"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

Jack Everson


Background and Introduction

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

Still aged eleven, and after a particularly vicious beating from his father for, falsely he claims, being accused of stealing a penknife from another boy, Everson resolved to leave home and jumped a train heading for New York with an older boy (see Leon Ray Livingston who also started tramping aged eleven). Getting off the train when it stopped after some forty miles, the pair were persuaded by two seasoned tramps to split up and accompany them separately; the one pair to California, with Everson and the other tramp going to New York. There is a lengthy discussion in my previous post on older tramps bribing and cajoling child tramps (or even slum kids in the towns they passed through) with promises of money and adventure, and to become indentured to them for the purpose of begging, and occasionally also as sexual partners. The child apprentice in this relationship was referred to as a 'punk' or 'prushun', the older mentor being their 'jocker'. As luck would have it, Everson's jocker, 'Michigan Curly', turned out to be kindness personified and the two were to be close friends for many years. Undoubtedly Curly gained from the relationship but, from Everson's accounts at least, did not abuse Everson nor exploit him financially; indeed, Everson's seems to have profited greatly from this relationship as I discuss later. The jocker's role (at least for those who did not mistreat them) was to offer the child protection from other tramps and train them in the arts of tramping and survival on the road. 

‘Having ascertained that I knew nothing of begging, Curly explained what he considered to be the best approach, and rehearsed me in the stories I was to tell. One was that when I was "Chronicking" (begging from private homes) the best story to tell was that my parents had died and that I was making my way to an aunt in New York, or elsewhere. If I was asked in to a meal and I was hungry I was to accept; but if not hungry, to ask to have some food put in a bag so that I might share it with another boy who was going with me. Begging on the streets of a city or good-sized town was another matter entirely. Here, I was told, the best story consisted of telling pedestrians, to the accompaniment of tears, that I had just dropped a quarter or half-dollar down a crack in the sidewalk (nearly all sidewalks were wooden then), and ask the pedestrian to help me find it. I was to explain that my father had sent me to buy some food and that I would get a terrific whipping if I returned home without it.

Curly told me that when begging it was wise to have but little, if any, money in my pocket at the time, because if I was arrested and had money I would probably be considered a professional beggar and be given ten or more days in jail. On the other hand, if I had no money on me, I could expect to be given a twenty-four hour "floater" to get out of town.’

As if to answer Everson's daughter's criticism of the accuracy of her father's text, there now follows in the book one of Everson's rare insights into the writing process itself:

‘I often marvel at the faculty of memory in man. As I sit at my desk, retrospectively recalling incidents of my earlier years, it seems that no moving picture of those incidents could portray them more clearly than than does my mental vision. Each incident recalled seems to forge a link in an unending chain of other incidents whereby they all become so interrelated that the picture as a whole becomes merely the past. Of conversations I remember little or nothing, but every trivial act of my life up to the time I was thirty-five stands out as clearly as the sun to an astronomer, once I mentally envision the locality in which it occurred. Of my later years, the less said the better. I am unable today to recall details of seemingly important events that happened a few years or even a few months ago. Of such peculiar stuff is memory made . . .’

There is no sense in the text that Everson has fabricated his story for dramatic effect. On the contrary, his writing is unselfconscious and at times even self-deprecating. The tenderness and domesticity of his writing negate, for me at least, any sense that here is a writer attempting to sensationalise his life story. The passage immediately following in the book would seem to illustrate this point:

‘About the third day that I was there, I began to itch in my crotch and along the insides of my legs. Curly noticed me scratching and made me remove my short pants, which he turned inside out. He found what he expected- several large lice, or "crumbs", and a number of small white bodies in the seams which he called "nits". He told me we would have to boil our clothing, and sent me up town for a couple bars of soap.’

Another episode from the pair's adventures illustrates that, in his own way, Curly was as dependent on Everson as the child was on him. Unlike Everson, Curly did need alcohol in his life, and although he had developed strategies to protect him from habitual drinking, he did occasionally embark on a drinking spree that without Everson's help, would have left him very vulnerable indeed. I include here the extended account the better for the reader themself to judge the care in which Everson handles his storytelling (remember this is a seventy year old man recalling his eleven year old youth, and also his friend).

