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Guest Blog-star: Meet Michael Stusser, Take 2

Good day! Michael Stusser, here, with another This Day in Blogstery!

Washington_Monument.jpgOn October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument opened to the public. It seems appropriate, then, that we'd give you a little bit of our Dead Guy Interview with the fabulous George Washington. First, though, a little background on the monument itself.

The Continental Congress started chatting about a monument to honor Georgie Boy in 1783 while the POTUS was alive and well and might enjoy the view himself. By 1847, they'd collected $87,000 for the project (mostly in pennies), and picked Robert Mills to draw something up. The architect's design was truly beautiful "“ a lot better, in fact, than the giant tower we've got now. It had a decorated obelisk that rose 600 feet, surrounded by a gorgeous circular structure full of columns that would house busts of all the Presidents and national heroes.

A cornerstone for a much less elaborate monument was laid on July 4, 1848, and things progressed nicely until they ran into political opposition "“ and out of dough - in 1854. This was Washington D.C., remember. Nothing goes according to plan. Oh, and the Civil War kinda slowed things down, too.

President Grant got things moving again in 1876, and the monument was dedicated in 1885, and finally opened to we citizens on October 9, 1888. It cost $1,187,710 to build "“ chump change, really, when you think about all the golden toilets we're paying for these days"¦. You can take the stairs (50 landings and 897 steps) to the top, or the elevator which makes the trip in 70 seconds. Me? I'll do my walking at the top (555 feet above ground). Sweet view!

And with that, I give you "“ a condensed "“ conversation with President Washington from The Dead Guy Interviews. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Washington, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it: I cannot tell a lie!

Click below to read Michael's terrific interview with the very dead George Washington.

George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgGeorge is our first and most famous President, as well as our toothless poster-boy, adorning the one-dollar bill, Mt. Rushmore, postage stamps, the quarter, a State, and about 1,000 biographies. He's also America's first true hero.

Young Georgie was raised in Virginia, and, strangely enough, wanted nothing more than to be an officer in the British army when he grew up. (He liked their crisp red suits and tight formations, and fought with the British in the French and Indian War "“ 1754-58.) Instead, his experience and reputation as a level-headed soldier made him the perfect choice to lead the Colonial army, and, thus, General George wound up fighting against the Brits in the Revolutionary War. Over eight long years, Washington led a rag-tag crew to victory and independence. (GW actually lost more battles than he won, but was a helluva inspiration to his men and "“ most importantly - victorious in the end.)

Though a fierce commander on the battlefield, he really was "gentle George" off it "“ showing a more sensitive side once the war was over, even pardoning some opponents with whom he had direct clashes.

Washington's early work surveying land in Virginia gave him what he later needed as President - common sense, resourcefulness, a firm handshake, and the understanding that he didn't know everything; surrounding himself with great minds (Jefferson, Adams, et al.), he was our nation's first team-builder.

On April 30, 1789, G-Dub was unanimously elected by Congress as our first commander-in-chief. Being first is never easy, and George had to figure out everything from how taxes would be collected to where the capital should be located (Washington D.C. of course). As it turned out, he could have stayed for as many terms as he could handle, but bowed out after 8 great years.

He retired in 1797 to Mt. Vernon where he walked daily with wife Martha, tended to his 8000 acres, and passed away after some lousy medical treatments for a cold on December 14, 1799.

THE INTERVIEW

MS: Gotta ask about the whole cherry-tree episode.GW: Never happened.

MS: What?! So you lied about cutting down your father's cherry tree! You can tell a lie!

GW: No, you see, the story you're referring to was written after I was gone.

MS: How do I know you're not lying about this?

GW: Listen, Mason Locke Weems made the story up in a biography about me the year after I died. (The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.) But let's not be too hard on him, here "“ Mr. Weems was simply spinning a little yarn to give the youngsters some moral guidance. No harm done.

MS: At least you didn't lie about it. Now, tell us about the ol' wooden dentures.

GW: They weren't actually wooden.

MS: Oh boy.

GW: I had a bunch of sets made to fit around the only tooth left in my head, see? One was fashioned out of iron, we tried cow teeth, another from hippo tusks "“

MS: Whoa!

GW: Yeah, they smelled to high heaven though, so I moved on to a set made from human teeth.

MS: How'd Martha like those?

GW: She was happy I didn't gum her to death.

MS: Martha was loaded. Bet marrying the colonies' wealthiest widow had its advantages, huh?

GW: Young man, if you're implying"¦

MS: Well she wasn't exactly a beauty.

GW: At ease, soldier! I loved Martha. She was a good housewife, we were married for forty wonderful years, and I will not hear of this!

MS: As a kid, you wanted to join the British Army. By the time you were in the Virginia legislature you were their toughest critic. What happened?

