"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

14 Dec 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping — Josiah Flynt

The notes of this post provided the background material for Chapter 5 of
Published by Feral House February 2020

‘The simple fact is, that respectability, the normal existence of normal people, did not interest him; he could not even tell you why, without searching consciously for reasons; he was born with the soul of a vagabond, into a family of gentle, exquisitely refined people: he was born so, that is all.’  

Arthur Symons, British poet, critic, magazine editor, and close friend of Flynt

Flynt aged 28 in Russian tramping regalia

Put ‘Josiah Flynt’ into the search engine and up will pop several sites all providing the identical, unhelpful information:

‘Josiah Flynt (properly Josiah Flynt Willard ) (Jan.23,1869–Jan.20,1907) was an American sociologist and author, born at Appleton, Wisconsin. He was educated at the University of Berlin in 1890–1895 and after several years of experience as a professional vagrant published in 1899 Tramping with Tramps.’ 

That Flynt attended university, attained a Ph.D., and is acknowledged variously as a sociologist and a criminologist, are probably the least remarkable facts about him. They were also, like all the other events in Flynt’s life, unplanned and accidental—even if a passion for writing was a more constant aspect of his character. As his friend and fellow writer, Emily Burbank, describes himand this is a singularly important fact to consider: ‘it must be remembered that Flynt was the tramp writing, not the literary man tramping.’

Burbank also describes Flynt as a gifted actor. He was as comfortable and at ease with the tramping and criminal classes as he was with philosophers, politicians and others notable in public life. ‘Give him a part in a play ... the disguise of a vagabond, or whisky with which to fortify himself, and the man's spirit sprang out of its prison of flesh, like an uncaged bird.’ Arthur Symons agreed that Flynt was an actor, but emphasised that Flynt’s own persona was the characters he inhabited: ‘life was not a masquerade to him, and his disguises were the most serious part of his life.’ But Flynt’s chameleon like ability to adopt different roles to suit the company in which he found himself, was confined to those who were, like himself, out-of-the-ordinary. Symons again: 

‘Josiah Flynt was never quite at home under a roof or in the company of ordinary people, where he seemed always like one caught and detained unwillingly. ... he always had a fixed distaste for the interests of those about him, and an instinctive passion for whatever exists outside the border-line which shuts us in upon respectability.’

And so, as well as the dozens of fascinating tramp characters Flynt refers to in his writings, vagabonds who represented some of Flynt’s closest (though transient) friendships, his tramping and his ‘research’ also provided him with access to some of the most influential writers and thinkers of his day. In between mixing it with tramps and petty criminals, Flynt the actor was equally at home with those from the opposite spectrum of society, including among his aquaitences the following random celebrities:
  • Rudolf Virchow, German physician, anthropologist, statesman, champion of public health and antagonist of Bismark 
  • Ibsen in Munich
  • George Augustus Sala in London
  • An earlier Bloomsbury set, also in London
  • Horatio Brown in Venice 
  • Tolstoy as a guest at his farm
  • Prince Chilkoff, Russian Minister of Railways
  • Aleksey Kuropatkin, Russian Imperial Minister of War (1898–1904)
  • Apache chief Geronimo in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to conduct an interview; but the old chief was in a bad humor and would not talk.
Flynt may well have been close to other famous persons not mentioned in his autobiography. For instance, he does not refer to his association with Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, yet this fact is reported by Stein in her third person parody, An Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

‘They settled in lodgings in London and were not uncomfortable. They knew a number of people through the Berensons, Bertrand Russell, the Zangwills, then there was Willard (Josiah Flynt) who wrote Tramping With Tramps, and who knew all about London pubs, but Gertrude Stein was not very much amused.’

It should be acknowleged also, that Flynt was the nephew of author, social reformer, and president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard. Her house on 1730 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, Illinois, remains a museum to her life and work to the present day. It is reported that the reason Flynt did not write under his real name of Willard was to avoid any embarrassment to his aunt occaisioned by his tramping exploits and criminal history. Flynt's cousin, from another relative, was American Film Director, Bannister Merwin (1873—1922). 

For most of this post I have drawn from Flynt’s autobiography, My Life (1908), published the year after his premature death from alcohol and cocaine addiction aged 38, and Tramping with Tramps (1899), a collection of Flynt's essays published separately by The Century between 1893 and 1899 (including the 5 years Flynt was at university). As far as I can establish, Flynt’s full list of books, and, those essays not included in Tramping with Tramps, are listed below:

(1894) What to do with the Tramp 
(1895) How Men Become Tramps: Conclusions from Personal Experience
           as an Amateur Tramp 
(1899) Tramping with Tramps: Studies and Sketches of Vagabond Life 
(1899 Tramp Boys )
(1899) Railroad Slums  
(1900) Tales Tramps Tell 
(1900) Notes of an Itinerant Policeman  
(1900) How Hobos Are Made 
(1900) The Powers that Prey (with Francis Walton    
(1901) The World of Graft 
(1902) The Little Brother: A Story of Tramp Life 
(1903) The Rise of Ruderick Clowd 
(1908) My Life 
(1908) 'Homosexuality Among Tramps', in Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Volume 2 [of 7], Appendix A) by Havelock Ellis

Early Life

Fatherless from a young age, Flynt was brought up by his mother in Evanston, Illinois, a Methodist community on the shores of lake Michigan that later became a suburb of Chicago. A closeness to his mother throughout his life probably mitigated the worse excesses of tramping, and was certainly responsible for Flynt graduating at the University of Berlin. The following story from his autobiography describes both his first tramping expedition and first time in jail, from where he was collected at the age of five:

‘Although my mother declares that I was at least five years old when this happened, I have always believed that I was nearer four; at any rate, I remember that I wore dresses. The circumstances of the truancy and imprisonment were as follows: My parents were in the neighbouring city for the day, and I had been left at home with the nurse. She had punished me pretty severely for some slight offence, and had then gone to the lake for water, leaving me in a lane in front of the house, very much disquieted. A sudden impulse to run took hold of me—anywhere, it did not matter, so long as the nurse could not find me. So off I started with a rush for the main street of the village, my little white panties dangling along after me. That was my first conscious and determined effort to see the world in my own way and at my own discretion. It was the beginning of that long series of runaway excursions which have blessed or marred my life ever since.’

