Brow Beat

Meet Virginia Stopher, 19-Year-Old “Girl Hobo” of the 1920s, Who Left Her Husband to Ride the Rails

Virginia Stofer, in a headshot and three-quarter photos.
Virginia Stopher Arizona Daily Star

On January 1, works published in the United States in 1923 entered the public domain for the first time. Cultural gatekeepers and the monied interests have treated this news as little more than an excuse to publish new editions of The Prophet without getting anyone’s permission, but here at Slate it meant one thing and one thing only: an entire year’s worth of public domain news stories about hobos. Here is one of them, an interview with one Virginia W. Stopher (or “Stofer”; her name is spelled both ways on the same page of the newspaper), age 19. At the time of the interview, Stopher had just been arrested in Pima County for smuggling six hacksaw blades into the local jail to help two other hobos make their escape. The interview was originally published in the Tucson, Arizona Daily Star on Sunday, Feb. 18, 1923. As the internet’s premier destination for newly-public-domain hobo-related news, Slate is proud to reprint it again in its entirety. —Matthew Dessem



Mrs. Virginia W. Stopher, Adopted Daughter of Wealthy Parents, Forsakes Mate Rather Than Work For Him

Three times across the continent in seven months! Riding the “blinds” during heavy rains! Reading poetry by the firelight of the “jungle”! Traveling on the same train as dozens of hobos, bums, criminals, and escaped convicts!

These, all these and more, are the experiences of Mrs. Virginia W. Stopher, girl hobo, who spent part of the past week in Tucson. Yes, a girl hobo, for she is but 19 years old.

The books by O. Henry do not contain a story more thrilling nor more unusual than the life of this young woman during her wanderings around the United States.

Yet she comes of a refined and well-to-do family and is the adopted daughter of an elderly man and wife who are worth a half million dollars. She is a high school graduate and for five years her name was on the list for entrance into the exclusive Wellesley College, an exclusive Massachusetts college for women. She passed the entrance examinations with the exception of mathematics, for these she lacked sufficient credits.

Even after seven months association with the criminals and riffraff of the country the refinement has not been lost. There is about her an air of well breeding and womanliness which has not been marred by the light banter with men.

When we interviewed her the other day it was with hesitancy that she began her story. “There is nothing to tell but what other girls are doing,” she stated. And later as we had dinner together we learned that there are other girls in this country who are doing exactly the same thing she is, but nevertheless this case is extraordinary in that there is no necessity for it.

“How did you begin this life of wandering and are you satisfied with it?” we asked.

Husband Loses Job

“Well, it began with the loss of my husband’s position. He felt that if we could only get back east he might be stimulated into working. So we started! When we got far enough away from the west coast to convince him that working was the last thing he wanted to do and that a bit of cold weather might get him into work, he turned tail and returned. He is somewhere in California now. But I don’t want to be too harsh with him for he comes of a southern family and is slow, lazy, and just naturally a poor and a lagging thinker,” she continued.

Jim and Virginia Stopher, in a 1922 news clip about their hobo honeymoon.
The Stophers, in happier times. The Regina, Saskatchewan Morning Leader, Nov. 7, 1922.

“That left me with two choices: to return to work for him: or to go on alone. I was a bit disgusted I guess and there seemed nothing to do but go on. I had learned the game by then, and it is an art, you know, and I did not feel afraid to go on alone.

“But there isn’t anything to be afraid of with a bunch of men crossing the country,” she replied to our query about her safety. “There is an unwritten code among bums. I can say this for them that during these past seven months, the only insults which I have received were from ‘bulls,’ ‘brakies,’ or citizens of a town.

“Why, in the ‘jungles’ when there are thirty or more about, all cussing ceases when a girl comes into camp with the exception of a dam or a hell,” and these one hears in a ballroom. “Once when I came in with this khaki outfit on and my cap hiding my hair an Englishman was giving the air a few colors and the boys told him to stop, but he didn’t hear and kept on. Well, that poor fellow got the thrashing of his life.”

Mrs. Stopher is a slim young woman with heavy dark brown hair and sparkling eyes and an ever-ready smile which shows up a dimple. There is an air about her which savors the statement of Cowper, “I am indifferent to the judgement of all, except the few who are indeed judicious.”

Not a ‘Spoiled Child’

She is eager to tell of her experiences which she relates in a manner which is both common place and a tiny bit proud. She does not act like a spoiled child who has done something naughty and is proud of it, but she knows what she has done is out of the ordinary and she is willing to give you the full benefit of her experiences when she gets to talking.

“I guess what starts all bums or hobos on the road is the blues. There isn’t a bluer bunch in the world than a bunch of hobos around a campfire in the ‘jungle’ when a freight has just got in. They sit around sort of glum like and then all at once some ‘crack’ comes out with a joke and you never saw such a jolly bunch in your life,” she told us.

“What is a jungle? Why, that is the official meeting place of all the hobos. There is one in every town and there are two in Tucson. They are—” and she proceeded to give us the exact location of them both. “At these jungles we build a big fire and everybody brings in his ‘mooch,’ the stuff he gets going from house to house, and we cook it up. We usually sleep around the jungle too.

“I am not quite sure just what makes all hobos be so kind to a woman on the rods but I have figured it this way. They think to themselves that they have a mother or sister and how would they like to have them treated if they were on the road alone. In camp the boys give me their heaviest coats so I can wrap up warm at night. On the road they give me as many ‘California blankets’ (newspapers) as they can spare so I’ll be more comfortable. They always divide the food and only one has ever played me a trick and he took my coat.