‘That night, Curly started on a spree. He came to the room about ten o'clock carrying a gallon jug and two quart bottles of whisky. He had had a few drinks, but was sober enough to instruct me how to care for him during his debauch, and begged me not to leave him alone when he was awake. He seemed confident that I wouldn't leave him; and he was right, for by now I simply adored him. He gave me a large roll of bills which he told me to hide. I was to keep the whisky for him to sober up on after he had consumed the contents of the jug, which he told me contained pure alcohol. I was to dilute this to half-strength with water and administer it to him when he asked for it. When the alcohol was gone, I was to give him the whisky in diminishing doses of about two ounces every two to three hours, and gradually increase the time between doses. I was to refuse to go out and buy more for him, and I was not to allow him to smoke unless I held the cigarette for him while he did so. As for food, he said he would want nothing. It was quite a burden to lay upon the shoulders of an eleven-year-old boy, but I resolved to do the best I could.

By midnight, the bottle of whisky was two-thirds gone and Curly was in a stupor. He had undressed and gotten into bed before becoming helpless, and before going to bed I poured out another drink for him and set it on the stand beside his bed. I turned the gas light down low and lay down beside him, but I couldn't go to sleep. I was frightened for fear of what might happen to him if I failed him in any way, and lay there sobbing my heart out. I must have dozed off, however, for it was getting daylight when Curly awoke and asked me for a drink. I gave him the one I had poured out and refilled the glass; but within a few minutes he asked me for another drink, which I gave him, refilling the glass with what remained in the bottle. I then got up, filled the whisky bottle half-full of alcohol from the jug, and aded an equal amount of water. By now it was daylight, so I got dressed and sat beside him on the bed, holding his hand and stroking it.

When he started on the alcohol he would take four or five drinks at intervals of about fifteen minutes, then fall asleep and sleep for three or four hours. During these sleeping periods I would go out and buy my meals, return with two or three dime novels, and read until he awoke with further demands for liquor. He had soiled the sheets, and I bribed the chambermaid to change them and wash his underwear. I washed his body myself.

This kept up for several days, and when the alcohol gave out I started to sober him up with the whisky. He could no longer hold the glass, and after a vain effort on my part to pour it into his mouth I borrowed a tablespoon and fed it to him in that way. He begged me for more than he had instructed me to give him, but I kept firmly to the formula he had prescribed. He once tried to get out of bed to take it from me, but was unable to do so. He was all a-tremble, and had no more strength than a two-year-old child.

When the bottle was about three-fourths empty he fell asleep and slept for about twelve hours. He was so quiet that for a time I thought he was dying, and was on the verge of calling in a doctor, contrary to his instructions However,I couldn't disobey him. I lay beside him on the bed, crying bitterly, and when he finally awoke the sound of his voice as he stroked my head was a never-to-be-forgotten joy. I cried now with happiness, and when he asked me for a cigarette I lit one and held it to his lips as his hand sought mine and stroked it affectionately. He asked for a drink of water and I held the glass to his lips, nearly choking him in my eagerness to get the water down his throat. He drank five or six glasses of water, smoked several cigarettes, and fell asleep again. With contentment in my heart, I undressed and got into bed.

He woke me several times during the night for water and cigarettes. When morning came he sent me to our landlady to ask that she make some soup for him. She was most sympathetic, telling me that she knew just what would be best for a man in his condition, and that she would provide for him. She kept her promise, and several days later Curly was up and around, although still too nervous to shave himself. He looked funny with a week's growth of hair on his face.’


Prison and a Trip to Australia

Curly would buy shipments of costume jewellery by mail order, before most people were aware that there was fake stuff that looked as good as the real thing, and had it delivered to various towns on their travels. Everson improved and semi-legitimised their trade (they did not have a licence to peddle) by brazenly admitting in bars and brothels that their goods were imitation, and yet selling them for considerably more than they were purchased. Nevertheless, the pair were eventually arrested. Curly received thirty days in jail but Everson, was sent to a reform school in Plainfield, Indiana, until he should reach the age of twenty-one. The strict regime at the reform school did not seem to have done Everson any harm, and he resumed some of his schooling with enthusiasm.

