Did “Trashy Literature” Really Inspire Cincinnati Teenagers To Run Away From Home?

Why did three teenage boys run away from their Cincinnati homes in 1901?

Portrait of Leonard Hoffman, with illustration of young men with hobo bundles
Portrait of Leonard Hoffman, with illustration of young men with hobo bundles

From Cincinnati Post, 19 February 1901; image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Today, parents might blame video games or television but, in 1901, “trashy” dime novels got the blame. The runaways were Leonard Hoffman, 17, who lived on Vine Street just south of Court; James Harding, 18, of 1060 Kossuth Street in the West End, and Phil Steffin, 19, of Fairview Heights. The Cincinnati Post [19 February 1901] got it straight from Mama:

“Trashy literature is the supposed cause of the disappearance of three boys Monday, leaving as many distracted houses behind them.”

The source of the Post’s insight was apparently Mrs. Harding, who related her son’s reading habits:

“Jimmy has been reading wild West novels lately, and kept them hid about the house. He would get up at night after all had retired and sit in the parlor and read them.”

Mrs. Harding had another suspect as well—that Steffin boy:

“I am sure the Steffin boy had a strange influence over my son, for he was a good boy. Why, only Sunday afternoon he stood sponsor for Michael Dooley’s child which was baptized at the church in Norwood.”

It appears that the young men knew one another through classes at a local business school. Despite their education, they did not plan much for this excursion. An accompanying illustration shows four young men carrying bundles hobo-style. Mrs. Hoffman and Mrs. Harding both reported that the young men had no money, no food, and had left their overcoats at home for their February jaunt.

It took a couple of days, but the runaways were soon apprehended in New Alsace, Indiana, not much more than 30 miles from Cincinnati. The trio told The Cincinnati Post [23 February 1901] that trashy literature and peer pressure had nothing to do with their escapade. According to Leonard Hoffman:

“We did not run away because we had been reading dime novels nor because we were dissatisfied with our homes. None of us urged the others to go.”

They also discounted the idea that they planned to go to New Mexico to see a friend from Cincinnati who was working on a ranch. Their goal, they said, was to spend a couple of weeks in Lintner, Illinois, though they did not explain why.

The young men told The Cincinnati Post that they took a train to Lawrenceburg, then walked to Guilford, Indiana, where they were offered passage on a freight train in exchange for shoveling coal. The work was hard, and they got off after only a few miles at Weisburg. From Weisburg, they walked to New Alsace, even though their goal, Lintner, Illinois, was in the opposite direction.

“We lost our way and had to cross a swampy field. Jim [Harding] had shoes with big soles and he got into mud up to his knees and couldn’t get out till we helped him. He was a sight!”

The boys found a farmhouse nearby and begged for food. They scored some buttered toast. The next farmhouse offered jellied buttered toast. In town, they sang for their supper:

“At New Alsace, we sang rag time in the street and had plenty to eat.”

A local constable took them in for a couple of days and they all wrote letters to their parents in between card games with the constable, but were apprehended by the local sheriff before the letters arrived in Cincinnati. Then they all came home.

Where did they go from there?

It turns out that Leonard Hoffman wasn’t a Hoffman at all. His real name was Leonard Mueller and his mother had married a man named Hoffman. Leonard reverted to his birth name and moved to New York, where he worked as a foreman on the railways. He and his wife, Theresa, lived in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, and later in Astoria, Queens. Leonard died in Queens in 1945.

James Harding moved out to Warren County, Ohio, and took up farming. After 25 years or so, he and his wife, Francesca, moved back to Norwood, where he became a realtor. When he died in 1945, he was still working in real estate and living in Loveland.

Phil Steffin’s real first name was Emil. He married a woman named Rose and worked in a Cincinnati coffin factory, then got a job as a sanitary policeman for the Cincinnati Board of Health. He died in Cincinnati in 1964.

Their friend in New Mexico, Milton “Mike” Holland, gave up life on the ranch and moved to Dallas, Texas, where he sold dry goods until he died in 1939.

None of their obituaries mention a fascination with dime novels about the Wild West.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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