Flynt aged thirteen
This was the first of many tramping adventures that even whippings from his father and pleas from his mother failed to prevent, and which Flynt credits to being, a helpless victim of the whims of wanderlust. In those early days, the person responsible, time and again, for returning Flynt to his family, was a close relative involved with the railroad and journalism. Not trusting Flynt with the money to purchase a ticket home afer his various adventures, this relative furnished Flynt with a note he was to present to the train conductor reading, ‘This is a runaway boy. Please pass him toand collect fare from me on his return.’ Flynt well understood the value of such an open endorsement to travel free on the railroads and made good use of it. He also acknowledged that he was a victim of his own personality. All he could offer by way of explanation was that: ‘I have never met a boy or man who has been plagued [by wanderlust] to the same degree as I was’.

At the age of 15 Flynt’s mother and sisters moved to Berlin while he was sent as a border to a small college in Illinois. After losing an essay competition which both Flynt and other students felt he should have won, Flynt abandoned college and jumped a train to Buffalo. He was just short of his 17th birthday, getting his first job as a 'yard car reporter' for a week in the railway yard at the point he disembarked in Buffalo.

‘What I did during the morning and early afternoon I do not recall now; probably I merely wandered about the streets and took in such sights as attracted me. Of this much, however, I feel certain: there was no great Wanderlust in my intentions. My work on the railroad interested me not a little, and I had already begun to calculate the amount of savings I should have at the end of the year. As the day wore on I remember measuring how much time I should need to get back to supper and work, and up to the middle of the afternoon it was my firm determination to report for work early. Then—ah yes, then! I saw a horse and buggy standing idle in one of the main thoroughfares. What it was that prompted me to get into the buggy and drive blindly onward I cannot say, even now.  ...  At the moment of driving away it no more occurred to me to turn the outfit into gold than it did to turn back. On I went for a good hour, regardless of direction and the police. Then the seriousness of my offence gradually began to dawn on me.’

To cut a long story short, Flynt ended up in Pennsylvania where he sold the horse and buggy to an acquaintance on the pretext that he had purchased them as a result of his savings. Getting away with horse thieving once, emboldened Flynt to repeat the transaction, except that on this occasion he was arrested and jailed. As would have been expected, Flynt managed to escape from the penal reform prison, and his story reads like a real life Mark Twain adventure. The escape itself Flynt says, ‘began that long eight months' tramp trip’, the first of what would be many subsequent tramping expeditions, ending in another jail sentence, on this occasion 30 days for being found sleeping in a box car. But this tramping apprenticeship also represented a turning point, and coming of age in Flynt's career as a tramp:

‘To the school life and the ensuing eight months' sojourn In Hoboland, credit is also due for the disappearance of my pilfering inclination. When, how, why, or where it went, are questions I can answer but imperfectly to-day. It slipped out of my life as silently and secretly as it had squirmed into it, and all that I can definitely remember now in the shape of a "good-bye" to it, on my part, is a sudden awakening, one morning on the Road, and then and there resolving to leave other people's property alone. There was no long consideration of the matter, I merely quit on the spot; and when I knew that I had quit, that I was determined to live on what was mine or on nothing, the rest of the Road experience was a comparatively easy task.’

The Child Tramp

As discussed earlier, Flynt makes much of his endogenous drive towards 'foreign' experiences, his wanderlust, as the primary motivation for tramping:

‘To-day I can laugh at all this, but it was a very serious matter in those days; unless I covered a certain number of miles each day or week, and saw so many different States, cities, rivers and kinds of people, I was disappointed—Hoboland was not giving me my share of her bounteous supply of fun and change. Of course, I was called "railroad crazy" by the quieter roadsters in whom the fever, as such, had long since subsided, but I did not mind. Farther, farther, farther! This was what I insisted on and got.’

‘JAMIE THE KID’, a tale about a young boy bitten by wanderlust who forms a relationship with an experienced tramp, and who when close to death pleads with Flynt to return the boy to his mother; ‘OLD BOSTON MARY’, a story of a remarkable woman tramp who provides a safe house for hobos; and 'THE CHILDREN OF THE ROAD'; make up three of the most engaging stories in Tramping with Tramps. But importantly, these stories also show the tender and caring side of Flynt that belie descriptions of him elsewhere as being selfish and self-serving. ‘JAMIE THE KID’ and ‘THE CHILDREN OF THE ROAD’ also provide a unique insight into that other side of Flynt, as a child vagabond himself. For in discussing other child tramps, one suspects that Flynt is identifying closely with his own youthful wanderlust, free from either the actor’s bravado as the seasoned hobo, or that of the social scientistfor me the least convincing of Flynt’s roles. Flynt’s own theory about child tramps is that; 

‘they are possessed of the "railroad fever" ... the expression in its broader sense of Wanderlust. They want to get out into the world, and at stated periods the desire is so strong and the road so handy that they simply cannot resist the temptation to explore it. A few weeks usually suffice to cool their ardor, and then they run home quite as summarily as they left, but they stay only until the next runaway mood seizes them.’

Flynt then provides, ‘four distinct ways by which boys and girls get upon the road: some are born there, some are driven there, others are enticed there, and still others go there voluntarily.’

