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John Patric: Hobo, Screwball, and Hero

Lawrence W. Reed

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

John Patric was a self-described “hobo” and “screwball” who lived out of a car for years at a time. He attended universities in seven states from California to Minnesota and was expelled from three (in Oregon, Michigan, and Texas). He ran for office at least 15 times, as a Republican as often as a Democrat, and paid his campaign filing fees with loose change. To prove how gullible reporters could be, he often falsely claimed he was an FBI agent, a school board member, or other such fabrications. He was, by all accounts, a strange duck. So what makes this guy a hero?

"Americans have the right to be different!"
— John Patric

Paeans to the “common man” abound in literature, magazines, and political speeches. I confess, however, to an attachment to the uncommon — an appreciation that goes back at least 40 years to the time I first read “My Creed” by a New Yorker named Dean Alfange, an immigrant from Turkey:

I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon, if I can. I seek opportunity, not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.

I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations and to face the world boldly and say, “This I have done.”

Sometimes the uncommon man is offensive, intrusive, or even violent. But on most occasions, he’s simply a little rebellious or peculiar and, at the same time, a positive good for society. He (or she) is just different. How boring this world would be if everything and everybody were common and conventional!

John Patric was unequivocally uncommon and unconventional. He puts me in mind of “Think Different,” a 1997 Apple ad campaign that paid tribute to the unusual among us. Featuring footage of famous personalities from Bob Dylan to Thomas Edison, it celebrated diversity in thought and behavior:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them — because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Patric was born in Snohomish, Washington, in 1902 and lived until his teen years in the family home on the floor above the town library. He was surrounded by books and read lots of them. His adventurism — some might call it rebellion — showed up well before he finished high school. He ran away from home and, as he explained it, “hoboed my way from Seattle to Mexico and back, and nearly all railway men I met were kind to me. They shared their lunches with me, they helped me locate other trains, and sometimes let me ride in the cab.” When he finally made it back to Snohomish, he finished high school as the valedictorian and president of the senior class (it was the only election he ever won).

Smitten by the travel bug, Patric began a peripatetic life that took him to far-flung places on a shoestring budget. This free spirit never hung around long enough to earn a degree at any of the universities he attended. He managed to scrape a few dollars together as a rubber stamp salesman and as a struggling writer for the American Insurance Digest as well as for a few other magazines. His first real “home” on his own was a used 1927 Lincoln sedan he picked up for a good price and drove from coast to coast. For a stretch of several months, one of his traveling companions was none other than the libertarian political theorist Rose Wilder Lane, author of The Discovery of Freedom (1940).

Patric earned a loyal following from National Geographic readers as a regular contributor for years. His best-known article appeared there in March 1937. Titled “Imperial Rome Reborn,” it described his travels in Italy near the peak of Benito Mussolini’s power and influence. Some of the most prominent and allegedly well-educated architects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were enthralled by Il Duce’s vaunted central planning, but Patric’s article — its photographs in particular — raised the chilling specter of an egocentric dictatorship.

A few years later, as Mussolini and his Axis allies waged war on the world, Patric stirred the ire of organized labor when, in Reader’s Digest, he exposed union corruption and featherbedding in the nation’s shipbuilding industry. Called to testify before Congress, he argued that the unions were crippling productivity at a time when the nation needed all hands on deck to win World War II.

By far, the most widely read work of Patric’s was his 1943 book, Why Japan Was Strong, later retitled Yankee Hobo in the Orient for subsequent, better-known, and far more voluminous editions. A repackaging of articles first published in National Geographic, it was based on his two years of travel around Japan, China, and Korea from 1934 through 1936. True to his fiercely independent lifestyle and increasingly libertarian political views, Patric maintained that the book’s most important argument was that every individual should try to diminish “by whatever peaceful means his ingenuity may devise, the power of government — any government — to tell him what to do.”

"A person should seek to reduce, by whatever peaceful means his ingenuity may devise, the power of government — any government — to tell him what to do." — John Patric

The New York Times reviewed Hobo favorably, stating that the author exhibited “qualities of good sense and poise and instinct for honest reporting sufficiently to give his excellent account of Japan’s ‘common man’ the favorable reception it deserves.” In less than two months, Hobo was number seven on the bestseller list. Reader’s Digest in the United States and World Digest in England produced abridged versions. All told, in both full and condensed versions, the book sold an astonishing 12 million copies worldwide.

Patric’s breezy, quirky style captivated readers. For many, it was their first encounter with daily life among a people who seemed inscrutable. One couldn’t help but feel sympathetic to the ordinary citizen up against the mandarins of arbitrary rule. Of Koreans, he wrote,

After centuries of servitude, taxes, and oppression, Koreans looked to me to be terribly beaten down.

