Header Graphic
When Dayton Had A 'Hobo Epidemic'

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, January 21, 1934

 When Dayton Had a ‘Hobo Epidemic’

By Howard Burba


     Dayton has been visited by most every type of calamity known to the modern American city—fire, flood and pestilence.

     Fires have been numerous in the past, though thanks to a fire department which never found its way into politics, they have been minor conflagrations compared to those recorded in the history of other metropolitan cities.  As conflagrations are rated, Dayton never had what can be classified as “a big fire”.

     Unfortunately, the opposite is true of floods, and when that type of calamity is mentioned Dayton takes her stand at the top of the list, along with Johnstown, Pa., and Galveston, Texas.  But the fires are out and the flood is over, and they are now merely high-spots in our history.  Fires we continue to record but, thanks to engineering skill and a forward-looking citizenry, floods need hold no future fear.

     But it is the third item in the trio of mentioned calamities of which I want to tell you on this page today.  I want to tell you about the part pestilence has played in the history of Dayton, for I am confident it is a story of which you have heard little, yet at the same time one of the most interesting in the annals of Dayton.  I have told you in detail of one great pestilence, the cholera epidemic which swept the city away back in the ‘thirties.  Now you shall hear about the pestilence of 1874—the “visitation of tramps”—which local history records as one of the most unusual “epidemics” ever to be suffered by any American community.  Looking back upon it one can read of it and smile.  But it was far from a laughing matter in 1874.

     Older residents of the community recall that in the matter of financial depressions—“panics” as they were called in early days—the one this country has experienced for some three years past is scarcely to be compared to that of the early ‘70s.  It broke in 1873, and was at its height in 1874.  There is no occasion for reviewing it here, further than to assert that if all the old-timers tell us of that depression is true then this one has been something akin to a holiday with pay, a sort of week-end picnic.

     When the year 1874 dawned there not only was an almost total stagnation of business in this country, but there was no money with which to start it up again.  Factories were closed; business firms were bankrupt; banks were little more than loafing places and idleness was the lot of every other citizen.  No better evidence of the vastness of unemployment could be had than to visit the depot and count the “hoboes” on any passing train.  Older residents have told me that in 1874 the railroads seemed to haul more tramps on their freight trains than they did paying passengers in their coaches.

     Early in the year 1874 the report became circulated through the country that Dayton, O., was the magic city of America—the one city that not only had escaped the “panic” but the one in which any man would get three meals a day merely for the asking, to say nothing of a warm and comfortable place in which to sleep at night.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth.  But the story persisted, and the first week in January witnessed such an invasion of hoboes and tramps as no American city has possibly experienced at any time in its history.  When freight trains halted for orders in Dayton, it was the signal for a general unloading of hoboes, and those who didn’t ride the rods to Dayton found their way here over the public highways.

     Realizing that something must be done to prevent them overrunning the city and resorting to violence in their demand for food and shelter, the brave and civic-minded members of the Women’s Christian association held a meeting and formulated plans for meeting the usual emergency.  By the time these plans were ready to be put into execution the city was in the midst of a pestilence unheard of up to that time—an epidemic of tramps.

     The women decided that through a general solicitation, and by using what spare funds they had in their treasury, they could amass sufficient revenue to maintain a big public soup house at which the tramps could be fed—and sent on their way.  So in our files of Jan. 16, 1874, we find the plan in actual operation, as announced in these words:


    “The ladies of the Women’s Christian association have sold to the city authorities 500 tickets at 5 cents apiece, each one entitling the holder to a ration of bread and soup, at their soup house on Third st.

     “These tickets are distributed among the lodgers at the station house.  The city authorities are not the only customers there are for soup tickets.  Numbers of citizens purchase them, and when persons come to their house claiming to be hungry, they furnish them soup tickets instead of supplying their wants from their private tables.  Many of the tickets thus sent abroad by the association will never return to them because it frequently happens that those who claim to be hungry do so for the purpose of moving somebody’s sympathy to give them a little money with which to buy drink.

     “Thieves and burglars also sometimes go around begging for something to eat, to get a knowledge of the interior of the house which they visit.  It is a damper on a bummer when he is skirmishing around for drinks to be presented with a ticket for a dish of soup, and it would be difficult to imagine the disgust of a high-toned burglar under similar circumstances.  It is a good idea for benevolent people to keep a few soup tickets on hand.  They are convenient.”