Whole Family Hoboing

“The sympathy of this group is great. When one comes along that is less fortunate than they are they lend a hand. I saw, only a few weeks ago, a man with his wife and four children traveling, hoboing in a box car. The youngest baby was five months old. Imagine that if you can, and going through cold, blowy Texas, too.

“Well, that whole jungle turned out to get food for that family and milk for that baby. But let me tell you this: No American mother gave milk to that starving baby. The boys went to dozens of houses and told them that there was a baby starving and would they give them a bottle of milk. Not on your life would they. We finally had to get it from a storekeeper, but if we had been in New Mexico or Arizona we would have gotten it from a Mexican family. The Mexican family, no matter how poor, will divide his little with you ever time.

“The life in camp usually consists of cooking and then moving on. We take tin cans and blow the tops off and use them for drinking cups and cooking utensils. We get the big cans and use them to wash our clothes in. More about ‘clean’ bums later. We have to hustle for wood in this section of the country, but we usually manage to have a big fire and plenty to eat. Few of us ever go hungry, but we often don’t know when the next meal will be had. After a meal we clean up camp, stack up our tin cans, pile up the wood, and if it’s time to catch a train to the next place, do so. We sleep in the jungle many times, and the most wonderful poetry I ever heard was recited at night around the campfire. Good poetry, too—Longfellow, Poe, Shakespeare, Byron, Keats.

I.W.W. Literature

“Another kind of literature you hear is I.W.W. The other day right here in Arizona I was in on a Red meeting. And it surely was Red. We had hymn books and literature about the Reds and such speeches as they did give. You know one half the hobos are Reds and the other half K.K.K. At this meeting the coming hobo convention was announced. It will be held in K— and that town will be flooded with hobos going to the convention this summer. I went to a small one once, and they had barbecued beef and eats of all kinds. But the coming one will be a real spread. All the members of the Side-Door Pullman club will be there too for they have handbills out telling about it now, and these are being passed down the line all the time.

Up to Date Hobos

“Now about the cleanliness of the hobo of today,” she went on. “The old time hobo with dirty face, ragged clothes, and torn shoes is going out. The modern hobo is a young man, usually an able bodied man. And I would not say that very many of them were ex-service men either. I mean army ex-service, not prison ex-service, for of the latter there are three out of a possible ten.

“I want to tell you that I never saw so many fellows carry powder and cold cream and toothbrushes along as I did while riding the ‘blinds.’ Why on the ‘cushions’ you would not see as many men so well equipped with razors, shaving creams, and such. The boys have good manners in eating. I have found that out of ten, four or maybe five have a grade school education. Most of them come from the middle class of people and of course there is the usual outfit of safe blowers, thieves of other kinds, and dopes.

“But on this last trip on the same train with me there were two Masons with paid up dues, a Doctor, and a college graduate, and a boy whose parents’ names would be recognized in an Eastern town as both wealthy and socially prominent. That boy, by the way, will live only a few months—cancer of the stomach.”

We asked a dozen questions, many of them answered in Mrs. Stopher’s talk, but chief of all we wanted to know, next, how to ride a train. It sounded very easy to hear her tell of it.

Boarding the Trains

“Well, you just hang around and watch the places where the trains slow up in getting out of town, or for a water tank and then you get on. I have gotten so now that I can catch a train going at 25 miles an hour with one hand. I am proud of learning to do it with one hand for that is the way the men usually catch it. The first train I caught I thought I never would make it. The next I didn’t jump just right and my legs swung out and only a reverse action of the train saved me my legs. The next one was going about five miles an hour and I couldn’t hardly get on it, I was so scared from that previous experience. There is an art to knowing just when to make the jump and how to run before you grab on. Where do we ride? Well, I usually ride the blinds, but we ride on the reefers lots too. The vegetable and fruit cars that they don’t ice have ventilators in the top of the cars that furnish room for us to drop down on the inside, praying while we drop that we land on our feet with no broken bones, and then sleep in there. It is quite warm too and with California blankets, O! I mean newspapers, one gets along nicely. I have even seen one old bum with an oil stove in a fruit car.

“I usually travel in a bunch. The boys know they can travel with safety, so as far as long rides go when a woman is along for the brakies seldom put us women off and then there is safety for me, for the bunch always have a ready fist to ‘lay out’ the one who dares to even cuss before me. I don’t want to convey the impression that I am prissy about cussing. I don’t like it any more than any other woman does, but the boys know it isn’t nice so they just stop it. I have heard more women in good society tell smutty jokes than ever in a camp or on a trip. There are too many good things to be talking about, with the whole world to discuss and the governments of countries to decide to bother with the ugly things of life.

“The first person I ever boned in my life was right in Tucson under the very nose of a copper,” stated Mrs. Stopher. “I was hungry and I asked a man if he could give me the price of a dinner. He had about 45 cents and I told him he needed it as bad as I did. But he kept ten cents and gave me the rest. He is a citizen of the town I believe. Any hobo could grow fat in Tucson. It is an easy place to mooch the boys say.

“Personally, I think it’s a wonderful climate out here and this is the fourth time I have been in Tucson and I always notice that I put on weight as soon as I get in the southwest.”

Mrs. Stopher plays the violin, having studied for seven years. She had rather a bad time of it with tuberculosis of the bone in the wrist of her right arm about a year ago. She had it taken out of the steel cast only a year ago in January and still bears a heavy scar.