Hell Bent

10,920 miles or more

None of America’s false sightings of mythical strange creatures, such as Bigfoot or Lake Champlain’s version of the Loch Ness Monster (“Champ”), can compare to that of a very real, ominous-looking, lumbering, and mostly mute wild man of the late 1800s.

Wearing a roughly-cobbled together suit of thick and unwieldy leather weighing about 60 pounds, the Leather Man of New England obsessively walked a clockwise circuit of almost 365 miles through alternating wilderness and civilization, keeping to a schedule of his own devising, for about three decades.  And when the end came in 1889, no one was any the wiser about whom the Leather Man was than they were when he first appeared as a vagabond in the late 1850s.

Leather Man of New England (frontispiece)Credit: public domain image, screen shot & photomanipulation by author

Today, the unsolved mystery of this grizzled character—driven by some inner compulsion to walk endlessly, cadging meals, and rarely vocalizing beyond grunts or the occasional French-tinged phrase—remains unsolved.  But this rough-hewn character has found an enduring place in the lore of the American Northeast.

The Man from Nowhere
America in the mid 1800s was still very much an open frontier in most places, with wanderers traveling the scanty dirt roads or blazing their own trails as they saw fit.

Many, like Jonathan Chapman (a/k/a, “Johnny Appleseed”), ventured into what were then wilderness lands to seek out a way of life and profits from a business.  Others might have been disenfranchised by circumstances.  Many immigrants, upon reaching the major port of New York City found that place not anything like home, and elected to keep moving into the hinterlands for their own piece of the American Dream. 

And still others were ne’er-do-wells whose life of hoboing (or “on the tramp”) on the open roads was preferable to settling into the responsibilities of functioning, civilized persons.

Just before the start of the American Civil War, the footpaths and wilderness roads saw many vagabonds on the tramp, most looking for work, but perhaps just as many looking for a handout.

One such stranger plodding through America’s woodlands and small towns showed up in 1858, making his first remarked upon appearances in and around western Connecticut and in Westchester and Putnam Counties in nearby eastern New York State.  However, this was no ordinary vagabond looking for work on the family farm or for merely a free meal.

Seen from a distance this hobo was a lurking, dark, brutish, and frightening figure.  He carried a knurled, handmade walking stick, and his gait was shuffling and lumbering.

The strangeness Leather Man (with cap removed)Credit: public domainof his stride came as no great shock when he was finally seen at closer quarters by the curious—he wore a crudely-formed billed cap, an outsized suit consisting of a greatcoat and trousers that came up to his mid chest, and heavy boots. 

All of these items were made of thick slabs of heavy leather, and were coarsely stitched together in a rough patchwork that had to make movement difficult.  The stitching that held the swatches of rough-finished hide together was not finely tailored, but was largish thongs holding the parts together through awl-punched holes.  The boots in particular were cumbersome—they were fashioned from thick blocks of wood for the sole with the heavy leather uppers affixed to them with stitching and hobnails. 

All total this crazed leather suit weighed an astounding 60 pounds (27 kg), fairly close to weighing what the average medieval knight wore in ground combat body armor!  His shirt was of a woolen material, much mended.

Up close, the hulk was seen to be a slightly built man, made large by his suit.  He was about 5’7” (about 170 cm) and weighed around 160 pounds (almost 72 kg).  He had dark matted hair, was indifferently shaven, and his personal hygiene (the smell of body odor captured in the leather suit) was similarly off-putting.

Furthermore, he did not speak to those he met.  He grunted, used crude hand signs, and occasionally uttered words that some took for French or possibly the bastardized French-Canadian speech residents of the Hudson River Valley heard thanks to river traffic. 

His clothing led to the moniker “The Leather Man”, and that was the only name he was known by during his life as he never told anyone his true name.

It was clear from his garb and traveling gear (handmade tools and some other necessary items stored in a handmade leather rucksack), however, that not only was The Leather Man prepared for life in the wilds he had been out in it for some time before his presence was noticed in Connecticut.

Stick to What You Know
From then on, he became a fixture in a clockwise walking route that covered almost 365 miles in a loop along the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound, touching nearly to the Hudson River in New York, then northerly through New York and into Connecticut again, and then east and south back toward the Long Island Sound shoreline.

