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The Freight-Car Case

This piece originally appeared in The New Republic on August 26, 1931.

Not since the Sacco-Vanzetti case has any question concerning justice in the American courts received so much attention both in the United States and abroad, as the "Scottsboro case" involving eight young Negroes sentenced to death for alleged assaults upon two young white women. In the following article Edmund Wilson describes the circumstances of the alleged crime and of the subsequent trial. —THE EDITORS.

CHATANOOGA, Tennessee: old low sordid Southern brick buildings, among which a few hotels, insurance companies and banks have expanded into big modern bulks as if with sporadic effort; business streets that suddenly lapse into nigger cabins; a surrounding wilderness of mills that manufacture fifteen-hundred different articles, from locomotives to coffins and snuff; and a vast smudge of nigger dwellings—six Negroes to one white in Chattanooga. "Hell's Half-Acre" in the mill district is a place people don't dare go at night; it is calculated that among the niggers there is an average of a murder a day. In Chattanooga, the manufacturers, enslaving the Negro almost as completely as the planters did before the Civil War, have kept him in his African squalor and produced a super-squalor of Southern slackness mixed with factory grime.

The night of March 24, two white girls from Huntsville, Alabama, came into Chattanooga on a box-car. According to the testimony of one of them at the trial in which they afterwards figured, they had some boys along; and according to the general report they were well known to be prostitutes. It is alleged that they had been in the habit of living in the Negro quarters and that one of them had not long before been arrested for "hugging" a Negro on the street. Victoria Price represented herself as having been married twice; Ruby Bates said she had never been married. They both dipped snuff.

The girls said that they had spent that night at the house of a woman they knew in Chattanooga. They left about 10:45 the next morning on a freight-train bound for Memphis, traveling in a low roofless car known as a "gondola": the gondola was about two-thirds full of gravel. The girls had bobbed hair and wore overalls. In the same car were about half a dozen white boys.

At Stevenson, Alabama, just across the state line, about twenty colored boys got in and scattered through the train. They were a miscellaneous lot of hoboes—like the white boys and the girls, from the bottom layer of that far-southern society. Only one of the nine afterwards arrested was able even to write his name. Some of them said they were on their way to Memphis to look for jobs on the river boats. In some cases, they were friends traveling together; in others, they did not know each other.

What happened on the train is uncertain. Apparently one of the white boys, walking along the top of a box-car, stumbled over one of the Negroes and threatened to throw him off the train. At any rate, ill feeling was created and presently the colored boys came trooping down into the gondola. One of them had a gun and another a knife, and the white boys were outnumbered. Some kind of fight evidently took place and the white boys either jumped off or were put off the train—all except one who slipped down between the cars, was rescued by one of the Negroes and stayed on.

The group who had been put off were furious and one of them had a cut head. This boy went to the nearest railroad station and told the telegrapher that the niggers had tried to murder them; and the telegrapher, very indignant, telephoned ahead to have the niggers taken off the train. 

So that when the train arrived at Paint Rock, the sheriff and a band of deputies boarded the train and arrested nine of the boys. The others had disappeared. The Negroes supposed at first that they were being arrested for bumming a ride. One boy was found in an empty car, where he said he had been riding by himself ever since the train left Chattanooga. Four others had been traveling on an oil car and said that, though there had been some sort of disturbance along the train, they hadn't known what it was about. It seems reasonable to suppose that, if any violence had occurred, the boys responsible had escaped from the train. The one with the pistol was never found. And the authorities could find no evidence of foul play beyond the cut head of the boy who had complained.

But there were the two white girls alone on the train with a gang of niggers. The authorities demanded of the girls whether the niggers hadn't attacked them and the girls at first denied it. But under pressure of repeated questioning and prompting, they confessed that they had been raped. The doctor who examined the girls found proof that they had been having sexual intercourse, but no reason to conclude that they had been roughly handled except one small bruise on one of them which might equally well have been caused by traveling on gravel.

The boys were put in jail at Paint Rock, but when a mob gathered and threatened to lynch them, they were removed to the town of Gadsden. In their cells, they went mad with fury—yelled wildly and beat on the doors and tore up their beds and bedding. They told their lawyers that they had been led from their cells at Gadsden by a lieutenant of the National Guard, then handcuffed in pairs and clubbed by people brought in from the streets. On April 6 they were put on trial at Scottsboro, Alabama, the county seat of Jackson County.

