Gypsies, tramps and … vagabonds

This litho shows tramps riding the rails.
This litho shows tramps riding the rails.

By Sandy Vasko

The 1870s were known for hard times. The country was filled with immigrants looking for work. But because of nation-wide strikes in the coal, railroad and steel manufacturing businesses, the nation had ground to a halt economically.

Money, jobs and food were all scarce. The army of the homeless swelled out of proportion. Some of these called themselves gypsies; others were proud to wear the name “tramp.”

On Feb. 1, 1877, the Joliet Weekly Sun reporter visited a gypsy camp, had his fortune told and wrote about it: “The gypsies were in camp! They told fortunes for fun, money or marbles! Here was the opportunity! Like Obadiah Hicks we never permit an opportunity of any kind to pass unheeded! Hence, we took in the gypsy camp on Eastern Avenue. A woman dressed gorgeously in an evening suit of dirty red flannel, and shod with ancient army shoes, smiled upon our unsophisticated person and bade us be seated. We sat.

“The old lady took our hand in hers and remarked upon the snowy whiteness and tendency to black our boots, and immediately startled us by stating we would one day take a seat in congress. The woman again remarked that while we might be adopted by the banker, we might someday become president of the horse railroad or be killed by the cars.

She said our business was loaning money, and that we would ultimately fall in love with a dark-eyed lady with a large fortune and no big brothers, and that henceforth our path in life contained nothing but roses, juniper berries and other poetical refreshments to say nothing of gold and railroad bonds.

“We at once became interested. She was quite sure from our general make-up that we had never gone fishing on the Sabbath, and had never fallen through a hole in the ice. Our interest became intense. She remarked in a careless manner that we had two great missions in life. One of those ambitions was to be as bald as Backus and the other to edit a democratic newspaper.

Finally, that we would one day be elected an alderman and go to rein in the council chamber. Then she wanted fifty cents, but upon our explaining the extreme stringency of the times, and the probability that we would be a candidate for mayor in the spring, she compromised for nine cents and two overcoat buttons.”

Besides gypsies, there were the tramps, and hordes of them. “The tramps are becoming troublesome and numerous complaints reach us of their insolence to women and abuse of children. The best way to treat these lazy brutes is to drive them from your door; but if you must feed them, do so outside of your door – do not permit them to enter your house under any circumstances. Persons who do permit tramps to enter their houses deserve any insolence and abuse they may receive.”

And indeed, they were getting bold. We read, “Tramp impudence – A ring was heard at Dr. Casey’s door one evening after dark, this week. Mrs. Casey sent her little boy to answer it. He found a rough looking man at the door who wanted something to eat, and somewhat frightened, the boy closed the door and locked it. About half an hour afterward another vigorous ring was heard, and Mrs. Casey, supposing that perhaps the doctor had returned, went to the door. What was her surprise to find the tramp still there and to hear him say: “Madame, this is a d__n pretty way to treat a gentleman! I sent your boy after something to eat for me a half an hour ago, and I’d like to know where he is?” The door was closed and locked again, but the tramp came around to the windows and used the roughest language in expression of his dissatisfaction. Finally, he left, of course in time to escape an interview with Dr. Casey himself.”

In May of 1877, the tramp situation all over the State had become a problem. The legislature passed a strict bill that said in part, “All persons who are idle and dissolute, who go about begging; all persons who use any juggling or other unlawful games or plays; runaways, pilferers, confidence men, common drunkards, common night walkers; lewd, wanton and lascivious person in speech or behavior; common railers and brawlers; persons who are habitually neglectful of their employment or their calling, and do not carefully provide for themselves or for the support of their families.

“All persons who neglect all lawful business and who habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill fame, gambling houses, or tippling shops; all persons lodging in and around night trains, in outhouses, sheds, barns or unoccupied buildings, or lodging in the open air, and not giving a good account of themselves; and all persons who are known to be thieves, burglars, or pickpockets, either by their own confession or otherwise, or by having been convicted of larceny, burglary or other crimes against the laws of the state, punished by imprisonment in the state prison or in a house of correction of any city, and having no lawful means of support are included under this act.

“Those who are habitually found prowling around any steamboat landing, railroad depot, banking institution, broker’s office, place of public amusement, auction room, street, shops, or crowded thoroughfare, car or omnibus, or at any public gathering or assembly, or lounging about any courtroom, private dwelling house or outhouses, or are found in any house of ill fame, gambling house, or tippling sip, shall be declared to be, and they are declared to be, vagabonds.

“Any sheriff, constable, city marshal, and police officer of any county, town, village, city, or other municipality in this state, may arrest upon a view, and the vagabonds so arrested may be tried, and if found guilty, imprisoned at hard labor upon the streets or highway, or in the jail, calaboose, or other building used for penal purposes of the county, town, village, city, or other municipality in which said vagabond was convicted.”

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