About two months into his stay there, Everson was summoned to the governor's office with some trepidation, only to be met by his parents and Curly. The latter had thought better of springing Everson from the reformatory to resume their tramping exploits, and instead had gone to find his parents to alert them of his predicament. Curly had clearly impressed them enough for them to agree to him being introduced as Everson's uncle.

‘Father, always thin, was much thinner than when I ran away. His breathing was labored, which I attributed to his chronic asthma and the aneurism that I had been told he had. He was affectionate and asked me to condone the last flogging he had given me, telling me that he had subsequently learned that Marion - damn him! - had lied about the knife. I sat on his lap and forgave him and, with his arms about me, I cried some more when he slipped into my hand a brand-new copper-handled knife. That act of contrition endeared him to me more than anything he had ever done before.’

In spite of a letter from the governor of Illinois to the governor of Indiana seeking clemency, Everson's parents were unable to secure his release from Plainfield. Everson threw himself back into his studies and stayed in contact by letter with both his parents and Curly until he was eligible for parole. Following his release from the reform school, Everson describes an emotional reunion with his family, including, for the first time, a mention of his brother George who was three years his junior: ‘George was the good boy of the family and fulfilled the saying that "the good die young"; typhoid fever claimed him in Denver about two years later.’ Everson's father had moved with George to Denver in 1887 after a failed business venture in Chicago. From this time onward the family were to live in near poverty and Everson and his mother joined the rest of the family in Denver. Later that same year, he was still only fourteen, Everson was jailed again, this time for possession of a stolen Colt .45 revolver. The handgun had been among some other items that Everson agreed to peddle for a tramp, who failed to tell him the gun had been stolen.

Everson's father died from a ruptured aneurism while Everson was awaiting trial, following which Everson was sent to the reformatory at Golden near Denver. In just under a year, Everson was paroled to his mother but ignoring her pleas to return to school, in January 1889 and now aged sixteen, hit the road again and boarded a ship to work his passage to Australia via Honolulu:

‘My intention had been to desert the ship at Sydney and tour the country, but I gave up that idea quickly when I found that railroads in Australia were few and far between, and that they went nowhere in particular. Australia, I learned too, had an answer to the tramp problem: hard labor. As that didn't appeal to me, I returned to San Francisco quite disillusioned.’


Reunion with Curly and Final Parting

On Everson's return to America he immediately set out in search of his friend. And here I will describe a tramp custom that has parallels with 'tagging' today. When tramps travelled by rail, the usual embarkation point was the huge wooden water tank where the trains had to stop to take on water. It was the practice of tramps at the time to carve their adopted tramp name or 'moniker' in the side of such tanks as a way of introducing themselves but also letting other tramps know they had passed on a certain date and the direction they were bound. Everson got his own moniker when Curly had carved his name in such a fashion, adding 'Chi (Chicago) Curly' alongside his own. Josiah Flynt's moniker was 'Cigarette', being seldom seen without one. In his hunt for Curly, Everson describes such an occasion of tagging as follows:

I bummed around San Francisco for a couple of weeks, and then started for Denver. At Truckee I went to the Central Pacific R.R. water tank (now the Southern Pacific), where I met three tramps. I nodded to them, and immediately started carving my adopted monicker--Chi Curly--on the tank's superstructure. I added B-E (bound east) and the date, now forgotten.

