By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Steam Train Maury, who started life as Maurice W. Graham until a train whistle’s timeless lament compelled him to hop a freight to freedom and, much later, fame, as the first and only Grand Patriarch of the Hobos, died on Nov. 18 in Napoleon, Ohio, near Toledo.
Mr. Graham was 89 and chief caretaker of the hobo myth, a cornerstone of which is the hobos’ term for death: “taking the westbound.” In his case, that last westbound freight left the yard when he suffered the last of several strokes and slipped into a coma, Phyllis Foos, manager of Walter Funeral Home in Toledo, said.
Mr. Graham wrote a book about his life on “the iron road,” was a founding member of the Hobo Foundation and helped establish the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa. At the National Hobo Convention in Britt, he was crowned king five times — in 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1981 — and, in 2004, was anointed grand patriarch.
No one else has ever been named a hobo patriarch. Mr. Graham also had the title Life King of the Hobos East of the Mississippi.
When itinerant men gathered around stewpots in “hobo jungles” during the Depression and for years afterward, Mr. Graham stirred the pot. He told a wonderful story about a hobo riding Halley’s Comet while brandishing a torch.
He told of characters like the Pennsylvania Kid, who shaved with a piece of glass from a Coke bottle. When The Washington Times asked Mr. Graham in 1989 whether it was true that some hobos used deodorant, he answered:
“It’s a shame, but I don’t know what we can do about it.”
Hobos belong to that part of the American imagination where real history merges with showmanship. Since the Civil War, itinerant men have sneaked free rides on freight trains, and as field hands, loggers and miners they had much to do with building the American West and shaping industry. During the Depression, more than a million desperate people rode the rails in search of work.
They were admired as much as pitied. Steinbeck called hobos “the last free men,” and by the late 19th century, hobos had formed their own tongue-in-cheek union, Tourist Union Local 63. Britt officials offered Local 63 their town for its annual convention in 1900 and were shocked when big-city reporters showed up and did not treat the event as the joke it was intended to be.
By 1933, Britt, by then known as “the hobo town,” decided to capitalize on the unlikely confab. It marketed the convention far and wide, gave away mulligan stew and crowned hobo royalty. The gathering, about 100 miles north of Des Moines, became a four-day affair, drawing tens of thousands.
But now hobos are getting scarce, as boxcars have been sealed and the prosecution of trespassers has tightened. Mr. Graham, who took to showing up at the Britt convention in a camper, said some pretenders were “show-bos, not hobos.”
Mr. Graham was one of the last of the authentic, undisputed, old-time hobos. He gave the crowds what they were looking for, including a flowing white beard, a walking stick decorated with owl feathers, and stories about friends like Frying Pan Jack. He even strove to elevate his itinerant, idiosyncratic ilk, emphasizing that hobos are not bums, winos or reprobates.
“A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others,” he said.
Mr. Graham was born on June 3, 1917, in Atchison, Kan. Because of domestic problems, he was shuffled among parents, an aunt and married siblings. He escaped by hopping a train in 1931, at the age of 14.
He eventually settled down, learned the cement-mason trade and set up a school for masons in Toledo. He was an Army medical technician during World War II.
By 1971, he was a day laborer with a wife, two children and a bad hip that kept him from working much. His hanging around the house was getting on his wife’s nerves, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1989.
So one day in 1971, he hopped a freight on the edge of town with a vague idea he would relive hobo memories and see his wife, Wanda, in a few weeks.
It was 1981 when Mr. Graham finally returned. He had not communicated for more than a decade. Wanda agreed to go out for dinner and talk. (She paid, of course.) He wanted to come home, and she ultimately could not resist his charm.
“It was better than living alone,” she told The Times.
In addition to his wife of 69 years, Mr. Graham is survived by his daughters, Alice Spangler and Karen Carson; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
After his return Mr. Graham stayed home, except for trips with his wife to hobo events and visits to people in hospitals and prisons. He lived mainly off Social Security.
In 1990, Mr. Graham and Robert J. Hemming wrote “Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos.” A review in The Los Angeles Times wondered if it neglected “a darker, hard-drinking, womanizing, gambling side of Graham’s nature” in its emphasis on hobo chivalry.
Mr. Graham returned annually to Britt, where he presided over the yearly gravesite service for hobos interred under a large cross made of railroad ties. The hobo ritual is to circle the plot, holding their walking sticks high over the tombstones.