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  1. DdlR is offline
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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 8:03am

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     Style: Bartitsu

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    "American Trombo": Hobo self defense art?

    Trombo was purportedly a fighting style developed by hobos traveling the railways of the USA during the Great Depression.

    The only information about this style seems to be contained within a 60-page book, "American Trombo: Depression-era Self-Defense on the Railroad", by Doug Devlin (Lulu Publications, 2006) The author of this book claimed it to be a collection of writings on the subject of Trombo fighting and general words of wisdom which had originally been written on the walls of freight train carriages during the 1930s, by a Trombo pracitioner nick-named "the Grande Professor".

    According to Doug Devlin, "the Grande Professor" was believed to have been born in 1889 and to have had 314 fights, mostly within boxcar carriages.

    The word "Trombo" is recorded in collections of Depression-era hobo slang, meaning "fighter" or "pugilist" (i.e., a boxer), and may have been a conglomeration of the words "tramp", "boxer" and "hobo".

    Only about 1 in 5 of the short chapters in the American Trombo book actually deals with fighting in any sense. The majority of the other chapters offer advice for surviving as a hobo during the Great Depression.

    The actual fighting techniques of Trombo are described as a sub-system called "square-toeing", consisting mostly of low kicking techniques and named after the square-toe shoe which was popular at the time. There are few, if any specific technical details on how to kick in this style. The book also briefly and very simply discusses the use of weapons such as the brake club (a heavy 3' long wooden club) and offers general tactics/observations for using the square-toe style against various weapons.

    According to "American Trombo" there were five ranks within the so-called "Trombo Guild" which is said to have been founded in 1929. These were based on the ranks of the old European trade guilds and included a progression from Apprentice to Journeyman, Master, Professor and Grand Professor. These ranks were signified by colored handkerchiefs worn around the right wrist, each color corresponding with a different rank in the order green, blue, red, black and grey.

    The author /publisher of the "American Trombo" book, Doug Devlin, is purported to be a peace officer and is one of the co-founders of the Police Martial Arts Association - http://www.policemartialarts.org/ . He is also the founder of a method of police arrest/restraint training called Poldo or Policedo. According to the biography available on his World Head of Family Sokeship Council profile:

    "Doug Devlin is a Police Officer and System Use-of-Force Trainer. He is the creator of POLDO (The Police Method of Arrest and Self-Defense) and founder of the Police Martial Arts Association International. He holds Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Education Degrees. He is a master level Black Belt instructor in the arts of Taihojutsu, Jujutsu and Karate. In 1998 he was inducted into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame for his leadership in the police training profession. Mr. Devlin teaches seminars internationally to police officers and academics."

    http://bushido.org/whfsc/grandmaster/devlin.htm

    Mr. Devlin was also at one time associated with an otherwise apparently unknown method of self defense developed by/for railway police, which was known as RYR. Basic information on this style used to be available online, but the site has since disappeared.

    My online research has not revealed any record of a codified fighting style called Trombo (nor "square-toeing" - see below) in any other literature of this period. I have also contacted various experts in hobo lore to confirm the existence of Trombo and/or the Grande Professor, but no-one I have contacted has ever heard of either. I emailed Doug Devlin several years ago but have never heard back from him.

    My tentative conclusion is that Trombo is a fantasy/hoax, perpetrated for an obscure reason. Since it doesn't seem to have taken hold at any level (e.g., the hinted-at revival of the Trombo Guild does not seem to have taken place), it's probably harmless, but an interesting case nonetheless.
  2. sempaiman is offline

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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 8:27am


     Style: Mixed-Up Martial Arts

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    The movie, "Emperor or the North", with Lee Marvin, showed some hobo fighting techniques and how to survive has a hobo on the railways....
  3. Cullion is offline
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    Everybody was Kung Fu fighting

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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 8:38am

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    The idea that traveling homeless people who got into that position after losing their jobs during a recession (rather than being born into a centuries old nomadic culture like Irish or Romany gypsies) and probably couldn't get enough to eat a lot of the time organised themselves into a guild with MA ranks to pass on a systemised body self-defence techniques sounds kind of implausible.
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  4. DdlR is offline
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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 9:04am

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cullion
    The idea that traveling homeless people who got into that position after losing their jobs during a recession (rather than being born into a centuries old nomadic culture like Irish or Romany gypsies) and probably couldn't get enough to eat a lot of the time organised themselves into a guild with MA ranks to pass on a systemised body self-defence techniques sounds kind of implausible.
    I agree, but then again (playing devil's advocate) there definitely was a distinct hobo subculture - hobos had defined systems of written sign language (code pictures), their own slang and folk-lore, etc.

