Tramp Signs: Secret Symbols of Criminals and Vagabonds

 

Tramp signs were somtimes carved into wood.

Criminals used to use secret tramp signs, sometimes carving them into wood. Photo AVN Photo Lab, Shutterstock.

A black shape emerges from the misty shadows of the night and slinks up to the door. A glint of light flashes from a knife. There’s a scratching sound as the man begins to whittle a symbol into the wood. You probably won’t be able to read what he’s carving, because it’s in a centuries-old secret language: the tramp signs of Europe.

Frequently used from the 17th to 19th centuries, these symbols provided secret information to other criminals and vagabonds. Tramp signs told which houses provided refuge and which were dangerous. Even if a criminal was illiterate, he could still read these symbols.

By the 20th century, law enforcement had deciphered many of the symbols. Here are few listed in a criminal investigator’s handbook:

 

Historical tramp signs from Europe. Hans Gross, Handbuch der Kriminalistik is a good source.

Historical tramp signs from Europe.

 

Some of these symbols became the basis for the hobo symbols that flourished in North American starting in the late 19th century and through the Depression. Compare the tramp signs above to some of these hobo symbols from North America:

Hobo signs

Ryan Somma, Key to a few hobo signs, National Cryptologic Museum, Creative Commons.

In Europe, however, tramp signs were also used by mischief-makers who were much more dangerous than hobos. Some tramp signs would tell a criminal which house to burglarize, which to burn, or even which occupants to murder. Here are two ominous examples from 19th century Europe:

Tramp signs from Germany.

Instructions to commit murder by arson found on a chapel in the forest in Germany. The first line means “In the night of the last quarter moon, the fourth house in the direction of the arrow will be attacked.” The symbols on the bottom line are the signatures of the participants. From Hans Gross, Handbuch, 1899.

 

Another example of tramp signs.

These symbols indicate plans to burglarize the church on Christmas night. The stones and the child wrapped in swaddling clothes indicate the date. Hans Gross, Handbuch, 1899.

In the modern age of cell phones, the need for such communication has largely died out, although police do occasionally still find tramp signs. In 2009, police in Vienna found several on houses, mailboxes, fences, and doors. You can view photographs here. One of the symbols used looked like an upside down table. That means “old people live here.”

A modern variation of tramp signs is warchalking, symbols on streets or lampposts indicating the availability of an open wireless access point.

Warchalking as a modern variation of tramp signs.

Maha, Warchalking on a street in Bamberg, Germany, Creative Commons

Have you ever seen secret symbols in a public place?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross & Ernst Seelig, Handbuch der Kriminalistik (Berlin: J Schwietzer, 1954)

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Graz, Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung 1899)

10 Comments

  1. Jill Swenson
    Apr 22, 2015

    I had never heard of warchalking, though it is a lovely idea to mark public space with wifi.

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 22, 2015

      In some places warchalking might encourage illegal tapping of a private WiFi, so it can be borderline as far as the law is concerned.

  2. Brian
    Apr 23, 2015

    I’ve seen things written on the road, figured they were put there by city workers — but in the back of my mind I was thinking it’s crook code for which house to rob.

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 23, 2015

      Who knows? Maybe we all ought to put the “a cop lives here” and “vicious dog” symbols somewhere in front of our homes to ward the burglars off!

  3. Bill Ellson
    Oct 10, 2015

    Tramps Signs are real enough, but burglars chalk marks etc. are an urban myth. In the 120 years that tales of ‘burglars chalk marks’ have circulated in the British Isles there has never been a single case where such markings have formed part of the evidence in a reported prosecution.

    ‘Warchalking’ was a briefly hyped story in the summer of 2002. If you have a device that can use wi-fi then you use it to detect open networks.

    • Ann Marie
      Oct 10, 2015

      Thanks for your post, Bill! I’m not so sure they’re an urban myth. The Vienna police documented burglar signs on residences recently (see the link the the post). But they were probably more popular in the past, before the advent of modern communication devices. Hanns Gross, the father of modern criminology, devoted an entire chapter to the signs in his 1899 Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter. Is it possible that they are — or were — more popular in continental Europe?

  4. Scott
    May 28, 2017

    A couple of summers ago my neighbors were out of town for an extended period and we were suddenly inundated with travelers using their yard as a place to sleep and store their belongings. I was looking around to figure out why this property had attracted so many and noticed a tramp sign marked on the sidewalk next to the gate indicating the house was empty. I erased the marking and we didn’t have anyone come back.

    • Ann Marie
      May 28, 2017

      That’s amazing, Scott, that people are still using those tramp signs today. It’s even more amazing that travelers are using them. Do they have some kind of secret arrangement to mark empty properties for fellow travelers? Some traditions die hard and it’s interesting to hear about your experience. Thanks for commenting.

  5. julie buzzo
    Jul 9, 2017

    My home has been hit twice, the last time two weeks ago. Today I found a small rock with a painted rock and a painted popcicle stick in my mailbox with the flag up on a sunday morning

    • Ann Marie
      Jul 10, 2017

      I’m sorry to hear about your home being burglarized, Julie. I’m not sure if the painted rock and popsicle stick have anything to do with criminal activity. It could just be kids playing a prank. Have you tried googling it?

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