Founded in 1915 in St Louis, Missouri by Dr. James Eads How, the “Hobo” News was the world’s first successful street newspaper, a forerunner to Streetwise in the USA and The Big Issue in the United Kingdom. Its contributors were mostly homeless transients, or ‘hobos’ in American slang. The “Hobo” News advocated progressive political reform, including the ending of capital punishment, campaigning for the protection of free speech, and against American involvement in World War I.
The paper’s most consistent campaign was for the repeal of US federal and state vagrancy laws. These laws were based on the 1824 British Vagrancy Act, which made it illegal to be out in the open without visible means of support, and which deemed offenders ‘rogues and vagabonds’. These laws are still in operation in England and Wales (though not in Scotland), and so it is remarkable to see a century-old American newspaper running a campaign that The Big Issue might run today: to repeal the country’s vagrancy laws.
"I tried my best to stay out of sight. You found little places to hide away like garages, air vents, and parks.”
— Crisis (@crisis_uk) June 19, 2019
The “Hobo” News published many articles against the vagrancy acts. Take a particular piece from 1918 written by the transient author Henry A. White for instance. White correctly notes that these laws criminalise a state of being, meaning that a person can be arrested for who they are, rather than what they have done: ‘These laws’, he says, ‘are so drawn that it makes possible the arrest and conviction for vagrancy of any person or persons…whether or not, they are guilty of any offence’. Making a biblical comparison, White concludes that ‘If the Archangel Michael were caught on earth today…poorly clad and without money, he would be arrested under the vagrancy laws, his wings would be clipped, and he would do time…unless Heaven itself intervened in his behalf’. White makes it clear that offenders are not guilty of any crime except the crime of poverty. Many “Hobo” News sellers were arrested for vagrancy, so much so that the paper established a legal aid fund to help accused members mount a legal defence.
In 1918, the “Hobo” News produced a poetry book written by transients. One poem, ‘No Matter Where You Go’, expressed the thoughts of an anonymous hobo at being moved around the country and finding no place that would allow him to settle. The poet moves from San Francisco to New Orleans and Boston, finding no shelter or money anywhere:
Not much doing in St Louis—