, but written in Phoenix on Jan 30 (year unknown), we learn that Yancey had been appointed press agent for the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Arizona, she “will at once enter upon the task of convincing the male voters of Arizona that the women of the new state are entitled to the right of suffrage.” The article also noted that Yancey was the representative of “a large eastern financial corporation, which makes a business of promoting mining, and while she is here, she will combine politics with industry.” A strange combination indeed but we know nothing more of Yancey’s dual activities in Arizona as they are not mentioned in her book.


The Holbrook News (Arizona), 15 Mar 1912


The next article written by Yancey, titled ‘The Arizona Organisation of Missourians’, was published a month after Arizona’s entry into the Union. After listing the twelve officers of the new organisation and their respective positions—herself included as Press Agent—Yancey goes on to describe the conditions of membership: “the applicant must be white, a resident either permanently or temporarily of Arizona, and to have held legal residency in Missouri” After inviting potential members to a public meeting and a picnic three weeks hence, Yancey signs off by giving her formal residence as the Union Hotel.


The Gaffney Ledger (South Carolina), 28 May 1932


This article, in which Yancey seeks information about her father who had died 9 years earlier, confirms that she’s was living at 35 Montague Street, Charleston (her father’s home town). She would have been aged 63 at the time and died twenty years later at the age of 82.


Richwood Gazette (Ohio), 20 Apr 1939


In this piece Yancey publishes some homespun, Western, comedic wisdom of an unnamed friend under the heading ‘WHAT ISMS DO TO 2 COWS’:


    “Socialism: If you have 2 cows, you give your neighbour one.

     Communism: If you have 2 cows, you give them to the government and the government gives you some of the milk.

     Facism: If you have 2 cows, you keep the cows and give the milk to the government, and the government then sells you some of the milk.

     New Dealism: If you have 2 cows, you shoot one and milk the other, and pour the milk down the sink.


15 Feb 2022

Review of 'The Tramp in British Literature, 1850-1950', by Luke Lewin Davies


Davies’ book is the most comprehensive text available on tramp fiction, biography and autobiography in the many different forms that Davies presents it. Moreover, in spite of the century announced by the book’s title, it provides detailed references to the history of tramp writing going back to 1500 and beyond. A central theme of the book questions in what way the figure of the tramp might embody and symbolise, “a partial immunity to associated societally produced estrangement effects, from the economic to the everyday to the political.” What Davies sets out to explore, in a way not previously attempted to this extent, is to what extent the phenomenal collection of texts discussed in this volume represent a subversive subculture (or subcultures) developed in opposition to, and alienation from, the hostile ‘civilising’ effects of the mainstream society from which they have emerged.

As well as the surprising number of texts by tramp writers identified in this study, we are also introduced to countless secondary texts exploring the subject not only from a British perspective but the importance of tramp literature globally. Those looking for an introduction to hobohemia and other vagabond sub-cultures in America, socio-philosophical critiques on tramping and wanderlust, political treatise on homelessness, joblessness and the cultural-economic structures that created them, will find all they need and more besides in this single volume. The Tramp in British Literature is essential reading for anyone who wishes to further their knowledge and understanding of this forgotten and much neglected area of writing. As the Introduction promises, this book:


will explore various ways in which real life and fictional tramps represented in literature on tramping can be seen to have embraced their status as figures on the fringes of society – simultaneously critiquing the causes of their exclusion, and celebrating the opportunities this afforded for investigating alternative ways of life beyond the mainstream.

Whether or not the reader is a fan of ‘categorisation’, and so long as one appreciates that individual works and authors may cross and inhabit more that one of the following genres, for the purposes of a study as encyclopaedic as this is, the following divisions of the object of Davies’ work greatly assist the reader in navigating the text but also provide evidence of Davies’ endeavour not to omit any relevant text or writer from this study. As Davies himself acknowledges, he is “reluctant to make decisive claims about the genre of tramp literature here before a critical framework is in place.”


rogue literature 

social investigation and exploration literature 

Bohemian literature 

reverse discourse tramp literature 

reverse discourse tramp memoirs 

reverse discourse tramp fiction 

vagrant and tramp memoir 

working-class memoirs with tramping episodes 

itinerant labourer and sailor memoirs with tramping episodes 

social explorers who became tramps 

literary tramp memoirs 

criminal tramp memoirs 

peripatetic tramp memoirs 

political tramp memoirs

As for tramps themselves, Davies cites numerous attempts by other writers to categorise vagabonds, including the early studies of Dr Ben Reitman (1879–1943), American tramp, sociologist, and “whorehouse physician” who classified vagrancy into three main divisions:

A tramp is a man who doesn’t work … who lives without working and who is constantly traveling. A hobo is a non-skilled, non-employed laborer without money, looking for work. A bum is a man who hangs around a low-class saloon and begs or earns a few pennies a day in order to obtain drink. He is usually inebriate.”

