Railroad Jack, the "Intellectual Hobo"
A self-made celebrity on college campuses, he now rests in peace in Ann Arbor.
by Dave McCormick
From the October, 2021 issue
The June 5, 1959, edition of the Ann Arbor News included some unsettling news. A group of Main St. businessmen were musing about the final resting place of Ann Arbor's colorful "intellectual hobo," Harry "Railroad Jack" Cooper. Their concern was that when he was laid to rest a quarter-century earlier, no effort had been made to provide a grave marker.
Determined to rectify the situation, they decided to pass the hat to collect the money needed. But no sooner had the story appeared than the paper's switchboard lit up: Cooper's grave was already marked, and a photo at St. Thomas Cemetery proved it.
"Question, Question, who's got a question? Come on now, give 'em to me fast." That was Railroad Jack's challenge as he invited people to test his remarkable memory in Ann Arbor and other Midwestern college towns during the 1920s and 30s.
Born Harry Cooper in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sometime around 1854 (though one source puts it as late as 1860), Cooper adopted the tag "Railroad Jack" while writing for a railroad periodical. A walking history book and sometime lecturer, he rode the rails as a young man, not in a boxcar but in a hammock suspended below its undercarriage.
Jack earned his other title, the "intellectual hobo," fairly, as he possessed a remarkable memory and was said to never miss the answer to a question.
His feats were celebrated in papers across the country, the Washington Post and the New York Times among them. According to one report, when a U-M student asked, "What important events happened in the year 1820?" Jack shot back: "Daniel Webster was thirty-eight years old. King George III died that year." Asked "What were the circumstances under which Anne Boleyn died?" he rattled off the following: "As a result of believing in the double standard of morality, through the influence of her despised husband, Henry VIII, the ax fell on her pretty neck in 1536."
Following his days on the
rails, the Ann Arbor campus became his stomping ground. On the campus students would gather around him, loaded with questions. He was regarded with great affection, not least by the businessmen who felt the need to mark his passage.
It's surprising that Jack was buried at all. He had said he planned to donate his body--or at least his brain--to the University of Michigan, in hopes its scientists could find the source of his unmatched memory.
That plan was stymied by Fr. Thomas Carey, the pastor of St. Thomas Catholic Church. The good father, more concerned with Jack's soul than his brain, saw to his burial in the church cemetery on October 10, 1933. From his place of eternal rest, visitors can hear his beloved trains chugging by.
[Originally published in October, 2021.]
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