In 1918, just five years into the new ‘Buffalo’ design, the first recorded instance of an altered nickel appeared in print. The Numismatist contained an entry that told of a nickel with the obverse intentionally fashioned to show our loyal Indian as the German Emperor Wilhelm II, complete with moustache and a pointed pickelhaube headgear. This was the modest beginning to a tradition that would span decades and soon be adopted as the accepted art of the American underclass – the hobo.
What does it mean to be a hobo? This term should not be confused with seemingly similar slurs such as ‘tramp’ or ‘bum.’ A hobo was an honest, albeit penniless, traveler who would take on short-term unskilled jobs in order to sustain his independent lifestyle ‘riding the rails.’ A tramp, it has been said, would only work if forced. And lastly, bums made up the lowest rung in this transient hierarchy, generally assumed to be destitute beggars and alcoholics.
Hobos had many everyday dangers. Jumping into empty or partially empty boxcars is not without risk. If detected by one of the “bulls,” a slang term for the abusive railroad police, a hobo could be beaten or maimed. There are even accounts of water hoses or hot coal ash being used to wake up a sleeping freeloader. More than a few travelers met their demise locked inside of a refrigerated boxcar at the hand of a particularly sadistic bull. In some cases the shifting freight was the offender, crashing down onto an unsuspecting hobo while he rested. This hazardous lifestyle made for a strong fraternity among respectable hobos and gave rise to an impressive network of ‘jungles’ just to stay alive.
A hobo ‘jungle’ was where fellow drifters would congregate. It was almost always located within a short distance of the railroad and had certain basic amenities. Most were equipped with pots and pans for cooking, as well as a water source and clothesline for laundering garments. Typically it would be located on the outskirts of a city or town in order to avoid attention. Beyond meeting certain physical needs, the jungle provided important social interaction for the sullied flock. Slang was learned, stories and experiences were shared, and old-timers taught younger hobos how to survive.
It was in these very camps that a “jocker” (mentor) would take on an apprentice and show him how to carve a common ordinary nickel. This was no idle activity, however. The end product, a carved or punched nickel, could be swapped for a sandwich or a hot meal. It could also be used as ‘salve,’ in other words, barter material – possibly even to a railway official in exchange for safe passage. Many of these early 20th century Hobo Nickels were formed with crude pin-pricks, while others were skilled carvings. A favorite theme was to give the obverse subject a derby, a beard and other various accoutrements of the day. It was truly folk art and satire blended to a tasteful consistency and the skill arose from absolute necessity as the artist was concerned.
Let’s take a look for a moment at the host coin used for this activity. The venerable and quintessentially American workhorse coin, the Buffalo Nickel. No other coin captures the sense of America in the way that this coin does. The Native American portrayed on the obverse is reverent and stoic. The buffalo, or more accurately bison, reverse shows this Great Plains creature in her full majesty. Up until this point in United States coinage, the predominant animal of choice was the eagle. It should be pointed out, however, that there is nothing uniquely American about an eagle; this same bird having been depicted on coins of Germany, Russia, and Poland, as well as ancient Greece and Rome. One important numismatic fact worthy of note is that when Hobo Nickels are carved from circulating coinage the new creation takes on the status of a ‘token’ and loses efficacy as legal tender.
The characters who carved these early Hobo Nickels are an interesting lot themselves. One such hobo was Bertram “Bert” Wiegand who was known to sign his work by removing and smoothing ‘LI’ and ‘Y’ from the word ‘LIBERTY’ on the coin’s obverse. Bert was a bearded white man who stood roughly 6′ tall and weighed around 200 pounds. He was said to be an educated man but had a cold and distant demeanor with the outside world. The rumor was that he stayed on the run because he was wanted for a murder he had committed as a young man.
Despite his withdrawn personality, Bert came to befriend a fellow hobo named George Washington “Bo” Hughes. Bo was the youngest of eleven children and the son of a freed slave. He was diminutive in stature, standing only 5′ tall and weighing approximately 110 pounds. With Bert teaching him the ropes he learned how to live on the road as well as how to carve. In time Bo became the most prolific Hobo Nickel artist of all, creating new Nickels well into the latter half of the 20th century.
Many of those altered nickels that might have won a favor or a hot meal are still out there waiting to be found. As many as 100,000 are estimated to have been carved and they have turned up in pockets of Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and the Carolinas. Keep your eyes open and you just might uncover a small piece of Hobo Art!
— Greg Capps
Bowers, Q. David with Fivaz, Bill; A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels, Whitman Publishing, 2007.
Romines, Del; Hobo Nickels, Prisoner Nickels, Shop Tokens and Modern Engravings, 1982.
Alpert, Stephen; The Original Hobo Nickel Society Guidebook, OHNS Publishing, 2001.