"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

12 Aug 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jim Tully

The notes of this post provided the background material for Chapter 12 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


That he was a road-kid for six years (although a tramp in spirit throughout his life) is not the only remarkable fact about Jim Tully (1886-1947). At the age of six, following the death of his mother, Tully was left by his father in an orphanage. Determined to write even at that young age, he would become, among other things, a hobo, a chain maker, a pugilist and a tree surgeon, before becoming a minor Hollywood celebrity and finally a successful writer. But as this series is a profile on tramp writers, it is Tully's tramping and writing that I will focus on here.

Those who wish to discover all there is to know about Tully, should read his remarkable biography, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover and Hollywood Brawler, written by Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak. I am indented to these two writers for much of the insight and chronology about Tully's life not available from his own writings. The researchers were helped and hindered in equal measure (the book was 19 years in the making) by the discovery in UCLA's archives of a never previously opened hoard of 117 boxes. The collection had been donated to the University in 1952 by Tully's third and last wife Myrtle. Incredibly, the boxes were filled with Tully's unpublished works, papers, letters, magazine articles and other memorabilia.

Preamble on Tully's Writing Style

As with most of the other tramp profiles on this site, I intend to rely principally on Tully's published works to get a sense of the man and his philosophy on life. But as noted previously, the magic and the frustration of this approach is the tramp storyteller's natural inclination to fictionalise their life, and insert their life into fiction. And so, to those for whom historical accuracy matters, this biography will be found lacking. I read for the pleasure of the text, not for historical truths—which are in any case invariably treacherous. And in spite of the mountain of archives available to them, even Bauer and Dawidziak struggled to reconcile certain facts about Tully. But that is the price and the delight of engaging with Irish blarney.

I will try and establish some chronology where possible, but no attempt will be made to distinguish fact from fiction in the writing itself. Others have tried to categorise Tully's writings into autobiography and fiction. I consider all his writing to contain an element of both, to greater or lesser degree. As with Trader Horn, the deception is often deliberate and unabashed, and one must allow that, in any case, the truth is often more unbelievable than the fiction. Underneath a certain desire for celebrity, the books also reveal their author's extreme modesty, even self-deprecation. The truth that Tully does engage with, is extreme candidness. The brutal honesty that frightens those with more delicate sensibilities, and threatens those who prefer the lie of idealism to human beings' baser instincts laid bare. Or as H.L. Mencken, Tully's lifetime friend, editor and sometime publisher, said in his Introduction to Nietzsche's Antichrist: ‘The majority of men prefer delusion to truth. It soothes. It is easy to grasp. Above all, it fits more snugly than the truth into a universe of false appearances.

It is for this reason that Tully's writing style has been described as 'hard-boiled', and is best defended in the words of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, when he warns us that, 'Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit.' Those tramps who chose vagabondage as a way of life—as opposed to those who have it thrust upon them—do so precisely to protect their integrity from what they regard as Mencken's 'universe of false appearances'. To quote Sloterdijk again: ‘In a culture in which one is regularly told lies, one wants to know not merely the truth but the naked truth. This is Tully's considerable contribution to literature. He presents reality exactly as he sees it, stripped of sentimentality, and, considering the extreme censorship of the times, in the most unrestrained form he can get away with.*

*For responses to Tully's books at the time of their publication, one should read the numerous book reviews he attracted, and which are reproduced in Bauer and Dawidziak's biography. They make fascinating reading and provide much insight into the cultural and literary nuances of the period.

Tully's response to his critics in his Introduction to Blood on the Moon, reveals his contempt for self-appointed guardians of literature and his defiance against conforming to the literary tastes of the time. It also reveals just how aware Tully was that his writing challenged these literary conventions:

'While I am immune to the ink-stained bullets of the moral Social Soldiers who carry Truth as a mask, I have thought it best to change names in "Blood on the Moon" to keep them from shooting at those who are my friends. ... If I have not been able to invent a new medium in my picaresque books, I have at least been strong enough not to conform to one that is outworn.

But Tully's writing style was not entirely unique for the time in which he wrote, even if it did upset literary orthodoxy. Other tramp writers display a similar gloves-off approach. Neither was he the only tramp writer to have engaged in the pugilistic arts (although he probably went further in the professional circuit than most). Jack Everson, W.H. Davies, Trader Horn, Bart Kennedy, Al Kaufman, and Jim Phelan,* all boxed for money at some point in their tramping careers.

*Although one was American and the other European, there are many other parallels between Tully and Phelan. In addition to writing, tramping and fighting, both had poor Irish ancestry, both spent their early lives in steelworks, both wrote about crime and punishment, both where involved with screen plays, both had friendships with H.G. Wells and Paul Robeson (on different sides of the Atlantic), and both had three wives, one son, and one daughter—at least, that they knew about.

Below is a list of Tully's published works (those underlined are linked to free digital publications of the full text):

Beggars of Life (1924)
Jarnegan (1926)
Black Boy, with Frank Dazey (1926/ play—performed but no published script available)
Twenty Below, with Robert Nichols (1927/ play)
Circus Parade (1927)
Shanty Irish (1928)
Shadows of Men (1930)
Beggars Abroad (1930)
A Man of the New School (1931/ pamphlet)
The Bruiser (1936)
Biddy Brogans Boy (1942)
A Dozen and One (1943—thirteen profiles of Hollywood actors and acquaintances including his onetime friend and employer Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Chandler, Clark Gable, and lifetime friends, the former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsy and publisher and journalist H.L. Mencken)

Tully's writing style is further discussed below, but I know wish to turn to the genesis of Tully's wanderlust and his love of words.

Early Years

Tully was the second youngest of six siblings, two girls and four boys. But after his mother Biddy died aged thirty-five giving birth to her seventh (stillborn) child, Tully's father (also named Jim, and who worked away from home for long periods digging ditches) could no longer care for his 6 surviving children. The two girls, Maggie and Anna the youngest, would go to live with their maternal uncle, the eldest son, Hugh, was able to work, but the other three boys (Tom, Charlie and Jim) were sent to St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum in Cincinnati, over 100 miles distance from their home in St. Marys, at the suggestion of the local priest. There they would learn to read and write and be instructed in the Catholic faith.

Tully was six years old when he entered the orphanage and would remain their for the next six years. Not once did his father write or visit him during his stay at St. Joseph's. His misery was further compounded by the guilt of believing that he alone had caused his mother's death. As he later recollected in Shanty Irish: 'Never did a criminal put in six more terrible years of torture'. The doctor had forbidden Biddy to drink water, yet, when she begged Jim for a drink in her feverish state, he had obliged. The orphanage was indeed run along prison lines, with strict rules and beatings and other punishments for infringements. But what Tully did get from his stay at there, was access to classical literature and a passion for reading and writing; often receiving rewards for his endeavours. Tully was not, however, a model Catholic. He admits to never having believed in God although, like Nietzsche, he did have a soft spot for Jesus—though in the role of a fictional tramp activist rather than the living Christ. Tully was also to make some firm friends at the orphanage with whom he became reacquainted many times in the succeeding years.

In any event, Tully survived the orphanage and finally left its grounds for the first time in six years after being collected by his older brother and sister; who themselves had not travelled further than ten miles from St. Mary's in their lives. They had heard that by the age of twelve, orphans who were not offered work on a farm or whose family did not claim them, were sent to a notorious reform school. They persuaded a relative to write to the orphanage superintendent to vouch for Tully. This action was followed by him being passed around from relative to relative until, after a brief reunion with his father, he was placed to live and work with an illiterate farmer in a desolate part of Van Wert County known as Bear Swamp. And so, having escaped the reform school, Tully ended up incarcerated once again, this time in solitary confinement. The farmer did not provide the boy with warm clothing and when his father failed to send the required attire as promised, Tully spent two winters surviving sub-zero conditions in threadbare clothing. After tolerating these conditions for a year and a half, Tully took charge of his own fate and ran away, eventually finding shelter with a kind hearted well-wisher named Joseph Blosser, with whom he stayed for several months. Still aged thirteen, Tully later got work driving a team of horses between a quarry and roadworks for three dollars a week plus board.