A few days before the trial, The Chattanooga News had expressed itself as follows:

How much farther apart than night and day are the nine men who perpetrated those frightful deeds and a normal, kind-hearted man who guards his little family and toils through the day, going home to loved ones at night with a song in his heart How is it possible that in the vesture of man can exist souls like those nine, while others in the vesture of man can dream such beauty as Keats dreamed, or can paint as did Raphael?

And The Scottsboro Progressive Age congratulated "the people of Jackson County upon their conduct during the past few days when their patience and chivalry were severely taxed. If ever there was an excuse for taking the law into their own hands, surely this was one."

At any rate, the fifteen thousand or so inhabitants of Scottsboro and the hillbillies of the surrounding countryside have ordinarily very little excitement and it was a long time since anything had come their way like nine niggers accused of rape. The day of the trial was celebrated like a festival J it was also fair day and horse-trading day. There were about ten thousand people in Scottsboro. The poor whites had come in with their guns prepared to slaughter the boys then and there and were only; prevented by the state militia, who guarded the courthouse with drawn bayonets, tear-gas bombs and machine-guns. What with the bugle-music of changing guard, the brass band from the local hosiery mill playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Dixie" and a parade of twenty-eight Ford trucks with a phonograph and amplifier at the head, organized by an enterprising agent who had seized the occasion to stimulate slow sales, the town was in a delirium of gaiety.

In the meantime, inside the courthouse, Ruby Bates and Virginia Price were testifying that the colored boys had held them down in the gondola and raped them: each had been raped by exactly six. The white boy who had remained in the car corroborated their testimony to the extent of asserting that he had seen the Negroes have intercourse with the girls, and three of the Negroes testified that they had seen other Negroes attack the girls —though they afterwards told the lawyers that they had been induced to do this by the court officials, who had promised to have them let off if they did. The other white boys had either fled or been told to disappear, as they were never produced.

Eight of the boys were immediately found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair. At the announcement of the first two verdicts, the brass band struck up outside and the crowd enthusiastically applauded. Only the youngest boy—fourteen (the oldest was only twenty)—got off with a mistrial. On account of his youth, the prosecutor had asked in his case for life imprisonment. Yet, notwithstanding this clemency of the state, eight of the jury demanded electrocution. One of the other boys had also said originally that he was fourteen, but apparently as a result of threats or violence, later asserted that he was nineteen. It had been feared that he would get off with the penitentiary.

It had been an excessively difficult matter to get anyone to defend the boys. Each of the seven lawyers who composed the Scottsboro bar had been assigned in turn to the defendants and all except one had gotten out of it. A Mr. Wimbley, an attorney for the Alabama Power Company, is said to have remarked that the Power Company had enough juice to burn all nine of the defendants. The only person who was willing to take their case even to preserve the formal decency of the law was Mr. Milo C. Moody. Mr. Moody is, from all reports, by way of being the town heretic. He has never hesitated to take up unpopular positions, but he is old now and in competition with the brass band and the Ford agent's amplifier, was not able to do much for his clients. 

In the meantime, however, the Scottsboro case had attracted the attention of an intelligent Negro, doctor in Chattanooga, Dr. P. A. Stephens. Dr. Stephens brought it to the attention of the Interdenominational Alliance of Colored Ministers and they raised the inadequate sum of $50.08 and appealed to Mr. Stephen R. Roddy, a Chattanooga attorney, to defend the nine boys. Mr. Roddy is young and conventional—yet not so conventional that he wasn't willing, on the offer of very modest remuneration, to go down to Scottsboro to see whether anything could be done. When he appeared in the courtroom. Judge Hawkins hastened to announce that if Mr. Roddy could conduct the defense, the Scottsboro bar would be released. Mr. Roddy replied, however, that he had been merely sent by the colored ministers to observe. Fresh from getting through the crowd and the guard and with the music of the brass band in his ears, he decided that there was no hope for a postponement and, a member of the Tennessee bar, he was unfamiliar with Alabama procedure. He asked to be associated with Mr. Moody in the defense. At the end of the trials, he put on the stand the commander of the National Guard and one of the court officials and had them testify that the ovation which followed the announcement of the first two verdicts was so loud that the other jurors couldn't have failed to overhear it.

