Indispensable Outcasts

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Frank Tobias Higbie, textIndispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930.


Alex Bradshaw Fall 2012

Higbie explores the social, economic, and political lives of hobo, or transient, workers and of the people with whom they came in contact in the Midwest region of the US. Higbie declares that the only way to possibly understand the lives of these workers is to balance and evaluate their various identities, experiences, and roles, all of which cannot easily be fit into those that have been previously ascribed to the workers, either in their own times, or in the historical record.

Higbie’s analysis does not result in his coming to any conclusive assertions about the nature of this history. This lack of certainty is partially caused by the documentary shortage that is the inevitable result of the nature of transient workers’ lives. Social and labor historians can conduct highly detailed studies of life in particular regions and in particular industries, but this cannot include workers who hat comprehensive accounts of the lives of workers whose positions and locations fluctuated frequently. Higbie used labor records, oral histories, and interviews conducted by contemporary social service groups, in addition to other evidence to tell this history.

Hobo workers have had difficult relationships with the communities with which they interacted. They were often seen as exerting negative influence over those communities, bringing with them shiftlessness, immorality, filth, criminality, perversion, and any other number of devastating qualities. Higbie argues that this was both true and false, or neither, according to particular situations.

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