"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




29 Jan 2013

A Philosophy of Tramping — Jack Everson

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 9 of
Published by Feral House February 2020





Background and Introduction

Jack Everson

John Lewis (Jack) Everson (1873-1945) may not have been as poetic a writer as Stephen Graham or W.H. Davies, nor as scholarly as Josiah Flynt, Ben Reitman or Nels Anderson, but his authentic and unselfconscious contribution to the obscure genre of tramp literature should not be overlooked. Not only does his work help validate the minutia of other descriptions of tramp life in late 19th/early 20th century America (including being a child tramp, a topic discussed in my last post) but it is also a great yarn. For this reason I decided to write this chapter of my work as a strict chronology of events. Everson's adventures though, should also stand alongside the finest fiction of the period, both for the richness of the narrative and the sensitivity of the telling, yet this writer is little known and out of print. 

It is worth noting also, that like many other tramps turned writers, Everson's early childhood was comfortable and middle class. This may help inform an important part of my work in progress. Namely, the popular view (expounded by some tramp writers themselves) that the primary cause of tramping was related to a combination of the economic depressions of the period and alcohol abuse, cannot, on its own at least, account for these writers hitting the road in the way they did. In Everson's case, he did not have a taste for alcohol, occasionally sipping it in order not to offend. And while not suggesting that the middle classes were not also affected by the depressions and heavy drinking, the condition described as wanderlust appears to be a far more convincing explanation and needs further exploration. 

Everson was born four years after fellow Chicagoan tramp Josiah Flynt, subject of my previous post. Like Flynt also, Everson surrendered to the lure of wanderlust, became a child tramp, and served part of his vagabond apprenticeship in a penal reform school. Having read both writers accounts of tramping, it is surprising that the two men's paths never crossed, also, that they did not share tramp acquaintances in common. Even so, Everson was aware of Flynt through the latter's writings and reputation, and refers to Flynt's writings in the final chapter of his book. Bedridden and dying from cancer, Everson's own memoir, The Autobiography of a Tramp, was not completed until the last year of his life at the age of 72. Everson's autobiography was eventually typed up and published by his older son, W. L. Everson, in 1992 (when W.L. Everson was himself already 86). In his preface to the book, Everson junior describes his father's 'basic nature and character' as follows:

‘He certainly, and admittedly, fell a good ways short of moral perfection. Still, I must marvel at the variety of experience he managed to crowd into his 72 years. My personal recollections are of a highly intelligent and affectionate man who, despite his faults, was a kind and loving parent who taught me much and shared with me music, baseball games, mushroom hunts, fishing trips, and a considerable degree of intellectual comraderie [sic]. I'm willing to settle for that.’

Everson's daughter from a previous marriage, Alice Weiss Everson, was clearly not as generous about her father. This can be evidenced by some of her disparaging comments in hypertext throughout the digital version of the book. But it is too easy to impose the values of a modern day feminist on a man (albeit her father) who survived a very different age, culture and circumstances than her own. Louis L'Amour, a later generation of tramp turned writer (of primarily pulp westerns with some 105 publications to his credit), made just such an observation in his own autobiography when he suggested that:

A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.


Advice that maybe L'Amour had the foresight to pen as an insurance against his own reputation for upholding traditional family values and casting women as homemakers. In any event, given the times in which Everson lived, he shows some surprisingly feminine attributes, in addition to the more macho behaviour that clearly irritated his daughter. Weiss Everson initially observes that there may have been fictional and exaggerated elements to the work, but after completing her reading of the book, comments: ‘My apologies for questioning where fact left off and fiction began. While much was omitted, I believe all that was contained was factual.’ 

But then what memoirs, memories even, do not contain fiction? And given that the autobiography was written in the final year of Everson's life, his work is remarkably lucid. Although not writing his autobiography until approaching his death, Everson's literary beginnings have an interesting twist. His mother, Rebecca (Carrie) Jane Billings Everson (pioneer inventor of the oil floatation separation process in the mining industry), had started to teach him to read when he was three, and by lying about his age, was able to get him into the Scammon school in West Madison Street, Chicago, at the age of five. At the time Everson attended school, West Madison Street was fast becoming the epicentre of the hobo capital of America. A city within a city, Chicago's 'main stem' spread for half a mile in every direction around West Madison Street, reaching tramp populations of up to 75,000 well into the 1930s. Everson describes himself as:

Jack Everson aged 4
‘an unruly child, constantly being punished for AWOL at home and at school, and a disgrace to my parents and teachers who seemed unable to either wheedle or beat into me any of their curriculum other than reading, spelling, and arithmetic; these subjects I seemed to acquire a knowledge of instinctively. ... I was permitted to grow up unrestrained. I roamed the streets by day and night in company with other headstrong boys, and became a member of the notorious Carey's Patch Gang. These young ruffians, eight to fourteen years of age, terrorized the neighborhood by acts of vandalism and petty theft.’

Everson's first arrest, aged 10, was for undertaking a mile long swim to Government Pier, Chicago, in the nude. This also earned him a beating from his father who had to pay the ten dollar fine. In spite of his fathers belief that flogging was a sound form of discipline, Everson maintains that he was ‘a most kind and affectionate man’; more often cradling his son in his arms and, with tears in his eyes, pleading with him to ‘be a better boy’. But Everson's wild and unruly behaviour could not be curtailed. As well as being an experienced petty criminal, by the age of eleven, Everson was also experienced in the sexual arts after being befriended by a prostitute who offered him her services for free. His parents were pleased that they had secured him work as a messenger boy for a telegraph company, but unaware that many of the packages and flowers he was delivering were to Chicago's red light district.


