Monday, September 7, 2015

Why Hidalgo, The Devil Stick Artiste, Was Not

"...People are stupid."

What's in a name?  For most people, nothing.  For some, everything (see: John Fitzgerald Rockefeller Carnegie Getty).  For the American hobo of the 1930s, a name could make or break you, and so much of that equation was out of your personal control.  Such was the case with Hidalgo, The Devil Stick Artiste.

He was a hobo to be reckoned with, they said.  He was fiendish and evil and made of the darkest, blackest magic.  They said.  He'd just as soon jam a rusty blade in your gut and mutilate your innards as he would say hi.  It was said that he could manipulate a devil stick so deftly as to render it invisible, creating a hole in the universe through which Satan himself could speak, luring unsuspecting victims like a carnival barker.  Hidalgo was considered so dangerous that several cities had placed old-west-style bounties on his head.  Naturally, one of those towns was Indianapolis, where stupidity and ugliness were worn proudly.

Sadly, as was sometimes the case with our list of the poor 700 Hoboes, Hidalgo's name was all wrong - or at best, terribly misunderstood.

He was not, in fact, "a Mexican," nor was he named for any "Spanish devil," as it was supposed he was.  His parents, émigrés from France, had met in a Parisian library in 1897 when, hoping to read about the great American mustang named Hidalgo, they both reached for the same newspaper.  They married immediately, and sailed to New York that same year.  When their son was born, there was only one name that would suit him.

Hidalgo's father was killed by poison gas in 1916, defending his native France.  "Mother died soon after," Hidalgo would later recount, "of sadness, and rickets."

As for Hidalgo's skills in the dark arts, his devil-conjuring, and so forth, these attributes of his persona were the products not of exaggeration, but of pure ignorance and speculation.  

Devil sticks were simply batons, used by jugglers.  For juggling.  Hidalgo was indeed a "devil stick artiste," but not in the way that jugglers were devil stick artists.  He did not *USE* devil sticks; he couldn't juggle and had absolutely no aptitude for manipulating the sticks.  No - sorry, conspiracy theorists - he *MADE* devil sticks.  He carved them, usually out of walnut or cherry wood.  He was called "artiste," on account of his Frenchness, and the fact that his sticks were masterfully carved.

Nothing more.  

He was actually a very nice hobo.  Kept to the code, shared and worked and helped and everything - even went to church, when he could get away with it.  But he spent his days, from 1930, when he first joined the hobo nation, to his death of exposure in 1938, fleeing misinformed persecution, because people didn't know what his moniker meant.

It is said that his dying words, in the snow and freezing rain of Lexington, Kentucky, were, "People are stupid."

Prompted once again by my bloggy people at Studio Thirty Plus, this week I went with FIENDISH, although as you have just read, not really.