Tramping With Tramps
Flynt emphasises elsewhere in his writings the vulnerability of these tramp children and how they are easy prey to adult tramps, many of whom deliberately set out to seduce what Flynt describes as ‘slum children' with tales of adventure and money. ‘JAMIE THE KID’ is the story of one such child tramp who, like Flynt, left a loving home and mother as a victim to wanderlust. Typically, there is a bond of kinship (ownership also) and mutual dependency between the adult hobo and the child, who is taught all the tricks of begging as well as surviving on the road. Not least of these dangers is being stolen by another adult, for these children were a valuable asset in the begging profession. And although one suspects other motives, Flynt gives no hint of these children being sexually exploited in either My Life or Tramping with Tramps. Neither is this aspect of hobohemia given any real coverage in the two main secondary texts on the subject discussed in my Introduction. It was only on discovering an obscure appendix by Flynt in the second volume of Havelock Ellis’s encyclopeadic Studies in the Psychology of Sex, that the full extent of sexual exploitation of children by hoboes became clear. Below is just a short extract from what is a very explicit thesis from Flynt on paedophilia (under the banner of homosexuality); one that, unintentionally perhaps, would have had the potential to reinforce a whole range of extra fears and prejudices about tramps:

Concerning sexual inversion [homosexuality] among tramps, there is a great deal to be said, and I cannot attempt to tell all I have heard about it, but merely to give a general account of the matter. Every hobo in the United States knows what "unnatural intercourse" means, talking about it freely, and, according to my finding, every tenth man practises it, and defends his conduct. Boys are the victims of this passion. The tramps gain possession of these boys in various ways. A common method is to stop for awhile in some town, and gain acquaintance with the slum children. They tell these children all sorts of stories about life "on the road," how they can ride on the railways for nothing, shoot Indians, and be "perfeshunnels" (professionals), and they choose some boy who specially pleases them. By smiles and flattering caresses they let him know that the stories are meant for him alone, and before long, if the boy is a suitable subject, he smiles back just as slyly. In time he learns to think that he is the favorite of the tramp, who will take him on his travels, and he begins to plan secret meetings with the man. The tramp, of course, continues to excite his imagination with stories and caresses, and some fine night there is one boy less in the town. On the road the lad is called a "prushun," and his protector a "jocker." The majority of prushuns are between 10 and 15 years of age, but I have known some under 10 and a few over 15. Each is compelled by hobo law to let his jocker do with him as he will, and many, I fear, learn to enjoy his treatment of them. They are also expected to beg in every town they come to, any laziness on their part receiving very severe punishment.’

Flynt did much to publicise the vulnerability of these ‘children of the road’ and does not give himself sufficient credit for the public attention he attracted to this particular issue. But it was a source of great regret to Flynt that his work did not do more to alleviate the plight tramp children:

‘The children of the road have always been to me its most pitiful investiture, and I have more than once had dreams and plans that looked to the rescue of these prematurely outcast beings. It needs skilled philanthropists and penologists, however, for such a work, and I must content myself with contributing experiences and facts which may perhaps aid in the formation of theory, and thus throw light upon the practical social tasks that are before us.’

Flynt's categorisation and sub-categorisation of tramps in 'THE CHILDREN OF THE ROAD' alone, is mind boggling. For instance, the gypsy ('ambulanter' in tramp parlance) is one of those groups Flynt describes as ‘born on the road’. He describes one such family, that of Cavalier John, as follow:

‘A negro wife, five little mulattoes, a deformed white girl, three starved dogs, a sore-eyed cat, a blasphemous parrot, a squeaking squirrel, a bony horse, and a canvas-topped wagon, and all were headed "Texas way." ’

He then goes on to describe a further category of tramp family:

‘Another kind of ragamuffin, also born on the road, and in many ways akin to the ambulanter, although wanting such classification, is the one found so often in those families which every community supports, but relegates to its uttermost boundary-lines. They are known as "the McCarthys," "the Night-Hawks," or "the Holy Frights," as the case may be. ... Speaking generally, there is a great deal of fiction afloat concerning these tabooed families, a number of them being simply poor or lazy people whom the boys of the vicinity have exaggerated into gangs of desperados. ... They are not exactly out-and-out criminals whom the police can get hold of, but moral lepers who by public consent have been sentenced to live without the pale of civilization.’

Creeping into Flynt’s narrative, one cannot avoid noting the voice of the sociologist; not only his need to categorise, but also the generalisations (at times distainful) he uses to describe the subjects of his 'investigations'. It is not surprising perhaps that Flynt the actorhis need to inhabit different roles in his lifeshould also extend to his writing voice. I discussed a similar paradoxical writing style in my last post concerning Stephen Graham, and will be interested to note how much this feature appears in those other tramp writers I have yet to read. Nonetheless, it is interesting to observe the manner in which Flynt is on the one hand, able to identify warmly with vagabond and the vagabond he is, and on the other, describe his fellow tramps with such detachment. Perhaps here Flynt is doing no more than his job: meeting the demands and agendas of those who are paying him for his writing. Such is the difficulty of reconciling these two very different aspects of the man. At any rate, intentionally or not, and whatever the motive, Flynt did contribute to the field of sociology and criminology by pioneering the role of the participant observer. But before looking more closely at Flynt the sociologist, I want to continue with Flynt's adventures as a tramp; all the time conscious of the different voices emerging through his writing (the tramp storytelling, the scholar discoursing, and the journalist reporting) often inseparabley woven through the text.

Adult American Tramping Adventures

As part of his first tramping experience, Flynt distinguishes between ‘blowed-in-the-glass-stiffs’, mature hobos who supported themselves purely through begging and thievery, and ‘gay-cats', mainly younger tramps, who were prepared to work and hustle to make ends meet. And while acknowledging that the paths of these two species of tramp often crossed, was also clear that:

‘The hobo considered himself, and really was, more of a person than the Gay-Cat, and he let the latter know it ... Begging for money was something that I indulged in as little as possible ... There is nothing to be said in defence of this practice. It is just as much a "graft" as stealing is; indeed, stealing is looked upon in the Under World as by all odds the more aristocratic undertaking. But stealing in Hoboland is not a favourite business or pastime. Hoboland is the home of the discouraged criminal who has no other refuge.’

