“A-No. 1,” the legendary rambler, spent thirty years riding the rails and thirty more preaching against that lifestyle
By Jonathan Burdick
A Baldwin 2-8-2 steam locomotive emerges from the forest onto the screen. It roars across wooden trestles as thick black smoke billows from the stack and the words “EMPEROR OF THE NORTH” fly in and then fade out. The camera cuts to a man. He is well-dressed in a suit and ivy cap, but his face is dirty and glistening with sweat. He sneers at someone off-screen. A voiceover booms: “A-Number One, a man who lives by his wits. He takes what he needs and goes where he wants and always travels first class. A-Number One has been everywhere, but never on the number nineteen—Shack’s train—where nobody rides for free and lives.”
You are watching a trailer for the film Emperor of the North. The actor portraying A-No. 1 is the silver-haired, Oscar-winning Lee Marvin, known for his signature deep voice, tough guy persona, and as the lead in The M Squad and The Dirty Dozen. “The King of the Hoboes travels by rail, and he always travels alone,” the voiceover continues. Marvin then comes face-to-face on the train with a teenager who has followed him aboard. “This time, a punk kid named Cigaret is going along for the ride.”
“My road, kid,” A-No. 1 shouts angrily at his soon-to-be companion, played by a young Keith Carradine. “I don’t give lessons, and I don’t take partners.”
Emperor of the North came out in 1973. It’s basically Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sans horses, but grittier and more violent, a social commentary disguised as action-adventure. Its anti-establishment message is transparent as it follows the rail-riding duo into a climactic showdown with the sadistic railroad man Shack, played by Ernest Borgnine, Marvin’s co-star in The Dirty Dozen (and fellow Oscar-winner).
Most events that take place in the film are fiction, and Shack is a composition, but A-No. 1 and Cigaret were based on real people. The real A-No. 1 was a turn-of-the-twentieth-century rambler who proclaimed himself “King of the Hoboes.” His given name was Leon Ray Livingston, and he claimed to have traveled more than five hundred thousand miles while spending only $7.61 on fares. Cigaret was the moniker used by Jack London, who, after riding the rails with A-No. 1 in 1894, went on to become a successful author. (Monikers were important in hobo culture—names used on the road and included with graffiti on boxcars and water tanks meant to provide information or even stories for others.)
Livingston was born in San Francisco in 1872, to what he described as loving and well-respected parents. Along with English, he was raised to speak his father’s French and his mother’s German. He enjoyed reading and writing, but was a poor student, frequently disciplined for being lost in daydreams. When he was eleven, he was sent home from school for “ill-behavior” and, fearing his father’s reaction, he ran towards the harbor where he boarded a riverboat headed for Sacramento. He would wander for the next thirty years.
In contrast to the intimidating Lee Marvin interpretation, the real A-No. 1 thought of himself as a gentleman tramp. He favored avoiding conflict over fighting. He did not drink, smoke, swear, or gamble. He was even-tempered, polite, literate, and fluent in three languages. Whenever he arrived at a destination, he changed out of his traveling overalls, cleaned up, and put on his finest suit. Once, when a reporter asked why he didn’t pursue a normal life, Livingston replied, “I’m satisfied with my life. I am having a good time and I see everything there is to see in this world. Tramping is my business and I do it honestly.”
Between 1910 and 1921, Livingston published a series of books about hoboing out of The A-No. 1 Publishing Company in the Pennsylvania resort spa town of Cambridge Springs and, later, out of Erie. They were given titles such as The Ways of the Hobo and The Curse of the Tramp. According to these accounts, his early travels brought him through New Orleans, Florida, and then into Central and South America. He canoed down the Amazon with a young man from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. Shortly after, Livingston caught yellow fever and barely survived.
Riding the rails as a child was dangerous, even beyond the risks of nature, disease, and being unsecured on a moving train. Young boys—and occasionally even young girls—who went on the road were at risk of being groomed and sexually abused by experienced tramps who promised protection in exchange for training and sexual gratification. Livingston implied such realities in his writing, but was not accusatory of his own mentor, who went by Frenchy. Frenchy showed Livingston the ropes as they traveled together and, according to Livingston, gifted him with his moniker. “Listen, Kid,” Frenchy said during their goodbye. “You have been a good lad while you have been with me, in fact been always ‘A-No. 1’ in everything you had to do, and, Kid, take my advice…try to be ‘A-No. 1’ all the time and in everything you undertake.”
In the ensuing years, Livingston took work where he could find it. He carved wooden sculptures and traded them for food, and read and wrote to keep his mind sharp. He inscribed his moniker on boxcars and water tanks while also helping develop a system of symbols to advise fellow hoboes. As his reputation grew, he began carrying with him, as proof of identity, a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and personal letters, as well as notes and autographs from people he met along the way, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, and Jack London.