As it was the custom for a tramp meeting two or more unknown tramps to first introduce himself, I felt that I had complied with the convention most effectively. The three arose, and one of them introduced himself as "Sardines" and then introduced the others as Michael J. Gorman and Liverpool Tony. ... I asked if either of them knew Michigan Curly. Much to my surprise, Sardines said yes and added that Curly had been in Truckee the day before and had gone east. He showed me Curly's monicker carved on the other side of the tank, and I inwardly cried with joy.
Everson set off in hot pursuit, and after an emotional reunion, the two of them resumed peddling jewellery that Curly was by this time importing from Europe. They were now partners, as Curly insisted that the jocker/punk relationship was no longer appropriate. The two visited most of the states in America and made enough money peddling jewellery to enjoy luxuries like boarding houses, restaurant meals, new clothes and occasionally paying their way on the railroads and paddle steamers. After looking up Everson's mother in Denver and taking her out for a meal and to the opera house, a conference between the three of them concluded with Curly, having already given up drinking altogether, deciding to give up tramping also and return to his wife (who he claimed still loved him) and children to try and make a go of his marriage. Everson, for the first time asking his mother's consent, agreed that if he could make one last trip with Curly he would return to Denver and resume his schooling.

Curly wanted Everson to make the trip with him to Detroit to visit his family but Everson declined, thinking that he would only be a hindrance to Curly's plans. Everson determined instead to take the river trip he had always planned to make by steamer and describes their emotional farewell as follows:

‘I shall never forget that parting. It was a miserable day, with cold rain falling as we stood on the levee under a large tarpaulin, stretched on ropes to shelter some merchandise stored there. I had wanted to ride on one of the river stern-wheelers, and had bought second-class passage to Cairo on the one being loaded below us. We stood there hand in hand, not saying a word. I was on the verge of tears, and I think that he was as well, though he was not as emotional as I. When the boat's bell and whistle sounded the all-aboard warning, we embraced each other and I kissed him; then without saying goodbye, I ran down the levee and boarded the boat. I stood near the paddlewheel with tears streaming from my eyes, and waved in farewell until he was out of sight. I never saw Curly again. We wrote to each other occasionally for ten or twelve years. He was reconciled with his family, and several times offered me a good job in the fur business to which he succeeded on the death of his father. I hope to meet him again in the Great Beyond.’

After returning to Denver, Everson persuaded his mother that he should not return to school but learn a trade. After training as a barber, he took a job as a quarryman, then joined a troop of acrobats where he claims he worked with the future Douglas Fairbanks. But time in gainful employment was to be short lived and Everson's wanderlust returned. This time, still peddling phoney jewellery, he headed West for California, it being a tramp Mecca, he says, at that time. The reason Everson gives for this was the local vagrancy laws, in which law enforcement officers and tramps colluded with each other for mutual benefit:

‘Practically every county and town in the state, the larger cities excepted, had passed laws allotting a fee of two dollars each to the Justice of the Peace for every tramp convicted of vagrancy. Constables, and in some cases the Judges themselves, would visit the jungles daily and round up whatever tramps they could find. They made no arrests; they simply asked the men to come to the court house, where they were supposed to plead guilty to the charge of vagrancy, receive a sentence of twenty-four hours to get out of town, and accept a fifty-cent piece to speed them on their way, the Judge thereby clearing a dollar and a half on each conviction. ... At one roundup of tramps in a Southern California town, a Swede, who was not familiar with the procedure, refused to plead guilty. He defied the Judge to find him guilty because, he said, he had five dollars in his pocket. The Judge, an Irishman, defied in his own court, arose in righteous wrath and said, "OH! So I can't find yez guilty, can I? Well, yez are fined five dollars for contimpt of court and yez kin take tin days in jail for yersilf"- and then added triumphantly, "Now, can I find yez guilty?" ’


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.’

Up until know Everson seems to have been very specific about dates, often pinning events down to the actual month as well as year. But it is perhaps excusable that Everson should be vague about the date of his first marriage, as this was a very short lived affair. He reports that he had only known the girl a week or two when he was, 'caught in flagrante delicto by her father', and forced to marry her or be returned to reform school. Unlike the girl and her father, Everson was not aware that the girl was already pregnant and that the forced marriage was a desperate act. 'I should have suspected it' he says, 'because she was unusually plump about the waist.' A short time after they moved into a rented apartment, Everson, with the help of two friends, caught the girl in bed with another man, whereupon he promptly took the girl and her belongings back to her parents. The baby was born four months later but lived only a few weeks. The end of this sorry saga was that two years later, Everson received a letter from the madame of a brothel in a Colorado mining town, informing him that his wife had committed suicide after being abandoned by her pimp, and could he pay the funeral expenses. To the indignation of Everson's daughter (from his second marriage) as revealed in her notes to the book, he declined.