In 'THE AMERICAN TRAMP CONSIDERED GEOGRAPHICALLY', Flynt describes the different characteristics of the American and Canadian tramp according to geographical definitions that would only make sense to the tramp of his day. North, South, East and West, all had unique tramping characteristics, the following being Flynt's explanation for why he was never in the company of black tramps (‘shinnies'), as opposed to the exclusively white tramp or hobo, while tramping in the South:

‘The hobo seems to do better when traveling only with hoboes, and the shiny lives much more comfortably in his own clan. My explanation of this fact is this: both parties have learned by experience that alms are much more generously given to a white man when alone than when in company with a negro. This, of course, does not apply anywhere but in the South, for a colored tramp is just as well treated in the East and West as a white one.’

In a chapter titled 'THE CITY TRAMP', Flynt describes the different specialisations to which tramps apply themselves, all generously illustrated, as is the whole book, although I have failed to find any reference to the artist:

‘to-day we have all sorts of hoboes. There are house-beggars, office-beggars, street-beggars, old-clothes beggars, and of late years still another specialization has become popular in vagabondage. It is called "land-squatting," which means that the beggar in question has chosen a particular district for his operations.’ 

Flynt goes on to describe: the ‘tomato-can vag’, ‘the lowest type ... in tramp parlance’, and also notes that, at the time of his writing, English cities were more populated with tramps than American cities. Adding, that class hatred and suspicion between groups of tramps is more noticeable in the UK than the USA. The chapter titled, ‘WHAT THE TRAMP EATS AND WEARS’, is more anecdotal than philosophical and very specific to the place and time of Flynt's adventures; although as with Graham's The Gentle Art, there are some helpful tips for the aspiring tramp. But it must be emphasised here that, those who Flynt caregorises as tramps throughout most of his writings, are more accurately beggars and petty-criminals rather than the true tramp, who is the primary subject of this blog. Only briefly, and in a separate essay titled ‘HOW MEN BECOME TRAMPS’, does Flynt describe at all the tramp ascetic, as opposed to the vagrant as petty criminal: 

‘There is something about a tramp’s life which is remarkably attractive to certain people, and especially to people endowed with what the Germans call Wanderlust the love of wandering. I have known men on the road who were tramping purely and simply because they loved to tramp. They had no appetite for liquor or tobacco, and, so far as I could find, also were quite out of touch with criminals and their habits; but, somehow or other, they could not conquer their passion for roving. In a way, this type of vagabond is the most pitiful that I have ever known; and yet the truest type of the genuine voluntary vagrant. The drunkard, in a certain sense, is sometimes an enforced vagabond; he cannot live in any other sphere of life. ... But the Wanderlust vagabond is far different. He is free from the majority of passions common among vagrants, yet he is the most earnest vagrant of all. To reform him it is necessary to kill his personality, to take away his main ambition. And this is a task almost superhuman.’ 

In one paragraph, Flynt has shown significant insight intobut also summarliy dismissedthe tramp ascetic. Clearly a category of tramp quite alien to him. 

Dangers of Riding the Rails

Tramping With Tramps
Of accidents during his travels, Flynt says in his autobiography that there was very little to report. ‘While other men and boys were breaking legs, getting crushed under wheels and falling between cars, I went serenely on my way unharmed.’ And yet in Tramping With Tramps, Flynt reports several near misses, such as being knocked to the ground from a moving train by a water pipe, and shot at by an angry conductor. But his most amusing story is told in ‘ONE NIGHT ON THE "Q". Flynt and a fellow hobo traveling to Chicago look for an empty box car on a cattle train but they all are all full of steers. They climb onto the roof in the pouring rain but the brakeman spots them and tells them they are fools. To their surprise he shows them that on the outside end of each car full of steers is a hay box. He lifts up the lid and they climb down into the comfortable bed of hay. Only later do they discover that the brakeman has locked the lid behind them, which they are unable to kick open. The only thing between them and the steers horns below them is the fast diminishing hay, held in place only by widely spaced wooded slats. Both are convinced they will end their lives impaled on the steers horns but as the train slows to a stop 6 miles outside of Chicago, they hear other tramps outside the train and call them to unlatch the lid and free them:

We heard him quickly obeying the call. He climbed up the ladder, loosened the latch, and seemed to wonder at our eagerness to leave such a nest of comfort. Fatty was helped out immediately, although we were still six miles from "Chi"; but I made him wait while I looked to see just what danger we had escaped. There is so much compensating consolation in a view of perils safely passed. There was still a fair amount of hay in the box. I rooted down to the slats for a last look at our tormentors, and there, right before me, stood those awful beasts, wild and fresh from the fields of the Lone Star State. There were nearly twenty of them, I should say, but not a single one had a horn!'

To Berlin and University

Flynt's first tramp ended shovelling coal and ash in the boiler room of an ocean going liner bound for Bremerhaven in Germany, and then on to Berlin to locate his mother's lodgings in that city:

The Berlin of the late eighties was a very different city from the Berlin of to-day [circa 1905] ... there were no automobiles that I can remember having seen; there were no great department stores such as now vie with those of New York; there was no such street lighting as there is to-day ... Like Moscow, the place resembled a great overgrown village more than it did the capital of a great country.’

