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Urgent Lessons From a Code of Ethics for Stowaways


Being a citizen of the world begins with taking care of one’s own.

In our own time, we see a level of social inequality unprecedented in human history: the rich get richer, and the poor are increasingly submerged in misery. And while we should avoid the temptation to idealize as much of the past as possible – there was a time, early on in the age of capitalism, when even the most deprived were guided through life with rules and codes for respectability.

The figure of the hobo (who might also be understood as a “stowaway” or a traveling worker) emerged and grew alongside the railroad tracks in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, it was possible to speak of an entire culture that revolved around this style of life. Not merely “vagabonds,” in the sense that we think of people with neither homes nor jobs, they were a combination of adventurers and pioneers of globalized labor, as well as migrants within that same territory.



Traveling wherever they might be employed and or to make some money, hobos developed a culture based on a silent cooperation among strangers, developing their own vocabulary and even their own alphabet. These were to inform other hobos about places where they might work temporarily, or get a free meal, of dangerous places to be avoided, and even of homes where aggressive dogs were present. As the sum of these many experiences of collaboration and mutual care, in 1889 the National Convention of Hobos established a code of ethics, as a measure of protection and support among hobos, and this has lost nothing of its poetic validity. In essence, the way a hobo behaves will determine the fates of hobos who come later, as well as how they’ll be treated in the communities through which they pass.

It might be too simple in our own mundane, materialistic time to idealize poverty (though in a sense, Roman Catholicism has carried this idealization to its ultimate extreme). On the other hand, one difficult thing is to recognize that along with the rise of capitalism and the first industrial revolution, underground, clandestine resistance movements like the hobos also took place. These had to live within the rules of employability and the movement of capital and all without losing sight of the compassionate and collaborative sense of human experience. Honor among the most vulnerable should be the ethical measure of any society, and from this the powerful still have much to learn.

The Hobo Code of Ethics

  1. Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
  2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
  3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
  4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so, you not only help a business along but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
  5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
  7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
  8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
  10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
  11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
  12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
  13. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.”
  14. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
  15. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!

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