Originally published in Columns 25, no. 2 (June 2013). By Paul K. Graham, CG, AG.

First place winner, 2012, Excellence in Writing Competition: Unpublished Material by Published Authors, from the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors.

All Atlanta gathered under a cloudless sky on Christmas Day 1889 as the body of Henry W. Grady, prominent newspaperman and politician, was carried from the First Methodist Church to Oakland Cemetery. “There was no ostentation, no display, no glittering pageant—all was simplicity, but the funeral procession was the largest that this State has ever seen.”1 In the crowd was James F. Woodward, the married 41-year-old money order clerk at the Atlanta post office.

The next evening, Woodward visited privately with 17-year-old Jessie Bone at her family’s home in a working-class neighborhood near the railroad switchyard. After leaving the Bone house, he was confronted by a man who stepped out of the shadows and asked, “Are you Jim Woodward?” Receiving an affirmative reply, the assailant drew a pistol and fired into Woodward’s chest.

In 1889, the Bone family was a recognized criminal element in Atlanta. The mother, Clara Bone, encouraged and aided a gang of boy thieves that included her teenage sons Lemuel and Julius. Her daughter Jessie had a bad reputation. After the death of James F. Woodward on December 29, a coroner’s jury settled on members of the Bone family as prime suspects, sealing the Bones’ reputation as a notorious family.

The Bones did not start out as criminals. James C. Bone was born about 1832 in Clarke County, Georgia, the son of William Bone, a farmer from Virginia. In 1853, Jim moved to Atlanta to work for the Western and Atlantic Railroad and settled into a regular job as a train hand for the road’s passenger service. He married 17-year-old Clara E. Busby in 1857 and their first child was born two years later. In February 1863, Jim was promoted to the position of conductor. The work was secure until the Panic of 1873 created severe financial problems at the company, and James lost his job the next year.

The Bones’ situation deteriorated over the next decade. Jessie, who turned nine in 1881, worked the streets “as an apple vendor, in rags and tatters…. She was notorious as being the roughest ragamuffin in the city, and was the tease and torment of the various places of public resort.”2 Her twelve-year-old brother Oscar was arrested for burglary in 1881 and 1882. This was the period the Bones turned to crime.

James found work in 1884 as a laborer, and the family moved into a house on Rhodes Street. The area was in a hollow formed by one of the streams originating near the center of town. A railroad trestle crossed the hollow about a block from the Bone house. All of the dwellings were in varying states of disrepair. The next year, James was hired by the Central of Georgia Railway as a watchman directing traffic across the railroad, and the family settled into their new neighborhood.

The Bones’ story began to be told fully on the pages of Atlanta newspapers in June 1888. Atlanta police raided their house on June 19, recovering “the biggest haul of stolen goods made in some time…. It is thought that [James C. Bone] himself is innocent of the stealing. The detectives say that the actual stealing is done by a gang of young white boys among whom are the sons of Bone.”3

The search warrant had been executed after someone overheard a conversation between Jim and one of his sons. “It seems that the father had gone home more or less under the influence of liquor and a day or two after the son made some sneering allusion to it. ‘Well,’ said the father, ‘if I do get drunk and cut up I’m not a d—d thief like you are.’”4 Clara Bone was bound over on June 22 and placed in jail. The boys involved were too young to prosecute. “The case against the husband was dismissed, as he seems to have been ignorant of the thieving, or at least powerless to prevent it.”5

Three weeks later, two of the Bone boys were charged with larceny and brought to the jail. “Old man Bone” came with them. “He himself bears the reputation of being a scrupulously honest and very hard working man, but his family of several children [is] fashioned after their mother. They have been in trouble for years. The old man seems to be simply powerless in the hands of his wife and children.”6

The night of December 26, 1889, was cool and clear. There was a light but steady breeze and the temperature hovered around sixty degrees. Bleeding from the wound in his chest, James F. Woodward staggered through town to the house of his brother-in-law, prominent doctor Robert W. Westmoreland. Word of his condition spread quickly and, within minutes, a large crowd gathered outside on the street waiting for any news.

