Open menu


Open menu


Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space



The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man by American sociologist Nels Anderson (1889-1986) was “A study prepared for the Chicago Council of Social Agencies under the direction of the Committee on Homeless Men”. It was published by the University of Chicago Press in Chicago in May 1923. It was notable for helping to pioneer participant observation as a research method to reveal the features of a society.

Presented here is:
1. Part of pp. 9-10 of the “Committee’s Preface” for the light it sheds on how the author gathered his information. Note, however, that the author was really much more deeply informed about hobos than this would suggest, his hobo parents having brought him up as one from his birth in a Chicago slum.[1]
2. Pages 144-149 of Chapter X, which is everything said in the book about homosexuality. It is only as the author goes into detail that it emerges, as if it could have been taken for granted, that this homosexuality was in fact exclusively pederastic.



Anderson Nels as a 1st WW soldier
Nels Anderson as a soldier in the 1st World War, 1918

Mr. Nels Anderson, a graduate student in sociology in the University of Chicago, was selected to make the study. Mr. Anderson was already thoroughly familiar with the life of the migratory casual worker. He had shared their experiences “on the road” and at work, and had visited the Hobohemian areas of many of the large western cities. […] Early in 1922, […] he began a study of homeless men in Chicago, in connection with a field-study course at the University of Chicago.

The object of this inquiry […] was to secure those facts which would enable social agencies to deal intelligently with the problems created by the continuous ebb and flow, out of and into Chicago, of tens of thousands of foot-loose and homeless men. […]

Earlier studies of the migratory casual workers in the United States have been limited almost entirely to statistical investigation. In the present inquiry a more intensive study of cases was decided upon in preference to an extensive statistical survey. For the past twelve months Mr. Anderson lived in Hobohemia, and in a natural and informal way secured upward of sixty life-histories.


Chapter X. Sex Life of the Homeless Man


All studies indicate that homosexual practices among homeless men are widespread. They are especially prevalent among men on the road among whom there is a tendency to idealize and justify the practice. Homosexuality is not more common among tramps than among other one-sex groups. In the prison and jail population, the authorities are forced to wage a constant warfare against it. The same condition prevails also in the navy or merchant marine, and, to a lesser extent, in the army.[2]

Among tramps there are, it seems, two types of perverts. There are those who are subjects, in the words of Havelock Ellis[3], “of a congenital predisposition, or complexus of abnormalities.” Ellis contends that certain individuals, different temperamentally and physically from the rest of us, are not attracted by the opposite sex but are easily attracted by their own sex. Most of them are men who have developed from childhood feminine traits and tastes, and they may be regarded as predisposed to homosexuality. The second group is composed of individuals who have temporarily substituted homosexual for heterosexual behavior. Most of these perverts by conversion are men who, under the pressure of sex isolation, have substituted boy for woman as the object of their desires. This is chiefly because boys are accessible while women are not.



15 tramp in Chicago 1923 d1

The boy does not need to remain long in hobo society to learn of homosexual practices. The average boy on the road is invariably approached by men who get into his good graces. Some “homos” claim that every boy is a potential homosexual. This is without doubt an exaggeration as well as a defense, for not all boys are subject to persuasion. Sometimes boys will travel alone or with other boys to avoid the approaches of older men. Often boys will refrain from traveling with adults, even well-behaved adults, because they realize that they will be under suspicion. It is not uncommon to hear a boy who is seen traveling with an older man spoken of as the “wife” or “woman.” It is only natural that many boys fear to be alone with adult tramps.

53. The case of M. is typical. He is a sixteen year old boy who travels alone. He is a handsome lad; small for his age and neat in appearance. He is just the type of boy that would attract the average “wolf” who idealizes pink cheeks and an innocent appearance. He travels alone because of his fear of “wolves.” He had not been away from home three weeks and he says that he has been accosted several times. Although he had been in Chicago but a day he had received advances from two men who tried to persuade him to go to a room.

Many devices are employed by them to place the lad in their debt or under their protection. If methods of persuasion do not work, force is sometimes used. One man gave a brakeman a dollar to put a boy off the train at a lonely siding. Another man learned which direction a certain boy was travelling and followed him from town to town, “accidentally” meeting him at each place. The lad was without funds, and so was the man, but the latter was able to beg and usually had a “lump” when he met the boy and he always divided. Another man led a boy a mile or so out in the country to a place where he claimed he had worked during the previous year and where he knew they could both get something to eat.

Another common ruse is to take a boy to a room or a box car to sleep. The man suggests that he knows a clean car in a safe place with plenty of straw or paper on the floor. In a big city the boy is often enticed to a room for the same purpose. There are many cases on record in the Chicago courts.[4]

54. A. F., a boy sixteen years old, was being held in a room on West Ohio Street to which he had been enticed for immoral purposes by John Mc J. M. was arrested on complaint of one F. He was found in company with another boy in a room in the E. Hotel on South State Street. John was held for trial on $3,000 bonds which he could not furnish. He died in jail waiting for trial.

