In 1892 Alexander Berkman arrived at Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh to begin a twenty year sentence in the prison. The Russian anarchist met many interesting characters there who taught him a lot about American culture and society. One of these inmates was “Boston Red,” an elderly man Berkman worked with in the prison workshop.
In Berkman’s memoir, he recalled a conversation where Red revealed he was a yeggman. Unfamilar with the term, Berkman mistakenly conflated yeggs with tramps and bums. Insulted by the comparison, Red was was quick to define (and spell) his job in the outside world:
“You see, pard, I’m no gun [professional thief]; don’t need it in me biz. I’m a yegg.”
“What’s a yegg, Red?”
“A supercilious world of cheerful idiots applies to my kind the term ‘tramp.’”
“A yegg, then, is a tramp. I am surprised that you should care for the life of a bum.”
A flush suffuses the prison pallor of the assistant.
“You are stoopid as the rest of ‘em,” he retorts, with considerable heat, and I notice his lips move as in ordinary conversation. But in a moment he has regained eye composure, and a good-humored twinkle plays about his eyes.
“Sir,” he continues with mock dignity, “to say the least, you are not discriminative in your terminology. No, sir, you are not. Now, lookee here, pard, you’re a good boy, but your education has been sadly neglected. Catch on? Don’t call me that name again. It’s offensive. It’s an insult, entirely gratuitous sir. Indeed, sir, I may say without fear of contradiction, that this insult is quire supervacaneous. Yes, sit, that’s me. I ain’t no bum, see; no such damn thing. Eliminate the disgraceful epithet from your vocabulary, sir, when you are addressing yours truly. I am a yagg, y-a-double g, sir, of the honorable clan of yaggmen. Some spell It y-e-double g, but I insist on the a, sir, as grammatically more correct, since the peerless word has no etymologic consanguinity with hen fruit, and should not be confounded by vulgar misspelling.”
“What’s the difference between a yegg and a bum?”
“All the diff in the world, pard.” A bum is a low-down city bloke, whose intellectual horizon, sir, revolves around the back door, with a skinny hand-out as his center of gravity. He hasn’t the nerve to forsake his native health and roam the wide world, a free and independent gentleman. That’s the yagg, me bye. He dares to be and do, all bulls nonwithstanding. He lives, aye, he lives, on the world of suckers, thank you, sir. Of them ‘tis wisely said in the good Book, ‘They shall increase and multiply like the sands of the seashore,’ or words to that significant effect. A yagg’s the salt of the earth, pard. A real, true-blood yagg will not deign to breathe the identical atmosphere with a city bum or gaycat. No, sirree.”
Berkman was hardly the only person who didn’t understand the nuanced differences between yeggmen, tramps, and bums. Turns out there tons of different names for transient and migrant people who crisscrossed the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries looking for work, food, and a roof over their heads.
But each name was unique and labeled people with their own distinct work, travel, and living practices.
They were called many, many names: agricultural nomads, indespensable outcasts, bindlestiffs, hoboes, fruit tramps, harvest gypsies, floaters, transients, drift-ins, apple glommers, almond knockers, sugar tramps, buranketto boys, pizcadores, betabeleros, yeggmen, bums, mission stiffs, and vagrants.
Whatever you called them, these itinerants were integral to the economy, particularly the harvest industries in the West where they were most concentrated. But they were often not appreciated and sometimes even chased out of town as soon as they arrived. Many believed this was a case of mistaken identity- itinerants with reputations for loafing and refusing to work (particularly “bums”) made life harder for migrant workers who were looking for temporary work as they traveled.
Even those transient workers who weren’t chased off immediately typically struggled to find steady work. Historian Mark Wyman described what he called the “reality” of itinerant work in the West: “it was eagerly recruited- warmly welcomed- then cast off, often chased away, forgotten until next year’s harvest.” Perhaps this is why they’ve been largely absent from our memories of the legends and histories of the West?
Despite their plethora of names, itinerant workers were very particular about what names they were called and how their type of work was defined. Hoboes, tramps, and yeggmen seemed to be among the loudest groups when it came to clearly describing themselves. A quick look at the literature reveals that this was a source of argument amongst members of the community and outside observers alike.
Carleton Parker, a labor writer and strike mediator from California wrote that all wandering homeless men fit under the blanket term “hobo labor.” In a 1920 essay he argued “the terms ‘hobo miner,’ ‘hobo lumberjack,’ ‘the blanket stiff,’ are familiar and necessary in accurate descriptions of Western labor conditions.”
Others argued it was more complicated than that. Anarchist and “hobo doctor” Ben Reitman said there were “three types of the genus vagrant…the hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” One of his compatriots Irving St. John Tucker similarly argued a hobo was a migratory worker, but “a tramp is a migratory nonworker. A bum is a stationary nonworker.” The names used to describe migrant and itinerant laborers each had their own special meanings and were associated with people with particular backgrounds, work patterns, racial and ethnic identities, and roles in their communities. It was only later that “experts” lumped all the terms together.
In 1914 a magazine writer attempted to get the facts straight after visiting a “Hobo Employment Bureau” in Philadelphia. Here’s what he reported after speaking with the man in charge:
“Mission stiffs, panhandlers, bums and strike-breakers are not allowed here. Get out!”
Thus reads a neat pasteboard card dangling in the window of a little room on the first floor of No. 816 Callowhill Street, Philadelphia. It is flanked by other signs, equally mysterious, announcing the establishment of a “Hobo Employment Bureau” and urging every hobo to walk in and “join the union.”
If the passerby is a big dazed by this apparent contradiction of invitations, and if he wonders how the “bum” genus differs from the “hobo genus, he has only to walk in and inquire for Joe Millar, who claims to have crossed the country on freight trains more than one hundred times.
The hobo will always give something for lodging or meals while on the road and he has the most profound contempt for the man who beats his way from place to place without working.
Bums, on the other hand, are the derelicts who strew the park benches and fill their workhouses.
Panhandlers are street beggars.
“Mission stiffs” are down-and-outers who won’t work and are willing to exchange “conversation” for bread, coffee and a free bed.
“The hobo is the itinerant laborer, the fellow who saws lumber in Maine one week and punches cattle in Texas the next,” says Joe Millar. “In the East the average public confuses the hobo with the tramp, but in the West, where he obtained his nickname, he is often a welcome guest at the farm in harvest time.”
The hobos of America, or, if you must be dignified, the International Brotherhood Welfare Association of Unemployed, Migratory, and Casual Workers, have organized to demand a ten-hour day and a minimum wage of fifteen cents an hour.
Hard times have struck the hobo as well as the clerk and the factory worker. Every day a crowd of men lines up at the office on Callowhill street. Many of these are dismissed at once under the prohibitive clause on the sign board relating to “bums and mission stiffs.” The newcomers are gone over in a sorting-out process. The derelicts are sent on their way with the warning that there is no place for them in a hobo organization. Others are admitted and their applications listed. A record is kept of each man who applies for a job. He is compelled to give a fair account of himself as the hobos are anxious to obtain the confidence of their prospective employer.
It seems pretty clear that hobos were very careful about how their identity and appearance. Making sure that they were labeled correctly would help ensure that they were accorded the dignity and respect they felt they earned through their hard work. They didn’t want “bums” and other non-working homeless men to damage their reputation.
And this makes perfect sense, the first impression an itinerant worker made when they came into a new town likely shaped the reception they received, if they could find work, and how long they stayed there. Boston Red knew that his reputation as a yeggman was only valuable if people understood what that meant. Same goes for Joe Millar and the hobo label.
These names were precious commodities and they were guarded jealously by those who wore them as badges.