Rediscovered: Red Tully and More Hobo Jungle Sapping History

How about Biography Month here in Up and Down These Mean Streets? I’ve got some bios I’ve been intending to mention piled up on a shelf behind me, and I’m a third of the way through the recent bio of Jim Tully by Bauer and Dawidziak — prepping for the trip to Ohio and PulpFest, and ripping along (a bio of Tecumseh I picked up against the same trip is a slower go, but I think I’ll slog through in time — I’ll finish Tully first).

One specific piece of info that I’ve gleaned so far comes from the six years where a teenaged Tully hopped the freights as a road kid and picked up the monicker “Red” — Tully was only five foot three but with his startling shock of red hair probably reached close to six foot. His rod-riding began in 1901 and 1902, and by the time he left the road he had seen most of America.

Tully’s biographers mention one of his escapades that caught up another hobo coming through the area, who was forced to run a Sapping Day gauntlet because Tully helped overpower a couple of railroad bulls and left the lawmen handcuffed unconcious to a tree with their own bracelets.

They describe it this way:

Small southern and western towns particularly hostile to hoboes kept alive the ugly tradition of the Sapping Day. Men and boys judged to be vagrants were forced to run a harrowing gauntlet past law-abiding citizens armed with stones, whips, and clubs. The runner unfortunate enough to stumble might be stoned and kicked into insensibility.

If you remember my post on that photo of Hammett with a crew of head-breakers, you’ll recall that another famed hobo writer, Jack Black, described something similar involving small trees used as “saps.” I believe Black hit the road a little earlier than Tully, but both surfaced with their autobiographical books by the mid-1920s — both are considered classics in hobo literature.

As I said in that post, obviously the term sap drifted over to apply to the smaller blackjack, not an entire young tree — and the obvious guess is that Sapping Day fell by the wayside somewhere down the years, but we’re all still familiar with the term running the gauntlet. If the language hadn’t changed, I guess the Frank Frazetta poster for Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet would have been for Clint Eastwood’s Sapping Day. Somehow, not as good.

And don’t forget that Tully and Black would have been among the sappees, and Hammett would have been among the sappers. Hard-boiled.

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