The diagnosis was grim. The thirty-eight caliber ball had passed through the lower half of Woodward’s right lung and lodged in the muscles of his back. Blood was slowly filling his lung and his heart was weak. Despite the pain and advancing complications, he was conscious and did not seem to be aware of the dire nature of his situation. The next day his condition deteriorated quickly: he lost consciousness just after two o’clock in the afternoon and died two hours later.

Before his death, Woodward told the story of his shooting. He claimed he was walking up Marietta Street when a man stepped out of a dark place and asked if he was Jim Woodward. “When he said ‘yes’ the man placed a pistol to his breast and fired.”8 Woodward provided no information about his assailant except to say that he recognized the man’s face.

The coroner’s jury held an inquest over the body on Monday evening.9 The investigation found that Jim Bone had borrowed a pistol the day of Woodward’s murder, and he had returned it with two rounds missing. Also, Woodward had visited the Bone house shortly before being shot. Robbery was a probable motive because Woodward was missing money, his silver watch, and a pistol he usually carried. “Old man Jim Bone was indicted for murder by the grand jury” on January 6, 1890.10 Other members of the family were indicted for second degree murder, including Sarah Buckalew, a sister of Clara Bone.

Bone’s trial lasted two days. The evidence against him was circumstantial but strong.11 Most damaging was the testimony of Ellen Twilley, who had been living with the Bones. She had seen Woodward with Jessie Bone, and “before Mr. Woodward left the house old man Bone had showed her and Mr[s]. Buckalew a pistol, and told them he was going to kill him. She had not warned Mr. Woodward but let him go out and be shot.”12

At the close of the trial, Old Man Bone made a statement in his own defense. He admitted to the murder, but hoped that the jury would acquit him on the grounds that he acted to protect his daughter. Jim testified that Woodward had been coming to the house for about six or seven months. However, it was not until December that Jim found out that Woodward was married. Bone confronted Woodward on the street that night, telling the latter not to see Jessie any more. Woodward refused. According to Jim, Woodward reached behind as if he was going to pull a pistol, but Jim drew first and fired. “That is the truth of it, gentlemen, and anybody else would have done the same if it had been his daughter. Jessie is the only one I’ve got.”13

In the end Jim Bone’s defense failed. After two hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in the penitentiary. Despite the guilty verdict, many people in Atlanta had their doubts about the identity of the real murderer. “There are those who think Bone did not even do the shooting; that it was done at the house and by the hand of one of the women.”14

The conviction of Old Man Bone for murder left the rest of the family to their own devices on Rhodes Street. After his departure, Clara, Jessie, and the gang of boy thieves began to escalate their criminal activities, bringing increased attention from law enforcement. Local newspapers took interest in the family and introduced Atlanta to a new word: Hobo.

The word “hobo” first appeared in a major U.S. newspaper on September 14, 1888. In Portland’s Morning Oregonian, the police captain explained “what a hobo is…. The word first originated with the Independent Order of tramps, and was used by them as a sort of password…. From this specific use of the word has come the general term ‘hobo,’ which is applied to the vag[abond] and beggar as well as the tramp.”15

By January 1891, the boy thieves in Atlanta had adopted the new word as their own. That month, the Constitution reported on the local “Hoboes,” the “ugly, lawless gangs of toughs” known by police to “hang around the National hotel bar and billiard room.”16

The Hobos made the news after an incident on August 30, 1891. That night, George S. May, a banker, was walking down Peachtree Street with his wife and daughter. May left the women at the National Hotel’s ladies’ entrance to go inside for a moment. A group of the young men were loitering just inside the door. Upon returning, May’s wife informed him that she had been insulted by the men. He confronted them and received a smart reply. May slapped the speaker, drawing out another man who “told Mr. May not to jump on a cripple. ‘Well, show me a man then,’ said [May], accompanying the words with a blow knocking [the man] almost prostrate.” Witnesses said, “Mr. May got decidedly the best of it.”17

The fight with May led police to remove the gang from the downtown business district. Losing their headquarters at the National, they took up residence in the sanctuary of the Bone house. Rather than lessen the pressure from law enforcement, the Hobo’s relocation only served to turn the attentions of police to Rhodes Street.