Road Kid

Most of the following accounts of Tully's adventures as a road kid come from his second book Beggars of Life. There are also some powerful tales of tramping in his ninth book, Blood on the Moon; a work that includes some of the most unrestrained and ribald episodes of Tully's life, including drinking, whoring, stealing, fighting, as well as begging and tramping. As the New York Post's review of the book at the time states, 'Mr Tully writes with a sledgehammer.' Other of Tully's books that include tales of his life on the road are: Emmett Lawler, Circus Parade, and Biddy Brogan's Boy. A full reading of these books is recommended, as the following summary can only provide a brief account of Tully's seven years on the road, not the total immersion necessary to appreciate the joys and miseries of tramp life.

When the work finished in the autumn of 1900, the fourteen year old Tully returned to his home town of St Marys with savings of twenty-four dollars. He found employment in the local chain factory at fifty cents for a ten hour day, minus two dollars a week for board in two rooms above a grocery shop with his older sister Maggie, aged twenty one, and Annie aged ten. Work at the furnaces was hot and monotonous and Tully spent his free time around the bars and railroad yards of St Marys. Here he met several hobos and road kids who captivated him with stories of freedom and adventure. His wanderlust was further fuelled by the endless supply of magazines from his sister Maggie. These were intended by Maggie to encourage Tully's talent for writing. The act backfired when, seduced by images of exotic locations and the encouragement of a one-eyed road kid named Billy, Tully finally took to the road. He took with him useful advice from Billy, including warnings against 'jockers', whose exploitation and ill-treatment have been described in other tramp profiles in this series:

"don't you never let no old tramp play you for a sucker ... them old birds're too lazy to scratch themselves when they're crummy. So they gits young kids and teaches 'em to beg. They know people'll feed kids quicker'n they will them, so they make the kids do all the beggin'. Lotsa people pity kids at back doors."

Tully admitted that he 'made three unsuccessful journey's before I finally became even an amateur hobo.' In Blood on the Moon Tully describes how he nearly lost a foot because he tried boarding a moving train from a standing position. A train wheel took off the heel of his shoe and left his foot painful and swollen for several days. Tully's first real trip started as a gentle seventy mile jaunt to Muncie, Indiana, in which he asked the freight crew if he could help them unload cargo in exchange for the ride:

'I stood for long moments at the box-car door and gazed at the passing landscape. What did it matter though I lifted heavy boxes at every stationI was going somewhere.'

Tully day-dreamed of being a writer; he thought about Edna from St Marys' red-light district who had taught him all about sex for free while selling her body to older men at a dollar apiece; he thought of his brothers and sisters, and of the old farmer who had let him near freeze to death slaving on his farm:

'I God damned him in my heart and swore under my breath that when I got big enough I would go back there and trounce the hell out of him. I glowed with this thought and nursed it as the train rolled along.'

On arriving at Muncie, Tully sought shelter in a shed full of hoboes. The same night he was arrested for vagrancy, questioned by the police, and then sent to a doss house; only to have a sick tramp die in pain next to him during the night. After hanging around the town for five weeks waiting for the severe weather to break, Tully headed out in a box car and 'hoboed about Kentucky and Indiana for several weeks, and then secured a job with Amy, the Beautiful Fat Girl ... the leading attraction with The One and Only Street Fair Company.' Tully's job was to crawl under a heavy glass stage on which the five hundred pound Amy danced, and shine different coloured lights up through the glass to illuminate the angelic dancer—at the same time praying that the glass would not break. Tully's other duties were as 'Amy's liquor secretary', providing for her insatiable appetite for alcohol with which he was entrusted sixty dollars a week. On one occasion Tully fell in with some men who had left the fair and after getting drunk himself and being robbed of a portion of Amy's money, he fled for Chicago rather than face Amy's wrath.

On leaving Chicago with another road kid bound for Omaha, the pair were arrested at the first stop. After handcuffing the pair together, the railroad detective travelled with them in the blind baggage to Clinton where he had promised they would be put to work breaking rocks for two months:

'The man with the gun turned his back on us, and looked out on the passing landscape ... as he did so, Bill held tightly to the rung of the iron ladder with his free hand, kicking the majesty of the railroad law in the south as he looked north.
     The man shot excitedly into the air as he fell from the train. One shot, then several more blazed up at the moon, but the train now sped through the open country at sixty miles an hour.'

After removing the handcuffs the pair split up to beg food in Clinton, eventually coming across a tramp jungle near a river where, after enjoying the company and more food, they were approached by two armed detectives who tried to apprehend them. One tramp kicked over a lamp while Tully's companion Bill brought a stick down on the man's wrist. After a brief scuffle the two detectives where handcuffed to trees. One of the pair was the same lawman that Bill had kicked off the train earlier and so the tramps wasted little time in heading out of Clinton by train. Four departed at Cedar Rapids while Tully, Bill and a one armed tramp, continued on to Boone. Eventually they reached Omaha before setting of for St Louis where they had heard that good money was being paid for harvesting. The pair found work with a farmer and after finishing the harvest were paid twenty-four dollars each.

It only took a few days of riotous living in St Louis to deplete their funds and they moved on once more. But on returning in the direction they had previously travelled, they were warned that the country was hostile to hobos since two detectives were found beaten and handcuffed. Again Tully and Bill were arrested walking the tracks, and again they managed to escape. A short time later they were riding in a box car when they heard footsteps on the roof, then nails being driven into the door on one side of the train to prevent their escape. When they tried to escape from the opposite door they were confronted by the entire train crew but fought their way free, only to return to the train from the other side and ride the rods into the next town.

By this point in Beggars of Life, I had already reached chapter nine. Only a full reading of the book can convey the full extent of Tully's writing style and the magnitude of his tramping adventures. Part of Tully's next adventure I have described below in his own words. Having said his farewells to Bill, Tully heads out on his own, standing precariously on the bumpers between two cars. Bill had warned him of the dangers of tiredness and how he had seen exhausted hoboes fall to their death from trains:

'Now and then a languor came over me and my eyes became heavy. I gripped the iron brake-beam until my wrists ached and tiny particles of rust worked their way into the palms of my hands. The roaring train lashed through the air. Wind blew viscously between the cars. It nearly blew the torn shirt from my body. My hair was wild-tangled and full of cinders.


An aching came into to my muscles, and my head went dizzy for a moment. It cleared and became lighter. I grew alarmed, but the train rolled on oblivious of a hobo kid with light head and aching muscles.
     I wore a heavy leather belt several sizes too large for me. This I unbuckled and fastened around the centre of my body and the break-beam. ... A cold sweat came out on my forehead and body. The wind dried it quickly, and I grew chill.
     After four or five hours I reached Rock Island, across the Mississippi River from Davenport, Iowa.'

Similar demonic train journeys are described by other tramp writers on this site; passages that reveal the very essence of the blowed-in-the-glass stiff and his relationship with life and death. For example:

Bart Kennedy's (in the section titled, 'Sailor Tramp') description of a ride on the cow-catcher of a train, 'The hard, sharp wind pressed and cut into them and almost froze their blood. It came onthis windkeen and sharp as a sword ... If they died here on the front of the engine it would still be better than dying in the desert ... They had gone back to the primal life-stage when all life was but motion. ... And now a train was rushing thunderously over the desert. On the front of it were crouched two peering things with blanched faces. ... Their faces were blackened, and holes were burnt into their clothes with the flying and dropping sparks. ... As much as the fireman pleaded with the tramps to come down, they were frozen to their perch on the beam above the cow-catcher. They continued their journey until the sun came up the next morning and gradually life returned to them.'

