"Once a 'Bo, Always a 'Bo:" Milwaukee Hosts the 1940 International Hobo Convention

May. 15, 2017
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Jeff Davis, “King-Emperor” of the hoboes, poses with the jalopy he used to travel the nation for the cause of itinerant working men. In 1940, he brought the International Hobo Convention to Milwaukee.

They arrived in Milwaukee by all means of transportation. Some hid out in “accommodation cars” (the caboose of a train) or rode “possum belly” (laying flat atop a passenger car). Others “dogged it” (riding the Greyhound Bus) and some locals merely “padded the hoof” (walked). They were drawn to the city by the 1940 Annual Convention of the Hoboes of America, the 32nd yearly gathering of itinerant workers organized by Jeff Davis, a former vaudevillian and elected “King-Emperor of Hoboes.”

Back when industrial work was plentiful and a man needed no more than a name to secure a job, tens of thousands of traveling men circulated throughout the country, traveling mostly the rails, finding work where they could and holding no permanent residence. Hoboes considered themselves to be in the upper class of the nation’s homeless population. A level below them were “tramps,” homeless men who traveled and worked only when necessary. In the bottom class were “bums,” men who neither worked nor traveled.

King Davis, who was proud to note that he was a cousin of the former Confederate President, arrived in Milwaukee a few weeks ahead of the convention to prepare. He and his small team of confidants rented a downtown storefront and worked at securing venues and coordinating with hobo delegates from all over the nation. There was an air of celebrity around Davis in Milwaukee. The little office he had set up was decorated with pictures documenting his accomplishments as the Hobo King, a title his fellow ‘bos bestowed upon him at the 1935 convention in Pittsburgh. He carried in his pocket a telegram from Senator Royal Copeland of New York, thanking him for his “indispensible” work for the homeless during the 1920 flu epidemic.

The Milwaukee Journal visited with Davis in late April. Davis said he expected 1,000 hoboes to visit Milwaukee and estimated they would inject over $3,000 into the local economy. He explained the aims and goals of his organization: to fight against vagrancy laws, to defend men accused of boxcar theft (a charge often used to intimidate men traveling in freight cars), and to better educate law enforcement about the hobo lifestyle. He said that his organization’s vice president, Ray Martin of Louisville, had already been picked up twice by Milwaukee police.

Davis jumped from one topic to another as he spoke, boasting that his organization had 1 million full or honorary members (no dues were required) and ticking off the list of honorary celebrity members, known as “knights of the road,” including actor Charlie Chaplin, Supreme Court Chief Justice William O. Douglas and heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. He also talked about the influence hoboes had in expanding the burgeoning national highway system. As he spoke, he noticed a dishelmed man, a “rum dum” (drunkard) in hobo-speak, prowling about the front door of the office. “Don’t let that guy in,” he ordered an underling. “He’s a Milwaukee bum. We don’t want no bums in here.”

On Saturday, May 11, 1940, the conventioneers gathered at the Bakers’ Union hall on 12th Street for a chicken mulligan reception dinner. Mulligan was a common dish on the road, a meat and vegetable stew made from whatever a group of hoboes could pool together. The following afternoon, the delegates assembled at Turner Hall on 4th Street for the role call and to vote on a slate of resolutions and official grievances. The room looked every bit like a political convention, with tables labeled by region and an active harrumphing and cheering of proposals and beefs. After a prayer for the 42 men the organization had lost in the previous year, several speakers addressed the group, including the radical Dr. Ben Reitman, who spoke of his friends Emma Goldman, Big Bill Heywood and Mother Jones. While Davis officially denounced communism, Reitman declared himself a “red” and encouraged the room to adapt a resolution urging the U.S. to stay out of the war in Europe.

Reitman’s resolution did not pass, but others did, including a bill urging local health boards to use stricter standards in regulating transient hotels. The organization’s secretary dashed off letters to several cities demanding action. Resolutions were also passed encouraging better treatment by the government for American Indians and more money for public works projects. A resolution was also proposed that threatened a boycott against Florida-made goods because of that state’s rough treatment of hoboes.

That evening, the hobo ball was held at the Eagle’s Club on Wisconsin Avenue. A “rock candy mountain” with lemonade springs sat at the center of the dance floor and hobos dressed as cops faux-harassed the revelers as chicken and pigs ran loose in the room. “All we ask is for tolerance,” Davis said of hoboes now massed in the city. “Milwaukee is a fine town or it would not have been chosen as a convention city. We feel at home already.”

The convention wrapped up at the end of the week, when the 900+ men and women who had converged on Milwaukee made their way out of town. The last acts of the convention were to award the 1941 assembly to Jersey City, NJ and to provide an overwhelming vote of confidence for Davis as their king. Davis would continue to hold the title until his death in 1968.


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