"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

11 Feb 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Leon Ray Livingston

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 8 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


Unlike most of the other tramp writers discussed on this site—those who celebrated their anonymity and life in the margins of society, with no thought of competing against fellow vagabonds for publicity—Leon Ray Livingston (1872–1944) seems to have openly courted celebrity. Livingston unashamedly embraced the practice of branding, so ubiquitous today, as is evident from the logos and sound-bites on the covers of his twelve self-published books: 'America's Most Famous Tramp who travelled 500,000 miles on $7.61', adopting the moniker 'A-No.1', and crowning himself 'King of the Hoboes'. Yet in spite of these accolades, none of the other tramp writers I have read (bar Jack London) seems to have been aware of Livingston or ever mentions him. But regardless of this apparent arrogance and self-promotion, Livingston's is a story as remarkable as most in this collection of tramp biographies, and his exploits as a child tramp—from age eleven (as was Jack Everson)—second to none. Another facet of Livingston's writing that jars with the tramping spirit is, that having enjoyed and promoted his own adventures, he then not only adopts the role of the social reformer (as did Josiah Flynt, born three years before Livingston), but establishes his reputation as a campaigner against tramping. One possible motive for this stance maybe purely entrepreneurial, i.e., to endear himself to the general reading public. The following 'warning' appears in the facing page of the Preface in most of his books:

And so let us presume that Livingston was just an astute publicist rather than a apologist for tramping. If he lacked the integrity of the true Cynic (in the positive meaning of the term), he was not averse to using cynicism (in its negative context) to enhance his reputation with mainstream American society—and also increase his book sales (the links below are to those of Livingston's books available digitally):

   Hobo Camp Fire Tales (1911)
   The Curse of Tramp Life (1912) 
   The Trail of the Tramp (1913)
   The Ways of the Hobo (1914) 
   The Snare of the Road (1916)
   The Wife I Won (1919)
   Traveling with Tramps (1920)
   Here and There with A-No. 1, America's most famous tramp (1921)

*From Coast to Coast with Jack London also inspired the movie Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert
Aldrich and starring Lee Marvin as A-No.1, Ernest Borgnine as the sadistic train conductor, and David
Carradine's character loosely based on Jack London, using the moniker 'Cigaret' (the moniker previously used by
Josiah Flynt).

The Child Tramp (from Livingston's first book, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1)

Livingston was born to a 'well-to-do' family in San Francisco on the 24th of August, 1872. His father was French and mother German, and Livingston claims that by the age of eight he could speak both these languages fluently in addition to English; to which he later added Spanish also. At the age of eleven a minor incident at school led to Livingston running away from home to join hundreds of other homeless children and hobos roaming across America. Sent home for bad behaviour with a note from his teacher requiring his father's signature, Livingston ran away rather than face disgrace—only the day after his birthday and on which he had been lavished with presents. And so another hobo career started with a 100 franc note from his uncle in Paris, 28 dollars he took from his mother's purse, and Livingston's .22 calibre rifle.

Livingston boarded a river steamboat from San Francisco harbour to Sacramento where he booked into (unbeknown to him) the most expensive hotel in the city, and where a four night stay depleted his resources by 20 dollars. The 100 franc note he left with a bank cashier without changing it because the teller had asked where he got it. So with his rifle and his remaining few dollars Livingston walked to a water stop along a railway track where he gave his rifle to a brakeman in return for a ticketless ride to Truckee. He was eventually put off the train later by another brakeman at Winnemucca in the Nevada Dessert, 450 miles from his home in San Francisco. And so, with clearly much to learn about survival and beating trains, Livingston's career as a hobo had begun.