But Dr. Stephens and the colored ministers were not the only people interested in the Scottsboro case. The Communists had recently been active in Chattanooga and on February 10 three of them had been arrested for attempting to hold a street demonstration. They were tried during the last week of March and all found guilty of violating the Sedition Statute, a law which, dating originally from 1796, had never before been applied, construed or noticed during the whole hundred and thirty-five years of Tennessee's history. A motion for a new trial, however, was made, and on April 18 Judge Lusk of the criminal court, in an opinion which, handed down in the state which had declared the illegality of the teaching of evolution in the schools, might serve as a model to the courts of New York, set aside the verdict of the jury and granted the defendants a new trial. He pointed out that the defendants had been arrested before they had had a chance to make any subversive speeches and that in any case "membership in the Communist party and adherence to its principles" had been "recognized as lawful" by the inclusion of its candidates in the Tennessee ballots. "This case," Judge Lusk concluded, "has given the Court much concern. As a lover of the institutions of this state and nation, I look with deep concern upon the activities of subversive agitators of every sort. But, in meeting these movements, we must demonstrate our superiority to them by keeping, ourselves, within the law. The best way, in my judgment, to combat Communism, or any other involvement inimical to our institutions, is to show, if we can, that the injustices which they charge against us are, in fact, nonexistent."

In the meantime the Communists in Chattanooga had heard about the arrest of the nine Negroes and had gone down to Scottsboro the day of the trial. One of the principal aims of the American Communists at the present time is to enlist the support of the Southern Negroes. In the "Thesis and Resolutions for the Seventh National Convention of the Communist Party of the United States," held in March-April, 1930, the following policy is emphatically laid down:

The building and the work of the party cannot be effective without a serious change in its attitude and practices in regard to the work among the Negro masses and the transformation of passivity and underestimation into active defense and leadership of the struggles of the Negro masses. The party must he made to express in energetic action its consciousness that a revolutionary struggle of the American workers for power is impossible without revolutionary unity of the Negro and white proletariat. To achieve this unity and to win for Communist leadership also the masses of Negro workers, the party must root out all traces of a formal approach to Negro work. . . . The influence of white chauvinism is still felt in the party and has recently manifested itself in St. Louis (opposition in the fraction to a correct Bolshevik line on Negro work). . . . Also wrong, however, is the tendency, displayed by some Negro comrades (which they have since corrected more or less completely) to surrender to the propaganda of the Negro bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois intellectuals of race-hatred directed against all whites without distinction of class.

 Protest against the special oppression to which Negroes are subjected must take the form of intensive political campaigns and mass organization to fight against lynching. Negro workers and farmers persecuted on the basis of race discrimination must be accepted and treated as class-struggle victims. . . .

The party must openly and unreservedly fight for the right of Negroes for self-determination in the South, where Negroes comprise a majority of the population. .. . As the Negro liberation movement develops, it will, in the territories and states with a majority of Negro population, take more and more the form of a struggle against the rule of the white bourgeoisie, for self-determination. . . .

 Unless our Negro program is concretized and energetically pushed, the work of our party in winning the majority of the working class will be fruitless in the North as well as in the South. 

The Communists assigned to Chattanooga, therefore, seized upon the Scottsboro case as an ideal instrument for realizing this program. The first thing that they did was to get their defense organization, the International Labor Defense, to send Judge Hawkins a telegram which irritated and amazed him, in which they described the cases against the Negroes as a "frame-up" and a "legal lynching" and told the Judge they would "hold him responsible." Then, after the trial, the I.L.D. went to Mr. Roddy and asked him to undertake an energetic and spectacular defense. According to Mr. Roddy, they went through all the gestures of taking him up into a high place and showing him the kingdoms of the earth. They told him he had the opportunity of becoming a national figure, a second Clarence Darrow—a dream, one gathers, entirely alien to Mr. Roddy's ambitions. He asked how they proposed to pay him. They explained that they would raise the money by holding meetings among the Negroes and getting them to contribute to a defense fund. This idea seemed distasteful to Mr. Roddy—and the I.L.D. representatives had begun to arouse his suspicions: one of them, who had said he was a lawyer, had in the course of a discussion of the trials, inquired whether the defendants had been "arraigned" yet. Mr. Roddy refused to have anything to do with the International Labor Defense.