On the Road

[...]

Prison and a Trip to Australia

[...]

Reunion with Curly and Final Parting

[...]

First Marriage, Further Prison Sentences, and Chain Gang

Still only seventeen, Everson now spent six weeks tramping the West coast from San Diego to Seattle with another tramp he had befriended, all the while peddling jewellery to make ends meet. He enhanced his reputation with other tramps by contributing generously to those worse off than himself. And at this point in the book, we again get one of Everson's rare reflections into the writing process:

‘Until now I have endeavoured to record events in their true chronological order. This has taxed my memory, and while the events themselves are as clear to my mind as though they had happened an hour ago, the placing of them in their true relationship in time has become so bothersome that, from here on, I shall try only to approximate the time of their occurrence. For example, I am not at all sure whether it was the winter of 1890-1891 or the following winter that I got married.’

[...]

Two Narrow Escapes

After this sentence Everson tramped through a further three states before meeting up with two other tramps who persuaded him to join them in collecting some stash they neglected to tell him was stolen. Something Everson should have wary of given previous experience:

‘When night came, we walked two or three miles to the field where the stuff was planted, and Star began pulling the hay from the side of the stack where the goods were hidden. Skinny stooped to pick up a sack that Star had pulled out of the hay, when suddenly came a shout of "Hands up!" I bolted immediately. I heard shots being fired and commands to stop, but kept going and ran smack into a barbed-wire fence that bounced me back about five feet. I crawled under it and ran until I came to a road, which I followed until it crossed some railroad tracks. I turned and followed the tracks toward the lights of a town in the distance. Finally I could run no more, sat down beside the tracks, and discovered that I had been wounded. A revolver bullet had struck the calf of my left leg, but had only gone into the flesh about an inch. The wound was not very painful and bled but little. After a few minutes rest, I got up and continued running at a dogtrot until I reached the town, which turned out to be Streator. Fortunately, there was a freight train on a siding waiting for a Chicago-bound passenger train to come in before going on. When the freight pulled out, I decked it and rode to Galesburg. My leg had begun to pain me, but I was afraid the alarm was out for me and I hid near the depot until a passenger train, bound for St. Louis, came in. I boarded it from the dark side and went into the smoking car, and when the conductor came through I bought a ticket to St. Louis. There I dug out the bullet, which was about ready to fall out, and sterilized and bandaged the wound.

I met Star some six or seven years later on the coast. He and Skinny had been given five years at Juliet. He told me that the tipoff to the police had been given by the farmer who owned the haystack; he had noticed that the stack had been disturbed, made an investigation, and discovered the loot. I never saw Skinny again.’

Everson seemed to have hit a run of bad luck around this time, and even when paying for a cabin on the Mississippi cotton carrying steamer Oliver Beirne, only narrowly survived the fire and sinking of that vessel in which twelve people reportedly lost their lives. Comparing Everson's account of the disaster with the actual reportprovides the first clue to what might be Everson's propensity for exaggeration. Although, to be fair to the man, having been burned in his own escape and looking back on such a grizzly scene, may well account for the impression it left on Everson:

‘It was a terrible disaster. There must have been at least a hundred people on the boat, mostly passengers, and I believe that more than half of them were either burned to death or drowned. I sicken whenever I think of it, for there were women and children among them, and somehow the thought of women and children dying like that disturbs me much more than the thought of men dying en masse. I was too numbed by the sight of people burning to death before my eyes to think of attempting to rescue those in the water. I might have saved at least one life, but I seemed to be able only to stand and stare as the vessel burned to the waterline.’


Tramping in New Orleans and pitching as a Snake Oil Salesman

[...]
A 'Respectable' Jack Everson

Gold Prospecting and another Aborted Marriage

[...]

Two Further Marriages but Still Tramping

[...]

Everson Finally Quits Tramping

[...]



Jack's seaman's ID and (below) business card for his settled career as an insurance salesman




Everson had finally given up tramping forever, although he did go to sea until 1920, having obtained a Marine Engineers licence during the First World War. As reported in the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter of his book, the credit for his transmutation from tramping to regular employment and married life, Everson gives to his third and permanent spouse, Emilie Louise Krueger Everson:

‘So far as my own life is concerned, there is little more to be said. I am not proud of it; neither am I ashamed of it. I have lived it according to my lights, and if they have been dimmed by environment, heredity, mental or glandular unbalance or whatnot, there has not been much I could do about it. I shall make no attempt to explain my many so-called vices or the few virtues I may possess. I leave such explanation to the sociologists and psychiatrists. To myself I have always been an enigma; and like Popeye the Sailor Man, I can only say "I yam what I yam". That the last thirty-five years of my life have been what is termed respectable, I attribute to the beneficent influence of that paragon of all the wifely virtues, Louise. She deserves all the credit for my reformation.’

[...]

Young and Older Portraits of Everson's Mother Carrie

4 comments:

  1. I'm glad you liked my great-grandather's biography. Someday I will get my grandfather's biography online as well.

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  2. My name is Mark a Everson I didn't know this guy existed until I stumbled on it on the internet today we are probably relatives my dad was an outlaw Joseph Everson his father Austin jcr Everson

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  3. I understand the rambling way of life though I missed the whole Bowl era I did drink coffee with them out of a bean can one time on the railroad tracks in Bend Oregon when I was going to school there in about 19 70 or so

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    Replies
    1. My whole life was a ramble my dad Joseph ever since we moved from town to town I went to 14 different schools and probably eight different states growing up

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