In early 1932, a unemployed drifter named Eustace “One-Thumb” Enright experienced a fit of inspiration in a Gary, Indiana soup kitchen.
A talented doodler since childhood — when he would sketch comedic caricatures in charcoal on the wall of his family’s barn — Enright came up with the idea of a comic strip featuring a wandering waif named “Harry Hobo” and his various misadventures wandering Depression Era America. The basic concepts and characters were drawn from Enright’s own experiences and the work quickly developed into a pitchable (if rough, given that it was mostly sketched on discarded scraps of cardboard) form.
The bigger syndicates weren’t interested in Enright’s brainchild, but it eventually found a home at Columbia Features, a scrappy firm mostly known for such regional fare as “Lawdy ‘n’ Mammy,” “Okie Dopey,” and “Big Mick Begorrah.” Columbia saw potential in “Harry Hobo” and signed Enright to a deal that saw the strip published daily in scores of smaller market papers.
The public’s reception of “Harry Hobo” was muted as first, but the character’s popularity soared after a pair of high profile controversies in which the American Legion and railroad industry association objected to what they saw as slanderous caricatures in the form of the vindictive “Pat Riot” and the thuggish “Bull Axehandle.” Columbia briefly considered dropping the strip and kicking Enright to the curb, but it quickly became clear that the attention only increased Harry Hobo’s popularity with the Depression-weary public.
This translated to a massive and anticipated windfall for Columbia Features, who wasted no time pursuing licensing and animation deals to further their profits. Little of this revenue saw its way into Enfield’s bank account, however, thanks to the dodgy contract he’d signed out of desperation. Enfield’s discontent with “those bastard parasites” helped fuel his involvement with radical politics. He became a full-fledged member of the American Communist Party and a frequent speaker at its gatherings. As his politics shifted leftward so did the tone of his “Harry Hobo” strips, which began to take on a pointedly polemic tone. Comedic hi-jinks against authority figures shifted into calls for class solidarity and the equitable redistribution of wealth.
Fearing the for the future of their most popular strip, the syndicate evoked a clause in Enfield’s contract which allowed them to assume sole ownership of the character. Enfield responded by publicly denouncing Columbia Features and releasing a self-published pamphlet in which Harry Hobo was violently murdered by goons hired by the Filthy Fat-Cat. In Harry’s place rose his restless spirit, “Hobo Ghost.”
As the official and apolitical “Harry Hobo” sank into a death spiral that would eventually take Columbia Features with it), “Hobo Ghost” developed a fan-following of its own. The character was presented as an intercessionary figure, a mystical being dedicated to righting wrongs and delivering vengeance upon the corrupt and greedy folks who preyed upon the Common Man. The character could be seen as an immediate precursor to the later wave of costumed “mystery men,” and was in fact an early adopter of the funnybook format (thanks to Enfield getting blacklisted by all the strip syndicates).
“Hobo Ghost” chugged along and continued to gain popularity right up until the summer of 1939, when the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi German and the USSR plunged Enright into a deep state of depression. Worried about his health (and seeing the as yet unrealized profit potential of his creation) a group of Enright’s more liberal-leaning pals convinced him to transfer ownership to Aspirational Studios for a generous lump sum. The heartbroken Enright signed the deal then decamped for the West Coast, where he died of liver failure in a Los Angeles boarding house in 1943.
Hobo Ghost survived Enright by a full decade, albeit in a diminished and sanitized capacity. Aspirational’s animation division commissioned a dozen or so shorts split between racist-tinged wartime agitprop and slapstick kiddie fare. Publishing rights for the character were handed to Swell Publishing, where the resulting funnybook served mainly as a vehicle for off-model art and terrible puns based on the words “boo,” “hanut,” and “ghost.”
Neither the cartoons nor later comics delved into the Hobo Ghost’s political leanings or Enfield’s assertion that the character’s bindle contained the decomposing remains of Harry Hobo.
As the 1950s dawned, Hobo Ghost’s popularity was almost entirely eclipsed by the more kid-friendly Casper the Friendly Ghost franchise. The character had all but faded from memory Bby the time Aspirational went bankrupt in 1957, leaving the actual ownership of Hobo Ghost in a state of legal limbo for decades.
There has been a quiet resurgence of interest in Hobo Ghost material over the past few years, which has seen a six-volume hardbound collection of the original comics from Graphafantix and a collector’s edition blu-ray release (sporting a “WARING: THESE ARE RACIST AS HELL” label) of the cartoon shorts. The character was also referenced in an issue of Alan Muir’s acclaimed Gathering of Exceptional Public Domain Dudes. During a convention in 2009, the famed British comics creator Mark Ellison expressed his interest in doing a relaunched aimed at bringing Hobo Ghost back to his gritty roots, though nothing has so far materialized.
Recommended listening: Ghost Dance – Where Spirits Fly (from Gathering Dust, 1988)
Who can say what’s real anymore?