The I.L.D. next went to the attorney who had so efficiently defended the arrested Communists. Mr. George W. Chamlee is quite a different type from Mr. Roddy. A shrewd lawyer and a clever man, humorous, worldly-wise, deep in the politics of the state and able to see every side of every question, he is by way of being a local character: he works by himself, forms his own opinions and pursues his own ends, and is not infrequently found in opposition to the conventional elements of the community. Some years ago, he made himself conspicuous by defending street-car strikers; and he has represented both radicals and Negroes when it would have been difficult to get another Chattanooga lawyer to take their cases. At the same time, as a candidate for office, he has undoubtedly derived political support both from the Negroes and from organized labor. And on the other hand, he once scored an equal triumph by getting off a group of Tennesseans convicted of a lynching whose cases had been appealed to the supreme court. At the recent trial of the Communist agitators, when the prosecutor attempted to make much of the fact that the defendants were avowedly in favor of the overthrow of the government and had foresworn loyalty to the American flag, Mr. Chamlee reminded him that both their grandfathers, having fought in the Civil War, had repudiated the federal government and professed allegiance to the flag of the Confederacy.

Following the local custom, the Communist papers give Mr. Chamlee the title of "General'; but he has never been a general in the military sense: he was attorney general of Tennessee for eight years. In the last Democratic primaries he ran for re-nomination against Mr. Roddy, the Democratic county chairman. Both were defeated by a third candidate, but Mr. Roddy got more votes than Mr. Chamlee—and it may be that political rivalries have contributed to the antagonisms which have developed in the course of the Scottsboro case.

At any rate, the situation has been complicated by another element. Dr. Stephens had been approached by the International Labor Defense and he had at first cooperated with them. But their obvious tone of propaganda had, he says, aroused his suspicions and he and the colored ministers had finally broken off relations with them. Dr. Stephens had written for advice and information to the headquarters in New York of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the result was that two entirely separate and mutually, hostile defense campaigns got under way. 

Precisely what is the history of the split between the N.A.A.C.P. and the I.L.D. it is difficult to find out. But its underlying causes are sufficiently plain. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a nonpolitical organization, which, under the leadership of Mr. Walter' White, has in many cases been admirably successful in protecting the legal rights of Negroes. In the Arkansas riot cases of 1925, where seventy-nine Negro share-croppers and tenant farmers, who had attempted to sue their landlords for money due them, had been charged with insurrection and condemned either to long prison terms or to death, the N.A.A.C.P. fought the verdicts and caused the Supreme Court to reverse its decision (made in the Leo Frank case) and to hold that if it could be shown that a trial had been dominated by the fear of a mob, the conviction could be overruled. The N.A.A.C.P. works quietly and by conventional methods. Its general tendency is to encourage the Negroes to approximate to white respectability, so that they may compete in the same fields and claim the same rights. The aims of the Communists have been indicated. The rupture between the two organizations was inevitable—as it seems to have been inevitable between the International Labor Defense and the American Civil Liberties Union after Gastonia—as it seems to be inevitable at the present stage wherever Communists and bourgeois liberals attempt to work together. Whatever the immediate occasion of the break, the result invariably seems to be that the liberals end by accusing the Communists of disingenuous or Jesuitical tactics, of diverting money raised for special defense funds to Communist propaganda, of prejudicing their particular causes by waving the red flag too openly and of being willing and even eager to make martyrs to provide atrocities for The Daily Worker and The Labor Defender and so inflame the class-consciousness of their public; while the Communists, on their side, accuse the liberals of insincerity or timidity, of sacrificing their causes by sticking too closely to the conventional machinery and trusting to the fair play of capitalist courts, of being unwilling to deal with fundamentals for fear of antagonizing the rich persons or foundations who subsidize them and of attempting to mislead the proletariat as to the latter's interests in order to safeguard their own bourgeois positions.