GW: Tell you the truth "“

MS: You cannot tell a lie!

GW: I applied for a commission in the British army in "˜54 "“ and got rejected. Then I started paying attention to what the Brits were doing in the 1760's "“ taking away our rights and taxing everything from tools to playing cards.

MS: At what point did you realize you'd have to fight them?

GW: I think it was 1768 or thereabout when I told George Mason I'd take my musket on my shoulder whenever my country called.
Once the parliament passed the Tea Act (1773) and our boys dressed like Indians and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, I knew it was going to get ugly.

MS: Still, you didn't support colonial independence till 1776.

GW: That's correct. Took Thomas Paine's Common Sense to knock some sense into me.

MS: The British forces were better trained, better funded, better organized. What was your strategy for beating "˜em?

GW: Stall tactics, really. We felt like the longer the war went, the sicker the Brits would be of the whole bloody mess.

MS: Anything else?

GW: Well, we took a page from the Indian's handbook and fought them from behind rocks and trees "“ stayed out of the cities whenever we could so the redcoats couldn't thump us too bad. I also paid our troops with my own money. Kept them from mass desertions and mutiny.

MS: One of the lasting images of you is a painting of your Christmas crossing of the Delaware.

GW: Never saw it. Was dead fifty years on.

MS: Oh. Right. Well, here's a copy.

Washington is shown a copy of artist Emanuel Leutze's painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851)

GW: Goodness. That boat looks like a sardine can.

MS: So, it wasn't exactly like that?

GW: What am I doing standing up in this painting? Makes me look like an idiot. And, though I love the sentiment, we weren't flying a flag - we were on an undercover mission "“ in the pitch dark! In fact "“ let me see that again "“ that looks like James Monroe holding the flag "“ he wasn't even in my boat. And is that a woman rowing at the stern? Pretty sure all aboard were male soldiers.

MS: Most people think of you as a great soldier, but you bungled plenty of missions.

GW: And I thank you for pointing that out, son. You ever served?

MS: No sir.

GW: OK then. It's damn hard, let me tell you. Remember, we were greatly outnumbered, and our gents didn't want to fight if they didn't have to. My job was to keep the crew together, then pick and choose the right battles. And lest you forget, we won the thing.

MS: The US and Great Britain signed a peace treaty in 1783 that recognized American Independence, and you "retired."

GW: Yep, that was the idea "“ head back to Mt. Vernon, do a little fox hunting, put my feet up.

MS: Good plan. What happened?

GW: The States started going in different directions, see, and the Articles (of Confederation) didn't seem like they'd keep everybody together. So James (Madison) and Alexander (Hamilton) decided to put together a meeting in Philly to tweak "˜em a bit.

MS: You're talking about the Constitutional Convention (1787).

GW: What? Yeah. So the delegates there picked me to chair the little pow-wow and we wrote up the document.

MS: The Constitution of the United States.

GW: Huh? Oh, yeah. Long story short, I was going to retire "“ once more "“ but the darn delegates picked me again.

MS: The Electoral College. For President.

GW: Huh? Yeah, right, and so I did that for a while"¦.then I, uh, retired again.

MS: No offense, sir, but you seem disinterested in our little chat.

GW: Huh? Oh, you still talking?

MS: Yes, sir, I was saying you seem a bit bored with our interview.

GW: Oh, no. No, see, I'm a bit hard of hearing. Blasted influenza hit me during my second term, plus my vision was shot to hell. I'm sorry. I'll pay more attention. Where were we?

MS: If you wanted to retire, you could have gone home after your first term.

GW: Yeah, guess that's true, it's just that in 1792 we were still a real young country. It was dicey "“ hit n' miss if we'd pull the experiment off.

MS: Democracy.

GW: Mmm hmm. The other reason I may have stayed was that they didn't run anybody against me, see, so I didn't have to campaign. I was OK with the business, though I preferred agriculture, to be honest.

MS: You can not tell a lie!

GW: Yeah. We get it.

MS: The phrase, "Washington Slept Here." How'd that come to pass?

GW: I felt like, as the first President, I should go to as many inns and houses as possible. Meet n' greet, press the flesh. I hauled all up and down the union, north and south, and people just started using that phrase, I guess.

MS: So it wasn't because of your rumored promiscuity?

GW: No.

MS: Remember, you can not tell a "“

GW: I said no!

MS: You owned slaves. That's not so PC these days.

GW: Guilty as charged on that account, and I'm not proud. I will say that I had good intentions. In 1786 I wrote that I hoped we could adopt some plan, by which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.

MS: Yeah, like that was gonna happen. What changed your mind on the issue?

GW: After commanding multi-racial troops in the Revolutionary War, I got to know the men, and realized slavery was a massive American anomaly. I also felt bad breaking up families when I purchased slaves in a lottery. You know, I did free half my slaves in my will. (Though George ordered his slaves freed upon Martha's death, she freed them all in 1800.)

