"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

18 Oct 2022

Women Tramp Writers

These were previously discussed as part of a review of Iain McIntyre's On the Fly but expanded on here: 


                          Kathleen Phelan                                                   Dolly Kennedy Yancey


Other than Kathleen Phelan and Dolly Kennedy Yancey (please see separate posts—and Yancey only just squeezes in), together with Agnes Thecla Fair (see at bottom), and in spite of rigorous research, I have failed to identify any other women tramps who have documented their own life and adventures. Biographies and fictions there certainly are, and these are discussed below, but it should be noted that I deliberately narrowed the scope of my work on tramp writers by limiting it along the lines of the writer Emily Burbank's definition, when she commented on Josiah Flynt, one of the writers in my own text, “it must be remembered that Flynt was the tramp writing, not the literary man tramping." And then further limiting my area of research by excluding tramps who were exclusively poets. This definition applied equally to the male tramp writers featured in my book '... Golden Age of Tramping', in which Kathleen Phelan was the sole woman representative. And so none of the famous (and exclusively male) writers featured in Arthur Rickett's, The Vagabond in Literature (1906)—subject of the last eight posts on this blog—were discussed in my own book on tramp writers as they fell within the definition of 'literary men tramping' rather than tramps who wrote.

And so, when I say I have failed to identify any other woman tramps writers, I am narrowly applying Burbank's definition. There were certainly no shortage of women, explorers, naturalists, mountaineers, missionaries and journalists, who walked vast distances and wrote about their adventures throughout the period covered. But for the most part, these women were funded for their expeditions and conducted them in the company of others, in some cases including a retinue of servants in the same manner of many of their Victorian male counterparts—not that this in any way lessens their incredible achievements with additional challenges faced precisely because they were women. 

Much closer to Phelan in terms of presenting a philosophy of walking itself, were the women subjects of Kerri Andrews superb book Wanderers: A History of Women Walking (2020), which addresses the obvious omission in Rickett's book, ignoring, as he did, all of the significant ambulatory women writers of the latter half of the 1700s through the 1800s. But again, as these fell into the definition of literary women walking, rather than the woman tramp writing, I have so far neglected them from my own writing. However, my book in progress, which addresses the philosophy of tramping and vagabondage by theme—in the manner of my extended review of Rickett's book—will include the writing of literary folk tramping such as those discussed by Andrews and Ricket, and many others beside. But for now, please find below some notes on those other stories of women tramps that I did not include in Golden Age:

Barbara Starke, according to her ‘autobiography’, Born in Captivity: The Story of a Girl’s Escape (1931), is an account of the 17 year old’s flight from the tedium of upper-class life in New England for the life of a hobo, tramping and hitching up the East Coast into Canada and back. However, some doubt has been raised that the book was in fact a fictional work by an English writer Helen Card. Regardless of this, Card or Starke clearly had an authentic knowledge of life on the road. Wearing corduroys and carrying only a few spare clothes in a small pack, she discusses the practicalities of being on the road, including keeping herself and her clothes clean. As with the only tramp writer in my own book, Kathleen Phelan, The Story of a Girl’s Escape describes the shift from train hopping to walking or hitching rides with motorists, with all of the added dangers and unexpected liaisons that such a mode of transport invited. Unlike Phelan, Starke admits to never raising her thumb for a lift, but like Phelan, she was very particular about what cars she got into and turned down lifts if she had any doubts about the intentions of the driver (see further note on women tramp writers below).

Ethel Lynn's The Adventures of a Woman Hobo (1917), while certainly authentic, describes a single trip she made with her husband by tandem bicycle and boxcars. Having said which, the trip was prompted by the triple disasters of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1907 financial ‘panic’, then receiving a diagnosis of tuberculosis, all of which succeeded in putting an end, for a time at least, to her work as a medical doctor. Yet this is not the biography of someone who has chosen tramping as a lifestyle choice for any extended period of time. Kathleen Phelan spent the best part of 70 years on the road, dying alone in her caravan two days before her 97th birthday. eBook available here 


Bertha Thompson’s adventures in Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box-Car Bertha (2010), while a fascinating and informative read, was written by former hobo and radical activist Dr. Ben Reitman (later a medical doctor and husband of the anarchist Emma Goldman). The character Bertha is based on a composite of the many women hobos that Reitman encountered, both as a hobo and in his role as “whorehouse physician”—he served a 6 month jail sentence for advocating birth control. Reitman included a thirty-page classification of women tramps in his book.