A woman in Winnemucca spotted the young boy crying on some steps and took him inside to give him a meal. Livingston was on the point of telling the woman the truth but, fortified with food, he repeated the tale that he was recently orphaned and trying to reach his uncle in Chicago. So moved were the townsfolk that they made a collection and gave Livingston a ticket to Omaha and five dollars in change. Livingston was a fast learner; after failing to find work in Omaha due to his young age, he resolved to hustle for a living. He beat his way to Chicago hidden among sheep in a stock car, and there he lived on free food in saloons and bedded down at night with other waifs and strays under the bushes in a local park until the cold weather arrived. Having heard stories about the warm and sunny south, Livingston then struck out for New Orleans on which journey, he says, he turned down four offers of adoption along the way.

'I arrived in New Orleans on Christmas Day, 1883, a sight to look at. I was dirty and ragged to the last degree, with toes sticking out of my shoes. But the climate was fine, and there was plenty to eat, such as it was. By stealing bread from the house fronts, left by the bakers in the early morning, and by cleaning milk and cream pitchers, and dipping this bread into the molasses leaking from syrup barrels piled upon the wharves, I managed to live. For lodging at night I crawled under the tarpaulins covering the cotton bales stored on the wharves.'

Only one week later, on New Years Day, an incident on the wharf led to Livingston being offered a job as a cabin boy on board a British schooner plying trade among the ports of Central America at five dollars a day plus board. Dressed up in his sailors outfit and cap, and being told that all he had to do was watch the seagulls and flying fishes as the schooner sailed out into the blue of the Gulf of Mexico, must have seemed like a boyhood fantasy come true. But the fantasy was short lived and soon Livingston found himself peeling potatoes, scrubbing the decks and forced into all manner of hard labour, amid beatings from the crew who for most of the time were drunk on mescal.

In British Honduras

Livingston had his chance to escape when the ship landed in Belize City in (then) British Honduras where he had to row the chef ashore for some supplies. He hid out on the edge of the jungle in view of the ship until he was sure it had sailed before exploring his new home. Again he was taken in by a kindly woman who fed and clothed him, and for the first time since running away from his parents home penned a letter to let them know where he was and beg their forgiveness. One can only imagine their surprise at receiving news of their eleven year old son from Belize.

As he was able to read and write, Livingston then persuaded the husband of the woman who had taken him in to give him work as a bookkeeper in a lumber camp several days journey in land. Livingston describes the mahogany trade of British Honduras, worked principally by African Americans who, he says, made up ninety five percent of Belize City's population. Livingston was given three months pay of $24 in advance to equip him for the trip in land, and, had he been allowed to board a steamer in the bay bound for New Orleans, he would have deserted his employment for a second time. In the event, the ship had been quarantined due to a death from yellow fever in Belize and no one was allowed to board. Livingston had no choice but to return to his employer and fulfil his contract at the lumber camp. His description of the socio-economic life of the camps makes fascinating reading, not least his diet: 'I became acquainted with roasted baboons, fried parrots, turtle and armadillo stews, tapir steak, iguana (an enormous and ugly tree lizard.), monkey soup, etc.' Below Livingston describes the beginning of his nine day journey up river, with its clear parallels to the first journey made by Trader Horn up Gabon's Ogowe River:

'We embarked in dugouts'men, women, children, dogs, household effects, provisions, etc., and paddled up the Rio Hondo. After several hours passing through mangrove swamp we came to higher ground, and then we only could use poles as the river became crooked, shallow and full of rapids. Alligators and enormous turtles slid from the banks as we approached them, and at night, when we camped on the river bank around the fires, we could hear the cries of panthers, mountain lions, wild cats, monkeys and coyotes in the dark jungle.'

It was while in the lumber camp that Livingston received his first letter from home, his parents telling him how delighted they were to have heard from him, having given him up for dead after a long search. Livingston replied asking for money to pay his way home, but admitting that by this time he was having 'the time of my life':

'fishing, hunting, eating new kinds of fruit, guavas, breadfruit, etc. I saw butterflies of gorgeous colors; birds more strange and beautiful than I ever imagined could exist, some of them with bills larger than their entire bodies. Captain Jones was very kind to me, in fact I could not have been treated better by anyone. The laborers were good to me, as I made myself popular quickly by giving them overweight, and when they purchased goods from the store, charged them less on their accounts. They in turn presented me with many pretty souvenirs.'

