Kelsey’s Run rambles through the flatlands of Conneaut Township Park, carving graceful curves in the grassy area just north of Lake Road and slipping quietly under the two stone bridges in its final stretch toward Lake Erie.
Nearly a century ago, this sylvan scene was pocked with shanties and other crude shelters assembled from whatever discarded hatch covers the seamen who lived here could carry “home.” These “jungles” were a fixture at virtually every port on the Great Lakes, but it has been said that Conneaut’s encampment was among the most exotic of the lot.
A gas line that passed through the area provided fuel for cooking and warmth — a hole drilled through the pipe was all that was needed to access the free utility. According to Dwight Boyer’s “Strange Adventures of the Great Lakes,” the Great Lakes hobos who made the oasis their home hounded the bakeries, butcher shops and benevolent residents to scrounge up their daily bread, meat and vegetables. Dairy products were easily acquired by lagging behind the milkman by a few houses and helping oneself to what he left on the porches that morning.
Of all the Great Lakes hobos who encamped and dined on this spot, none is as legendary as Jumbo Lynch. Weighing in at around 365 pounds, Jumbo certainly could live up to his name on the attributes of girth and weight alone.
“He was so big that he would completely fill up the door into the fire hold, like a tennis ball in a kitchen drain, but he moved about pretty lively when the porter rang the meal bell,” recalled Gordon Hagadone, who was a cook on the Great Lakes for 42 years and is quoted in Boyer’s book.
But it was his jumbo appetite that gave him a name that became so associated with his being that everyone forgot what was his “real first name” was. Some of the old sailors recalled it as “Al”; other said it was Henry, Herman, James, Vincent or Patrick.
While Boyer’s story focuses on Lynch’s sailing days, according to a short article in the June 1954 Railroad Magazine, Jumbo Lynch spent some time riding the rails before signing on Great Lakes vessels as a fireman.
“Tom Rooney swears this one is true,” states the article. “He used to know this big guy named ‘Jumbo’ Lynch, a native from Ontario, Canada, who walked off his job on the Rock Island in the switchmen’s strike of 1909 and thereafter worked for years aboard ships on the Great Lakes. When ice closed the navigation season Jumbo would ride around the country on phony railroad-union receipts, for he was a bogus member of all orders and could beg the brothers out of meals, lodgings or hard-earned cash.
“He had a trick card-case with various compartments, each containing a traveling card and receipts of a lodge: Trainmen, Switchmen, Fireman, Engineers — Jumbo had them all. Approaching a prospect wearing a Trainman’s button, for example, the big fellow would present his BRT credentials; but if the man wore no insigne and was of doubtful value, the parasite would question him somewhat like this:
“ ‘Are you a Trainman?’
“ ‘No, I’m not,’” the fellow might reply. ‘I wouldn’t belong to that outfit. I’ve carried a Switchmen’s Union card for 20 years.’
“Thereupon Jumbo would flip over his SU card and say: ‘You an’ me, brother,’ and the prospect was usually good for fifty cents or a dollar. But woe unto any man who was beguiled into loaning Jumbo his ‘pie-book,’ this being a card or booklet good for a certain number of meals at a given restaurant.”
A light breakfast
Boyer devoted an entire chapter, “Please Pass the Pancakes,” to this sailor. According to his interviews with captains, stewards and other firemen who fed and worked with fireman Lynch, his typical breakfast would consist of:
- 20 to 30 pancakes;
- a dozen eggs;
- a pound or more of bacon;
- stack of toast;
- a gallon of coffee.
His noon and evening meals were even more ambitious. In the early 1920s, while Lynch was working on the Pere Marquete No. 19, a Lake Michigan car ferry, a mate decided to see just how much food it would take to fill the colossal gut of Jumbo Lynch. The cook, Gordon Hagadone, prepared an entire pork loin and cut it into 24 chops. Lynch ate every one of them, along with two bowls of vegetables, three loaves of bread and a peck of potatoes, mashed.
“Even then he sort of looked around, wistfully, as if hoping more would be coming,” Hagadone told Boyer. “He had downed as much as six or seven ordinary men.”
Hagadone also witnessed Jumbo traumatize a traveling salesman.