William Pickens, the colored secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., began by endorsing the efforts of the I.L.D. He wrote a letter to The Daily Worker in which he asserted that "the only ultimate salvation for black and white workers" was "in their united defense, one of the other." It was not long, however, before he had taken the position—in conformity with the official policy of the N.A.A.C.P.— that the Communists were ruining the boys' chances by adding anti-Red prejudice to race prejudice; while the Communists were denouncing Mr. Roddy as a member of the Ku Klux Klan who had done his best to help "the Southern boss lynchers railroad the boys to the electric chair" and Mr. White as a betrayer of the Negro, who would never have come into the case at all if the rank and file of his organization had not insisted on it and who was now in it not to save the victims but merely to connive with the authorities by getting their sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Mr. Pickens and Mr. White went to Scottsboro and Chattanooga on their own account and took steps to engage new counsel. A ludicrous and pathetic contest began between the Communists and the N.A.A.C.P. to get the parents of the sentenced boys to endorse their respective organizations and to authorize their respective lawyers to defend them. The N.A.A.C.P. accused the Communists of having carried off certain members of the families of the defendants and of keeping them in hiding so that nobody else could get at them; and the Communists charged the N.A.A.C.P. with having induced the Negroes to sign statements which they couldn't read and which had never been read to them. Before the motion for a new trial had been made, the bewildered prisoners and their relations had been persuaded to sign and repudiate a variety of documents. The Communists, who were counting on the case as a crucial stroke in their campaign to win the Negroes, labored particularly hard over the families of the boys. They brought two of the mothers to New York and had them speak at the meetings which they were now holding there and elsewhere. South, North, East and West, in their effort to raise funds and recruit Communists. One of them, returning to Chattanooga, wrote to her late entertainers as follows:

Well I sure miss you all but I was just homesick. I'm sorry I was that way, but after all I love the Reds. I can't be treated any better than the Reds has treated me. And I am a Red too. I tell the white and I tell the black I am not getting back of nothing else. I mean to be with you all as long as I live. . . . Well, I am looking for you to come to see me like you said. You can't realize how highly I appreciate the kindness you all did for me. .. . I hope next time I be to see you all I will be less worried. I never stayed away from my family that long for I think my children don't get along without me. . . . Give all the Reds my love for I love them all.

My daughter Sybil says she thanks you all for the kindness you did for me and she works only two days a week and anything she can do on her spare days she will be glad to do so. Will close now.

From one of the Reds, Janie Patterson.

Another of the mothers wrote as follows:

My dear friend, organ of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. This is Azie Powell's mother. I was away from home at the time those men was out to see me. I was out trying to collect some money what a man owes me to defend for my boy. . . .

From birth I has work hard plowing, farming by myself for a living for my children. Have had no help supporting them. So sorry, deeply sorry to my heart that my boy was framed up in this. I am almost crazy, can't eat, can't sleep, just want to work all the time, so weak I don't see how I can stand much longer. Living on the will of the Lord. . . .

Azie was raised on a farm, he was born on a farm, got one little girl seven years of age already has heart trouble. Have two boys, two girls in all with no father assisting. Poor me, poor me, so burdened down with trouble, if I could only see my baby Azie once more. Lord have mercy on my poor boy in Birmingham. My boy is only fourteen, will be fifteen November 10.

Poor me, worked hard every day of my life, can't make a living hardly to save my life. . .

From Josephine Powell, Atlanta, Ga.

P. S.—Not knowing what to say or what to da for the best.

The Communists held mass meetings and parades, had a demonstration in Harlem broken up by the police, protested to the President, sent ninety-some telegrams to the Governor and organized an "All-Southern Conference" at Chattanooga, at which the Communist leaders were arrested. 

Two parties appeared among the Negroes: those who were persuaded by the arguments of the Communists or were excited by Communism as a new form of revivalism (the meetings were often held in churches) and those who, from conservatism, willingness to mind their place or prudence about keeping on the safe side of the whites, were opposed to the Communist agitation. In one case, a married woman named Bessie Ball, who had attended a Communist meeting with the man who lived next door and had been elected a delegate to the All-Southern Conference, was beaten up when she got home by her husband, who had heeded the counsels of the respectable Negro preachers. When his daughter had him arrested the next day, the judge congratulated him on his conduct and advised him to use a shotgun on the Reds and call the police if they gave him any trouble. The wife was fined $10 and the house of the man next door was raided and he and his mother arrested, but afterwards released. When the latter couple got back home, they were visited by their neighbor, Mr. Ball, who had just been given carte blanche by the court: Mr. Ball, finding a copy of The Liberator, the Negro Communist paper, proceeded to tear it up. When the Communist mother protested, he hit her over the head with a wooden block. Later, he shot at the son with the shotgun prescribed by the judge. Both were arrested again on charges of felonious assault with intent to kill. Mr. Ball was soon released, but the Communist kept in jail.