MS: I'm sure the other half were thrilled. How would you describe your leadership style?

GW: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. It was my idea to create the presidential cabinet "“ more heads in the room. I had Tommy Jefferson as my Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton running the treasury "“ pretty good crew.

MS: Wish those guys were running the show now, actually. You had an early warning about political parties.

GW: Factions, I called "˜em. Point was that we needed as much cooperation as we could get just to survive. Too many selfish parties divide the country along partisan lines and that's just no good. But I'm sure democracy has solved those problems in the last two-hundred plus years.

MS: You have no idea, sir. Have you seen the Washington Monument?

GW: Yes, it's"¦well"¦.

MS: Phallic! Five hundred and fifty five feet of manliness!

GW: That's a bit much. I'm humbled.

MS: Well then you gotta see Mt. Rushmore, sir. Your head is 60 feet tall. Then go visit Washington State, and after that "“

GW: You know, son, I think I'll pass for the time being.

MS: Bet you didn't know that we all get to take your birthday off from work!

GW: Speaking of time off, young man, I'd like to spend some time in Mt. Vernon with Martha. Maybe take a nap.

MS: Oh, one of my favorite quotes from you is, "Far better to be alone, than to be in bad company!" So profound, sir!

GW: No lie. So if you'll excuse me"¦.

END of INTERVIEW.

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Animals
15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels
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Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. THEY CAN JUMP REALLY, REALLY FAR.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. THEY'RE VERY ORGANIZED …

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
iStock

In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. … BUT THEIR FORGETFULNESS HELPS TREES GROW.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
iStock

Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. THEY HELP TRUFFLES THRIVE.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. THEY'RE ONE OF THE FEW MAMMALS THAT CAN SPRINT DOWN A TREE HEAD-FIRST.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. SEVERAL TOWNS COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF 'HOME OF THE WHITE SQUIRREL.'

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. THEY CAN AID STROKE RESEARCH.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. THEIR FUR MAY HAVE SPREAD LEPROSY IN THE MIDDLE AGES.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. THEY'RE MORE POWERFUL THAN HACKERS.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. THEY CAN HEAT UP THEIR TAILS TO WARD OFF PREDATORS.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. THEY HELP SCIENTISTS KNOW WHETHER A FOREST IS HEALTHY.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
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Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. THEY CAN LIE.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
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Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. THEY WERE ONCE AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PET.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. THE MERE SIGHT OF JUST ONE COULD ONCE ATTRACT A CROWD.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THEY WERE TASKED WITH TEACHING COMPASSION.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

BONUS: THEY USED TO HATE TAX SEASON TOO.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Leon Ray Livingston, America's Most Famous Hobo
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

With no more troops or supplies to move after the end of the Civil War, the country's railroads became home to another army—that of the hobos. The ever-increasing web of rails nationwide would go from 45,000 miles before 1871 to nearly 200,000 by 1900, making it easier for the poorest of working-class folk, many of whom were veterans, to hitch a ride on a train and travel from state to state looking for employment. These hobos were soon a familiar sight coast to coast.

The journeys of these destitute travelers quickly caught on in the popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating a romanticized view of this unique lifestyle. It was a time when writers like W. H. Davies and Jack London parlayed their hoboing experiences into literary notoriety, while Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" would become one of the most recognizable movie characters of the 20th century. Among these wandering folk figures was a man with a sense of showmanship and a keen eye for branding: Leon Ray Livingston—a writer, lecturer, and transient who would go on to dub himself "King of the Hobos."

What we know about Livingston's early life comes solely from the books he wrote, which often read like tall tales designed to help build his mystique. According to Livingston, he was born in August 1872 into a family from San Francisco that he described as "well-to-do," but at age 11, misbehavior at school led him down a different path in life. On the day after his 11th birthday, his teacher sent him home with a note detailing his bad behavior, which was to be signed by Livingston's father. The boy didn't show his father the note that night, and when he spotted his teacher heading toward his house the next morning, Livingston snuck out of the house and kept moving. He wouldn't fully stop for decades.

Livingston says he left his house that day armed with a .22-caliber rifle and a pocket full of money—some stolen from his mother, some a birthday gift from his uncle. From there, his life became an odyssey of riding the rails, hopping on steamers, and taking on odd jobs as he traversed a country in the midst of an industrial revolution. Years later, Livingston would famously brag that he traveled 500,000 miles while only spending $7.61 on fares.

In his decades on the road, he took to writing about his experiences, eventually self-publishing around a dozen books about his adventures; the most comprehensive was Life and Adventures of A-No. 1: America's Most Celebrated Tramp. Published in 1910—nearly 30 years after he left home—this book includes tales of his early life as a hobo, including one globe-trotting adventure in his first year that found him working aboard a British trade ship that set off from New Orleans for Belize, where he jumped ship and began working for a mahogany camp.