     If the broadcasting of the report that Dayton was providing free meals for everyone who came for them was not complete up to that hour, it most certainly was a few days after that story appeared.  It looked like every hobo in the land was either in Dayton or trying to locate it on the map so he could get here.  The soup house became the busiest institution in the city of Dayton. And then Daytonians began to wonder if a serious mistake had not been made in establishing it.  The newspapers were inclined toward that belief, but to make sure they sent reporters to get the “low-down” on the soup house.  Here is the result of one such visit, as related in a local newspaper on Jan. 19, 1874:

     “It is a question with many thoughtful people whether or not the recent establishment of a soup house in this city will be productive of more harm than good.  To a certain extent all such institutions are a premium set upon idleness and vagrancy, and the amount of good done must be very great to outweigh the evil arising in this direction.

     “A reporter of this paper paid a visit to the soup house Saturday afternoon where he found three ladies of the Women’s Christian association in charge for the day.  The rations issued here consist only of soup and bread, the former a very rich and savory article, while the bread is of about the quality used by the average private families of the city.  The reporter had a conversation with the ladies and he learned from them that their enterprise had assumed much larger proportions than they had anticipated when they launched it.

     “These ladies had found it unbearably expensive to provide groceries for destitute persons and families in the city, whose cases they had investigated, and whom they had found to be worthy objects of charity.  They therefore established the soup houses at which to prepare food and issue to such persons only as came with tickets or other proper credentials.  This method they thought would guard against the wastefulness of the recipients of their bounty, and be less expensive than their plan of operations for the past winters.

     “But no sooner was it known that a soup house had been opened and that rations would be issued out under the immediate personal superintendence of the ladies, than the place was besieged by tramps, bummers, beggars, nomadic thieves and professional vagabonds.

     “In all the surrounding towns and villages the tidings of free soup in Dayton were proclaimed, and the warm-hearted philanthropists of those places benevolently turned the steps of every hungry tramp toward Dayton. The result was that hordes, so to speak, of this class of folk came pouring in upon the institution, presenting a miniature picture of the inroads of the Goths into Italy.

     “While the reporter was present a dozen vagabondish looking men were seated at the table, each devouring a steaming bowl of soup, and at the same time carrying on a conversation among themselves in a tone of levity and impudent assurance that illy comported with their position as the recipients of charity.  This party had heard of the soup house at Tippecanoe City, and having been informed that it would be closed up at 2 o’clock they said they had actually ran the last five miles of the distance so as to arrive before that hour.

     “None of them had tickets and one of the ladies said to the reporter:’ What can we do about such crowds of men?  They come here and say they are hungry, we have the soup in the house and we can’t turn them away.’

     “Reporter—‘You do it to relieve your own feeling to some extent, do you not?’

     “Lady—‘Yes, sir.  Of course, one would feel very uncomfortably if she turned a person away who was possibly suffering with hunger and to that extent, as you suggest, we do relieve our feelings, but at the same time we relieve the citizens of Dayton of a very great annoyance.  If those men were not fed here, they would beg from door to door.’

     “Reporter—‘But was not the existence of your soup house the prime cause of these men taking Dayton on their route?’

     “Lady—‘It may have been in this particular instance, but Gen. Martin, the superintendent of the police has assured us that there is no perceptible increase in the number of this class of men who come to the city since the opening of the soup house.’

     “At this point in the conversation five others of the Tippecanoe City party came in, and as it was then past the hour for closing the house, one of the three ladies in attendance intimated a very mild protest against serving them.  But another lady interposed, saying: ‘Now you know we have a great kettle of soup that will be thrown away if it is not used, and it would be just too bad to turn these hungry men away.’  This view of the case prevailed and the soup was ordered, much to the disgust of the colored waiter in attendance, who thought that ‘if they had rules they ought to live up to them.’

    “However much question there may be about the good resulting from this distribution of charity there can be no doubt about the benefits arising from the regular work of the Woman’s Christian association.  From what facts the reporter could gather, this is the most extensive and efficient charitable organization in the city.  They canvass the city very thoroughly and the case of every person on their list as beneficiaries has been investigated.

     “It sometimes occurs that cases arise in which the emergency is so great that there can be no delay, and then they supply the immediate wants of the sufferer and investigate afterwards.  Their investigations often lead to breaking up places that are hot-beds of vice and sin and rescuing children who, but for them, must inevitably have been reared in a school for crime.

    “Some of the brightest and most promising pupils in the public schools of the city were rescued from squalid poverty, and first placed in school by this association.  Their theory is that as much or more good can be done by the formation of a good character, as the reformation of a bad one.  At least the former is an easier task then the latter.

     “One suggestive fact about the work of the association is that 49 out of every 50 of the families assisted by them have been brought to want by the intemperance of either the father or mother, and sometimes both.  In assigning such a prominent position to the W. C. A. no disparagement is meant of the other charitable organizations in the city, of which there are a great number.  Each of the churches has its poor fund, and outside of these there are independent organizations which dispense charity systematically and thoroughly, as far as their funds will endure.