    I'd say that the development of a specific fighting style within the hobo sub-culture is not beyond the bounds of possibility, although I still think that Trombo/square-toeing itself is wishful thinking and that the book is an obscure hoax.
  5. Craigypooh is offline

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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 9:30am


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    The "handkerchief" system of grading seems unlikely, particularly the fact that the black handkerchief is one of the highest belts. As does someone coming across writings from the 1930's on the side of a box car. What did he write with? Chalk? Fountain pen? But I did find this website of hobo slang: http://www.hobonickels.org/alpert04.htm
    It defines Trombo a hobo boxer.
  6. Cullion is offline
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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 10:04am

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    Quote Originally Posted by DdlR
    I agree, but then again (playing devil's advocate) there definitely was a distinct hobo subculture - hobos had defined systems of written sign language (code pictures), their own slang and folk-lore, etc.

    I'd say that the development of a specific fighting style within the hobo sub-culture is not beyond the bounds of possibility, although I still think that Trombo/square-toeing itself is wishful thinking and that the book is an obscure hoax.
    1 varrot says it's badly-taught dirty boxing with some improvised shin kicking and the whole idea of an organisation with grades and titles is bullshit.
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  7. ShrekBJJ is offline

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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 10:15am


     Style: BJJ/MMA

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cullion
    1 varrot says it's badly-taught dirty boxing with some improvised shin kicking and the whole idea of an organisation with grades and titles is bullshit.
    If that's not right on the money I'll kiss a hobo myself.

    It would be hugely if there wasn't a fairly unique/signatoury fighting style born out of the conditions of the great depression but to call it a codifed art with grades and titles is fantastic in the extreme.
  8. DdlR is offline
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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 10:22am

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     Style: Bartitsu

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    Quote Originally Posted by Craigypooh
    The "handkerchief" system of grading seems unlikely, particularly the fact that the black handkerchief is one of the highest belts. As does someone coming across writings from the 1930's on the side of a box car. What did he write with? Chalk? Fountain pen? But I did find this website of hobo slang: http://www.hobonickels.org/alpert04.htm
    It defines Trombo a hobo boxer.
    According to the book, the "Grande Professor Monograph" (which is the name given for the collection of writing) was "written in grease-pencil on the wooden inside walls of box-cars that were in service between 1929 and 1940. These writings were signed under two different names: the Grande Professor and TGP."

    But seriously, what are the chances? This assumes that someone, or a group of people, actually went around collecting and recording these writings. I can almost see a folklore society or something doing that, but if that's what happened, why is there no mention in the book of how the "TGP monograph" was recorded for posterity? Also, I find it really hard to believe that such grafitti would survive in any legible form.

    Like I said in the OP, Trombo does seem to have been legitimate '30s hobo slang for a pugilist, but IMO it's likely that the author simply did his research and decided to elaborate a single slang word into a fictitious fighting style.
  9. DdlR is offline
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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 10:29am

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cullion
    1 varrot says it's badly-taught dirty boxing with some improvised shin kicking and the whole idea of an organisation with grades and titles is bullshit.
    That's assuming that it ever existed at all ...

    Regarding boxing, the book claims that square-toeing was devised partly to counter pugilism, the idea being that a lot of people riding the rails knew something about boxing so low kicks were a good surprize attack. As with the whole book, it's imaginative, but just not that persuasive.

    I agree that the Trombo Guild with its colored handkerchiefs etc. sounds far-fetched. It's as if the author couldn't resist inventing a hobo parallel to the colored belt system.
  10. Rivington is online now
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    Posted On:
    9/27/2007 10:34am

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    Bizarre. Given that it is self-published via lulu.com, the chances of this guy making more than Happy Meal money from the exercise are slim.

    Hobos did have their own slang and subcultures, and organizations/secret socities were fairly prominent in first half of the twentieth century as well, but coincidentally coming up with system of hanky-belts instead of, say, adopting boxing structures (contenders, champions, whatnot) seems ridiculously far-fetched. So too does the the saving and reclaiming of grease pencil notes on fighting.
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