15 in Chicago lodging house 1923 d1

55. C. J. This man worked on a boat plying between Michigan ports and Chicago. He persuaded a Michigan boy whose home was near Lansing but who had run away and was loafing about the docks on the lake front, to come with him to Chicago. He promised to help the boy get a job, etc. He took him to a room on South State Street where he held him for three days and had improper relations with him. Prior to his apprehension he had turned the boy over to another man for the same purpose.

Josiah Flynt[5], who was familiar with tramp life, seems to be of the opinion that most boys are forced into the practice. However, it does not seem probable that force is so extensively employed as is sometimes believed. These accounts serve as a defense reaction on their part, yet we cannot say that such forced initiations do not occur. But even those who at the outset were the victims of “strong arm” methods often become reconciled to the practice and continue it. Often they become promiscuous in their relations and many of them even commercialize themselves.

Writers on the sex behavior of men and boys often refer to the relationship as it exists among tramps as a sort of slavery. By slavery is meant that boys are held in bondage to men and forced to steal and beg for them. This condition may exist in isolated instances but it is not general. It is even suggested by some authorities that there exists some sort of organization among tramps through which boys have been “caught” and kept in servitude. The best evidence that such an organization does not exist is the fact that perverted sex practices are frowned upon by the tramps themselves.

The court records show, however, that not infrequently boys are held in rooms, or taken to lonely buildings, or out on the lake front, or in the parks, but the case that gets into court is seldom one in which both parties were free agents. If there is slavery in these latter cases it is slavery to their passions, or to a state of mind growing out of their habits and their isolation.

The duration of an intimacy of this kind in the city is seldom more than a few days. On the road, however, the “partnership” may last for weeks. Whereas, out of town the pair can travel as companions aiding each other, in the city they can get along better alone. It is difficult for partners to remain together long in the city, especially if one has money and the other none, or if one drinks and the other does not. Living in a metropolis is a problem the tramp can solve better alone.



14 in Chicago bar 1923 d1

Tramp perverts argue that homosexual intercourse is “clean” and that homosexuals are less liable to become infected with venereal disease. The Vice Commission of Chicago, in its report for 1911, states that homosexual individuals “are not known in their true character to any extent by the physicians because of the fact that their habits do not, as a rule, produce bodily disease.”[6]

It is also urged by perverts that in the homosexual relation there is the absence of the eternal complications in which one becomes involved with women. They want to avoid intimacies that complicate the free life to which they are by temperament and habit committed. Homosexual attachments are generally short lived, but they are real while they last. Sometimes a man will assume a priority over a boy and will even fight to maintain it. The investigator during his study of this phase of the tramp problem made two unsuccessful attempts to step between men and their boys, or “lambs.” In one case his interference was resented by both the man and the boy, but in the other it was rather enjoyed by the boy, though he would not be separated from his “wolf.”

The investigator met S., a veteran “wolf” on Madison Street. When he was asked why his face was so badly bruised he said that he and another man had fought over a boy. “He was trying to get my kid into a room with him.” He claimed that he hit the man and ran but that he was arrested. He was held over night in the Desplaines Street Station on a charge of disorderly conduct, but was discharged the next morning. What hurt him most was not the night in jail or his bruised face but the fact that the other man had left town with the boy.

In his sex life, as in his whole existence, the homeless man moves in a vicious circle. Industrially inadequate, his migratory habits render him the more economically inefficient. A social outcast, he still wants the companionship which his mode of life denies him. Debarred from family life, he hungers for intimate associations and affection. The women that he knows, with few exceptions, are repulsive to him. Attractive women live in social worlds infinitely remote from his. With him the fundamental wishes of the person for response and status have been denied expression. The prevalence of sexual perversion among the homeless men is, therefore, but the extreme expression of their unnatural sex life. Homosexual practices arise almost inevitably in similar situations of sex isolation. A constructive solution for the problems of the sex life of the homeless man strikes deeper into our social life than this study can carry us.


[1] Hopeful Odyssey: Nels Anderson Boy Hobo, Desert Saint, Wartime Diarist, Public Servant, Expatriate Sociologist by Charles S. Peterson, the 29th  Annual Lecture of the Juanita Brooks Lecture Series, 2012thHopeful Odyssey: Nels Anderson Boy Hobo, Desert Saint, Wartime Diarist, Public Servant, Expatriate Sociologist by Charles S. Peterson, the 29th  Annual Lecture of the Juanita Brooks Lecture Series, 2012, pp. 2-3. [Website footnote]

[2] Iwan Bloch, Sexual Life of Our Times, p. 540. [Author’s footnote]

[3] Havelock Ellis was the author of Studies of the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion, the first scientific study of homosexuality in English, published in 1897. [Website footnote]

[4] Unpublished Document 32. [Author’s footnote]

[5] Josiah Flynt was the author of “Homosexuality Amongst Tramps”, an essay which appeared as Appendix A in all three editions (1897-1915) of Studies of the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion, by Havelock Ellis. Like Nels Anderson, Flynt gathered his information from having lived as a hobo himself, and like him, he described only pederasty, taking it for granted that it was boys only who were the subject of homosexual interest for tramps. [Website footnote]

[6] The Social Evil in Chicago, pp. 296-97. [Author's footnote]