Why try to build a better farm? Why try to get ahead? If you succeeded, your farm might become the farm of a Japanese. So why not just produce the barest needs of your traditional life — food to eat and white clothes to be gentlemen in — and possess nothing your conquerors might covet?...

In America as we have known it, there has always been something to strive for — always a goal ahead. Here there was nothing. Little matter how hard a Korean worked; if he acquired what passes in the Orient for a fine farm, and what is comparatively a degree of prosperity, a way would surely be found by the Government to relieve him of both. It usually would be by some new tax.

One of my favorite passages comes early in the book, when Patric is explaining the difficult time he had with American police as he made his way west to Seattle for passage to Japan:

To save hotel bills, I took to sleeping curled up in the front seat of my car. The worst problem was where to park to avoid the police — for there seem to be laws about sleeping in cars. The more quiet the spot I found, the more likely it seemed that the police would pick me up, take me to the police station, fingerprint me, talk to me as they talked to thugs, and finally let me go without any breakfast. If I resented the cruelty and arrogance of some policemen, and showed it, I was jailed. As I learned to be meek, to act stupid, to say “sir,” to pretend a respect and an awe I did not feel, I got along better.

Why is it that when otherwise decent men come to represent the majesty of law and government, they can become so discourteous, so arrogant, so cruel? It is no wonder to me that petty offenders, and even those who have committed no real offense whatever, sometimes become antisocial after a few experiences with “the law.”

Could it be that if police had less power, and if there were fewer laws and regulations, people and police would both become more decent, so that still less law and fewer police would be needed, and honest men could spend on themselves some of the price they pay for government and for crime?

By 1945, Hobo was in its seventh edition and published by Patric’s own Oregon firm, Frying Pan Creek, named for his 160-acre backwoods ranch near Florence, Oregon. He settled there for about 12 years but still found plenty of time to “hobo” his way around the country, signing and peddling thousands of copies of his book. Indeed, he signed so many that you can easily buy a signed copy online today for under $50. I myself possess a copy in which Patric wrote, “To Jack Slinn, and may this book be lent to many an honest borrower — 8/9/52.”

In 1957, Patric returned to his hometown of Snohomish, Washington, but didn’t like what he saw: “When I came back I found the most rotten, corrupt political situation I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” he wrote. “It was like a big stinking thunderjug with the lid clamped down.

To needle the local politicians and their ill-considered schemes for more government, he started a newsletter he dubbed the Snohomish Free Press, later renamed the Saturday Evening Free Press, and wrote under the puckish pseudonym of Hugo N. Frye.

Over the next quarter century, Patric ran for public office almost annually. Oregon authorities jailed him once for using his pseudonym rather than his real name. When the charges were dismissed, the Spokesman-Review editorialized,Hugo N. Frye may be a fictitious character. But in this case he symbolizes a spirit of individual freedom and independence that must always remain alive in a free America.”

Those local authorities didn’t always agree. Incensed by Patric’s rabble-rousing newsletter, they exploited his personal eccentricities to concoct charges of mental incompetence against him. They managed to have him remanded to a mental hospital for months until, acting as his own attorney and arguing that he’d “always been a screwball,” he won his own release.

“What happened to me could happen to any of you,” he told the jury. “Americans have the right to be different!” He never transgressed against any man’s life or property; the only “crime” of which he was ever guilty was being odd.

Later, after one of his many tongue-in-cheek political campaigns, Patric was able to declare, “I was the only candidate who could prove he was sane; the others could only claim it.”

“Reporters loved John Patric and the colorful copy he provided,” recalled a friend. “Clayton Fox of the Daily Olympian enjoyed describing Patric with phrases like, the bearded bard of Snohomish, gadfly of golliwoggs and gooser of governmental gophers…the pricker of political stuffed shirts, the scourge of junkmailers, implacable foe of pollution and corruption, aider and abetter of bees, trees and ocean breezes.”

David Dilgard, a librarian at Washington’s Everett Public Library, knew John Patric. In an April 2, 2015, interview, he recalled,

John’s lifestyle, including his diet, was highly idiosyncratic and he was a heavy smoker. The brief glimpses I got of his eating habits were startling. He apparently subsisted at times on canned mackerel and chocolate bars, washed down with large quantities of coffee. Although it may sound pretentious, his comparison of himself to the cynic Diogenes was pretty convincing to me. Like Diogenes, his lifestyle was austere and he spent a lot of his time looking for honesty and virtue in his fellow man and loudly proclaiming that he had failed to find it.

John Patric passed away at age 83 on August 31, 1985. His headstone in a Snohomish cemetery reads, “A Little Eccentric, But Justified.”

Self-described screwballs can be heroes. John Patric was both.

For further information, see:

  • Patric’s Yankee Hobo in the Orient is out of print but available on various used book websites for under $50.

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