It is not difficult to appreciate how after 8 months of tramping, followed by the indignities and discomfort of shovelling coal in the bowels of a ship, that Flynt, severely malnourished and otherwise physically and mentally traumatised from his adventures, would not fully succumb to the relative comforts of his mother’s Berlin apartment and give himself over to being pampered and persuaded. Flynt describes how his mother did persuade him to enrol for a course of study and observes with some surprise that: ‘In five minutes, thanks to the rector, I had changed from a quondam coal passer to a would-be Doctor of Philosophy in the great Friedrich Wilhelm University, a royal institution.’ Further acknowledging that as a foreign student in the early 1890s, he did not even have to provide evidence of matriculation at previous learning institutions. All that was required:

‘was to have a twenty-mark piece in your pocket to pay the matriculation fee, and perhaps fifty marks more to pay for your first semester's lectures. [...] To take a Ph. D. at Berlin in my day at least one major study was required, and also two minors. Six semesters was the time necessary for preparation before one could promoviren, and an acceptable "Thesis" was absolutely necessary before examination was permissible. As a rule, a man with a well-written thesis and a fair mastery of his major subject succeeded in getting a degree. There were no examinations until the candidates for degrees were ready to promoviren, to try for their Doctor's degree. At the end of three years, six semesters, such candidates were called before their professors and made to tell what they knew both in their major and minor studies. The examination was oral and alleged to be pretty minute.’

If these fortuitous accidents were not enough, Flynt’s choice of dissertation as his experiences of tramping, both before and during his years as a student (dressed up for the University as ‘Political Economy’) ended up crediting him as one of the first ‘participant ethnographers’. By accident rather that design, Flynt became a major influencethrough Nels Anderson and otherson the formation during the 1920s and 30s of the Chicago (or Ecological) School, the institution that pioneered ethnographic fieldwork in urban sociology and criminology.

Tramping Adventures in Europe

The several tramping excursions Flynt took while at university, one suspects were more for pleasure and to maintain his tramping 'skills' than for genuine research purposes, even though many of these trips were subsidised by a new found occupation as a freelance reporter. The following accounts are drawn both from Flynt’s autobiography, My Life, and from Tramping with Tramps, where Flynt’s European adventures are describe in separate essays according to the countries he visited.


Flynt made his first serious tramp around Germany after two years in that country, dressed in tramps garb and without any form of ID, something he later regretted. But he had been told by a univeristy professor that. "The only way to know the entire truth about the tramp is to live with him.” Advice of which Flynt was already well aware. His initial research identified that there had been 200,000 arrests in Germany each year for begging, 100,000 of which represented ‘irreclaimable vagabonds’ Flynt’s plan was not to study the enforced vagrant, but ‘those who wander because they desire to’. As with all his other tramping exploits, Flynt gave a great deal of attention to learning the German tramp slang. From his conversations with various tramps on route, Flynt had to revise his preconceptions that the primary causes of vagabondage were laziness and liquor: 

"Why should I work, when I can beg more than I can possibly earn? Now, if I should follow my trade I could earn about eighteen marks a week. But as a beggar I can beat that by ten marks. No, brother; it isn't all the blame of the Schnappsflasche that we're on the road. I, for one, am here because I can do better than anywhere else."


"Well," I said, "we lads on the road seem to have more money than most laborers, but we seldom have a decent place to lay our heads. For instance, what sort of place is this we're in now?"

"Yes, that's true," he returned; "but then we're never sick, always happy, and perhaps we're just as well off as anybody else. You forget that we never work, and that's a great thing in our favor."


In 1893 Flynt embarked on a tramp around Britain with a fellow student from Berlin University. They took a boat from Hamburg to Grimsby and made a planned round trip of Britain and Ireland, sometimes together, other times separately but agreeing to meet up at certain points on the way. From Grimsby, Flynt tramped to Hull, Edinburgh, Dublin, Liverpool, Chester, Shrewsbury, Hereford, Bristol, Bath, Reading, finishing up in London; describing many tramp characters and doss houses along the way. An interesting summary of Flynt's impressions of the British tramp follows: 

Tramping With Tramps
‘Most of the tramps we met during our trip in England impressed me as being a trifle insane. ... Their life, together with ill-nourishing food, would tend to produce a mild form of insanity. There is surely a peculiarity about their mental structure that I have observed nowhere else. They are fond of philosophizing about themselves, and in a comical way. 
... Some attribute their pauper condition to a roving disposition; others lay their misfortunes to a cruel fate; but it is very evident that the passion for drink is at the bottom of ninety per cent. of the vagrancy in England. The tramps do not seem at all discontented or unhappy. They complained sometimes that people were stingy, but almost all of them looked well fed. There are a few of them who really want work, but the majority are not very anxious for a job. ... Most of the tramps we met were well informed, and fully half of them had been in America ... They also keep up to the times on political issues and pugilistic and police news. ... They are a very hospitable set to their own kind. I never entered a kip without a seat being offered to me, and in many cases they gave me a bowl of tea and a bit of bread. I never saw any quarreling over the cooking-utensils or the corner of the fireplace. Though they are without doubt the dirtiest and the raggedest and the poorest of men, I was everywhere treated by them with politeness, so far as they understood politeness; in fact, they were often far more courteous than the steamer and other officials under whose charge I came during the journey.’

And a note on the woman tramp:

‘Just a word here as to tramp companionship in England. Among the men, although one now and then sees "mates," he more often meets the male vagabonds alone, so far as other men are concerned. Women, too, do not often ally themselves with other women. But between the sexes partnership is common; though seldom long-lived, it is very friendly while it lasts. The woman is practically the slave of the man; he is the supposed breadwinner, but the Judy does more than her share of the begging all the while.’