On November 29, “detectives made a wholesale raid on the hobos. The whole detective force…marched in files of two into the palace of Jessie Bone, the hobo queen.”18 “Eleven subjects of the queen of hoboism” were arrested. “When the detectives entered the room the pretty queen, with a dignity properly in keeping with her high position [as] supreme ruler and barkeeper of the hobos,…arose and with a stage-like frown and highly dramatic jesture [sic], demanded the cause of such intrusion and imposition on the premises of her majesty.” The detectives called her bluff and arrested everyone in the house, making “a clean sweep of the hobo castle.” The detectives were able to find sufficient evidence to bring seven of the Hobos to trial three days after the raid.

Things remained quiet at the Bone house until April 1892 when “the hobo castle in all its splendor was bombarded by police.”19 Clara Bone and her son Jim were arrested, along with eight men. “But one person remained behind. She was the fair queen, who viewed with sadness the deserted household. The radiant Jesse was soon joined by the persistent detectives who had made a case against her ….”20

The April raid on the Hobo Castle marked the beginning of the end of the Hobo Gang and the Bones’ life on Rhodes Street. On April 26, Mrs. Bone and her son Jim were tried for selling liquor on the Sabbath and without a license. Mrs. Bone was also charged with keeping a disorderly house. Both were found guilty and given a $50 fine in each case. Instead of paying the fine, Clara Bone chose to take her punishment in the stockade.

“Old Mrs. Bone” was released from the stockade near the end of June and it did not take long for things to get back to normal on Rhodes Street. With “old Mrs. Bone and [her son] Jim free, the castle again assumed its festive air and its nightly revels began. The queen’s old devotees returned, drank her health and festivity and merry making as in the old days rang through Hobo Hollow.”21

The Bone house was raided again on Sunday, June 26, 1892. Detectives believed the family was selling alcohol illegally. Unfortunately, the detectives found no liquor, although they did confiscate numerous items believed to have been stolen. Despite the lack of alcohol, Clara was sentenced to twenty-six days in the city stockade for keeping a blind tiger.

Clara’s return at the end of July must have led to a new round of parties in Hobo Hollow. The police finally became fed up and, on Monday, August 8, gave notice to the disorderly residents of the neighborhood to leave within three days. By Thursday, the area was mostly depopulated. “The entire vicinity resembles a plague-stricken village from which all its inhabitants had fled to avoid some malignant disease.”22 The Hobos had scattered and the castle was quiet. The end of Hobo Hollow was at hand.

By August 1892, only two members of the Bone family remained in the deserted neighborhood. Old Man Jim Bone was serving his life sentence at the Dade coal mines. Jim Bone, the eldest son, was on the Fulton County chain gang. Oscar Bone, the next oldest son, disappeared from the public record in Atlanta during the 1880s. Jessie fled to Tampa, Florida. Lemuel and Julius Bone, the two Bone sons that played the most direct role in the Hobo Gang, were also in the state penitentiary system.