During this time, Everson had trained as a bookkeeper, a trade he worked at for a while. Next he took up boxing, at which he was successful but eventually abandoned due to having a 'glass jaw'. Everson hit the road again, this time returning to begging (and the scam of using plaster of paris and a sorry tale to elicit sympathy) as his principal method of providing for his needs. On this tramp he received ten days in jail for trespassing on railroad property, and later, in Jefferson City, Missouri, a further thirty days for begging from a plain clothed police officer. This time Everson was fitted with a ball and chain shackled to his ankles and his first taste of a chain gang:

‘We were driven ten or fifteen miles into the country to a large ramshackle frame building, on the floor of which there were about a hundred dirty straw-filled pallets. presided over by a big negro who assigned a pallet to each of us. We were each given a tin cup and plate, and a fork, but no knife. We were shown the privy at one end of the building--a hole about twenty feet long, four feet wide and four feet deep. In lieu of seats, there was a two-by-four rail of unplaned lumber. At the head of each two pallets there was a galvanized pail for a donicker, and each pallet in use was covered with a cheap cotton comforter. As it was mid-afternoon, we were not required to work that day; and when the road gang came in shortly after six o'clock, we were fed a plateful of watery hash, a cup of slops designated as soup, and a cup of chicory coffee.

[...]

About six the next morning we were all herded out to the well, where we washed the best we could without soap. Afterwards, we were fed all the oatmeal mush we could eat and were given a cupful of chicory coffee. I was given a pick and shovel, and as we stood around waiting for the wagons to come and take us to our work I counted over sixty prisoners, two-thirds of whom were negroes. When the wagons came, about seven o'clock, we were divided into three crews and taken down the road about a mile, where we were set to grading and leveling behind several mule-drawn plows and scrapers. At noon, a wagon brought us dry bread--half a loaf per man--while the waterboy filled our cups from a large barrel rigged to a two-wheeled cart. We were allowed about half an hour to eat and then worked until six o'clock, when we were returned to our dormitory.’


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

Completing the rest of his trip to New Orleans by another vessel, there follows a fascinating description of tramp life in that city, which Everson admits to liking more than any other except for San Francisco. And although he says that begging was very unrewarding, the following description of how well one could live on very little money more than compensated for this deficiency:

‘The principal tramps' hangout was at the Three Brothers saloon north of Canal Street. For five cents one could get a "Cincinnati scoop" of beer, holding about a quart, and all the potato pancakes one could eat. In addition, there was a free lunch on the bar, consisting of pretzels, rye bread, sausage, and cheese. There was a small Chinese restaurant nearby that served a substantial five-course dinner for twenty cents without wine, or twenty-five cents with a half-pint bottle. By walking for several blocks to the Conti basin where the oyster smacks unloaded, fifteen cents would get one a peck basket heaping-full of freshly dredged oysters, an oyster knife, a fork, a bottle of either catsup of pepper sauce, and a large bowl of oyster crackers. ... The oysters served there were outsize, being too large for canning or shipping, but were tender and fine-flavored. There were a number of French restaurants where one could get a six-course dinner with wine for thirty-five cents, while in the French and Poydres markets south of Canal Street food was equally cheap.’

A 'Respectable' Jack Everson
After a very eventful stay in New Orleans, including working on a sugar plantation, again being shot at, and playing an extra in a blacked-up role at the opera house (not failing to comment on the absurdity of blacked-up actors in a city generously populated with the real thing), Everson headed out once more for California, but having been nursed by a friendly boarding house keeper for ten days en route after coming down with malaria, decided to return to Denver to spend the winter with his mother. Because the phoney jewellery racket had played out, Everson tried his hand as a quack doctor, seemingly making a success of it and cementing his post tramping career as an insurance salesman:

‘I filled and labeled two dozen bottles and went across the river to Kansas City, Kansas, where I sold them all in about five hours, getting fifty cents for a few and twenty-five cents each for the rest. The "Price, One Dollar" on the label was a big factor in promoting sales, especially among the negroes, to whom most of my sales were made. I was glad to have found a promising racket again, and stuck around Kansas City for two weeks. No one bothered me, and I even sold some of my stuff to policemen. At that time, few cities had laws regulating peddlers, and the Pure Food and Drugs Act was unheard of. I dressed well, bought a handsome leather case that would hold six or seven dozen of my bottles, and confined my operations to the larger towns.