Towns traveled through included Ossining and Peekskill (New York), and Danbury, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and Greenwich (in Connecticut)—more than two dozen villages and towns lay in his path.

The Leather Man’s visitations to farms and towns alike became routine, with his passing through the same points along his chosen circuit roughly once every 34 days.

Leather Man walking circuitCredit: leathermansloop.org

From the start, however, it was obvious that this particular vagabond was not the typical bum on the tramp.

He came to the doors of farm kitchens, presenting a striking appearance with his home-made leather outfit, asking for neither work nor lodging but making it clear that he would accept a Leather Man (rough)Credit: npr.orgmeal.

He did not speak but seemed to mumble incomprehensibly, and made an impression on those who were generous to him by returning regularly every month or so for another visit.  He kept these regular visits up all the year round to certain farmsteads, in some cases for 25 years or more.

Attempts to engage him in conversation, to glean personal information, were met with silence or grunts. 

The curious did many things to entice him to tell of his past, and many tales were created as a back-story for the wanderer.

Some concluded he was an escapee from a mental institution (of which there were a few in America). 

Others thought he had been wronged in love by a woman and was paying some kind of twisted penance by obsessively walking his route, day in and day out, year in and year out.

At least on one documented occasion town ruffians tried to use whiskey to loosen the Leather Man’s tongue.  A group set upon him and forced the burning liquid in his mouth.  He raged and fought with them and did not appreciate the alcohol (though known to drink beer and occasionally brandy, he was not reported to have been an imbiber of whiskey).  He managed to escape; the thugs learned nothing from him of his past.

Not an Obsession
Today, there are categories for people who engage in obsessively routine or ritualistic behaviors, such as feeling compelled to touch every picket of a picket fence as a person with such a problem might do when walking along.

The Leather Man’s behavior, however, does not fit with someone who had an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  People with OCD never vary from their rituals.

The Leather Man did.

In the wilderness he used naturally occurring caves for shelters, but did not always seek comfort in the same ones time and again.  Some of these weren’t true caves but were lean-tos formed when sandstone slabs crashed down and created a crude roof and walls to be used like a cave.  The Leather Man had many such places to hole up in, and while he might use a certain one more than once he did not obsessively seek out the same ones time and again. 

Leather Man stone sheltersCredit: public domain images; composite & captioning by author

As he considered these rock shelters “his”, he stocked firewood near each shelter for later use.

In an anecdote about one of these shelters (called the “Tories’ Den”) a boy came across the shelter and spent the night there; he built a fire from wood found near the shelter.  Going home the next day the boy told his mother of his overnight adventure.  The woman asked where he’d gotten the firewood.  Based on the location of the rock shelter, she knew this was one of the Leather Man’s haunts; she forced the boy to march the few miles back to the shelter and replace what he’d used.

Planning with care by stacking wood for later use is not a compulsion, it is merely good sense. 

His clothing, too, showed a lack of a compulsive disorder.  Most of the material he used in making his bizarre outfit had been picked up as discards or was given to him.  Much of it was the uppers from old boots.

The crudeness of design and construction, coupled with the fact that he required the occasional services of a tanner to treat the leather to keep it supple, speaks volumes about his past.  [It would later be claimed he was a broker and worker of fine leather in his past—his garb’s appearance and his reliance on others for servicing, as well as for materials, said otherwise.]

The Leather Man was obsessed with one thing, however, and that was eating.  He knew where to cadge his meals, what farms were most accommodating, and which farmer’s wives would not be stingy with his victuals.  Reports of his prodigious appetite were common. 

He was also a lover of tobacco.  Most of what he consumed he found along his route in the form of used cigar stubs.  Sometimes people gave him gifts of tobacco or cigars as well.  Mostly, he smoked his tobacco tamped tightly into a homemade pipe with a tin pipe stem.

Lazing in the Leather
The American Civil War, almost from its start in early 1861, saw many displaced people looking for different environs.

Some were men dodging a draft.

Others, having paid for a substitute to go in their stead, took the opportunity to uproot and try life in a different place.

