In the aftermath of the Civil War in America, many displaced people – some the victims of war; some freed slaves, or those seeking freedom - took to the roads looking for places to live, to lay low, or to start new lives. Much of the movement of these displaced people coincided with the expansion of railroad networks and the growth of industry in the post-War era; the homeless wanderers made their way across the country by means of hopping illegally onto railcars and “riding the rails” to wherever the trains were headed. As a group, this itinerant underclass became known as “Hobos” and they were a feature of the American landscape right up until the end of the 1930s.
In line with the pioneering literature of the country – from dime store cowboy novels to the loftier heights of such works as Huckleberry Finn – the lifestyle of the hobos became suffused with romantic notions of freedom and of being footloose – not tied down by the tiresome exigencies of a tedious workaday lifestyle. Hobos took on the sheen and romance of the European Troubadours, becoming a gypsy race free to roam and do as they pleased, without having to answer to any higher power. Of course, there was the downside to this lifestyle, in that it was based on a certain level of illegality – flouting carriage laws as they pertained to rail networks, and some petty larceny in order to avoid starvation – and a degree of danger – of being run over by a train, or of being beaten up by zealous law enforcement agents – but this was considered a fair exchange for being free to do as one chose.
In cinematic circles, this romantic sheen was all too clear - performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, along with many others, created characters and made films glorifying the gleefully shambolic lifestyle of the hobo. In fact, the down-at-heel, hardscrabble homeless clown became an entertainment staple informing all kinds of media representation from blockbuster movies to Disney comics.
Hobos were said to have their own codes of governance – particular rail networks were jealously guarded by hobo factions who prevented others from using them – and to have their own argot in order to speak without the uninitiated overhearing what was being discussed. Such notions have been the tradition in many underworld societies across the planet from the earliest times and finding these associations within hobo lore is hardly surprising. Along with a vocabulary of jargonistic terms however, hobos are almost unique in having their own written form of secret communication, a system called “Hobo Signs”.
These signs were a collection of symbols that could be quickly and easily scrawled in chalk, or scratched, on walls, telegraph poles, fences and other community features so as to impart information about the locality to the initiated. A short search online will bring up many complex syllabaries of these signs collected from many sources and a facility in using them can be gained in fairly short order. Using the symbols, hobos could warn each other of the presence and temperament of dogs or other building occupants; could point the way to local campsites; and could identify good places where trains could be jumped, amongst other crucial information.
Some commentators claim that the system was merely a simple and useful means whereby wandering individuals - down on their luck and just looking to get by - could help keep each other from harm. However, as with most things of this nature, some factions could turn the benign system to dark ends and, as a result, many symbols arose which were of benefit to that subset of hobo-kind referred to as “yeggs”, or hobos who survived by means of breaking and entering buildings and from thievery. Ultimately, a dark tone of criminality suffused the code system.
The symbols were made available to young people through the American scouting movement who included the syllabary in their guide-books as a way of identifying local hobo activity: such codes were often thought to be educational to young minds who were also taught other code systems from semaphore, to Native American pictograms to Sherlock Holmes’s “Dancing Man” cipher. But here’s the kicker: the Hobo Sign code was not real.
Many people in American history spent time on the road, living rootless lives and freewheeling their way across the country, illegally riding the trains. Among them were full-time hobos such as Jack Black (not THAT Jack Black), Joe Hill (not THAT Joe Hill), Bertha “Boxcar Bertha” Thompson and writer, Jim Tully; and other part-time hobos such as Woodie Guthrie, Jack London, Harry Partch, Louis l’Amour, Jack Kerouac and Robert Mitchum, among many others. None of these people mentioned, or recorded in their memoirs, ever having encountered a system of information transmission which helped them make their way across the country. In fact, the closest they come to it is Jack London’s memory about “monicas” (aka, monikers) being used:
“Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a ‘stiff’ or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound. And promptly the hobo to whom I gave the information lit out after his pal. I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.”
In this sense, the “monica” is the equivalent of the modern graffiti artists’ “tag”, but with the more prosaic function of simply letting others know about who had passed through, when, and to where they were headed.
From the 1890s (when the term “hobo” arose in California) through to the end of the 1930s, newspapers reported sightings of hobo signs in local communities and even printed photos of hobos drawing the signs on walls and telephone poles – these were invariably staged by journalists filling a slow news day. Oftentimes partial syllabaries were published along with such fare in an attempt to instill local fear of the homeless within the community.
Ultimately, this is why the notion of a hobo sign language arose: America is a place which prides itself on the idea of everyone having a fair go, of everyone being able to achieve their goals by means of determination and hard work; an underclass of freedom-loving iconoclasts who flip the bird to this notion of the American Dream is undesirable to the status quo. A sign language which reveals just how the hobo community supposedly dupes and cons the average householder in order to slack off from responsible productivity is an object lesson to the citizens. This false cipher gives license, on some level, to the average American to despise the homeless and unemployed outsiders amongst them and, with impunity and justification, treat them with harsh – even brutal - disrespect. As sinister as the Hobo Signs might seem themselves, their purpose in being made is far more sinister again. Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anyone?
The American Boy Scouts were given this information as a spur to keep them from dropping out and deciding to jump off the Capitalist treadmill, instead adopting a slacker lifestyle (as we would term it nowadays) forged by sponging off others in the glamorously cool way depicted by Chaplin and others in liberal Hollywood. It’s highly likely that the Hobo Signs were derived by their conservative creators from Native American pictogram forms that proliferated among the Plains and Pueblo Indians (and other nations): this is in itself ‘marginalization by association’ and adds extra layers of wickedness onto the whole process. In fact, since to create the symbols and their meanings their originators would have to have had a level of understanding about hobos, the homeless, and their lifestyle, the stunning lack of empathy towards this subsection of the community that they reveal is truly gob-smacking in its cruelty.
So, what does this have to do with Call of Cthulhu and the idea of a world infested by the Lovecraft Mythos? Well, as much as tentacular horrors from outer space don’t really exist in the world (as far as we know), other unreal things might also inhabit our roleplaying worlds with impunity. In a fantasy world – or a fictional recreation of the factual one – such things as the Hobo Signs might be real, and function as their creators had intended. A tale of Mythos horror might well be revealed by the Investigators stumbling upon a cryptic communication being passed by itinerant drifters. The symbols indicate that there is “bad water” at a particular campsite: in what way is the water “bad” exactly? Investigators might follow directions given them by a dubious character only to encounter a hobo sign telling them to “run away!”: what do they do? A party might even adopt the symbols as a means of covertly discussing logistical or other issues in the course of their adventures. And what if the Hobo Signs were not in fact being used by hobos at all, but by some other, darker, malign and not-quite-human element of society…?