Published January 4, 2017 on Bedford + Bowery | By Clare Church
Heckles and howls echoed through the meeting rooms of 64 East 4th Street on February 1, 1913. “Down with How and his postage stamp philanthropy!” yelled Jeff Davis, the self-proclaimed King of the Hoboes. “He has never given us any of his mythical millions!”
Davis further accused the so-called Millionaire Hobo, James Eads How, of injecting socialism into this annual convention of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association. The Millionaire retorted to the jeering crowd that he did not identify as a socialist, but as a “philosophical anarchist,” and that Davis, in fact, was the “dyed-in-the-wool socialist.” The hoboes, however, stood by their King and cast out the Millionaire.
For most of the next decade, the millionaire and the king continued to feud over the leadership of New York’s hoboes. Many of their public displays of disagreement took place at 64 East 4th Street, or as it was called then, the Labor Lyceum.
From the Lyceum, between 1890 and 1920, riots, scandals, and strikes convened and burst forth with near regularity. Whether hosting Mother Jones and her army of labor unionists, a free-for-all fight within the Socialist Labor party, or the hoboes and their warring leaders, 64 East 4th Street hosted assemblies for those who fervently, and fanatically, pushed the vanguard of social and political change.
Developers Elisha Peck and Anson Phelps commissioned the construction of the building in 1832 as one of the original 12 houses of Albion Place. As early as 1862, newspapers referred to the building as the Metropolitan Assembly Rooms and boarding house. In May of 1862, for example, the New York Tribune reported on a jubilee in the assembly rooms, held by young New Yorkers of color to celebrate the Act of Congress emancipating slaves in the District of Columbia. Starting in the 1870s, laborers, veterans, and socialists also used the rooms for meetings and congregations, including Eads How, who founded the New York chapter of The Brotherhood Welfare Association in September, 1907.
By the time of this founding, Eads How had become heir to millions as the grandson of James B. Eads, the man who built the famous Eads bridge over the Mississippi River. This inherited fortune earned Eads How the title of Millionaire Hobo. Originally from St. Louis, Eads How made national headlines, beginning in 1899 as a wealthy man who dressed “like a tramp from choice.” Described as sweet and gentle, the Kansas City Journal documented the Millionaire’s belief that he could not allow himself “to live in ease and luxury when he saw so much misery about him.”
The Millionaire’s New York followers showed devotion to him at their first meeting in 1907, and gave him an “enthusiastic welcome.” With a scrubby beard, and soft-low voice, he pledged his money to the organization and spoke to the great cause of hobodom. “I am not a Socialist, nor an Anarchist,” the New York Times quoted him as saying, “but I do believe that the ‘hobo’ of this country is not getting a ‘square deal.’” To which, Dr. Ella A. Jennings, the only woman at the meeting, opined, “Mr. How is the greatest philanthropist of his time.”
The encroachment of Davis on the Millionaire’s leadership began at that February 1913 meeting on 4th Street. Davis organized and presided over the International Itinerant Migratory Workers Union, or IIW. As Davis would later explain at a convention of his followers in St. Louis in 1937, a hobo only “begs when he has to.” Time magazine reported that Davis made sure to mark the distinction between hobo, tramp and bum, a definition still subscribed to by today’s Hobo conventions, which states: “A hobo wanders and works, a tramp wanders and dreams, and a bum neither wanders or works.” The term of choice for Davis and his hoboes was “migratory workers.” As Davis put in at that 1937 convention, “Columbus was a water hobo. He said to Isabella: ‘Queeny, old gal, you’ll have to stake me with a handout.’”
In 1913, Davis began a series of “Hotel de Ginks,” establishing the original temporary sanctuary in Seattle. The hotels fed, housed and supplied work for the wandering hobo, provided he indeed looked for work. Davis moved onto New York for his next facility in this informal franchise.
Davis’s challenge to Eads How, however, did not immediately unseat the Millionaire. Eads How managed to regain his foothold over the hoboes in October 1914 when he led the Brotherhood Welfare Association to adopt an anti-militarist stance during World War I. The Millionaire and his hoboes united and approved a resolution, asking President Wilson to stop the “European War.” The motion was reportedly “passed with enthusiasm.”
The group’s meetings were held at both the Labor Lyceum, as well as the Manhattan Lyceum, located only one door away at 66 East 4th Street. That is, however, until November of 1914, when Charles Hirsch, owner of No. 66, started to refuse the group space. Once again, Eads How put up money so that the Brotherhood Welfare Association could move its headquarters permanently to the Labor Lyceum. The space was unfurnished and some members feared that the venue would then prove insufficient. J.J. Vossberg, a member of the association, assured the membership, “We expect to have some chairs or benches by next Sunday. But furniture or no furniture, we will meet in our new winter quarters.”
In January of 1915, Davis declared himself the hoboes’ undisputed king as he offered a solution to the headquarter crisis. According to the New York Tribune, he joined a meeting of the Brotherhood Welfare Association at the Labor Lyceum, and told the hoboes he was going to arrange a shelter for them, “provided that they would clean up the city markets everyday.” The crowd was not pleased. Eads How never made such demands, which is not to say that he discouraged work. Seven years earlier, in fact, Eads How sent an appeal to Washington, asking President Theodore Roosevelt to send the unemployed men of his association to work on the Panama Canal. As it turned out, unemployed citizens from the United States, the Caribbean, and Costa Rica were among those who contributed to the construction effort.