In 1906, Livingston, now in his mid-thirties, received some of his first press, featured in the Anaconda Standard newspaper in Montana. The story, titled “Chat with King Bee of Tramps,” referred to him both as “a king among tramps” and “Professor Livingston.” He had been thrown in the Butte jail the previous night but was released when the chief recognized him as “honest and harmless.” (Livingston had also charmed the chief with a potato sculpture of his likeness.) Livingston told the reporter that the United States was the only place a tramp could “tramp like a gentleman,” but also noted that he preferred being called a “rambler” over tramp.
In 1877, well-known Yale professor Francis Wayland had written that a tramp was “a lazy, shiftless, sauntering or swaggering, ill-conditioned, irreclaimable, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage” who “fears not God, neither regards man.” Livingston did not view himself in such a way. Within a few years he came to defend the term, perhaps embracing the perception of one 1923 publication that stated, “The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” Livingston was foremost a dreamer. He did it for the thrill and to satisfy the addictive nature of his wanderlust. A tramp, in this view—and in the view of Livingston—was merely “an able-bodied individual who has the romantic passion to see the country and to gain new experience without work.”
By 1910, numerous papers across the United States were referring to Livingston as the “most famous” or “most distinguished” tramp in the world. In 1912, while traveling through Florida, he met with Sarasota Times editor Rose Wilson and spoke with her about his childhood, showed off his scrapbook, and named himself both the “number one tramp in the world” and the “king of the hoboes.” He then traveled north to Jacksonville, checking in at the ritzy Seminole Hotel, where he told reporter George B. Love that he had a new mission: “Simply write of me as a man who wants to save young boys [from the road].”
At this point, Livingston had already published three books out of his Cambridge Springs press. These travels and interviews with reporters were functioning as a one-man book tour. His first book, titled Life and Adventures of A-No. 1: America’s Most Celebrated Tramp, greatly romanticized his escapades, but as he told the Jacksonville reporter, he started every book with a warning to “restless young men and boys”: “Wandering, once it becomes a habit, is almost incurable, so NEVER RUN AWAY, but STAY AT HOME,” he prefaced. “It is an even ninety-nine chances out of a hundred that the end will be a miserable one—an accident, an alms-house, but surely an unmarked pauper’s grave.”
His stories likely weren’t a deterrent to young readers. Despite such warnings, the books were full of glamorized, thrilling adventures. He was clearly prone to embellishment and exaggeration and desired to enter the name A-No. 1 into American folklore. There were sometimes inconsistencies between what he claimed in his books and what he said years later in interviews, and, despite referring to himself as the “King of the Hoboes” or “America’s Most Famous Tramp,” there is little evidence that contemporaries on the road perceived him as such.
Some have even asserted that his books were complete fabrications. In Lynne Marie Adrian’s Organizing the Rootless, for instance, she argues that Livingston was a dime novel con artist, a literary snake oil salesman, and implied that his story of running away as a youth was not true. Yet, Livingston made clear in his books, interviews, and public lectures that as far as he was concerned his books were autobiographical. “[R]emember that this is the true story of a blasted life,” he wrote in one preface. “I will tell only the exact truth of my past existence.”
In The Railroad Tramp and the American Cultural Imaginary, Christopher Wylie Lenz argues that the historical A-No. 1 was real and that it was Livingston, although he also notes that even “the most sympathetic readers…regard his tales as embellished variations on the truth.” Young people were attracted to his books because it represented “a free, simple, and true life, liberated from…the demands of a soulless, rationalized, mechanized world of work.”
Other evidence supports many of Livingston’s claims about his hoboing years, too. In 1910, a story was reported involving W.T. Canada, the Security Chief of the special agents of the Union Pacific Railroad. Despite being tasked with cutting down on hoboes catching free rides, he once permitted Livingston a ride in the heated caboose. In response, Livingston gave him a postal album and promised to send him souvenir postcards from everywhere he visited until it was filled. “No two cards were mailed from the same city and their post marks represent every state in the union,” Canada told the reporter.
Plus, with Cigaret, Livingston had his greatest real-life corroborator: Jack London. The two men did know each other and from their personal correspondences, it is also clear that they rode the rails together. In 1909, London wrote Livingston a short letter using his moniker, stating, “To my old pal, A. No. 1: In memory of the old days on the Road together, and in hopes that your same old good luck will always be with you.”
