Concerning Tramps

April 11, 2011

A friend on the Twitters reposted the musing of some other person or internet concern, which personage or collective wittily remarked thus:

As it happened, I was early today looking over some of the first electronic mails I sent and received on my Gmail account, back in the halcyon summer of 2004. (Why was I doing this? Why not? Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and cheaper than cocaine.) As I was then fully immersed in studying for the bar exam of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and had recently emerged from the intellectual and alcoholic crucible of law school, I was given over to an all-encompassing obsession with the law. This manifested itself in long nights spent arguing the merits of various Supreme Court decisions (over copious libations, you may justly presume), in e-mail exchanges of like manner, and in a needlessly detailed acquaintance with all sorts of legal arcana. (It was at that very moment – June of 2004 – that I was first prised away, albeit only a little, from that heady life of the mind and the mug, as my first son was born in the preceding month.) One thing I learned of then was Massachusetts’ tramp statute, which remains on the books, and which I reproduce for you, dear reader, because it is short and funny:

Whoever, not being under seventeen, or a person asking charity within his own town, roves about from place to place begging, or living without labor or visible means of support, shall be deemed a tramp. An act of begging or soliciting alms, whether of money, food, lodging or clothing, by a person having no residence in the town within which the act is committed, or the riding upon a freight train of a railroad, whether within or without any car or part thereof, without a permit from the proper officers or employees of such railroad or train, shall be prima facie evidence that such person is a tramp.

It seems funny, of course, because our modern conception of liberty more or less includes, whether we stop to consider it or not, the freedom to live without labor or visible means of support. Also, because, well, tramp is a funny word with multiple meanings, the most current of which is the one exemplified in the Twitter post above. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, tramps were apparently a big problem. (If you would like to giggle a lot, read this serious bit of writing from 1912, entitled, sensibly, “THE TRAMP PROBLEM,” in which the General Secretary of no less intimidating a concern than the Prison Association of New York summarizes the state of the eponymous scourge, but as you read, make sure to think of the modern, loose-moralled-woman meaning of “tramp.”)

Connecticut, I am happy to report, has repealed its tramp statute, leaving our state’s citizens more or less free to wander on foot or by rail, without work or visible means of support. (Perhaps the long decline in reliable rail service in the Land of Steady Habits has robbed the tramps of a key element of their lifestyle. If so, one hopes that their descendants or admirers will not have the wherewithal to adapt their execrable practices to intercity buses traveling along the very abandoned railbeds where tramps once flourished, what with the Governor’s recent approval of the New Britain-Hartford busway project.) However, in trying to find the original text of Connecticut’s venerable statute, I came across the following marvelous report from the “Correspondence” section of the Albany Law Journal’s 1880 edition, demonstrating that (1) “tramp” is a funny word; (2) the perils of our nation’s patchwork of differing state and municipal laws are not new; and (3) “tramp” really is a hilarious word. (Also, you will do very well to ponder and, in the future, rely upon the pearl of wisdom imparted in the final sentence.)

We give an interesting communication from Delaware in another column on the subject of Tramps. About nine months ago the Connecticut anti-tramp law went into operation. The Hartford Courant recently addressed to the selectmen of every town, the mayors of cities, and the wardens of boroughs, a letter containing the following questions: “Has the tramp law resulted in practically freeing your town from tramps? Have you knowledge of the tramp law being used to oppress deserving men in any instance? Is the tramp law sustained by public opinion in your town? Please mention specific benefits to your town derived from the operation of the tramp law, if any.” The replies fill about seven columns of the Courant, and with three exceptions heartily approve the working of the law. The Courant editorially remarks:

“There has been a great saving in expense, which taking the State as a whole must aggregate many thousand dollars. There is an added feeling of security, worth more than the money saving. There has been a lessening of crime and a great reduction in criminal prosecutions. The law has enforced itself, for from the time that it took effect the tramp class disappeared, not waiting to ascertain whether public sentiment would sustain it. There have been a few trials and commitments under it, just enough to show that it works well when required. Now that its benefits have been felt so widely it is hardly possible that it would be allowed to he a dead letter if the miscreants should try the experiment of returning.”

Our Delaware correspondent congratulates the State that tramps have either disappeared or gone to work. Now the question arises, what becomes of tramps when they disappear? Do they simply go to another State? Legislation on this subject has hitherto exhausted itself in ingeniously compelling tramps to emigrate, and thus one State simply relieves itself at the expense of another. Perhaps those three dissenting communities in Connecticut were the recipients of all the tramps of the State. One of the most disgraceful things in the law reports is the evidence of the constant struggle of one community to shift the burden of its paupers on another. Depend upon it, we have not got to the root of the matter yet. The man is not cured who has got rid of his head-ache at the expense of a gout.

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One Response to “Concerning Tramps”

  1. tramp (v.)
    late 14c., “walk heavily, stamp,” from M.L.G. trampen “to stamp,” from P.Gmc. *tramp- (cf. Dan. trampe, Swed. trampa “to tramp, stamp,” Goth. ana-trimpan “to press upon”), probably from a variant of the P.Gmc. source of trap. Related: Tramped; tramping.

    The noun meaning “person who wanders about, vagabond” is first recorded 1660s, from the verb.

    Sense of “steamship which takes cargo wherever it can be traded” (as opposed to one running a regular line) is attested from c.1880.

    The meaning “promiscuous woman” is from 1922.

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