Little is remembered of the Panic of 1893 in the United States which rivaled the Great Depression of the 1930s in severity. A quarter of the nation’s railroads went bankrupt and in some cities, unemployment among industrial workers exceeded 20 or even 25 percent. Some families starved and many unattached males became wanderers or “tramps.” These men crisscrossed the countryside, walking, or hiding on freight trains, appearing at the back doors of houses pleading for work or food. Many of these hobos also found that life “on the road” allowed them to indulge in same-sex activities within the society of male companionship. This way of life, for many in the 19th and early 20th centuries, became the nearest to the gay life they hoped to lead.
The records of homosexual conduct from that time mostly point to an adult and youth relationship where one dominated the other. In his 1897 book Sexual Inversion, sexologist Havelock Ellis included, as an appendix, an essay by Josiah Flynt on “situational homosexuality” among tramps. In “Homosexuality Among Tramps,” Flynt actually went beyond the description of “situational” homosexuality among these adults and warned of the threat posed by tramps to boys.
“Every hobo in the United States knows what “unnatural intercourse” means, talking about it freely, and according to my finding, every tenth man practices it, and defends his conduct. Boys are the victims of this passion,” Flynt later wrote in Tramping with Tramps (1907): “In Hoboland the boy’s life may be likened to that of a voluntary slave. He is forced to do exactly what his ‘jocker’ [adult partner] commands; and disobedience, willful or innocent, brings down upon him a most cruel wrath. Besides being kicked, slapped and generally maltreated, he is also loaned, traded and even sold, if his master sees money in the bargain.”
In Flynt’s accounts, tramping was not bad because the tramp was a lazy vagabond but because he subverted the normal male sexual passion into the “unnatural.”
Stories of same-sex unions where partners are equal and sex is consensual never made it into the news. Rather, Utah newspapers of the time were filled with accounts of tramps seducing, molesting and raping Zion’s youth. The earliest account found was in the Ogden Standard Examiner in August, 1892. The headline screamed TRAMP RAVISHES A YOUTH. A tramp named John Mack was arrested in a hobo camp near the crossing of the Rio Grande Western and the Southern Pacific in Ogden. He was charged with sodomy with Frank Howard, “a young Californian lad.” Howard was probably a young tramp himself. The reporter covering the trial said Mack “had the audacity to plead not guilty to the charge when there was no question of doubt that he had committed the terrible crime. The fiendish rascal was given a hearing and was held to await the action of the grand jury in bonds of $3000. Being of course a common ordinary tramp, he was unable to put up the necessary security and he was relegated to the care of the United States marshal.”
In 1896 two sensational tramp stories made news. In May the Salt Lake Herald reported that two 12-year-old “runaways” encountered two tramps while passing through Pleasant Grove. The hobos “overpowered the boys and were guilty of a crime against nature; the details of which are too revolting for publication.” Public sentiment was so strong against the tramps that the Herald wrote “people are greatly excited and there is strong talk of lynching.”
The other sensational case also occurred in Utah County when an 18-year-old tramp was gang raped in September of that year. Thomas Clark, of Los Angeles, was a member of a gang of 10 tramps “who got drunk over at Spanish Fork and shamefully used one of the party [Clark].”
Clark was “tramping his way to San Francisco” from being in a Nebraska reform school, and was so seriously injured by the assault that he was placed under a doctor’s care. The deputy sheriff arrested five tramps whom Clark accused of “committing most beastly offenses against his person.” The law officer told the Deseret News reporter that ‘there was at one time thought to be danger of lynching.” Only three of the tramps were eventually charged with a “Crime Against Nature.” Frank Merrell, Patsy Calvey and James Owens were found guilty and sent to the state penitentiary. Interestingly, Patsy is generally a girl’s name.
The following summer, the Ogden Standard Examiner reported in July that the “little runaway lad from Salt Lake” was being held by the Marshal of Corrine, Utah as a witness against hobos charged with committing sodomy on him. The tramps themselves were called “youthful villains” and later broke out of the Corrine jail. At “last accounts they were still at large.”
In 1899, a young man complained to Salt Lake City police that he had been robbed of $15 by two tramps near Albany Hotel (the present-day location of Club Sound). He said he met the two men who invited him to a vacant lot and they had several drinks together. “Then life became a blank for a short time, and when he awoke his pockets had been rifled but the two new acquaintances were kind enough to leave a couple or three dollars in his clothes.”
The next year, three Salt Lake City teenagers, Clarence Turner, Frank Wilson and Robert Danley told police that five tramps had “seized them in the brush near the Ogden River and compelled them to submit to their fiendish purpose.” The boys were forcibly taken to the railroad yard near the Southern Pacific Bridge and sodomized by Fred Wilson, Mike McCormick (a former California boxer) and George Power. The men were found guilty and given a prison sentence.
In April 1901, two tramps using the names Frank Brown and William Dean were arrested for committing sodomy on a 14-year-old Salt Lake City youth and sent to prison.
The presence of tramps in Utah increased crime statistics in general. The Ogden Standard Examiner stated in 1902 that two-thirds of the criminals in Weber County were “made up of the tramp and hobo element.”