Then there is Leon Ray Livingston's (in the section titled, 'The Curse of Tramp Life') ride on the rods with his face only inches from the gravel, 'as I watched those wheels ahead and in the rear of me slowly revolve, squeaking as they passed the many cross-overs and switches, 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.'

There are several accounts by tramp writers, including Tully, of the practice of removing tramps from the rods beneath trains by playing out a line with a heavy iron spike tied to the end. The spike bounces violently between the ties and the underside of the cars, mangling anything in its path. Also, see the account by W. H. Davies of how he lost his foot jumping a train in the section titled, 'Canadian Adventure'.

Of Dreams and other Adventures

A distinguishing feature of Tully's writing are vivid dream sequences revealing his early preoccupation with becoming a writer and his writer's imagination. There are several such sequences in Beggars of Life. For example, shortly after the train journey described above and a hearty breakfast in Davenport, Tully lies to rest under a tree by the Mississippi:

'I finally dozed off to sleep and dreamed that I had made a million in Alaska, and that I had returned to devote my time to having a reporter write books which I signed. ... The three trees danced like fantastic green bushes before my eyes. The river compressed itself into a tiny stream and swelled suddenly to a body of water as large as the Forty-Acre Pond near St. Marys.'

A train ride later finds Tully in a typhoid induced sleep in a railroad camp:

'I dreamed feverishly until noon. I was an Irish general shot to death by the English and dying alone in my camp. I was a poet who recited many verses aloud.
     As the trains thundered by, all the hoboes I knew waved wildly at me, and danced, a ragged crowd of madmen on top of the cars. I saw the top of a bridge dash their heads from the train. They still danced, ragged and headless, with immense eyes gazing fixedly from the centres of their breasts.'

There follows another nightmare train journey as Tully, burning with fever, his throat aching with thirst, risks riding lying flat on the roof of a cattle car in order to reach his friend Bill in Chicago and medical help. A friendly brakeman allows him to finish the journey in a hay manger inside a cattle truck:

'Now and then I would sleep fitfully, and the prodding of a horn would arouse me. I dreamed I had a new blue suit, a striped tie, and bright tan shoes. I dreamed about Bill, and the farm in Missouri. Then I thought of the mosquitos and wondered if they had anything to do with my illness. ... I chewed the hay to work the saliva in my mouth that I may alleviate my thirst.'

Finally, unable to bear his thirst any longer, Tully relates his precarious passage across the tops of a dozen lurching carriages to make his way to the caboose where he begged for and was given water to drink. On his arrival in Chicago, Tully takes two further days to locate Bill in the Newsboys' Home in the South Side. He was taken the final mile by a kindly trucker who, on arrival at the boys' home, had to carry the sick road kid into the dormitory. From there, Tully was quickly transferred by ambulance to St. Luke's Hospital where, diagnosed with typhoid and malaria, he spent the next forty-eight days hovering between life and death. But Tully did recover, thanks to the kindness and attention of doctors and nurses, and unlimited reading material:

'There was no worry about meals or lodging, and the future was a pleasant haze that never cleared. There was never a harsh word spoken in the ward, and doctors, nurses, and interns seldom passed my bed without pausing for a word of greeting.
     The boys from the Home made regular visits, and brought fruit each time. The matron came and lingered over my bed as though I was her own son. ... When it came time for me to leave, the matron brought me new clothes and shoes. I hated to go, and the last day was one of regret. ... I had been cured of typhoid and malaria, but the fever of the wanderlust still burned fiercely in my breast.'

But Tully did not immediately hit the road on his discharge from hospital. Together with his friend Bill, they exploited Election Day in Chicago by picking up three dollars each and every time they cast votes under false names given to them by bent election officials:

' "Let's see, your name's Abe Goldstein. You live at 422 Halstead Street. Go in an' vote."
     "Listen mister, what the devil," Bill yelled. "Do you want to get him pinched? How the devil kin he vote with a name like that and the map of Ireland on his face?" '

After taking part in the celebrations that followed the election victory in The Coliseum in Wabash Avenue, Tully spent the rest of the winter in Chicago before setting out for Cincinnati on a mail train with a fellow road kid named Dutch Vander. A strange choice of destination, given that Tully had been incarcerated in that City's orphanage for six years. The pair split up to bum food and drink which Tully found in abundance in a greasy saloon bar, courtesy of a generous benefactor. So well did he eat and drink that the road kid fell asleep at the table; prompting another of his Bosch like dream sequences, of which only fragments are included below (so much for those who criticise Tully's writing for not showing imagination):

'Countless numbers of girls of all colours, as naked as slender trees in winter, danced on an immense level and yellow stretch of sand, near a blue-green ocean under the light of the moon. Red, white, blue, and green angels flew above them scattering flowers. [...] All of a sudden a horn of sand formed that reached to the moon. It circled round and round, as it was blown by the wind. Then millions of varied and brightly coloured birds and butterflies came as if from nowhere. Each bird and butterfly picked up a flower from where the sand had once lain, and each flower picked was of a different colour from the bird or butterfly that had picked it. [...] The stars dropped downward from the sky, and the sun tore a great jagged hole through it in the east. Only the moon remained dancing, a mad fantastic orb of brilliant light above. [...] Then the sun came quickly forward from the east, travelling faster than light. It rolled over the blue-green ocean and dried it up suddenly, as a hot flame dries a drop of rain. Fishes, sea-animals, and grotesque reptiles died slimy deaths in the kelp and coral of the ocean bed. Great wales lashed their dying tales and splashed mud for hundreds of feet, and then lay still. [...] A great wind followed the sun, and swept the ocean bed clear of life, and sent all forms of it whirling, dead, among the flying angels, girls, and flowers. Everything moved with exact precision, and stars and sun and whales and even the tiniest bird carrying a flower, where in no more danger of striking each other than the planets ... A girl flew out of the confusing welter of confusion with some ham and eggs on a tray. I reached out for her. A hand grasped my shoulder. "Wake up kid, this ain't no lodgin' house." '

Blowed-in-the-Glass Stiff

Although still a road kid, Tully had served his hobo apprenticeship and was fast maturing in the ways of the road. After this brief stop over in Cincinnati, and not having met Dutch Vander at the prearranged location, Tully boarded an express train hoping to reach Washington, over five hundred miles away, by the middle of the next day. He then found himself on the same blind baggage platform as Dutch:

'We clung to the Fast Flyer Virginia for twenty-one hours, climbing the Blue Ridge Mountains, roaring through tunnels, dashing by country stations. We watched the sun rise to the meridian and then watched it slant westward down the sky. We wished food and drink, but flying trains stop not while hoboes dine. ... It was not easy riding either. We hid behind boxcars, or piles of railroad ties at division points. At Clifton Forge, Virginia, we crawled under the engine to escape the eyes of the fireman ... We were challenging the combined forces of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and it was only by being alert and indefatigable that we could win. Passengers waiting for trains at depots would gaze in open-eyed astonishment as we flew past the stations gripping the iron ladders.'

After taking in the sites of Washington, including the White House and the Capitol building, the pair got themselves arrested while sleeping in a box car. After spending a night in jail, followed by a hearty breakfast in the company of other hoboes, the pair were dismissed by the judge on the condition they leave town. They continued their planned journey on to Baltimore where they begged a meal from fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay before travelling onwards to Philadelphia. There they helped themselves to bread and milk from the steps of houses, then on to the Pennsylvania Railroad to continue their journey to New York, via a detour to New Haven where they had been told, 'that Yale students often gave away fine suits of clothes.' Instead, Tully lost his own coat when it was grabbed by a railroad detective as he leaped aboard a moving train departing New Haven. Dutch was less fortunate and, as Tully would learn later, spent ninety days in jail as a guest of that city. And so Tully continued on alone, one of his most perilous trips, on the roof of a train being pelted by rain and unable to move from his perch:

'The cold air numbed my muscles until a stupor fought to gain control of my brain. Silently I fought with a primitive lust for life. I pounded the roof of the car to revive the ebbing circulation of my blood. ... I shook my head violently, as a pugilist does to drive the effect of a gruelling smash from his brain. I longed for the train to stop. I thought of a lad who had been riding the "top" when the train speeded under a low bridge. It threw him far from the train, with a crushed skull, into the last oblivion that comes to a tramp and king.'

