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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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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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