Personal Archaeology: We’re Hobo Royalty

Jeff Davis, King of the Hobos

Uncle Jeff at his office in Cincinnati, date unknown. Click to enbigger.

Friends, I know you may have had suspicions, but I’m ready to admit the truth: we’re hobos. Not practicing hobos, mind, but rather hobos-by-birth by way of my great uncle, Jeff Davis, the first bona fide King of the Hobos.

Jeff was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and was wandering by the time he turned 13. He spent time in most major cities, criss-crossed the world many times (while only paying for a fraction of it) and impressed many people. He died at the age of 84, in 1968.

He founded the “Hobos of America” and styled himself “King of the Hobos and Emperor of the Knights of the Road”. He created a chain of “Hotel de Ginks” across the country as temporary housing for the homeless and runaways. He painted and often worked with his brother, my Great Grandfather, Carl Davis (who I’ve written about before when I admitted that we’re also carnies) on the carnival and vaudeville circuit.

One quote of his that sticks with me is: “A hobo wants to work, a tramp won’t work and a bum can’t work.” Bill Foley expanded on this in an article in the Jacksonville Times-Union in 1998 (image below):

First, said the King, you got your regular top-of-the-line hobo, who is a person who travels from place to place in search of honest work. A prince of a fellow.

Then there is the ”intellectual hobo,” sort of a dilettante who is looking to avoid honest work while thinking up important stuff.

There is the tramp, who is a tourist in rags who refuses to work, and last and certainly least is the bum, a poor relation of the tramp who has fallen to drink, drugs or disease or any combination thereof.

Here are some write-ups about Uncle Jeff including a lovely entry in the Congressional Record from Representative Barratt O’Hara, Illinois:

Finally, here are a few more shots of Uncle Jeff from the family archives (that big shoebox at Grandma’s house):

I’ve collected quite a bit more material about Uncle Jeff – and Great Grandpa Carl for that matter – and hope to find more. If you want to see scratchy photo-copies of 90-year old newsletters and unlabeled pictures of anonymous carnival midways, then stay tuned!


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  1. I have heard about your Uncle Jeff from my mom. He must have known her dad, who died when she was 12 during the depression. The family was split up while my grandma traveled as a dancer. My mom, Anna, was placed in a Catholic orphanage. Your Uncle Jeff took her out of the orphanage to live with him until my grandmother got on her feet. Mom passed away last year and I found a letter on the Knights of the Road stationary written to someone named Dick. I thought I’d look him up on line and found your web sight. Life in the orphanage was very unpleasant and your Uncle Jeff saved for a better life. She spoke very highly of him.

    Kindest regards,

    Deborah Sauer

    1. Thanks so much for this! I wasn’t born until 1971 – about three years after Jeff’s death – but my grandfather always spoke fondly of his uncle. He was something of a fun myth to my generation. It’s wonderful to hear that he was, in reality, the kind of man that my Grandfather told us about.

  2. Found this post while doing some research! Jeff Davis is my fathers great grandfather! I’ve always been so interested in him especially hearing stories from my dad! It’s funny because I’m a nomad! Modern day hobo!

    1. Apologies for the late reply. Life has been getting the way lately.

      Glad to make you glad! I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve sent a link to your email with some more information. I’m VERY Slowly gathering stuff and someday will make it public, but for now, I think family deserves a sneak peek. ;^)

      Jim Davis

  3. My grandfather Cecil Phelps was a confidant of Jeff Davis. I have Jeff’s original travel trunk, several newsletters, and an original oil painting. Please contact me if you are interested in any/all of these items.

    1. Cool! Yes, very interested in seeing them if nothing else! I’ve sent a private message to touch base!

    2. Hi Beverly. I would be very interested in the oil painting, either original or copy. My wife is Walter Tenbrink’s daughter. Walter presented an oil portrait in Cincinnati in 1946 of Jeff Davis. Please contact me if possible.

  4. Hi, my late father in law was Walter Tenbrink, who painted a portrait of Jeff Davis and presented it to him in 1946. Apparently a photo of the event was published in a lot of newspapers. My question – does this portrait will exist? If so, how can I get a copy? His daughter is trying to find copies of his work. Walter was also a member.

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