On May 14, Robert Minor complained in The Daily Worker that "one of the most serious mass campaigns that the party has ever undertaken" had, in spite of success at agitation, not succeeded in organizing "a united front from the bottom—a united front of the rank and file masses of Negro people and black and white workers." He outlined a more energetic program and ended by calling upon "every District and every Section and Unit to throw itself with full strength and devotion into this campaign, which can very well prove to be an epoch-making one in the struggle of the Negro masses and the working class."

The more docile Negroes were scared: Negroes were practically never to be found on freight-trains any more and white people in Scottsboro said they almost had to shake hands with their servants every morning in order to persuade them that they meant them no harm. The white Southerners, of course, resented both the Communists and the N.A.A.C.P. as interference in their affairs from the North. On one occasion. The Jackson County Sentinel announced that they would "have no editorial this week on the 'Negro Trial' matter. We just couldn't do one without getting mad as hell." "The International Labor Defense of New Yawk and Rusha" had told them that they "must have Negro jurors on any jury trying the blacks if they are to get 'their rights'. A Negro juror in Jackson County would be a curiosity—and some curiosities are embalmed, you know."

A change of venue to another county was first promised by the Court, then denied. A hearing on motions for new trials was set for June 5. Mr. Roddy, Mr. Chamlee and Mr. Joseph Brodsky, an I.L.D. attorney, all appeared in court. Some of the jurors were cross-examined with a view to making them admit that they had been aware of the brass band and the demonstration outside during the trials and Mr. Chamlee filed a motion for new trials, asserting that the indictments were vague and mentioned no exact facts or dates; that bias had been present in the case; that the defendants had had no chance to employ counsel; that the jury had been prejudiced and had included no Negroes; that the defense were in possession of newly discovered evidence; that it had been impossible at the trials to question Virginia Price as to whether or not she practiced prostitution; that the Negroes at the time they were arrested had displayed no consciousness of guilt; that the state had failed to pro-: duce the white boys; that there must originally have been on the train from fifteen to eighteen colored boys and that if any crime had been committed, there was no certainty it had not been committed by the boys who had gotten away; that the ride from Stevenson to Paint Rock could only have taken forty or fifty minutes and that it would have been impossible for a fight and twelve rapes to take place in so short a time. 

The hearing was the occasion in Scottsboro for another popular demonstration. Mr. Chamlee brought a bodyguard along and Mr. Brodsky was kept in the building for two or three hours after the hearing was over until the crowd outside had dispersed. Judge Hawkins, who has to depend for his reelection on the voters of Jackson County, denied the motions for new trials.

The defense will appeal the case to the supreme court of Alabama and, if they are unsuccessful, will appeal it to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the meantime, the Communists in Alabama had continued to work at their program. The Negro share-croppers were miserably paid and the Communists stimulated them to organize. On July 16, the Share-Croppers' Union held a meeting in a church at Camp Hill of which one of the objects was to protest over the Scottsboro case. A white posse came to break it up and as a result the sheriff was shot, a Negro picket was shot and killed, four Negroes disappeared and thirty-four were arrested on charges which range from carrying concealed weapons to conspiring to commit a felony.

Theodore Dreiser has lent his name to a committee to raise funds for the I.L.D. in connection with the Scottsboro case and a German committee has recently been organized with the names of Einstein, Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger.

Whatever happened in that open freight-car in broad daylight on a heap of gravel. Ruby Bates and Virginia Price would never have made any trouble about it. The complaint of one white boy has sent it across the world. And for Einstein, Dreiser and Mann in their studies, the kind of differences which exist between one race of people and another seem as negligible as they do to the most ignorant, the least fastidious types of our civilization who have no social position, even the meanest, to keep up. Between them He all those planes of humanity where the antagonism between hoboes in a freight-car bursts empires and lays commonwealths waste.