Poster for the 1972 movie, Boxcar Bertha

Former hobo and Chicago sociologist, Nels Anderson, did not go to the lengths of Reitman to categorise women vagabonds but in his own study, which included five main divisions of male tramps, with 30 subdivisions, he simply dismisses women as a subdivision of “Other Classes” along with Cripples, Stew Bums, Spongers, and Old Men, further subdividing women tramps into three groups: prostitutes, dope fiends & drunks, and mental defectives. 

It is worth noting that Reitman and Anderson’s ‘studies’ coincided, not only with Chicago becoming the hobo mecca of America, but also the birth of the Chicago School of Sociology, responsible for popularising 'urban sociology' as a specific research area for the first time. Consequently, many works on tramping from the time concentrate on socio-political and historical investigations rather than getting underneath the very essence of tramping itself in the way that Iain McIntyre has done in On the Fly!: Hobo Literature and Songs 1879 to 1941 (see review HERE)

Jacqueline Schmidt deserves a mention before leaving this discussion on women tramp writers for her contemporary collection of hobo tales, Done and Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos (1996), including biographical details of her father’s hobo adventures. 

"While other children were hearing Mother Goose, I thrilled to adventures of my dad's real-life experiences. The stories were varied accounts of his hoboing days—riding the rods, jumping a rattler, or camping in the jungles - after he left his home in 1911 at the age of 


Woman Tramp Poet

Agnes Thecla Fair was introduced to me by McIntyre as one of the hobo writers he had wished he'd included in his anthology and discovered only following publication of On the Fly.

Given the dearth of women tramp writers, I’m making an exception here to excluding poetry from my biographies of tramp writers, to refer to Agnes Thecla Fair’s Sour Dough’s Bible (1910), a collection of her poetry that includes unique descriptions of hobo life in north western America at the start of the 20th century. Fair, whose own hobo adventures are referred to below, also published articles on her extraordinary exploits as a feminist and labour activist. These included a lengthy piece for the Seattle Socialist, the entire edition of which was confiscated by the Seattle police on the grounds that it contained “indecent matter”.

At the age of 37, convinced that her failing health would make it impossible for her to continue her campaigning work, Fair ended her life on January 11 1917 by stepping in front of an electric car on the interurban rail tracks in Sellwood, a neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon.

Harriet Chervin, whom Fair had been staying with in Sellwood, "knew of her guest's mental stress, but did not anticipate her act … She had been in failing health ... was in straitened  circumstances and appeared moody.” The Oregon Daily Journal, January 12th 1917.

Originally from the East Coast where she had been married, then divorced, from a W.P. Dougherty, Fair moved to Washington then Oregon by way of Vancouver where she became very active in the IWW and feminist movement. Her work as an activist started with the infamous Spokane free speech fights in November 1909 for which she was jailed along scores of other demonstrators. “She “spent three days in a rancid cell and was sexually harassed.” To a friend who asked her if she was afraid of men taking advantage of her, Fair laughed, shook her head, and replied:

None of the workingmen ever do, some of the silk stocking chaps do once in a while. But I have a sharp tongue and a hat pin, and know how to put any man down and out who gets foolish.” 

From Railway Carmen’s Journal, April 1914

And from Appeal to Reason, February 10 1917:

She was a rare character-a real woman hobo. She never hesitated to ride the rods. She went to hundreds of cities via the boxcar route. On such trips she wore overalls.”

Descriptions of two of the innovative projects Fair started to support the destitute and impoverished are described by her friend, Alfred D. Cridge in Railway Carmen’s Journal of April 1914:

In Spokane she established a down and out restaurant and with capable mechanical adeptness attached a gas stove she had “rustled” to a main with no meter between, and for months she was steward, chief cook and clerk of that strange institution. When taxed with her disregard for the sacred property rights of the gas company she laughed at the threats of arrest. Ascertaining that no jury in Spokane would convict her, no prosecution was made.”

In Los Angeles one winter she found a number of the “Side Door Pullman” tourists suffering from exposure, hardships, hunger, perhaps wounds and injuries. She established a rude hospital and interested a number of people in her activities until things got going, when she flitted to where there were ‘lots of sick babies and hungry women to look after,’ without telling me the locality.

In the same article, Cridge relates a conversation he had with Fair about her time in San Francisco just prior to her last visit to Portland. He describes her as suffering and thin:

I worked too hard in Frisco. There was so much to do. A lot of those labor leaders are awful crooks! I had to come away. I had no more strength. I am going to take a long rest. I have friends.

But, as Cridge continues, “Her mind wavered. She sought death to end it, and Thursday, January 11, she jumped in front of an oncoming electric train.”

Sour Dough’s Bible is available as an eBook here

See also review of Jenny Steele Scolding's book, Vagabond Girl

I would be extremely grateful to hear of any other women tramp writers not identified here

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