Still others, trying to avoid the devastation of conflict and the resultant hardships left behind (particularly in the South where the battling was greatest) moved to places away from the fighting (as did the family of legendary Old West gunslinger, Doc Holliday).

The Leather Man was apparently not of the class of vagabonds looking for work.  He occasionally had money (that he might have begged or found) and sometimes spent at generalLeather Man (classic image, June 9, 1885)Credit: public domain stores.

There are no reports of his accepting work in exchange for food or of his working for wages.  He apparently lived off the kindness of the people he met along his route, relying, perhaps, on his minor celebrity to gain entry and a free meal.

Certainly, he foraged for himself and had occasion to probably trap small game or prepare his own foods; among the handmade tools in his rucksack was a store-bought iron skillet.

Because of a plague of transients Connecticut enacted a “tramp law” (criminalizing hobos and vagabonds who were not seeking gainful employment but were generally freeloading, begging, and making nuisances of themselves) in 1879.  Because of his celebrity (and relative harmlessness and eccentricity) ten Connecticut towns along his route exempted him by town ordinance from the law.  

Man of the Hour
Attempts to put a history to the Leather Man led to a bogus story in the Waterbury Daily American (August 16, 1884).  The “biography” presented in that article is fantastic to say the least.

He was allegedly born sometime in the 1820s in Lyons, France, into a family of relatively prosperous woodcutters named Bourglay.  The boy was named Jules.  Later in life, he met the daughter of a very wealthy leather merchant, Margaret Laron.  Jules Bourglay wanted to marry this girl, but her father objected on the grounds that the class differences between Bourglay’s woodcutter family and Laron’s station were too great to overcome. 

Needing to prove himself to his future father-in-law Jules Bourglay begged for a chance to show he could provide well for Laron’s daughter.  He was offered employment at one of Laron’s leather works; if he could make his way in the family business he could marry Laron’s daughter.

Jules Bourglay worked at various tasks until he was given the responsibility of becoming a buyer of leather on the company’s behalf.  According to the story, in 1855 he made a large leather purchase on the open market.  The price of leather, as a commodity, though, dropped by 40% almost overnight when a new tanning process was popularized, leaving the supply he bought worth much less than the cash he’d put out for it.  The material could only be sold at a great loss.

Apparently, this one transaction was so financially disastrous that Laron’s leather business was ruined.  Jules Bourglay was banished from Laron’s sight—forbidden to marry the girl he wanted the homeless Bourglay wandered around Lyons before becoming the ward of a local physician.

The doctor took care of Bourglay’s basic needs for the next two years.  And according to the tale, Bourglay just up and left France without warning one day.  [The story can be shown as untrue by simply looking at the Leather Man’s outfit.  Had he truly once been a leather worker he would have shown more skill and finer work in his own clothes.]

Before the time he showed up in Harwinton, Connecticut, it can only be presumed he begged around Europe before either stowing away or finally having enough money to book passage to America. 

Variations of the basic story claim Bourglay, while working at the leather factory, accidentally caused a fire that burned down the facility, thus earning the wrath of his future father-in-law.  Another version stated he earned the displeasure of the leather merchant thanks to his bad Leather Man (full gear)Credit: rep-am.combookkeeping.

Regardless, these deviations ended with Jules Bourglay’s being jobless and disowned by his fiancée’s father.

With no hope left, he sailed for America and became the Leather Man, apparently as some form of self-imposed penance, suffering the isolation of a hermit and the physical hardships of living hand-to-mouth.

The tale of Jules Bourglay became accepted as truth about the Leather Man (even though the Waterbury Daily American would recant the story on three separate occasions within a few years.  [Another newspaper, The Meriden Daily Journal, also discredited the tale on March 29, 1889.] 

The popularity of the Leather Man was evidenced by opportunists who used his image for promotional purposes.  Despite his reticence to talk about himself, most of the time he consented to sit and be photographed.  Some more enterprising merchants pasted his picture on store placards or postcards advertising their businesses.  It is unlikely (though unclear) if the Leather Man was ever given anything in the way of recompense for his sittings (other than a free meal).

New York Times (headline, Aug. 22, 1886)Credit: public domain images; concept & composite by author

He garnered another write-up in the August 22, 1886, edition of the venerable New York Times.  This article described his route, his appearance, and made it clear his identity was unknown.

