Leather Man's life remains riddle Hermit: The identity and motivation of a 19th-century solitary ambler are a mystery to the region that keeps his legend alive.

Sun Journal

June 09, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

THOMASTON, Conn. -- In New England, a place that prizes individuals -- the more peculiar, the more cherished -- the Leather Man was and is royalty among hermits. The sad story of his lost love, ruined career, escape from reality and penance resemble the outline of a Russian novel.

For almost three decades in the late 19th century, the Leather Man was a solitary ambler, dressed entirely in leather, who walked alone on a repeated circuit west of the Connecticut River and east of the Hudson River.

He was a regional celebrity. When he died in a cave near Ossining, N.Y., in 1889, many learned about it in a lengthy obituary in the New York Times. The headline read: "His Life a Penance. The Strange Story of the Famous Vagrant, The Leather Man." No formal name was given.

For a century after his death, people have kept him alive. Sarah and LeRoy Foote talked with 400 who knew him or of him. People tell of their grandparents feeding him. Family albums show his photograph. Historical societies have mounted exhibits. Schoolchildren write essays. Local historians lecture. The regional media revive him periodically.

Hikers search out subterranean homes of the Leather Man, such as one near Thomaston, north of Waterbury. It is a dark cavity created naturally by boulders piled on top of and against each other. It kept a hiker dry and snug in a recent spring rainstorm. But none can say for sure that the Leather Man himself stayed there.

Steve Grant, a Hartford Courant reporter, is amazed at how well known the tale is: "Deli clerks and CEOs have told me Leather Man stories."

In 1993, Grant discovered the fabled but unknown circuit route long since paved over. He walked 330 miles in 30 days and talked to many. Grant feels his quarry was a man broken in spirit and suspicious of crowds but gentle and kind with children.

The Leather Man first appeared in Connecticut about 1860. He fashioned his attire from tops of discarded leather boots, patches crudely sewn together. It was said that the matched ensemble weighed 60 pounds.

He was his own dandy. His trousers reached almost to his armpits, a coat carried to his thighs, a large hat covered his head, and his wooden soles -- the only nonleather item -- clunked on pavements. He squeaked when he marched, especially when his patchwork clothes were drying out after he bathed fully clothed in rivers.

The Leather Man sauntered along a clockwise circuit every 34 days, 10 or 11 miles a day. One observer, Chauncey Hotchkiss, followed him on horseback and reported that his route was about 366 miles: 240 miles in Connecticut and 126 miles in Westchester and Putnam counties in New York. He made about 11 loops a year. The stops sometimes varied.

Before resuming his treks upon arising, he left piles of wood for his next go-round. He frequented more than 100 caves at one time or another, some said. If a cave wasn't handy when night fell, there was always a barn or a place in the woods.

The tramp had no evident means of support, other than the largess of friends. Generally, he didn't beg and didn't toil for his food. Yet families claimed it was a privilege to feed him, and he stopped regularly at certain homes. His movements were so punctual that families could plan on feeding him on specific dates.

He never ate or stayed indoors. He was slowed four days by the Great Blizzard of '88 and became ill. The Connecticut Humane Society took him away for medical care, but he fled after a short stay in a Hartford hospital.

The Leather Man was known as mild-mannered. "No one seemed to fear him," the Times obituary said. "The long staff he carried was never used save as an aid to locomotion."

He was mostly silent, eschewed money, avoided eye contact, trudged steadfastly looking down and carried a leather haversack and a cloth bag containing such worldly goods as awl, knife, ax, tobacco, pipes, frying pan, French prayer book and crucifix.

"He only grunted when spoken to," said Noah H. Quinion of Hartford, in a 1952 letter to the Courant. He said his father and grandparents knew the walker. "Grand- mother gave him a pan of milk and he drank it all before putting down the pan. If refused food, he never returned."

The Leather Man was found dead March 24, 1889, by Henry Miller and his wife, a couple who had befriended him. He died under some shelving rock, one of his homes. A coroner ruled that the cause of death was blood poisoning caused by a cancer; part of his lower jaw was gone. There was also talk of a head injury from falling. His age was unknown, but he must have been in his 50s or older.

Who was he? Where did he come from? Why the suit of leather? Why the circuit? No one knows for sure nor likely ever will.

The most common story, repeated over the years, is that he was Jules Bourglay, a native of Lyons, France. The story, simplified, goes this way:

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