“There was this tavern at Mitchell and Kinnickinnic Streets, where the sailors used to hang around between jobs,” Hagadone told Boyer. “Jumbo was there, hungry and broke as usual, when this salesman came in to talk to the proprietor. Well, Jumbo sidles up to the salesman and hits him up for some change. The salesman, thinking that he wanted it for a drink, says no, but that if he was hungry he would take him to the nearby restaurant and fill him up. Brother, he didn’t know what was coming. We did, and some of us went along to watch.
“In those days you could buy a chicken dinner, complete with the dumplings, vegetables and the works, for thirty-five cents. The poor guy just stood there speechless while Jumbo dug in, but when the bill had reached five dollars he cut him off. The salesman was so impressed that he arranged to meet Jumbo at the same place the next Sunday for a repeat performance, saying that he wanted to bring some friends along to watch, that they wouldn’t believe him otherwise.”
Boyer quoted a marine supply company operator from Buffalo who recalled delivering a bushel of apples to the steamer Herbert F. Black. Jumbo decided to sample one of the apples and continued to sample them until the entire bushel was gone. About that time the dinner bell rang, and Jumbo reported to the galley, where he downed enough food for five men.
Lynch’s huge appetite drove up the cost of a vessel’s food bill, and the word was spread among ship owners to shun him at virtually all costs. Capt. John P. Perkins of the John W. Gates told Boyer that his cook, Jim Lovely, resorted to bribery to keep Jumbo off the vessel.
As soon as Lovely learned that a fireman had been paid off and a replacement was sought, he would post a watch at the dock gate to see who showed up for the job. If Jumbo was seen approaching the ship, the galley staff would pool its monetary resources and Lovely would offer it as a bribe to keep him from coming aboard.
Lynch had a huge financial problem, however — his appetite was so great, he could not support it on his wages or bribes alone. He had to sail so he could he could enjoy the benefit of free food. That meant that he was often relegated to ships that had the reputation for being “hard firing,” that is it took a lot of coal and physical labor on the part of the firemen to keep them running. Turnover on those vessels was high, but for Jumbo, they often were the only option.
His appetite made it challenging for the cooks to keep pace with his gluttony and the crew to get their cut of the meal.
“He’d sit down to the breakfast table, and when the porter would bring out a big platter of pancakes, eggs and bacon he’d just pull the whole platter over in front of him and start eating. All the other men would have to wait for more eggs and bacon, but by that time Jumbo would be ready for another helping. The ‘line’ boats were not on a budget and old ‘Roast Beef’ Charlie Hone of the Tionesta used to do his best to fill him up, but if he ever did Jumbo wouldn’t admit it.”
Indeed, Jumbo had a way of infuriating the cook when he complained of not getting enough to eat. One cook eventually gave the captain an ultimatum, “Either he goes or I do.” With the loss of the galley staff being the first step toward mutiny, Jumbo often found himself on the dock looking for another job.
Boyer writes that Jumbo seemed to have a fondness for Conneaut, whose sailor amenities included the Seamen’s Bethel, which stood at the northeast corner of Day Street and Park Avenue. Operated by the Congregational Church, the bethel was a temporary haven with reading room, bunks and Sunday church service.
Jumbo was a frequent visitor to the bethel, especially as his reputation with captains and galley staff became well established on the lakes and work became impossible to find. Sailors would donate a coin or two to Jumbo Lynch, who begged on the steps of the bethel and headed to the nearby Greek restaurant whenever he had accumulated enough for a Jumbo-sized meal.
Boyer notes that when the bethel burned down, the word on the street was that 6,000 lives were lost, all of them bedbugs.
Worm to blame
Lynch’s amazing appetite, it would eventually be discovered, was the product of an equally impressive tapeworm.
Tapeworms live in the digestive tract, and in the early 20th century were a fairly common affliction because refrigeration was not widespread. A segment of a worm buried in some putrid fish or meat is all it took to introduce the parasite into the human body, where it would grow to some pretty amazing lengths.
In the case of Jumbo Lynch, the worm that was removed from him at Marine Hospital in Chicago has been described as being anywhere from 4 to 30 feet in length. The previously mentioned Gordon Hagadone told Boyer that he saw the creature in a jar of alcohol and “as I remember it, it was darned near 30 feet.”
With the parasite removed, much of Jumbo’s appetite, weight and vigor disappeared. Eventually, so did Jumbo. He just seemed to vanish from the familiar haunts like the hobo village at Kelsey’s Run. It was the end of an era.
No one knows where Jumbo Lynch died or was buried, but most likely it is in some potter’s field, for he evidently had no home but the lakes, no family but other sailors, and no love other than food.