It also guessed his age at about 45 years.

Though he had spent many winters out in the open (or holed up in one of his shelters) the winter of 1888 was particularly brutal.  People seeing the Leather Man on his route noticed he had an open sore on the left side of his lip.  This was presumed to have been from frostbite received during the Great Blizzard of 1888 (from March 11-March 14, 20-60 inches—about 50-152 cm—of snow fell over most of New England).

His frostbitten lip only grew worse.  It became malignant and parts of his lip and cheek became eaten away.  Those attending him during that time noted that any solid foods he first dissolved in water or coffee (chewing was apparently painful by then).  He then placed a thick piece of leather over the affected place on his mouth before consuming the resultant slurry.

It was obvious by early 1889 that the Leather Man’s “sore” was mouth cancer (most likely from his frequent pipe smoking). 

In perhaps one of the strangest interventions in history The Connecticut Humane Society (!) took note of the bad place on his mouth.  By this time, much of his cheek and most of his lower lip were eaten away.  Presuming it was from frostbite, the Society managed to have the Leather Man arrested and put into a hospital.

The Leather Man did not linger—he promptly escaped and continued as before. 

On March 24, 1889, a woman out near one of the Leather Man’s caves made a shocking find.

In his preferred shelter in Saw Mill Woods on the Dell farm in Briarcliff (near Ossining, New York), she found the body of the Leather Man.  While unclear as to exactly how long he had been dead, what was clear at his autopsy was that he died of cancer.

Grave Errors
Going through his meager possessions did not shed any light on his identity.

His rucksack contained some leather working tools (scissors and awls).  He also had a wedge for splitting wood, a small hatchet, and an extra axe head along with his iron skillet and smaller utensils.

Among his effects was a prayer book written in French; the conclusion was drawn he was from France (or he could have simply picked it up on his travels—perhaps illiterate, he might had gained a simple pleasure from having a book).  Similarly, because he tended to eschew eating of meat on Fridays it was believed he was a Roman Catholic.

Leather Man (tools)Credit: screen shot by author

It is there the Jules Bourglay tale was given new life; within days, however, the newspapers were denying the story written in 1884 as pure fancy.

He was first buried in Sparta Cemetery in Scarborough, New York.

Because the idea of burying the Leather Man sans identity was so appalling, he was presumed to be Jules Bourglay.  And just like Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone there were problems with the location of the Leather Man’s grave.

Jules Bourglay version of Leath Man's headstoneCredit: compostie & captioning by author

In about 1919, the daughter of the woman who had found the Leather Man dead in his cave had brought some friends out to view the grave.  While there may have once been a wooden marker when she got to the site there was nothing in place.  She indicated a spot on the ground where she was sure the Leather Man’s body lay, and an iron pipe was hammered in the ground.

Much later a full-sized stone with an engraved plaque was placed at this spot:

Jules Bourglay
who regularly walked a 365 mile route
through Westchester and Connecticut from
the Connecticut River to the Hudson
living in caves in the years

Leather Man (reburial and new monument, 2011)Credit: composite & captioning by author

The Leather Man’s grave was less than 20 feet (a bit over 6 m) away from Route 9.  A need arose to move it further out from the right-of-way.Leather Man [endpiece]Credit: connecticuthistory.org

In 2011 the grave site indicated originally by the woman who had placed the iron pipe was dug up.  Anticipation was great as expectations of doing genetic testing might have helped resolve the identity issue.

However, there was nothing of merit in the grave.  The only things found were some nails presumed to be coffin nails.  There were no human remains.

It was obvious to all present that the woman in the early part of the 20th Century had misidentified the site.  Short of digging up everything within 100 feet (30 meters or so) the movers elected to take the nails and some of the grave’s dirt and re-inter those in a wooden box deeper inside the cemetery. 

The Jules Bourglay myth had been discarded by then.  On May 25, 2011, a new monument was placed over the site where nothing of the Leather Man lies, though the plaque on the stone reads: “The Leatherman”. 

His identity and purpose both remain mysteries, but ones that people in Connecticut and eastern New York cherish.


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