Davis announced the opening of Hotel De Gink, New York, on January 11, 1915 to a crowd of hoboes at the Labor Lyceum. Before discussing the new location, he opened his speech with a long “oral biographical sketch of himself,” then concluding that only “Real Hoboes, who want to work when they can get it, will be allowed as occupants.” The assembled hoboes responded dubiously.
By January 18 of that year, another contretemps between the King and Millionaire surfaced. A rumor spread that Davis said Eads How was crazy. The New York Tribune explained that the rumor emanated from a Philadelphia hobo at one of the weekly meetings at the Lyceum. Devotees of Eads How and his Brotherhood Welfare Association questioned Davis and his Hotel De Gink. Jeers and heckles once again resounded through the meetings halls, with one hobo making a megaphone of his hands, and shouting to Davis “to offer proof that he was a properly registered alienist.” This hobo, and others, interrogated Davis’ good character, by insinuating the King could not judge the Millionaire without the authority to do so as a psychologist, or as an alienist, as the term was dubbed then.
Regardless, Hotel De Gink, located at 75 Center Street (now apartment buildings), opened in late January of 1915 and Davis threw himself fully into the world of hobodom. Perhaps as a signal that he would not abandon his wandering lifestyle, he even cancelled his $350 contract to appear on the stage at the Victoria Theatre, a vaudeville house opened by Oscar Hammerstein I. One week later, the New York Tribune revealed that Eads How’s lease for the Labor Lyceum expired and that his welfare association had nowhere to hold its winter meetings after all. The only available option was Davis’ Hotel De Gink. The King reigned supreme.
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The feud between Davis and Eads How, and especially their respective fears of socialist persuasions, speaks to many of the activities that occurred at 64 East 4th Street at the turn of the last century. The Labor Lyceum also accommodated the Socialist Democratic Party for New York, as well as the Socialist Trade Labor Alliance of the United States and Canada. As early as 1897, 64 East 4th Street was known as the Socialist Labor Lyceum, too, and was the site of many a ruckus. A meeting in June 1897, made headlines when a 48-hour meeting of the Socialists of Greater New York became so contentious that the chairman “broke his gavel trying to restore order,” and “every man was on his feet and shouting as loud as his lungs would permit.”
The venue was in the news again two years later, when disagreements arose at their semi-annual meeting, boiling over into a full-on brawl. The New York Tribune reported that during the fight Henry De Leon, the previous controller of the party’s General Committee, jumped on top of a piano and “with a music stool in each hand, dared his enemies to approach him.” The men punched, kicked, and screamed, until an hour passed and all were too exhausted to continue. Four years later, in 1903, labor and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones also appeared. On the way to a march, she stopped at the headquarters of the Social Democratic party, located at the Lyceum. It is no surprise then, that socialism, and its housing at 64 East 4th Street, would be contentious for the hoboes.
By the 1920s, both the King and the Millionaire moved on from New York. While Davis continued to advocate for his International Itinerant Migratory Workers Union across the United States, Eads How opened up half a dozen “Hobo Colleges.” At a conference for the International Brotherhood Welfare Association in 1923, Eads How told the assemblage that his colleges would educate hoboes on labor laws and the government. He then made a speech, peering over his silver-rimmed glasses, and as the New York Times reported, looked to be all of his 56 years. He proclaimed that the old conception of the hobo “places him in a comic or villainous light, but he is never shown in the wheat fields, cutting the timber in the Northwest or picking oranges in the California groves.”
In 1930, the the Millionaire Hobo died of pneumonia, super-induced by starvation. At his cremation ceremony, the Washington Post reported that only 12 people attended; one of them a hobo. After hearing of the death of Eads How, Davis was reported to have said “Of course, we own no flags to lower to half mast but the boys will be sober and thoughtful for the great guy.” The Washington Post later said that Davis called upon his hoboes to observe 30 days of mourning, to honor his former nemesis.
Davis continued his work for the International Itinerant Migratory Workers Union, now also known as the Hoboes of America. The group carried authorized national membership cards, and numbered upwards of one million people during the Great Depression. By 1935, Davis was resoundingly elected “King of the Hoboes for Life.”
No. 64 East 4th Street continued to host a series of labor and socialist unions after the hoboes moved on. The halls fell into devastation during the Depression years and by the 1970s, the building had thoroughly decayed. The City of New York then acquired the building in 1971 for its Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project and reconstruction began. In 2005, the city sold the repaired structure for the price of $1.00 to the Choicirciati Cultural Center, on the condition that the building be devoted strictly to nonprofit cultural activities in perpetuity.
Today, it is the home of the IATI Theatre, or the Instituto Arte Teatral Internacional, Inc, an organization where works of theater, music, and dance promote Latino heritage. Its mission statement reads: “Some may say we’re a little bit different. We call it vanguardia.” It insists as part of its mandate to always question the status quo.
Meanwhile, in Britt, Iowa, King Ricardo and Queen Sunrise now reign over hobodom, carrying on the same traditions embodied by the King and the Millionaire on 4th Street, fervently embracing the free life of work and wander.