On his arrival in New York City, Tully provides some insight into the paradoxical nature of tramping:

'For two weeks, I stayed in New York, living as a bird lives, though not as carefree. At times, I cursed the wanderlust that held me in its grip. While cursing, I loved it. For it gave me freedom undreamed of in factories, where I would have been forced to labor.'

As Tully next describes it, 'I then went through a long siege as a hobo in the Central States.' He picks up the story where he joins a party of thirty other tramps congregated around a wooden railway water tank at Cairo, where the states of Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois meet, but Tully seems to have been the only one capable of to outsmarting the crew and jumping the train. At the next stop, Fulton, Tully switched trains to avoid capture and continued successfully to Memphis. On the next leg of his journey, Tully had to share a box car with seventeen other hoboes and was about to become acquainted with a hobo who had a powerful influence on the road kid, and confirm him as a seasoned hobo. Oklahoma Red is described below:

'He was heavily built. His hands were large, like hams, and they reached nearly to his knees. His face, once good looking, was now stamped with a vicious leer. ... His hair fell in straggly red masses over his ears and neck. His coat was torn and gaped like wounds under his armpits ... His short neck bulged under his ears. ... There was decision and mastery about him. Boy lover of raw strength, I watched him.

Tully was told, on asking another tramp who he was, "He's a b-a-d g-u-y." Oklahoma Red decided to build a fire in the box car to keep warm and, after swinging himself up onto the roof of the car, set out with two other tramps to collect wood from the moving train. By the time the party arrived at the next town, the fire had burned through the floor of the car and flames had worked their way up the sides to the roof. Escaping the inferno just in time, the hoboes leapt to the ground leaving the burning train to halt in the town, where it was hurriedly separated from the rest of the train. Only Tully, Oklahoma Red, and two other tramps were able or willing to board the same train as it departed once more. One of the tramps had a wooden leg, but did not balk at jumping the train, then travelling at twenty miles an hour:

'Peg-leg needed no assistance. Although all of fifty years old, he clutched the rung of the iron ladder I had climbed, his wooden leg sticking out from the car like the end of an immense broomstick.'

As the train started slowing down at Bald Knob, Arkansas, the four tramps left the train and headed for a large hobo jungle with half a dozen fires near a running brook. Just as the occupants of the camp were about to partake of their meal, a torrential downpour penetrated their rough shelters and soaked them all to the skin. Two barrels of stolen liquor lightened their mood until a serious fight broke out between black and white camp members. Oklahoma Red had been one of the main protagonists, and he, Tully and Peg-leg made a quick exit from the scene, finally succeeding in jumping a train to Little Rock. Tully makes the distinction that Red was a yegg ('a robber, a blower of safes, the aristocrat of the road, and the most dangerous man who travels it') rather than a hobo, and as such had money enough for the three of them to dine in the town.

After consuming a quart of liquor, Red told Tully his life story. He had been on the road since the age of five. His beggar 'father' (Red was never sure he wasn't stolen) set Red and his sister begging with signs round their necks reading 'motherless'. Red was twelve when his father sold his fourteen year old sister to an old woman performer and got drunk on the proceeds for a week:

"She cried an' kissed me an' petted me when she left, but the old man said how nice we'd both have it, an' I could come to see her in her new home. I tried to find them later, but I never could. I'd swing on five gallows to kill that old man. I'd hold him out an' shake him to death like a rat. I'd make him half dead, an' I'd bury him an' let the buzzards peck at his eyes. I'd put lime in the centre of his head, an' let it eat all around it."

Tully on the movie set of Beggars of Life with actors Louise Brooks,
Wallace Beery (Oklahoma Red) and Richard Arlen (playing Tully)
Oklahoma Red had learned how to crack safes in prison and then spent two further long stretches in jail for burglary. He took to the road following his escape from the last prison after he'd broken a guard's jaw and been marked as one of the 'bad guys'; he kept walking for a year to avoid being captured, not stopping in any town and growing his hair and beard long.

"Stick with me Kid. I'll treat you right. I git darn lonesome. I'll show you how to pour the juice and blow a safe so's it won't wake a baby. You won't have to run away from me like I did the old devil when I was a kid. I don't bum no back doors. I get mine."

But Tully never got the chance to learn safe cracking and become a yegg. Worse the wear with drink, on the next train they jumped, Oklahoma Red slipped on the iron ladder and, with his foot stuck fast, fell backwards:

'He was dragging from the ladder of the second car behind me, his head bumping along the ties. ... I ran with the train and pulled his body loose. ... His arm was cut off at the elbow. It dripped, bloody and ghastly under the moon. ... "Red!!" I yelled, and grabbed frantically at his breast. His heart stopped in a dying flutter. I sobbed aloud.'

Oklahoma Red had a considerable reputation in yegg circles, but although Tully later met many who knew him, he told no one of the manner of Red's passing.

After spending three days in Dallas, Tully beat it with a seasoned tramp to San Antonio in a 'dead head' passenger coach (too dilapidated to remain in service) hitched in the middle of a freight train. Never mind the frayed and faded seats, this was the first time Tully had had the luxury of riding inside a passenger carriage. But he was not alone. Word had got around, and after entering the coach and passing some street lights that lit up the carriage, a bizarre sight, worthy of one of Tully's dreams, was to meet his eyes:

'To our surprise, nearly every one of them [seats] contained a hobo. Some smoked, others talked, and some held their hands above their eyes and gazed out at the passing landscape.'

After a difficult trip to El Rio then north again (he does not identify the town), Tully witnesses a horrific vigilante killing of a black prisoner. We do not know the alleged crime, but after being yanked by the mob from a third story jail window by a rope around his neck, the terrified individual was then slowly burned alive propped above a fire already prepared for the ordeal:

'The clothes burned first, and then the flame ate the hair from his skull. The ears charred and melted on his head. He moaned in prolonged and dying pain ... The burnt body fell from its moorings, and the poles dropped over it. ... Sick at heart I turned away. Some children skipped the death-rope gracefully.'

The juxtaposition between Tully's revulsion and the nonchalant play of the children—as though this was some ordinary, everyday event—well illustrates the hypocrisy and barbarism of so-called civilised society; those who in turn regard the tramp as the brute. The same conclusion can be drawn from 'lynchings' described by other tramp writers on this site.

Circus Parade
After a particularly difficult time on the road tramping through Mississippi, not encouraged by the harsh Mississippi tramp laws that could consign a hobo to several years hard labour, Tully decided to quit hoboing for a spell in a circus. He travelled for four months with Cameron's World's Greatest Combined Shows through Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida. During his short employment with the circus he attended at least three funerals of close friends from among the troupe members. Tully was employed initially to help care for the animals with the lion tamer; work he seems to have enjoyed. Yet Tully's description of circus life is anything but romantic: 'a canvas nest of petty thieves and criminals among the lower gentry.' He describes the dregs of humanity engaged in acts of deprivation and extreme cruelty; not only the circus folk themselves, but also the trail of beggars who followed the circus for whatever scraps they could relieve from the crowd. The 'trailers' with this circus included 'crawlers'—legless men strapped into small wheeled platforms:

'They propelled themselves with stirrups held in each hand. They literally walked with their hands. Each time they struck the ground with a stirrup the wheels rolled under them. There were, too, trailers born double-jointed, who twisted their bodies in every conceivable and grotesque manner. Hard faces they had, and they moaned with pain when anyone drew near who might give them money.'