[...]

That summer I worked all over the midwestern states, and in August I started south again. In Cairo I sold nearly one hundred bottles in a day ... The people of Memphis, Nashville, Vicksburg, and Mobile, both white and black, bought freely, and when I reached New Orleans I had saved nearly a thousand dollars, most of which I sent to mother. I covered all the larger towns in Texas and then went to Mexico, making all of the principal cities but few sales.’


Gold Prospecting and another Aborted Marriage

Tramping being in his blood, and not having use for more money than required to survive (any surplus being given to other tramps or his mother), Everson was still travelling on the railroads for free, risking life and limb, including, once again, being shot at. It was after this incident (that he would probably not have survived but for being found and nursed by the wife of a Mexican shepherd), and having lost his medicine chest and supplies, that Everson threw in his lot with two gold prospectors and tried his luck at dry gulch panning before returning to Denver later that year, August of 1893. Not a date provided by Everson in his narrative, but as he mentions visiting the Chicago World Fair later that year, simple to establish; making Everson still only nineteen or twenty years of age.

The following summer Everson bought two mules, tools for gold prospecting, and set out to prove a theory he had developed the previous summer, that there were richer takings to be had the further one dug from the river. He proved his theory by the end of the summer, returning to Denver six hundred dollars the better. By now Everson had resolved to quit tramping and settle to a more conventional life, engaging in a series of jobs over the next four years, including being motorman and conductor on the Montclair branch of the Denver Tramway Company. But a failed love affair was to thwart his plans of settling to a more conventional life.

Everson tells how in 1898 he fell in love with ‘the daughter of a railroad man’ whom he planned to marry in June of that year. Everything was going according to plan until, for a second time, Everson was to come across his woman in bed with another man. He clearly took this infidelity harder, besotted in a way he had not been with his first wife. After struggling with himself whether or not to reconcile her indiscretion, even admitting to contemplating suicide over the affair, Everson embarked once more on a tramping spree that was to last five years. Initially he gave up peddling and resorted to the more usual, but less profitable, tramp practice of mooching. Nonetheless, Everson seems to have been able to utilise his salesman patter to maximise the effect of simple begging. After many further adventures, including a spell at sea, Everson finally resolved to quit tramping for good. He had involved himself in getting a tramp friend off an attempted murder charge. This included him kidnapping the prosecution witness, the hobo whom his friend had almost killed when he found him frisking a sleeping friend. The whole episode had proved one adventure too many for Everson, who while enjoying life on the edge, had no desire to run foul of the law on a major charge.


Two Further Marriages but Still Tramping

After another emotional reunion with his mother, Everson set out to find work in Chicago, though still riding the train to that city for free. It was now 1900, which makes Everson around twenty seven. Having learned to play guitar and mandolin in Denver, Everson tried his hand as a lyric writer, but a series of failed and dodgy deals put an end to his song writing ambitions. He would fall in love and marry for the second time, returning to Denver where he admitted to being 'very happy', but only until the Spring of 1902 when his wanderlust was once again spiked by reports of a gold strike in Idaho. The trip was a dismal failure and by the summer of 1905, Everson had been divorced by his second wife Mary after giving birth to his daughter, the aforementioned Alice. He then returned to Chicago where he fell in love with another woman he refers to as Louise, and to whom he proposed but was rejected after he told her about his previous failed marriages; she not confident about her prospects with Everson. Whatever tramping credentials Everson may have possessed, as a lover and husband he appears to have been a disaster at worse, and a late developer at best. At any rate, he declared that he could not bear to live in the same city (Chicago) as Louise without her being his wife, and would have to return to California unless she agreed to marry him. She called his bluff, telling him that this would probably be the best thing. So off he tramped once again to the coast.