     “The St. Vincent de Paul society have a good library, embracing many volumes, at St. Joseph’s school.  They also dispense charity much after the fashion of the Woman’s Christian association.  In some instances they pay rent for families, and they have a long list of indigent persons who are the regular recipients of their bounty.  There are beneficial societies in each of the Catholic churches of the city, outside the regular system of church relief which relieves distress wherever they find it.  None of these societies, however, issue cooked rations at a designated point, as is done at the soup house.

     “At St. Mary’s Institute, in charge of a Catholic religious order, known as the Brothers of St. Mary, there are probably as many transient people fed as at the soup house.  Here the bill of fare is more substantial and extensive than at the soup house.  The Brothers furnish all who come with a cup of coffee, bread and meat, and at night they have accommodations for lodging many persons.

     “The reporter visited St. Mary’s and in conversation with Brother Zehler, director of the Institute, and who, by the way, has as little cant about him as any religionist you will meet in a long time, pointed his finger upward and said: ‘We send the bill against these boarders up there; they keep a bank up there that never breaks.’  The thought that they are making investments in such a good bank is a very comforting one to the philanthropists, yet, as before intimated, many good people think that charity dispensed in this particular shape had better be omitted for the good of society.

     “The Central Station house is the great resort for lodgings, and if one will sit in the office there in the evening he will find that the applicants for lodging have been tramping all winter.  All comers are searched by the officers in charge.  This course was first adopted to prevent the introduction of whisky into the lodging department.  While the search is going on the object of it will compare this treatment with that received somewhere else.  He had been searched in Erie, Pa., but this is the first time that he had been subjected to the process in Ohio.  A ration of hard bread and bologna is furnished to each one, and then this becomes the subject of comment.  It is compared with the ration that they got at Springfield, Cleveland or Toledo.

     “The room in which they sleep is kept comfortably warm all the while and sometimes very uncomfortably so.  In the morning when released they go out skirmishing for a meal of victuals, while many make a morning cocktail the first object of search.  They strike out to the Brothers (St. Mary’s) and are there provided with breakfast, but at 10 o’clock, when the soup house is opened, they are ready for a lunch in the shape of a bowl of soup, and then for another at 2 o’clock, about the time the establishment is closed.  Night finds them back at the station house again, where they get another repast in the way of hardtack and bologna, and this constitutes the daily life of a vagabond.

     “They are permitted to lodge three nights in succession at the station house, but if they make their appearance the fourth time, they are locked up on a charge of vagrancy and sent out of the city the next morning.  Of course, all the men in these crowds are not vagabonds.  On the contrary, many of them are deserving objects of charity.  But the majority of them are not.”

     That the article stirred up a hornet’s nest is apparent from a veiled retraction appearing in the issue of the following day.  Let us quote it that you may see and appreciate how the old time editor went about saving his face—and his subscription list—in the panicky year of 1874 when newspaper men, like every other business man saw so little money they almost forgot the color of it.  Here is the editor’s polite lament as it appeared under the heading, “More About the Soup House”:

    “The report of a visit to the soup house published yesterday in this paper probably does injustice to that institution by giving undue prominence to a feature of its workings that is a subject of criticism.

     “The reporter happened to be present at an hour when he had no opportunity to witness the regular daily issue of rations to the destitute families of the city, and the crowd of men he saw there was an exceptional case, as he has since been assured by the ladies of the Women’s Christian association.

     “These ladies think that it is a little unkind that after they had given out a supply of soup and bread to 50 poor families of the city during the day, who otherwise must have suffered from hunger, that this exceptional case should have been mentioned at all.  We concur with the ladies.  Their work is such a noble one and results in so much good that it is unkind to remember the possible evils that may result from their benevolences to certain person.  The good so vastly preponderates that the possible evil should be wholly forgotten.”

     But the editor’s worries were molehills compared to the mountains of grief experienced by the police department in trying to cope with the flood of transients steadily pouring into the city.  Every form of relief from the epidemic was discussed.  Every plan to rid the city of its unwelcome visitors was studied.  Then a committee waited on the well-meaning operators of the soup house and persuaded them to take in their sign.

     It required considerable persuasion to accomplish this end, and even then its elimination was not by unanimous consent.  There still were many tender-hearted women who felt that Dayton should mother the entire army of unemployed in addition to looking after her own.

     But down came the soup house sign and up went the mailed fist of the police as they met freight train after freight train and warned the riders of the rods not to shift positions while passing through Dayton.  It took months to rid the city of those already here.  But sustained energy along this line won out, and by early fall Dayton, though still suffering a financial panic, had been relieved of her pestilence of tramps.