Flynt set off the following year for a tramp around Switzerland and Italy using Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad as a travel guide. Flynt and his friend climbed the Breithorn simply because they did not have sufficient funds to pay a guide to climb the Matterhorn; 30 francs as opposed to 300. But it was Venice that captured Flynt’s heart:

‘I thought then of the city, as I do still, more as a lovely, breathing creature, truly as a bride of the Adriatic, than as a dwelling place of man. I walked from my lodgings to the Piazza. As I turned into the Piazzetta, and the glory of that wonderful square flashed upon me in the glow of the bright afternoon sun, I came suddenly to a halt. Such moments mean different things to different men. I remember now what passed through my mind, as if it were yesterday: "If to come to this entrancing spot, young man, is your payment for pulling out of the slough that you once let yourself into, then your reward is indeed sweet."

Flynt spent some months engaged in the new and novel experience of tramping the canals of Venice by canoe, before visiting Rome and Naples, and then back to Berlin to complete his studies. 


On completing his studies, Flynt embarked on a two year, 25,000 mile tramp around Russia, some of which was financed by an American magazine in exchange for whatever copy Flynt could provide of his adventures and meetings with Russian celebrities. Flynt spent 10 days at Tolstoy’s farm, discussing tramping, among other things, at which Tolstoy regretted being too old to accompany Flynt on his tramp. Flynt describes the Count thus:

‘The man at Yasnaya Polyana in 1896 was a fairly well preserved old gentleman, with a white beard, sunken gray eyes, overhanging bushy eyebrows, a slight stoop in the shoulders, which were carrying, I think, pretty close to seventy years of age. He wore the simple peasant clothes about which there has been so much nonsensical talk. ... [Flynt saw] Tolstoy and his family practically every day; even when I did not stop in the house overnight I divided my time between Yasnaya Polyana and the home of a neighbor of the Tolstoys. When staying at Yasnaya Polyana I slept in what was called the Count's library, but it was evidently a bedroom as well. At the neighbor's home I had a cot in the barn where two young Russians, friends of the Count, also slept. They were helping Tolstoy "re-edit" the Four Gospels, omitting in their edition such verses as Tolstoy found confusing or non-essential.’

In the fall of 1897 Flynt set off for Central Asia, this time with an endorsement that most tramps could only dream of; 3 months free transportation on the railways by order of the Tsar:

‘Again the motive was journalistic, and again I was the proud holder of a pass over all the Russian State Railways, not over the private lines, however, as the year before. I have to thank Prince Chilkoff, the Minister of Railways, for this second pass. He had become considerably interested in my travels, and on learning that I contemplated excursions into remote parts of Russia he kindly offered to ask the Tsar to grant me free transportation for three months "in order that my investigations might be facilitated." When the transportation finally reached me, it read: "With Imperial Permission."

But Flynt was not to let this VIP treatment go to his head. True to form, and dressed in tramp attire, he used the opportunity to further his own interest of spending time among Russia’s poor and dispossessed:

‘I explored the local vagabonds' resorts pretty carefully during my investigations, visiting among others the notorious Dom Viazewsky, the worst slum of the kind I have ever seen anywhere. On a winter's night in 1896 (the conditions have not changed, I am told), 10,400 men, women and children slept in five two-story buildings enclosed in a space about the size of a baseball diamond. Only a hundred paces away is the Anitchkoff Palace. 


What a medley of humanity that vile-smelling room contained! Old men barely able to climb out of their bunks; rough middle-aged ruffians, cowed for the moment, but plainly full of vindictiveness and crime; youngsters just beginning the city life and quaking with fear at the unannounced visitation—never before have I seen human bodies and rags so miserably entangled.’

Again, making much of his role as a journalist, Flynt managed to secure the perfect insurance against running into trouble, even if he also enjoyed the thrill of remaining undercover, sometimes too much the side of danger:

‘General Kleigels, at that time (1897) prefect of St. Petersburg, had given me a general letter to the police of that city, reading about like this: "The bearer of this is Josiah Flynt, an American citizen. He is here, in St. Petersburg, studying local conditions. Under no circumstances is he to be arrested for vagabondish conduct." The word "vagabondish" was the nearest English equivalent my friends could find for the Russian word used; it was underscored by the general himself. I was told by an American resident in Russia that with such a letter in my possession I could almost commit murder with impunity, but I succeeded in getting arrested for a much less grave offense.’

The incident Flynt refers to was manhandling two special constables while out drinking with an American and English friend in St. Petersberg, no doubt enboldened by his pass from General Kleigels. Needless to say Flynt was let off with a handshakehis friend was later fined 25 roubles for the crime of whistling in a police station. Flynt acknowledges that although he learned a great deal from his tramping around Europe; ‘unconventional experiences as I never could have learned about ... had I spent all of my time in libraries and the lecture room’, these were also a submission on his part, ‘to the all-demanding passion for wandering.’ Concluding that: ‘It was also a good thing for me to be let loose every now and then into the jungle of Europe's vagabond districts and then vent such lingering Wanderlust as my temperament retained.’

Return to America

At the same time Flynt acknowledges that the experiences had provided him with useful skills and contacts as a reporter, but that he was glad that Europe was now behind him and that he was free to return to America. But Flynt’s choice of work on his return is something of a surprise. His first job on returning to America was in response to being summoned by the railroad executive, Leonor, F. Loree, at the time general manager of the Pennsylvania Railroad that covered five states including the terminals of Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, Wheeling, and Pittsburg. No doubt aware of Flynt’s reputation as a former hobo turned social scientist, Loree asked Flynt to write a report on the tramp problem affecting his railroad and the effectiveness of his railroad police in dealing with it. Following this experience, Flynt published an essay titled ‘THE TRAMP AND THE RAILROADS’, in which he refers to his writing this time as an ‘investigation’, rather than anecdotes of the tramp, horse thief and escaped convict of his previous American tramping adventures:

‘So much for my personal experience and finding in this latest investigation in "trampology"; it was as interesting a tramp trip as I have ever made, and I learned more about the best methods to employ in attacking the tramp problem in this country than on any previous journey. It is now my firm belief that, if the tramps can be kept off the railroads, their organization will become so unattractive that it will never again appeal to men as it has done in the past. No other country in the world transports its beggars from place to place free of charge, and there is no reason why this country should do so.’