At any rate, Livingston was indeed mastering the art of self-promotion, and if he intended to write himself into America’s historical memory, being portrayed by Lee Marvin in Emperor of the North was the posthumous culmination of decades of work. The film was inspired by two books: London’s autobiographical memoir The Road, published in 1907, and Livingston’s 1917 From Coast to Coast with Jack London. London died in November 1916, so the events of Livingston’s book are difficult to verify, but it appears he did solicit the blessings of London’s widow, Charmian London, to whom he sent drafts of the book. Livingston dedicated the book to Jack, stating, “Of all good fellows I’ve met, [he was] the best one.”
In September, 1912, it was widely reported that Livingston had died in Houston, Texas. The stories relayed eyewitness testimony that he had slipped to a violent death beneath a passenger train. Many papers reminisced with fondness of his visits to their towns and offices. “He was known by all the railroad detectives,” recalled the Middletown Daily Argus. “On his last visit to this office, Livingston told the writer that he expected to be killed on the road sooner or later.”
Except, of course, he was not dead. At the time, he was living primarily in the “royal jewel” of Cambridge Springs, using it as a home base as he wrote, published, and traveled to promote his books. It took months before many papers corrected the record.
In 1914, newspapers began reporting that Livingston, now in his forties, was giving up the hoboing life for good. “A baby’s voice has proven stronger than the call of the wanderlust to ‘A-No. 1,’” announced Hearthstone Magazine. “There isn’t a traveling man in the country who hasn’t seen Livingston’s ‘mark’ on the railroad stations and water tanks throughout the country.” On a trip to Erie, Pennsylvania the previous January, Livingston had met a twenty-one-year-old local named Mary Abigail Trohoski. And, according to the magazine, “for the first time in thirty years he was interested in something besides his carefree life on the road.”
According to Livingston, after meeting Trohoski he changed his plans outright and decided to stay in Erie to write his fifth book. He checked into the city’s prestigious downtown Reed Hotel (“I could afford this expensive luxury, as I had carefully put aside a nest egg,” he wrote) and began to visit Trohoski and her family daily. They were married within weeks, and by year’s end Mary gave birth to Francis Ruth, the first of their two children. Livingston was relieved it was a girl, fearing a son might take to the road “just like his father.”
War erupted in Europe that year. Livingston remained in Erie to engage in what he called a “practical study of the intricate labor problem.” He desired to “re-enter the harness of the masses,” he wrote. “Not only because I wished to help in time of war, but also to satisfy my curiosity whether a fair and square deal was available to the average toiler.” He took a job with Burke Electric Company and then with Erie Forge & Steel Company, where he worked on building shafts for ships. He quickly earned two promotions that brought his wages to thirty-six dollars a week. Before long, their son Kenneth was born.
If Livingston’s previous three decades were dedicated to riding the rails, he would spend the next three railing against such a life. “Marriage with the best girl on earth has wrought a most wonderful change in my conception of life and living,” he wrote in his 1919 book The Wife I Won. He engaged with young tramps passing through Erie and claimed to have many times brought them to tears in their conversations. He’d give them money to legally make their way home.
He was a family man, an author, a loyal employee, and soon became a well-known public speaker. With the moderate success of his books and whatever fame that brought him, he began promoting a lecture titled “Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” Even though he still struggled with “the battle against the lure of the road,” he spoke out forcefully against it. He told a Titusville Herald reporter in 1925 that the purpose of his lecture was “not to make money, but to warn parents and boys as well that it does not pay to lead an idle life of wandering around.” He argued that “keeping youngsters off the wanderpath” would keep them from crime, accidents, or even death.
By 1930, at age sixty, Livingston was well-known throughout the Midwest and Northeast for his lectures, which one newspaper remarked should “be heard by every child, man, and woman in the United States.” But in the summer of 1933, his family was met with personal tragedy. Fifteen-year-old Kenneth drowned when his canoe capsized in Presque Isle Bay off of Lake Erie. This only intensified his railings against road life and his lectures included harsher warnings of diseased vagabonds who would influence young runaways into entering a life of crime. Over the next few years, his speaking engagements slowed. Another world war began. On April 5, 1944, he died of heart failure in his Erie home. He was seventy-one.
There is no doubt that Livingston was an unreliable narrator. He was a dreamer, at least initially, and perhaps even an opportunist. But he found a way to forge a unique path in life, and while he never achieved the literary prominence of Jack London, he still managed to etch himself into American folklore, just as he once etched his moniker on the side of so many boxcars.
Leon Ray Livingston is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Erie County, Pennsylvania, next to his wife and children. A visitor to his final resting place will find a small and unassuming headstone, and, below his full name, the following inscription: “A-No. 1.” ■
Jonathan Burdick is a writer, local historian, and public school teacher residing in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Cover illustration by David Wilson.
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