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Steam Train Maury, the Hobo King

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In 2006, the most decorated hobo in United States history died.

Before you (mistakenly) connect the word hobo to the state of being homeless, consider the origins of the word: migrant workers who relinquished the idea of establishing a home in favor of traveling vagabond-style to various work sites. In post-Civil War America, hobos were vaulted to romantic levels of heroism, shaping the rugged identity of land beyond the Mississippi and taking on odd jobs that ended up building the vast American West. During the Depression, the romantic nature of being a hobo was replaced by desperation, as unemployed men ventured west for work.

The hobo lifestyle is one that requires skill, adaptability, and both a sense of place and lack of identification with a specific home. It’s not a lifestyle everyone can follow, but it’s one that “Steam Train” Maury mastered to a T. The National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, crowned him the “Hobo King” five times and in 2004 named him the “Grand Patriarch of the Hobos.”

Maury, whose real name was Maurice W. Graham, became the face of the hobo movement, whose disappearance from American life is as much a reflection of the changing American economy as it is of the changing nature of work. Hobos were once famous for hitching rides on freight cars that crisscrossed the country. But as those trains began to disappear, so too did the hobos.

Maury, however, was a dyed-in-the-wool hobo. He sported a beard, regaled people with stories of his travels over thousands of miles, and carried a walking stick topped off with a plume of owl feathers, according to his obituary in The New York Times.

The man who would reign supreme among hobos was born nearly a century ago in Atchison, Kansas. He had a tumultuous childhood, being handed off between family members and never staying in one place for too long—a trait that would later serve him well. He made the jump to the hobo life—literally—when he hopped onto a train at 14. 

But Maury felt the pull of domestication for a bit. He eventually learned cement masonry, opening a school for masons in Toledo, Ohio. He later served his country as a medical technician with the Army during World War II. He married his wife Wanda, had a couple kids, and became a day laborer.

The open roads kept beckoning to him, though. Maury, who by now was in his 50s, had hip problems that made physically demanding work difficult, keeping him at home for long periods of time. He started getting on Wanda’s nerves. The friction drove Maury to remember his brief stint hobo’ing across the country, and so in 1971, he took a breather and snagged a freight train, hoping a little time away would help mend his body and mind. He figured he’d be back in a few weeks. 

“What gets you hooked is the outdoors,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “A hobo is just a guy who went camping and never came home.”

He ended up being gone for 10 years. 

In 1981, Maury swung by his home in Toledo again. He’d been crowned King of the Hobos, his hip hurt, and he wanted to come home. Wanda had all but decided he wasn’t returning, but when Maury called to ask her to dinner, she couldn’t refuse. And in the end, she couldn’t refuse Maury’s charm, either, which ultimately convinced her to stay with him.

But that didn’t stop Maury from becoming the face of hobos, an unofficial spokesperson for his tribe, noting that hobos were distinctly different from the homeless, alcoholics, and the criminal. “A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others,” he once said.

Maury spent his last years living mainly off social security and becoming a regular at Toledo-area schools telling children his stories; around Christmas, his flowing white beard meant he went from hobo to ho ho ho. But his hobo roots were never too far away: Maury co-founded the Hobo Foundation, helped establish the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa (where an annual Hobo Festival still takes place), and attained the unique title of Life King of the Hobos East of the Mississippi. In 1990, Maury penned a book, Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos.

When a hobo dies, he is said to have “taken the westbound,” and on November 18, 2006, 89-year-old Maury caught the westbound after a series of strokes and a coma. The world lost the patron saint of hobos. 

“He was a classy and respected man,” Linda Hughes, president of the Hobo Foundation, said at the time. “No one can live up to Steam Train. He’s irreplaceable.”

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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