If my own reader thinks I have given Everson's romantic exploits but too brief a mention, it should be noted here, and was commented on by his daughter Alice, that the accounts in Everson's autobiography concerning his marriages, were typically dismissed in one or two sentences, whereas his exploits as a single man are verbose in the extreme. In contrast, given the amount of space accorded to Everson's mother in his book, one could be forgiven for thinking that she was the principal woman in his life. But then again, this is his 'autobiography of a tramp', not his life story. At any rate, after another failed trip and near death experience, this time when the hotel he was sleeping in burned down during an earthquake, and a separate accident in which he lost a toe, Everson returned again to Chicago where he did finally persuade Louise to marry him. He had kept in correspondence with her by letter throughout his latest expedition, and she finally relented to his persistence. Maybe he had at last developed some skills in the art of romance. Louise had in the meantime also maintained a relationship with Everson's mother, and also his first wife Mary and daughter Alice.


Everson Finally Quits Tramping



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



After honeymooning in California, the couple settled and built a home in San Anselmo, Marin County, outside of San Francisco (Everson's favourite city as a tramp) to which he commuted daily for work. His first son was born in 1909, and his mother, daughter and first wife, Mary, also moved to San Francisco that same year. Everson's mother moved into his house to live with the family in 1913 where she remained until her death. A second son was born in 1915. Again, mention of the birth of his sons are given but a sentence in his book, without even giving their names. 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
Last Words

The final chapter of Everson's book, 'Reflections on the wondrous world of Trampdom', I found a disappointment. I was expecting some reflections on tramping in general. For the most part, the chapter criticises other tramp writers for inaccurately representing tramping. Everson only credits Flynt's accounts as in any way authentic, and even then, commented that Flynt, ‘was unable to get far below the surface of Trampdom, principally because he was motivated by the sole desire to gain information from which to compile sociological data.’ Everson's comments here, while true in part, seem a bit harsh considering that Flynt was, like Everson, a tramp first and foremost, whatever he may have decide to take up as a profession later in life. Both shared many identical experiences, and from reading both autobiographies, one could easily imagine that they may have become close friends had their paths ever crossed.

In spite of his criticism that Flynt sociologised the tramp, Everson also, cannot resist here categorising types of vagabonds as others have done; putting himself in the more honourable classification 'tramp', those who steal only to maintain life's essentials, as opposed to robbers and thieves. He further distances himself from the 'hobo' whom he classifies as a migratory worker. Yet from his own autobiography, and the categorisations he uses below, Everson was, depending on circumstances, clearly involved in all of these types of vagrancy at one time or another: tramp, petty criminal, and migratory worker. This begs the question that I posed in my introduction, as to just how useful or valid such categorisations are:

‘Where I have used the word "tramp" in this narrative, it is to designate those who depend solely upon begging, peddling, and the theft of food and clothing for a livelihood. Burglars, robbers and other thieves who infrequently associate with tramps are a class about which I know but little. As a rule, they only take to tramping as a means of hiding out temporarily, and though if known they are accepted as members of the clan, the wiser tramps shun their society as much as possible.

Hoboes and gaycats are definitely not tramps. The hobo is a migratory worker who makes use of the same means of transportation as the tramp, as does the gaycat. Gaycats [not to be confused with the current use of the term gay] are migratory thieves and beggars who seldom share their spoils with anybody. They are the ones who commit practically all the petty thefts attributed to tramps in the smaller towns and cities, and real tramps despise them.’

The remainder of the chapter contains some references to tramp law and etiquette, and exposes some of Everson's own prejudices. If I was hoping for some further insight into what induced young men to wanderlust, and older tramps to maintain tramping as a way of life, I was not going to learn it from this book. Nevertheless, this first hand account, concerning a primarily child tramp, does provide much valued testimony that I'm sure I will return to again during the course of my study. For now, I thank Everson for sharing his story and have enjoyed reading large parts of it. I will not, at this point anyway, insult him further by attempting an analysis of the the man or his life in a manner he himself clearly wanted to avoid.

1 comment:

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

    ReplyDelete