The first chapter of Circus Parade concerns the African-American lion tamer who has to get inebriated before stepping into the lion cage. Yet he is mauled to death by a blind bear and two hyenas in a warm-up act after slipping and hitting the bear on the nose. The lesson for Tully is just how dispensable the circus performers are. The circus boss sees the event as valuable publicity and makes sure the towns in the path of the circus tour are given a dramatic report of the event to increase his box office sales. The many scams of the circus to swindle it's paying customers are described by Tully in Circus Parade, which prompted the fierce lobbying from the Circus Fans Association that led to the movie version being shelved:

'Plundering and stealing, cheating and lying, laboring, fighting and loving; taking all we could and returning little, we went our careless and irresponsible ways, with laughter in our hearts and sneers on our lipsas anti-social as the hyenas who howled at the changes in the weather.'

But things did not always go the way of the circus, on one occasion, an audience outraged at being swindled, started a brawl which resulted in the day's takings being stolen, the tent slashed and pulled to the ground, and serious injury sustained by several members of the troupe. But it would be a mistake to think of Circus Parade as merely an exposé of circus skulduggery. The remarkable feature of the book is it's list of circus characters and Tully's tender and caring treatment of their tragicomic lives. These portraits include The Strong Woman, The Moss Haired Girl, The Baby Buzzard, Goosey the elephant trainer, and the 'African' lion tamer, Denna Wyoming.

Then there was Whiteface the clown, of uncertain ancestry: 'There were traces of Ethiopian, Caucasian and Indian in him. But in the South he was just another negro.' The giant John Quincy Adams was a roustabout and stake-driver until the day he displayed his natural comedic talents and was promoted to the ring:

'On the third night there wandered on the hippodrome track one of the weirdest of grotesqueries. The pathos and the laughter, the tragedy and the misery of life were stamped on it's eagle face. And out of its eyes shone laughing pity.'

John Quincy Adams was a simple and gentle sole, he shared a tent with Tully and Quincy's moth-eaten cat, Booker T. Washington. The trio would take walks together and discuss the meaning of life. I will not give away the fate of Whiteface the clown. Those who wish to sample Tully at his storytelling best, not to mention the arbitrariness of circus life, human capriciosity, and the savagery of the South, should read this chapter. Either the book's dramatic climax was written with a screenplay in mind, or Tully just has a powerful cinematic imagination. But thanks to the guardians of public taste and morality, movie goers were denied the spectacle that Circus Parade might have offered on the screen. Neither do we know Tully's immediate movements following his time with the circus. Did he simply pick up tramping again where he left off—there is a dramatic description towards the end of the book of Tully re-boarding the moving circus train after being forced at gunpoint to jump from it—or did the circus mark the end of Tully's career as a hobo?

Whichever the case, because of the reference below to 'crawlers and fakers', it seems reasonable to include Tully's four months with the circus as no more than a continuation of his experience as a road kid. In Beggars of Life, although it should be noted that he continued to hop the odd train for several years into his 'working' life, Tully concludes his tramping adventures as follows:

'There followed several years of wanderlust of which I eventually was cured. I lived in many a brothel where the dregs of life found shelter. I fraternised with human wrecks whose hands shook as if with palsy, with weaklings who cringed and whined at life, with degenerates and perverts, greasy and lousy, with dope fiends who would shoot needles of water into their arms to relieve the wild aching for an earthly Heaven. I learned the secrets of traitors and crawlers and other fakers. [...] tramping in wild and windy places! without money, food, or shelter, was better for me than supinely bowing to any conventional decree of fate.
     The road gave me one jewel beyond price, the leisure to read and dream. If it made me old and wearily wise at twenty, it gave me for companions the great minds of all ages, who talked to me with royal words.'

In descriptions of Tully, I came across a tramp term not previously encountered: 'library bum'; a designation that applies equally to many of the other tramp writers discussed in this series:

'I stole books from libraries. I stole them whenever I could. I would often carry two or three of them with me and hide them. It would not be wise for a bum to be caught with a library book. He would have to explain. Bums have so much to explain.'

And, as a final note on Tully's tramping career; according to his book Shadows of Men, Tully served five jail sentences during his six years on the road, terms varying from ten days for vagrancy to four months.

Return to Chain-making and Writing 

We know from Blood on the Moon, that after taking a beating from three other vagabonds in 1906, being arrested, but having the good fortune to be able to rehabilitate himself rather than serving a custodial sentence, and still only twenty years old, Tully found work washing dishes at a school for twenty dollars a month plus room and board. He then returned to St Marys to pick up where he had left off at the chain factory, but a short time later the factory burned to the ground. After spending six weeks helping to clear the debris at fifteen cents an hour, Tully made a trip to Chicago to visit his older sister Maggie, who had by now renamed herself Virginia.

While in Chicago, Tully came across a news report that the tramp writer Josiah Flynt was staying in a Chicago hotel seriously ill. Tully had heard of Flynt and was determined to meet the former hobo, who had made a career of writing. The meeting between the fan and his hero is evocative of Bob Dillon's meeting in hospital with the ailing Woody Guthrie, Tully recalls his meeting with Flynt in Blood on the Moon:

'... Josiah Flynt, the king of my world ... a withered little cigarette fiend [Flynt's hobo moniker was Cigarette] burned out with the fever of wanderlust, the hardships of which had sapped his vitality.
     His books are now forgotten, his name a hazy memory. He died at thirty-eight, two decades ago. ... His mouth was small, his lips thin and tight. His hands were stained yellow with nicotine. ... Flynt was more cunning than strong. His soul was shoddy. But it was a soul and not the life spark of a rat.
     I sent a note to the hotel where he lay dying.
     A bell boy took me to him. I was flustered in the presence of so great a man. He puffed one cigarette after another. As he puffed, a tennis ball could have lain in the hollow of his cheek.
     He was gripped every now and then with a spasm of coughing.
     He talked with an effort, but he was courteous even in dying. Bitterness puckered his face, and hatred surged in his heart.
     "Get off the road kid," he gasped. "They're all snakes who crawl over it. It's not morals; it's nothing but protection. You want to live like a man and not a skunk."
     He coughed violently. "I'm due for the last division soon," he gasped.
     "I haven't got much, Kid, and I won't need it longHere," he handed me a few dollars.
     I left him staring at the ceiling.
     He strengthened my resolve to leave the road; though I hated monotony even worse than the mongrels with whom I lived. I knew what I faced in leaving the roada life of labor even more dull than many I had known.'

Mary Lygo
Tully reports that it was while staying with his sister Virginia in Chicago, that he met and became captivated with the Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and sometime actress Mary Lygo (formally Irene Goodall), a close friend of Virginia, in spite of Lygo's celebrity status and Virginia's poverty. Both Virginia and Lygo encouraged Tully's writing career. Lygo would continue her friendship with Tully until her third and final suicide attempt on 31st May 1927 from an overdose of barbiturates. She died in hospital two days later, according to reports, aged twenty-five. There is a huge inconsistency here. Tully claims to have first met Lygo in Chicago in 1907, yet given that all the news reports of the time confirm that Lygo died in 1927 at the age of twenty-five, she could only have been five years old in 1907. Also, reports claim that Lygo was a cashier in Akron, Ohio, before she moved to Chicago to seek her fame and fortune, so could Tully have known her before she became a showgirl? Tully worked at the Akron chain works, on the two Akron newspapers, and also boxed in Akron, although, again, this was around 1907 (see below). Be that as it may, a newspaper report dating the day of Lygo's death as June 2nd, 1927, confirms Tully's friendship with Lygo:

'Friends said she had been melancholy for weeks. A few days ago she informed Jim Tully, author and close friend of her family, that she intended to return to the New York stage. A note to a friend in which she asked that the name of "M. L." be closely guarded as it means so much to the press, partly disclosed her identity and later identification was made absolute by Tully.'

