History of the LASD part 4 “Trampology”
Newsletter for, May 25, 2021
The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21, 1902.
An important aspect of the mythos of the “West” includes the image of a rugged landscape ruled by men, and violent ones at that. The streets were always filled with fighting, the bars with Vigilance Committees, and the surrounding desert, outlaws and “desperados.” As Horace Bell described the scene on the streets of Los Angeles:
American, Spaniards, Indians and foreigners, rushing and crowding along from one gambling house to another…There were several bands of music of the primitive Mexican-Indian kind, that sent forth most discordant sound, by no means in harmony with the eternal jingle of gold – while at the upper end of the street, in the rear of one of the gambling houses was a Mexican “Maroma” in uproarious confusion. They positively made night hideous with their howlings. Every few minutes a rush would be made, and maybe a pistol shot would be heard…Such things were a matter of course, and no complaint or arrests were ever made.
Of course, much of this description, from best I can tell, is a combination of literary bravado, sexism, and racism. There WERE women: they were Chinese, Native American, Black (mostly brought over as enslaved people), and Spanish Mexican (including California-born “Californios”). But non-Anglo women were, of course, not the same tempering influences writers of the time expected. (Although it should be pointed out, Californio women and families intermarried with Anglos and were wealthy ranchers and landowners.) And we also know there were arrests, especially of Native Americans, as well as the extrajudicial killings condoned by vigilance committees.
Around the turn of the century, a new panic rushed across Los Angeles with roots in the legendary masculinity of the untamed and violent country. “Hobos” and “tramps” – single men, usually white – were coming to Los Angeles. Some were in search of work. Others were living a transient lifestyle, traveling by railroad to the West. Social commentators were immensely concerned with their lifestyle, which seemed to resist the domesticating influences of marriage, women, and children. These men also had no voting rights or voice in government since they were unable to purchase property or establish residency requirements. Victims of corporate capitalism, they worked on the railroad, mined, picked crops, and chopped wood.
But among these transient workers, there was a more radical politics. Some of these men embraced political ideologies that rejected the Golden Age-style capitalism and joined revolutionary groups like the Industrial Workers of the World and other large unions. The fact that they were largely white made the settled bourgeois even more anxious.
Some of these men formed communities, others embraced a non-gender-confirming lifestyle. During the winters, many stayed in Los Angeles, waiting for work to resume in the spring. Subsisting on low-level wages, they lived in boarding houses and makeshift shanties. Their presence soiled the carefully honed message that Anglo men would “civilize” the West with their hard-working ethos and refined ways, that Los Angeles, for all its violence, was a “white settler paradise.”
The media of the time was filled with utter contempt for such men – they are described as “beastly drunk,” “filthy dirty,” and “worthless, vicious ruffians” as well as (of course) criminal. One 1902 article in the Los Angeles Times is afire with panic and moral outrage over the men who have “settled like a blight” in a part of the city called “Hobo corner.” “The plan of the hobo,” the paper of record writes, “is a very simple one. Arriving in town, he drifts into the nearest ‘hang-out’ and camps with the intent to get drunk.” Eventually, the writer claims, men are draped over the beer kegs, asleep.
There was even a school of study – “Trampology.” Sort of a cross between Darwinism and liberal capitalism, “trampologists” posited that the itinerant male workers were not displaced by society, but complete degenerates, worthless, and unfit to survive in modern society. The Dean of Yale Law School called these men “evil.”
Immediately, trained from decades of arresting, jailing, and selling Native Americans for forced labor, law enforcement became the primary method of controlling these men, who were mostly white Anglos from other parts of the United States, including some recent immigrants looking for work. (Laws already made “vagrancy” — being in a public space without a job — illegal.) Constables (a locally elected law enforcement official who oversees a small territory and generally deals with petty crimes) could get $1 per arrest but were limited, but law, to $1,000 per year and $83.33 per month. Therefore, once the constables hit their target, they stopped arresting people. Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies arrested groups of men at “tramp jungles” along the outskirts of town, amplifying efforts during the winter months as part of a seasonal round-up to pacify the residents.
By 1908, the Los Angeles Police Department built what they called a “stockade” using the chain gang labor of incarcerated people. “Now let the hoboes come; we’re ready for them,” a Lieutenant in charge of the LAPD Jails Division told reporters. Soon, these jails were full of mostly white men, itinerant workers, making Los Angeles one of the most incarcerated cities in the United States. (Native Americans were still arrested as part of a campaign of genocide; mass incarceration of white men did not replace the enslavement of others.)
Around the same time that there was a deep concern about unemployed men living without the moderating influence of women, there was also a growing awareness of the role of city streets. The upper-middle-class Anglos who had founded the city and were still its leaders envisioned a life with two spheres – public and domestic – making the negotiation of who belongs on the street one laden with class and race. News articles at the time bemoan the habit of men hanging out – “The street corner was black with them,” one says – a threat to foot traffic and commercial industry.
Los Angeles was sold to Anglos as an “Eden for the Saxon Homesteader” and an “Aryan City in the sun,” specifically racist promises that brought with them the promise of middle-class respectability. The men in the alley Horace Bell saw? They would become a thing of the past. By 1900, 90% of the population of Los Angeles would be white Anglos and European immigrants.
So little, of course, has changed when it comes to how sheriffs see the houseless, with the same racialized fears. This week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva gave an angry screed against people who are houseless, insisting that they remain unhoused because they “refuse to work” and see their situation as a “lifestyle.” I hardly need to point to the parallels to the hobo panic. The screed was posted to Sheriff Mark Lamb’s Instagram – Lamb, my readers will remember, is the Arizona sheriff who started Protect America Now, a far-right sheriff group featuring people like Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.
A note on terminology: I use the term “Anglo” in lieu of “white” because a) this is what historians of the time used; and b) it is more precise. At the time, many of the Californios were Spanish-Mexicans, another colonial force, who were in the unusual position of becoming Americans overnight.