From Belize to Guatemala


Onward to Mexico


A Trip to Germany


Brief Homecoming and Alienation from Family


Return to Latin America


The Mature Tramp


 We are particularly indebted to Livingston for preserving, though not as some have claimed 'inventing', the information system of symbols carved by hobos into water tanks and mileposts, and described by him as 'The Code of the Road':


This sharing of intelligence about who to trust, what towns and sheriffs to avoid, the best places to hustle and find shelter, etc., are well documented by other tramp writers such as Josiah Flynt, Jack Everson, Bart Kennedy and Jack London, so no need to dwell further on Livingston's more instructional accounts. But the Camp Fire Tales are entertaining and do add further to the cultural legacy of hobohemia. Yarns, for instance, describing some of hobohemia's more colourful characters, and further evidence of the vagaries of the American legal system: Livingston and his companions alternatively get away with daylight robbery or get thrown into jail having committed no crime at all.


... Of particular interest on pages 43 and 44 of Mother Delcassee is a comprehensive glossary of tramp classifications; some of which are mentioned elsewhere on this site but are reproduced here for easy reference: 



An aspect of Livingston's writing that is of particular interest to my work in progress is, once again, the distinctions made between the tramp-of-circumstances and the tramp-of-choice and, in respect of the latter, the powerful allure of that phenomena described as 'wanderlust'. Even in the case the child tramp, wanderlust cannot simply be explained away by the pull of fortune and adventures. There is no allure for the true tramp in pursuing riches. The raison d'être of tramping, in the timeless, metaphysical pull it has on the human psyche, is precisely to free oneself from such material preoccupations. Sadly, in the case of Livingston's writing, we have only glimpses of his true tramping spirit, preoccupied as he became with his own celebrity and the approval of conventional society. Nevertheless, for those with the patience to probe Livingston's work, these glimpses are there to be found hidden away between the storytelling and the lectures on the evils of tramping. 

One such clue to the spirit of tramping in which Livingston must surely have delighted, can be found in the two poetic prose passages reproduced above from The Curse of Tramp Life; writing that has parallels with similar emotions expressed by other tramp writers (see for instance Stephen Graham). The first of these is when Livingston describes the suffocating effects of a city, 'Lo! a strange sickening feeling of oppression overcame me, the mighty City of Cleveland had suddenly became (sic) too small to hold me, so small indeed, that I could hardly breathe.' And the second is when Livingston describes the thrill of hurtling at top speed through the night, hanging underneath a train only inches from the track: 'I at last felt that I had given up everything but life itself, to please that bane of my existence. ... There, hanging on with only those weak, human hands, out of reach of any possible succor, speeding through the night, I felt at peace with all the world.' These two passages reveal an important element of tramp psychology: that it is the momentum of tramping and not the destination that pulls the tramp ever onward. For although the tramp is occasionally forced to stop and rest from sheer exhaustion, sometimes due to illness or disability, the destination of his or her journey is always deferred. Livingston describes it above as a life force, without the constant onward movement of which the tramp is unable to breath, loses the reason for their existence.


  1. Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Are you interested in any of the other tramp writers on the site?

  2. Really great coverage. I have all Livingtone's book that are avaiabke in digital. I have two photos of his A no.1 moniker, one recently foubd under a bridge, the other found on a scarp of wood from a torn down railroad station.Both can be found online.

    There is a modern hobo that in some ways is like Livingstone. He, sadly recently died falling from a bridge onto a tailroad yard. He went by Stobe the Hobo. His videos record his many rail trips, and tours of towns snd cities coast to coast. At the time of his death, he, like Livingstone, wanted to slow down the traveling and do commentary of his experiences abd philosophy of live.You can find him on YouTube.