Hobo doctor

In the early 20th century, Ben Reitman was a hobo, a doctor, and a doctor for hobos.

Ben Reitman
Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The third post on this site, way back in February of last year, was about the hobo colleges. It’s a short post (I was still finding my voice) about informal gatherings of hobos for the purpose of mutual edification. One of the hot topics in these colleges was venereal disease – a perennial problem for the hobos. Abortion, at that time and place an illegal but common (and dangerous) procedure, and birth control were also important concerns. Ben Reitman, the so-called hobo doctor, dealt with them all.

Reitman had lived on the road for a few years before he began his medical training. Graduating in 1904, he soon went to work providing medical care for hobos, vagrants, prostitutes, and the homeless. He started a hobo college in Chicago in 1907, and there he met and fell in love with Emma Goldman, one of the most influential American anarchists in history.

(She was apparently drawn to his dirty hobo hands. Emma Goldman is a fascinating subject in her own right – for example her entanglement in the assassination of a U. S. president – so maybe I’ll write about her another time. Goldman and Reitman were both members of the Dill Pickle Club, an influential bohemian hangout and speakeasy for the likes of Upton Sinclair, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, and Clarence Darrow.)

He spent six months in prison because of a pamphlet he wrote about contraception. It was distributed by Goldman during her 1916 speaking tour on birth control, and so he was jailed under the Comstock laws, which treated any kind of printed advocacy for birth control as an illegal “obscene” publication. Reitman was all about free love, and he and Goldman broke up after he had a child with and then married someone else.

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