Tully says that Lygo had shown him a magazine article about Jack London, and Virginia had borrowed a book of London's from the library, further fuelling Tully's writing ambitions, but he was not yet in a position to take up writing, needing money and somewhere to live. Shortly afterwards Tully got a job in a forge as a chain maker. He worked at that trade several times over the coming years between writing, hopping the odd train, and boxing professionally. After a spell working in Racine, Wisconsin, in the spring of 1907 Tully managed to secure a union card working as a chain maker in Columbus, Ohio, before jumping a freight train to Akron to join his brother Charlie who was working at another chain works in nearby Kent. Just as he had with his tramping, Tully started recognising men he'd known at chain works in other towns. As he says in Blood on the Moon, 'Chainmakers are the gypsies of manual labour.'

Tully would spend hours in his cramped boarding house, writing prose and poetry with a pencil by the light of a kerosene lamp; his hands cramped and stiff from both forge work and writing. But Tully had his first break in writing after befriending the Kent librarian Nellie Dingley. She encouraged his writing and also helped him get work as a reporter at the Akron Press. He did not take to the work, was fired, then got work at the rival Beacon Journal, only to be let go again after five weeks.


Still in 1907, and shortly after his failure at journalism, Tully decided to take up professional boxing as a means to earn money. With a fake newspaper clipping of his 'wins', he persuaded a boxing promoter to offer him a fight with Chicago Jack Tierney in Lima, Ohio. At twenty two, Tully was road-toughened. He knew he could take a punch and did not bleed easily. Disappointed that he did not win the fight, but praised for being the first person to go the distance with Tierney, Tully entered the Ohio boxing circuit as a professional featherweight. Tully recounts his first fight as a professional boxer in the chapter titled 'A Change of Life' in Blood on the Moon. After two moderately successful years on the local boxing circuit, Tully's nerve was shaken after witnessing a boxer lose his life in the ring. Then, after getting cut badly in a fight which was awarded to his opponent, even though he fought the same fighter to a draw in a re-match, Tully quit boxing only to return once more to the chain works in Kent.

This was not a happy time for Tully. Not only because of the humiliation of having to ask for his old job back, but that his former workmates, having witnessed one of their own become a minor celebrity and local hero, was now branded as a coward for quitting the ring. But in December 1909 the factory burned to the ground putting four hundred employees out of work and prompting Tully to return to boxing once more. This time, instead of relying on his bulk and slogging it out as a bruiser, he decided to find a trainer and learn the finer arts of pugilism. But he soon aborted this plan and returned again to Kent, where, paradoxically, the former hobo found work washing down passenger cars at the railroad shops.

It was about this time also, that Tully's thoughts turned again to romance. He had been pursued by a seventeen year old Kent high school girl, Florence Bushnell, but still nurtured strong feelings for the Kent librarian, Nelly Dingley; feelings that, apart from their mutual love of books and writing, was not reciprocated. Tully says he had also been pining for Mary Lygo, whose company he greatly missed, but that she had moved to California to pursue her lawsuit against her former millionaire lover for breach of promise. It was in 1910 also that Tully was introduced to tree surgery, an line of work he greatly enjoyed, not least because it took him to all parts of the County, was out in the fresh air, and he had control over the workload which was often stretched out considerably longer than necessary.

After proposing to, and being rejected by Nellie Dingley, Tully started a romance with, and then married, Florence Bushnell. As Bauer and Dawidziak put it in their biography of Tully:

'While Florence possessed neither the sexual allure of a Follies dancer nor the intellectual fascination of a librarian, she struck Jim as down to earth. For her part, Florence was flattered by the attention of the full-time tree surgeon, sometimes-boxer, and would-be writer. When he briefly returned to Kent in October, they married. He was twenty-four; she was eighteen.'

They rented an apartment above a wallpaper shop in Kent where Tully set to work on a rented typewriter in earnest. To make ends meet he continued picking up odd bits of work, including tree surgery and working the corner for boxers. But in the summer of 1911 Tully  had his first poem published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer,*  which was reprinted in several other papers including the Chicago Daily News. The Kent Courier published eleven more poems during the rest of that year.

* Coincidentally, Tully's biographer, Mark Dawidziak, is television critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer today, in addition to his roles as a university professor, novelist and playwright.

Tully with Max Baer (left) and Jack Dempsey (right)
Tully was at last the writer he had always wanted to be, but not yet able to support his family from writing alone. The birth of his son, Alton, put Tully under greater pressure to find paid work and he tried his hand again as a journalist for the two Akron newspapers who had employed him previously. Once more, he did not seem cut out for the work and ended up again in a chain factory, this time in Mansfield. In 1912 the family moved to California, where Jim worked again as a tree surgeon, though he continued fighting for prize money. It was this same year that he met Jack Dempsey in Salt Lake City. Dempsey was then an unknown kid who would challenge all comers in bar room brawls for money. Dempsey would later hold the World Heavyweight Championship from 1919 to 1926. He and Tully would remain close friends. Tully continued unprofessional prizefighting until an acquaintance, aware that Tully had been knocked unconscious for for a night and half the next day, persuaded Tully to quit the ring for good.

Tramp Rivalry

Tully would return to working as a tree surgeon by day and writing by night. Around 1913/14 he met Jack London, two years before that writers death. But rather than gain any inspiration from meeting one of the highest paid writers of the time, Tully was disillusioned both by the man and his tramping claims; which Tully concluded, amounted to only eight months on the road. This is somewhat disingenuous. London was a sailor tramp from the age of fourteen and did not return from his last tramp to the Klondike until the summer of 1898 at the age twenty-two. Even allowing for some paid work and an aborted university education in between, London's tramping credentials equal that of Tully. Also, claims that London's tramping memoirs were romanticised or fictionalised are not entirely fair either for the same reasons that I give in respect of Tully's 'fiction' at the beginning of this essay. We also have independent accounts of London's hobo credentials, not least Leon Ray Livingston's, From Coast to Coast with Jack London. 

In turn, Tully was himself criticised by other tramps, though this tramp rivalry does seem to have been in part fuelled by the press. Al Kaufman (who had tramped with Tully) and Jeff Davis, who were already competing with each other for the title 'King of the Hoboes', tried to minimise Tully's tramping credentials and even accused him of cashing-in by publishing his memoirs. But these two vagabonds had their own business interests to protect; Kaufman even claiming to have published his memoirs: A Gentleman Hobo's Life and From 18 to 25—although so far, I have been unable to find any trace of them. Leon Ray Livingston had also claimed the title 'King of the Hoboes' some years earlier. To be fair to Tully, and for that matter London and most of the other tramp writers in this series, they were above such self-exaltation; being self-deprecating rather than boastful. True, many sought to publicise their writing, but that's a natural thing for a writer to do.

Writing and Hollywood

Throughout the next six years, Tully busied himself with his writing supported by various jobs including tree surgery and work as a government chain inspector. The most significant event during this time was the birth in 1917 of his daughter Trilby. But it was not until 1921 that Tully had his first real break in writing. He sent the first 5,000 words of his fledgling first novel Emmett Lawler to screenwriter, novelist and playwright Rupert Hughes; uncle of the tycoon recluse Howard Hughes, who had yet to make his own fame and fortune. The response was positive and Hughes provided Tully much needed support and editorial advice. The book was completed in September 1921 and one month later was accepted by Harcourt, Brace & Company, whose list included Virginia Woolf, T.S. Elliot and George Orwell. 
Florence with Tilly, Tully and Alton
Although not a runaway success, Emmett Lawler did help blaze the trail of subsequent more successful works, added to which, Rupert Hughes helped Tully get a job with the Samuel Goldwyn Production Company as a reader in the scenario department at thirty-five dollars a week—only to be laid off a week later due to cutbacks. But as luck would have it, through his writing, Tully had come to the attention of another benefactor. H.L. Mencken was an influential literary critic and publisher, with a taste for cynical realism and a hatred of those revered established novelists who peddled sentimental idealism and the moralistic. As Bauer and Dawidziak describe it:

'In Tully, Mencken found one of those fresh and realistic voicesone that talked bluntly about people traditionally held to be unfit subjects for literature. And like Tully, Mencken was fond of good beer and good talk.'