Such categorisations are not always helpful as the same individual might have inhabited any or all three of the above classes of vagrancy at some point of their tramping career, including Jack London to whom conman and university scholar can be added to his modes of existence. Davies is fully aware of these difficulties and contradictions when he acknowledges that, although the texts covered in his study are “works tied to a particular identity”, one should “avoid reading them in terms of how representative they are of the minority group whose experiences they chronicle, but to instead read them in terms of what they say in relation to society as a whole”. 

An important distinction explored in Davies’ book is that between the tramp of choice and the tramp of circumstance. Clearly homelessness and tramping for tramping’s sake are not same thing. Indeed some of those who embraced vagabondage—and suffered the significant hardships and deprivation that accompany it—came from comfortable middle class families such as those of George Orwell and Stephen Graham. The book also deals with the fears and prejudices that the tramp evokes in mainstream society. Interestingly, many of the tramp writers referred to in this book turn such prejudices on their head, arguing that it is the lifestyle embraced by the tramp, free from the corruption and hypocrisies of man made laws and conventions (including Christian morality), that is the natural way to live—indeed, an alienation from mainstream society is one of the triggers for the tramping life. And so in contrast to the popular view of the tramp as an immoral character, many of these ‘tramps of choice’ developed their own moral codes, some of which are discussed further below.


One of the most important aspects of tramp literature to bear in mind, certainly as applied to the tramp of choice, is that while tramp writers may share many similar experiences linked to whichever minority group they are most closely associated, they are first and foremost ‘individuals’, exiles from main stream society who do not identify with any societal or political tribe. The same individualism applies to the tramp’s writing voice which transcends more conventional genres and refuses to be straightjacketed by them. Just as the tramp embraces an alternative lifestyle free from the conventions of mainstream society, so too does their writing often reject the usual conventions of literature and the demands of publishers. Not least of these is the delightful habit some writers have to refuse to identify fact from fiction. In the extreme case of Trader Horn, this involved unashamedly fictionalising elements of his autobiography, and embellishing his fictional work with autobiographical references, deliberately teasing his reader in the process. Having said which, where facts about many of these tramp writers are verifiable, they are often more fantastical than those purely fictional or ‘exaggerated’ elements of the text. There is also an honesty—and no small degree of self-deprecation—to many of the texts discussed in Davies’ book that gives them an authenticity lacking in many scholarly works by self-professed experts in their field. Straight forward story telling is often embellished with satire, political diatribe, and even profound philosophical insights that are unique by virtue that these vagabond philosophers lived their philosophy as opposed to acquiring it through book learning. Even so, some were university educated and most were certainly obsessive readers as well as writers.

Having emphasised the individuality of the tramp, there are certain characteristics that many of the tramp writers discussed in Davies’ book do share in common. These are important for a better understanding of this species of writer but also help in identifying a moral code of tramping that contrasts it (not always exclusively) with the values of mainstream society from which the tramp feels alienated: a thirst for adventure and the exotic; a refusal to identify with any tribe yet feeling at home everywhere (cosmopolitanism); the ability to survive hostile circumstances—including starvation, hard labor, beatings, and jail; intelligence and philosophic wisdom; freedom from the tyranny of possessions; a rejection of man-made borders, laws and customs which they consider artificial; freedom also from the restrictions and responsibilities imposed by rules, regulations, and responsibility to family; sharing what little they have with those who have nothing—reciprocated when fortunes were reversed; the ability to enjoy relationships without being bound by them; a lifestyle that embraces the seductions of the “natural” world—living in communion with nature; and the ability to live in the present, taking pleasures now, not deferring them for later. 

Davies discusses these, “illicit pleasures to be found in escaping the bounds of conventional morality”. They include a refusal to abandon the innocence and simple pleasures of childhood, which in adulthood can be intensified by indulging in wanderlust—a natural tramping instinct—and experiencing the rare and exotic that children can only read and fantasise about. This is not, of course, to diminish the hardships, miseries and dangers of the tramping life, including beatings and time spent in jail, even if the latter, when a short sentence for vagrancy, could afford relief from cold and hunger. Accounts of long term prison sentences served by tramp writers such as Jim Phelan, significantly augment the more scholarly discussions in Davies’ book on penology (and “resistant subcultures” outside prison) by Foucault and others.


I will have to read this book more than once to fully appreciate its scope and content, including the countless delightful anecdotes from the subject’s of Davies curiosity. Among other things, this text has left me with a formidable list of book titles that I must now locate and read to further enrich my own appreciation of vagabond literature.