"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

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in 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.’

Tramping With Tramps

The Child Tramp


Adult American Tramping Adventures


Dangers of Riding the Rails

Tramping With Tramps


To Berlin and University


Tramping Adventures in Europe


Tramping With Tramps

‘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.’


Return to America


Flynt the Sociologist


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.

Full story now available in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage


  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.