The two were to remain firm friends throughout the rest of their lives, but Tully was still not in a position to support himself by means of a literary career alone. He had discovered that a fast buck could be made writing short stories and features on movie stars, sports celebrities, and underworld figures for magazines. For the rest of his writing career Tully would receive a steady income from this less literary activity alongside his more serious published works. Tully was still struggling to support his family and after a thirteen year marriage to Florence (living separately for the last two), the couple divorced with Tully agreeing to pay twenty-four dollars a week to support twelve year old Alton and six year old Trilby.

Tully with Chaplin
In 1924 another break came when a friend of Tully's, movie director and screenwriter Paul Bern, introduced Tully to Charlie Chaplin at a party. Chaplin was taken with Tully's tramping and writing achievements and drove him home from the party in his limousine. Bern and Hughes pulled some strings, and in February of 1924 Tully reported for work at Chaplin's Hollywood studio as the comedian's ghostwriter; composing articles that would go out in Chaplin's name, as well as being part of his inner court of cronies and hangers-on. But although the screen tramp and the real thing had a lot in common, both having clawed their way out of poverty and both sharing a cynical sense of humour, unlike most of Chaplin's sycophantic coterie, Tully always spoke his own mind. Something that troubled his employer.

Tully's outspokenness included criticising Chaplin for casting an inexperienced, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, Lillita McMurray (later Lita Grey), in the lead female role for The Gold Rush. Typically, Chaplin ignored Tully's advice, only to have to recast the role later with Georgia Hale, when Lillita became pregnant with Chaplin's child. In order to avoid a charge of statutory rape, Chaplin was forced into a discrete shotgun wedding (Lillita's uncle was a lawyer) which took place in Mexico on 24th November 1924. Chaplain was thirty-five. The marriage lasted less than three years but produced two sons, Charles Spencer and Sydney Earl Chaplin.

In spite of a certain friction between Tully and Chaplin, there was also mutual respect. At times Tully would be left alone in his office shack, free to write and dream, then he would get word that the boss wanted to see him and the two would spend time in Chaplin's office, his home, or a Hollywood restaurant. Tully's employment with Chaplain had coincided with production of The Gold Rush, on which Tully was in charge of publicity as well as some input into the script. Tully naturally delighted in the scene requiring six hundred vagabond extras to tramp through heavy snow in the movie scene of the Chilkoot Pass. No need for costumes or make-up, they were already attired for the part, complete with blanket rolls. The hoboes in turn, delighted in spending a day filming with the famous 'little tramp', as Tully reported: 'It was beggardom on holiday. ... They trudged through the heavy snows of the narrow pass as though gold were actually to be their reward, instead of a day's pay.'


In August of 1924, during work on The Gold Rush, Tully's second book, his tramping memoir Beggars of Life was published by Albert and Charles Boni, New York, who would publish a further four of Tully's books. Then in the January of 1925, Tully married his second wife Marna, a twenty-one year old society coed from the University of Southern California. He was now thirty-eight. Their difference in age and background mattered less than their shared passion for books and writing. Beggars of Life was received more enthusiastically than Tully's first book, followed by a stage production of the book in New York's Greenwich Village in September 1925. The young James Cagney played Tully.

Tully in Way for a Sailor (1930), his only acting role
The popularity of Beggars of Life was assisted in part by Mencken, who heaped praise on the book. Mencken had founded the hard hitting literary magazine The American Mercury the previous year. Tully suggested writing a piece for the Mercury, which Mencken enthusiastically took up. Being published by Mencken was the literary worlds seal of approval for challenging, avant-garde writers such as William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tully would regularly publish essays, biographies and short stories in the Mercury over the next eight years. At the same time, he also made a steady income from publishing 'non-literary' sketches of Hollywood celebrities in the pulps and Hollywood gossip columns. This included a series of monthly profiles for Vanity Fair from March 1926 onwards, including profiles of Cecil B. De Mille, Mack Sennett, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert; the latter resulting in a restaurant brawl in which Tully knocked Gilbert out cold. The publication of Beggars of Life and Tully's insider knowledge of Hollywood and it's luminaries, also resulted in his engagement in a series of lecture tours.

But it was a line from Tully's third book Jarnegan, a semi-biographical (and autobiographical) fiction about a Hollywood director named Jack Jarnegan, that would be the catalyst for his inevitable break-up with Chaplin. The manuscript was with the publisher in the summer of 1925. A friend of Chaplin's who worked at the press reported to Chaplin that Tully had written something derogatory about him in his new book. Tully was given the choice of removing the offending line or loosing his job. Naturally, Tully chose the latter, although he was magnanimous enough to make it clear that the split was through no fault of Chaplin's. Tully was now approaching the peak of his own success, and so the break-up with Chaplin was timely. Tully was now free to lift the veneer of Hollywood and it's celebrities with gloves off. No one was safe from Tully's ridicule. According to Brauer and Dawidziak, Tully developed a 'reputation as the most feared and hated man in Hollywood.'

More on Tully's Writing Style

Here we have a portrait of Tully the Diogenean Cynic. It was not only in his writing that Tully attacked the vain and inglorious, but face to face at Hollywood parties also. As Brauer and Dawidziak report, Tully engaged in the practice of, 'puncturing inflated egos with a needle that could take the air out of the room.' Like Mencken, Tully was a free spirit; not belonging to any tribe, he hated religious and moral piety and conceit wherever he encountered it:

'He regarded atheism as equally as absurd as religious belief. ... His agnosticism was the product of clear and honest thought, and he was deeply critical of those opposed to reason. He viewed the religious indoctrination of children as the spreading of lies to those least capable of resistance.' Brauer and Dawidziak—from Tully's private notes

Tully assumed the right to say whatever he wanted, in whatever way he wanted, and to hell with peoples sensibilities. Yet in spite of being a master at the art of ridicule, Tully also had his friends and admirers; those celebrities who did not puff themselves up had nothing to fear from Tully's pen, and many complemented him on the manner in which he had portrayed them. This is the Diogenes' truth test: ridiculing the claims of phoneys to see just how much joking they can take, for whoever and whatever cannot stand satire must be false. As Sloterdijk puts it, not only can truth stand mockery, but it is freshened by any ironic gesture directed at it. Christopher Stone identifies with this same characteristic in his book Parody (1914):

'ridicule is societys most effective means of curing inelasticity. It explodes the pompous, corrects the well-meaning eccentric, cools the fanatical, and prevents the incompetent from achieving success. Truth will prevail over it, falsehood will cower under it.'

Such is the raison d'être of Tully's writing; although this would not have been a conscious mission. True cynics are born not made. He could not have written authentically in any other style and certainly did not write to preach to others, as he confirms in Beggars of Life:

'Neither am I interested in sociology among tramps [...] I am no reformer, but a weary writer who has been living in the memory of adventure.'

And from his introduction to Blood on the Moon:

'I did not study the people in this book as an entomologist does a bug on a pin. I was one of them. I'm still of them. I can taste the bitterness of their lives in the bread I eat today.'

Tully's writing simply reflects the writer's attitude to life and his own truth about those he encountered along the way, with no further agenda than to produce a good yarn and achieve prolific book sales—it is not expected that modern cynics should live out their entire lives in a barrel as did Diogenes, and certainly not in the harsh winters of the northern states of America. But we do have some evidence that Tully identified himself as a cynic. If, as Bauer and Dawidziak suggest, Tully modelled Jarnegan partly on himself, the following lines from that book give some insight into Tully's own personal philosophy:

'A man of no isms, he was tolerant of everything that did not touch his life. He knew nothing of nations or their rulers. He had never voted. Neither had he any theories about life. A cynical realist, he fought against the sentimentality that was his Irish inheritance. At times, in his cups, he ended by being that most ironical of humansa sentimental cynic.'