Even though Flynt describes this episode as a 'tramp trip', the shift in voice and perspective are markedly different from other chapters in Tramping With Tramps. It does not seem to have been in Flynt’s job description as an undercover investigator that he get involved with tramps directly, yet as part of this employment Flynt also unashamedly recalls an account in his autobiography of pursuing and confronting three negro tramps who had taken a free ride on a train in which Flynt was travelling, and being responsible for their arrest. Contrast this episode with one nearer the end of Flynt’s life, and one is struck again just what a complex character he was. His own peculiar morality, it seems, suited his all-too-human instincts for whatever impulses touched him at the time. This second anecdote appears in an afterword to Flynt's autobiography, written by Flynt's cousin, American Film Director, Bannister Merwin: 

‘Flynt became more accustomed to a saddle, and rode to many points of interest near Sapulpa. He once told me that he had made several trips to the home of a half-breed negro who lived near a ledge of rocks called 'Moccasin Tracks,' about five miles from Sapulpa. This half-breed had a bad record. The United States marshals had him 'marked,' and planned to 'get him' at the first opportunity, but Flynt said that he was a very interesting man to talk with.’

On this occassion Flynt seems to have intervened in a positive way. In any case, there seems no doubt that he was seduced by, and continually drawn to the underworld. A clue, perhaps, to his own morality may be a certain cynicism toward any consistent code of honour among the criminal classes that so fascinated him. In the final chapter of My Life, ‘HONOR AMONG THIEVES SO CALLED’, Flynt goes into a fairly self-indulgent spree of name dropping of New York underworld characters who are known to him, at the same time flaunting his knowledge of (just-too-much) criminal slang. Yet Emily Burbank describes him thus: Flynt's ethical code was that of the Under World, and, in some respects, superior to the one in use on the Surface of Life. My own conclusion is that Flynt’s ethical code, if he had one at all, is too inconsistent to support any unifying assumption. I prefer the theory that Flynt was an actor, perpetually inhabiting different roles depending on what suited the occasion. But however consummate a performer he might have been in the company of men, Merwin relates an anecdote that demonstrates Flynt’s vulnerability and very human face:

‘Reference has been made by others to the fact that there was one romantic passion in Josiah's life. For years he worshiped from afar a girl who possessed grace, intelligence, and beauty, though so far as his friends know he never offered himself to her. In July, 1894, I was with him for a few days at his home in Berlin. He told me at that time that the girl he loved was on the continent, spending the summer at a mountain resort. He had come to the conclusion, he said, that it was time for him to go to her and declare himself. Accordingly, he did make a pilgrimage of many hundred miles to the place where she was staying, dreaming we may not guess what dreams along the way. It was many months before I saw him again. When he began to speak of the girl in the same old terms of distant adoration, I asked him about his journey of the preceding summer. "Well," he said, "I went there, and I saw her, but I didn't speak to her." "Did she see you?" I asked. "No," he answered. Again he had been the watcher by the wayside standing in shy self-effacement while the girl of his heart passed by.’

Merwin’s own conclusion of Flynt’s character can be summarised as follows: ‘few men who have set out to write their own stories have been able to show themselves as truly as he has shown himself. That is because he was essentially a man of feeling—sensitive, proud, filled with sentiment—though only his close friends may have known this of him.’ At any rate, having completed his assignment for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Flynt then responded to his second passion, writing, and became one of the founding members of the original group of writers and hell-raisers known as the Griffou Push; so called because of their base at the Hotel Griffou in Manhatten’s West Village. Intersting to note then that the emergence of the Griffou Push is popularly credited as some 20 years after Flynt writes about it, and some 11 years after Flynt’s death. The following anecdote from Flynt summarises this episode of his life:

‘Perhaps the finest sensation I experienced during those years was found in weekly trips to Park Row, usually to the Sun office, where I handed in my bill for space and collected such money as was due me. I shall never forget how proud I was one Saturday, when, with seventeen dollars' space money in my inside pocket, I strolled back to Ninth Street, through the Bowery—or the Lane, as "Chuck" Conners* prefers to call it.’  
* ‘Famous Chinatown Guide and Inventor of Slang’, not the actor and pro baseball player, famous for his role in the series The Rifleman.

Flynt the Sociologist

Flynt’s theories on criminology are most eruditely expressed in the opening chapter of Tramping With Tramps, ‘THE CRIMINAL IN THE OPEN’, in which he sets out his rationale for studying the vagabond in his or her natural habitat. Up to the time of Flynt’s writing, he acknowledges that the criminal had been studied exclusively behind prison-bars, and that the environment and the subject of scientists’ observations and measurments could not have been further from the condition in which the criminal operated:

‘We have volumes, for instance, about the criminal's body, skull, and face, his whimsical and obscene writings on prison-walls, the effect of various kinds of diet on his deportment, the workings of delicate instruments, placed on his wrists, to test the beat of his pulse under various conditions, the stories he has been persuaded to tell about his life, his maunderings when under the influence of hypnotism, and numerous things, anthropological and psychological, which have been noted down, compared, and classified.

Out of this mass of information, gathered in great part by prison doctors and other prison officials, the conclusion has been drawn that the criminal is a more or less degenerate human being. There are differences of opinion in regard to the degree of his degeneracy; but all investigators agree upon the main fact, while some go so far as to claim that he is abnormally deficient in mental and moral aptitudes, and, in a large number of instances, should be in an insane asylum rather than in a penitentiary. Human justice recoils from a severe treatment of the man who, though an outbreaking sinner, bears evidence of being sinned against as well as sinning; and yet, before we can safely fall in with this view, we must carefully consider the theory on which it is based, and its claims to a scientific foundation.