Book cover for The Trail of the Tramp
The book cover to Livingston's The Trail of the Tramp
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Livingston's Central American exploits include anecdotes about the working conditions in the British mahogany camps, his repeated (but failed) attempts to desert his employers and head home on their dime, feasting on "roasted baboon," and his near-fatal run-in with something he called Black Swamp Fever (which could be a reference to malaria). The writing is colorful and no doubt romanticized, making it hard to separate facts from the legend Livingston aimed to enhance.

It was after his return trip to America that Livingston was christened with the nickname that would help him become something bigger than a lowly transient: A-No. 1. In his book, Livingston said the moniker was given to him by an older companion named Frenchy, who said:

"Every tramp gives his kid a nickname, a name that will distinguish him from all other members of the craft. 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, if you have to be anything in life, even if a tramp, try to be 'A-No. 1' all the time and in everything you undertake."

He also told Livingston to carve this new nickname into each mile post he passed on his journey, letting the world know who'd traveled here before them. This piece of advice gave the legend of Livingston more longevity than he could ever imagine: In the 21st century, people are still finding "A-No. 1" scribbled under bridges.

In addition to signing their nickname, the wandering tramps would also draw up symbols to alert others of possible danger or hospitality ahead. In his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, Livingston provides drawings of 32 of these symbols and what they all mean—including signs for "This town has saloons," "The police in this place are 'Strictly Hostile,'" and "Hostile police judge in this town. Look out!" It's not completely clear if Livingston played a role in creating this hobo code, but he is credited with preserving these symbols and bringing them to the attention of a curious American public.

As Livingston became more of a cultural figure, he seemingly took an interest in leading people away from the tramp life. His books would often begin with a warning, telling readers, "Wandering, once it becomes a habit, is almost incurable, so NEVER RUN AWAY, but STAY AT HOME, as a roving lad usually ends in becoming a confirmed tramp." He then finished, saying this "pitiful existence" would likely end with any would-be tramp in a "pauper's grave." These warnings could be a well-meaning public service announcement, although scholars say they can also be read as Livingston's attempt to enhance the danger of the lifestyle to create even more intrigue about his exploits (and sell more books).

Always a showman, Livingston understood publicity as well as any celebrity at the time; in his travels he would often seek out local reporters, becoming the subject of numerous newspaper articles and magazine interviews around the country. Taking pride in his exploits, he carried a scrapbook of his journeys around with him, which included personalized letters and autographs from notable figures such as Thomas Edison, George Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

His influence among the community was far-reaching, even capturing the imagination of a young Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, during his formative years. London had reached out to Livingston about his lifestyle in the late 19th century, and the two adventured together, as chronicled in Livingston's book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, which was published in 1917, a year after London's death.

Despite the freight-hopping and steamer trips and odd jobs, Livingston wasn't hurting for money; for him, hoboing was a spiritual necessity, not a financial one. When he would seek some stability during his travels, he could often be found staying at Mrs. Cunningham's Boarding House in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, where he would write many of his books. In The Ways of the Hobo, he claimed the house became "a veritable Mecca to chronic hoboes," including old friends like "Hobo Mike" and "Denver Johnny," who sought out his counsel and companionship.

In 1914, Livingston married a woman named Mary Trohoske (sometimes spelled Trohoski), and he settled down—as best a tramp could—in a house in Erie, Pennsylvania. His later years were spent working various jobs—including at electric and steel companies around Erie, though one source places him in real estate. While he stayed relatively put in his later years, Livingston did travel the lecture circuit to speak out against the lifestyle that defined him. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, the warnings Livingston wrote about the hobo lifestyle in each of his books had transformed into full-on speeches against tramping. (Sadly, his lectures don't seem to have survived.)

Rumors persist about Livingston's final days. Some claim that he continued his traveling ways toward the end, dying in a train wreck in Houston, Texas, in 1944, but this is likely confusion with a 1912 wreck that killed one of his impersonators. According to most accounts, Livingston passed away due to heart failure in his home on April 5, 1944 around age 71, with his wife by his side. But for a man who lived to mythologize his own story, a little ambiguity about his end is only fitting.

Livingston's fame has waned significantly since the first quarter of the 20th century. He's only re-emerged in the mainstream a few times, most notably when Lee Marvin played A-No. 1 in the 1973 movie Emperor of the North, based on Livingston's travels with Jack London and on London's own book The Road. Though little-remembered now, Livingston was part of a fleeting moment in American history—a time when the country was getting the first real glimpse of itself as an interconnected nation, and when someone who lived by wandering could be the stuff of folklore.

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