There is no contradiction in being a sentimental cynic. The acerbic and forthright nature of cynicism is often interpreted as rudeness, and therefore misinterpreted as negative and sneering, even nihilistic. This is to misunderstand the cynic. To be positive, idealistic, even sentimental when in one's cups, reveals the true soul of the cynic, who simply mourns the fact that human beings have made a mess of the world they inhabit and act so foully towards one and other. As the cynic Raymond Federman wrote in his sci-fi parody, Twofold Vibration:

'true cynics are often the kindest people, for they see the hollowness of life, and from the realization of that hollowness is generated a kind of cosmic pity'. 

Note the parallel here between Federman's description of a cynic above, and Frank Scully's* description of Tully below:

'His loneliness is a burden he can't shake off. With a fire roaring through a brain mixed up with the futility of all things human and divine, he is at heart an artist frustrated and contemptuous.'

* Tully's friend and fellow writer.

I will end this digression on cynicism and Tully's writing style with a poem from Federman's Here and Elsewhere. The lines below can well be applied to Tully in his role as a cynic philosopher:

'he thinks this is the defining act
the actualization of a central image
that of a man standing
on the edge of an abyss
pissing into a hard wind
not a mistake not an idle gesture
but the assertion of presence'

Further Success, and Failures

In 1926, as well as publishing Jarnegan, Tully wrote a three-act boxing play, Black Boy, starring Paul Robeson in the title role. I made a note above about the other Irish tramp writer, Jim Phelan, having also been a close friend of Robeson in London; Phelan's son Seumas referring to the actor/singer as Uncle Paul. I wonder did Robeson mention one tramp to the other?

A less happy event than the premier of Black Boy in October 1926, was the death of Tully's sister Virginia at the age of forty-nine from an unnamed illness. Yet Virginia had seen her dream realised that her brother would become a famous writer. The same year, Tully was preparing a four part series titled 'Charlie Chaplin: His Real Life Story' for the Pictorial Review, to be followed later by a book on Chaplin. In spite of Tully's reassurances to Chaplin that the biography would be written with sympathy and understanding, so terrified was Chaplin of what Tully might write that he took out a $500,000 law suit against the Pictorial Review, on the basis that his right to privacy had been infringed. Chaplin lost the case and the series was published, but the following year, when Tully tried to publish his book, Life of Charlie Chaplin, the publishers ran scared of Chaplin's legal team. The book was killed and never published.

Tully had similar misfortunes with other projects. The film version of Circus Parade (published in 1927) was shelved following fierce lobbying from the Circus Fans Association who felt that the film portrayed a negative image of circus life. But Tully had at last achieved the success he had dreamed of as a writer. 1928 saw the premier of the movie version of Beggars of Life, the stage version of Jarnegan, and publication of his fifth book, Shanty Irish.

But those with tramping in their blood do not always flourish with material success. Celebrity did not fulfil all Tully had imagined it would. He was suffering episodes of depression and his marriage to his second wife was showing signs of strain. What one can say of Tully, though, is that neither money or literary achievements went to his head. He never forsook his vagabond legacy and, as did Johnny Cash forty years later, spent time in San Quentin and other prisons, in Tully's case, interviewing prisoners and encouraging them to write or tell their own stories.

Shadows of Men, published in 1930, is a biographical and semi-autobiographical work based mainly around the stories of those Tully encountered in prison and on the road. It is graphic realism at its most powerful, including descriptions of junkies shooting-up and their crazed hallucinatory dreams that seem more familiar to later generations of readers than consumers of early 19th century literature. As with Jack London's books, the bleak territory inhabited by Tully's writing was far more popular in Russia (where Beggars of Life and Shadows of Men were on the best seller lists and, according to Tully, sold two million copies) than in America; even though no royalties could be received from the former.

In 1930 also, Beggars Abroad was published, Tully's travelogue of the trip he made to Europe the previous year with Marna; partly in an attempt to patch up his ailing marriage. The trip included interviews with George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and James Joyce.

Final Words

I only have scope here to provide a brief summary of Tully's later life. Those who wish to know more about this uniquely fascinating character, should acquire a copy of Bauer and Dawidziak's excellent biography which, as well as carefully portraying all known aspects of Tully's life in detail, includes separate chapters concerning each of Tully's thirteen published books.

Tully and Myrtle
Tully would go on to write a further six books and, in 1933, married his third wife, Myrtle Zwetow, secretary of his friend and MGM movie producer Al Lewin. Following the peak of his writing success at the end of the roaring twenties, Tully's fortunes gradually declined, as did his health, although Myrtle would stay with him until his death. Tully's son, Alton, had been a constant drain on both Tully's finances and his emotional health. Alton was a serial rapist, and after several expensive court appearances, financed by his father, it was following a rape in 1934 that Alton was sentenced to one to twenty-five years at San Quentin. Even on this occasion he was eventually acquitted, but following a further rape the following year, Alton was finally imprisoned in San Quentin on a one to fifty year sentence. 

Tully with W.C. Field

Devastating as the effects of his son's troubled life were on Tully, he remained surrounded by supportive friends, enjoyed the devotion of Myrtle, and to a lesser degree his daughter Trilby. In the last year of his life, Tully ended up in the same nursing home as another friend, former business partner and sometime neighbour, W.C. Fields. After Fields passed away on Christmas Day of 1946, Tully was allowed to return home where he was cared for by Myrtle. He remained at home until he was admitted to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following heart failure. Jim Tully died on June 22nd 1947.

Alton was released from prison before Tully entered the nursing home and, following a brief spell as a yeoman in the merchant navy, in 1946 married an army nurse named Margaret BeckerHowever, by 1949, two years following his father's death, Alton was again wanted for a rape and a thirteen state alarm was put out for his arrest. Alton disappeared, but the following April, he and his wife's decomposed bodies were found in car with the windows sealed and a hose running from the exhaust. From evidence shortly after Alton's disappearance, and later reported by the Los Angeles Times, the joint suicide was Alton's wife's proposal: 'If I find him, I'll try a suicide pact. He hasn't the guts to do it by himselfhe's not fit to live in this world.

Myrtle was aged fifty-two when Tully died, and although she was left Tully's entire estate, now diminished to $25,000, a law suit filed by Tully's daughter Trilby resulted in half that money being paid over to Trilby. Myrtle was forced to work as a personal secretary until she was sixty-seven: five years for Judy Garland, three years for Greer Garson, and the last five years for Deborah Kerr. Myrtle moved to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in 1975. She died on 31st August 1982.

It is thanks to Myrtle's efforts in finding a safe resting place for Tully's papers and unpublished works, and thanks to the authors of Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, for discovering and researching them, that we know more about Jim Tully than many other tramp writers of the period. Nevertheless, as with many of these other literary vagabonds, Tully's writing remains relatively unknown today, even though his writing style was ahead of its time. If this profile on Jim Tully results in only one more person enjoying his prose as much as I have done, this will provide some added satisfaction to penning this piece.

But I wish to leave the last word for Tully himself. Other vagabond writers in this series have given their own view of the necessary ingredients that make for a successful tramp. In the following passage from Beggars of Life, Tully turns on its head, the popular interpretation of a 'bum' as someone who is lazy. Tully's bum is perceptive, enterprising, and indefatigable:

'A clever young tramp, if he has that indefinable something called personality, can always beg money on the street with success. He must have a knowledge of human nature, however, and be able to distinguish one class of citizen from another. In the argot of the road a "good" bum is one who is always successful as a beggar. All in all, though, the most resourceful and energetic tramp gets the most food and money.'

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