The first question with which to begin a scientific investigation of this sort is, it seems to me, this: "Where may we hope to find the criminal in his most natural state of body and mind—in confinement, a balked and disappointed man, or in the open, faring forth on his plundering errands, seeking whom and what he may devour?" ... I claim that imprisonment should be considered rather as an incident in his existence than its normal sphere, and that, because it has not been so regarded, we have to-day a distorted view of the criminal and an illogical tendency in penology.’

There is much to be admired in Flynt’s diatribe against the doctors and criminologists of his day, an authentic attack on orthodoxy in the true spirit of Diogenes. But it is when Flynt starts offering his own explanations for vagabondage, and offering solutions to the ‘problem’, that the difficulties of reconciling Flynt the tramp with Flynt the social reformer really start to emerge. His essay, ‘How Men Become Tramps: Conclusions from Personal Experience as an Amateur Tramp’ (1895), published in The Century when he was 26 and in the final year of his PhD at Berlin University, does little to exploit his remarkable and authentic first hand knowledge of tramp life. Had someone elses agenda influenced Flynt’s writings? Was he simply being used by reactionary forces to reinforce common fears and preconceptions of tramping? In the essay he summarises the principle causes of vagabondage as follows:

‘There can be no doubt that the tramp is, in a certain sense, the maker and chooser of his own career. The writers experience with these vagrants has convinced him that, though they are almost always the victims of liquor and laziness, fully four fiths of America’s voluntary beggars have begun their wild and restless ways while still in their teens ... The American tramp does not want to work, as a rule; but I know that he does want to be free from liquor. And if this can be accomplished, I feel safe in saying that he will go to work. Under the influence of drink, he becomes a sort of voluntary idler; but if he were temperate, he could be made a valuable citizen.’

Flynt makes some progressive (even by today’s standards) observations as, for instance, when he says: ‘The reader may wander why it is that boys are allowed in jails, and not confined to institutions exclusively devoted to their needs.’ And yet in the same short essay he also advocates stiffer punishment for adult tramps, not for crimes against the person, but simply for vagrancy and begging: ‘During an eight months soujourn with tramps, I have seen policemen and justices time after time simply order roving vagrants “out of town,” when there was plenty of evidence to have punished the fellows in workhouses and jails.’ That vagabonds are not punished more severely is a fairly constant refrain of Flynt’s, but surprisingly, it also seems one shared by many tramps of his day. And this is not simply the desire to spend time being fed and sheltered by the state; a common strategy for many of Flynt’s hobo friends, especially during winter when they would calculate just what crime would secure the desired number of weeks in jail. The tramping fraternity that Flynt describes seem quite a conservative bunch and can be quite critical of leniency, even towards their own kind.

Ultimately, one has to accept Flynt for ALL the characters he leaves us with in his writings, and take from it what we want. And, some of the banality aside, there is much both to admire and enjoy. Flynt the visionary thinker and Flynt the ordinary yet extrordinary thrill seeker trying to make the best of what life threw at him, can all be summed up in his following lines:

‘There were tramps thousands of years ago, and I fear that they will be on the earth, if there be an earth then, thousands of years hence. They change a little in dress, customs and diet as the years roll by, just as other people change. But, for all practical purposes, I should expect to find the ancient Egyptian hobo, for instance, if he could come to life and would be natural, pretty much the same kind of roadster that we know in our present American type. Laziness, loafing, Wanderlust and begging are to-day what they ever have been—qualities and habits that are passed on from generation to generation, practically intact.’

Flynt's Death

Flynt’s short life and writings are probably richer for that fact that he never really gave up his tramp persona for that of the social scientist. That he was addicted to what he himself identified as one of the primary causes of vagabondage was a personal tragedy. Not ‘laziness’, contrary to his own stereotype of the tramp, Flynt was a grafter*. Sadly Flynt remained addicted to liquor, and laterly narcotics, dying of pneumonia after two hours of unconsciousness, at 7pm on January 20th 1907 (aged of 38), in the opulent Kaiserhof Hotel, Clark Street, Chicago. Flynt had returned to Chicago to write an article on pool-room gambling for Cosmopolitan Magazine, but more importantly to be near his mother with whom he had had a closeness throughout his life. I leave the last words on Flynt to his cousin and one of his friends:

Flynt often talked of his death after disease fastened upon him, but always with an inconsequence as to what lay beyond the grave—not bravado, but the philosopher's acquiescence to the inevitable, whatever it be. He had great faith in the loyalty of friends who might survive him. "So-and-so will speak a good word for me, I know!" he would say. Separation, by geographical distances, never bothered him, yet he wrote but few letters. He seemed to get satisfaction out of his belief that he and his nearest friends communicated by thought transference: "The wires are always up!" Doubtless he passed out with the conviction that this would continue.  Emily Burbank

I left Sapulpa in October, and Flynt accompanied me to Chicago, where he remained until March. He was very proud of the certificate which was issued to him when he severed his connection with the Saint Louis and San Francisco. "These certificates are commonly called 'Letters of Identification.' Flynt always referred to his as his 'Denty,' and he took much pleasure in showing it to his friends. He gave it to me a few days before his death and asked me to keep it for him." From this "Denty" we get a rough description of Josiah Flynt as he was in 1904. "Age, thirty-five years. Weight, one hundred and twenty-five pounds. Height, five feet five inches. Complexion, light. Hair, light. Eyes, brown." It also gives as his "Reasons for leaving the service": "Resigned. Services and conduct entirely satisfactory." Bannister Merwin

* Flynt has been credited for the introduction of the word "graft" into book English.


  1. Do you know what room he died in? The number at the hotel?

    1. Sadly no. Perhaps the hotel has some old archives. If you find out, please let me know.