The only Bones left in Hobo Hollow were Clara and her youngest child, Chalmers Bone. Chalmers was “the very worst type of a tough ‘kid,’ and chews tobacco, smokes cigarettes, drinks beer, curses, plays poker, etc., with as much ease as an old-timer. He is unmanageable, and bids fair to keep the name of Bone up to its present standard.”23

Newspapers turned their editorial pen directly at Clara Bone, the only holdout from the notorious family. There would be no redemption for the fallen woman. “After a wasted life has almost been spent, with all her children gone to the bad, old Mrs. Bone is driven from pillar to post and an outcast from society—from humanity even.”24 Police “had come to regard her as a fixture; as an evil that could not be done away with.”25

The heyday of Hobo Hollow came to an end with the departure of Old Mrs. Bone. No one recorded the event for posterity, but some time before the end of August she packed her belongings into a furniture wagon and slipped away. Instead of moving out of Atlanta, Clara found her way to “a quiet and secluded spot, where she thought she could live undisturbed.”26

Her presence was immediately noticed by her neighbors, and they petitioned Chief Connolly to remove her from the area. “Driven from house to house, shunned as if she was a plague, with no place she can call her home for a month at a time, the whirlwind she is reaping must be more than the haggard old woman, wrinkled and gray, can bear.”27

Out of options, Clara faced unrelenting pressure from police and citizens to leave. “How deeply fallen must the human be who cannot even find a home in all this big city—in all the world, and to go to her grave shunned as a leper.”28 Hounded by the police and the press, she finally relented and disappeared. Hobo Hollow was empty and its rulers were vanquished.

The Bones’ life in Atlanta did not end in 1892, but their activities attracted much less attention. While Clara raised a family, none of her children would follow suit. The Bones and Hobos would soon disappear from local newspapers, and the story of Hobo Hollow would be forgotten for almost a century.


1. “An Imposing Funeral,” New York Times, December 26, 1889, p. 5.

2. “A Family in Jail,” Atlanta Constitution, January 2, 1890, p. 8.

3. “Who Stole Them?”, Atlanta Constitution, June 20, 1888, p. 5.

4. “Who Stole Them?”, Atlanta Constitution, June 20, 1888, p. 5.

5. “Mrs. Bone,” Atlanta Constitution, June 23, 1888, p. 7.

6. “The Bone Family,” Atlanta Constitution, July 13, 1888, p. 5.

7. “Mr. Woodward is Dead,” Atlanta Constitution, December 30, 1889, p. 2.

8. “Jim Woodward Shot,” Atlanta Constitution, December 27, 1889, p. 5.

9. “Robbery the Cause,” Atlanta Constitution, December 31, 1889, p. 1.

10. “Six True Bills,” Atlanta Constitution, January 7, 1890, p. 3.

11. “To the Jury,” Atlanta Constitution, January 15, 1890, p. 5.

12. “On Trial for Life,” Atlanta Constitution, January 14, 1890, p. 5.

13. “To the Jury,” Atlanta Constitution, January 15, 1890, p. 5.

14. “To the Jury,” Atlanta Constitution, January 15, 1890, p. 5.

15. “Origin of the Term ‘Hobo,’” Morning Oregonian, September 14, 1888, p. 8.

16. “The ‘Hobos’ In Court,” Atlanta Constitution, June 24, 1891, p. 9.

17. “Knocked Him Down,” Atlanta Constitution, September 1, 1891, p. 5.

18. “A Clean Sweep,” Atlanta Constitution, November 30, 1891, p. 4.

19. “Dry Bones,” Atlanta Constitution, April 25, 1892, p. 4.

20. “Dry Bones,” Atlanta Constitution, April 25, 1892, p. 4.

21. “Bones in the Soup,” Atlanta Constitution, June 27, 1892, p. 8.

22. “Like a Plague-Stricken Village,” Atlanta Constitution, August 11, 1892, p. 5.

23. “Exit the Bones,” Atlanta Constitution, June 29, 1892, p.5.

24. “In Her Old Age,” Atlanta Constitution, August 12, 1892, p. 8.

25. “Going to Leave,” Atlanta Constitution, August 14, 1892, p. 16.

26. “Like a Leper,” Atlanta Constitution, September 3, 1892, p. 5.

27. “Like a Leper,” Atlanta Constitution, September 3, 1892, p. 5.

28. “Like a Leper,” Atlanta Constitution, September 3, 1892, p. 5.