"The poor shall always be with you" say the Gospels. The urban homeless of today had their counterparts in our rural past, surviving at the very margins of society. English Common Law, the basis for most early American legal codes,addressed the issue of "masterless men" with vagrancy laws, making it a crime to "go without visible means of support." Puritan theology and Yankee industry condemned the idle and unproductive, and vagrants were often "warned-out" of communities and driven to the frontier of the settled lands. At the same time, towns in colonial New England had the legal responsibility to provide for the indigent, and there are even examples of Massachusetts laws assuming a degree of responsibility for the mentally ill. One law dating from 1660 stipulated:
"Children, Idiots, Distracted persons, and all that are strangers, or new commers [sic] to our plantation, shall have such allowances and dispensations in any Cause whether Criminall [sic] or other as religion and reason require [sic]."
In the 19th century, there were some well-known vagrants and rural eccentrics whose presence was not only tolerated by society but even celebrated by it. Last week I wrote about one of these, the reclusive hermit Sarah Bishop who lived for thirty years in a cave in the mountains at the boundary of Ridgefield, Connecticut and North Salem, New York. The generation after the Civil War produced another remarkable homeless person who also made use of caves and whose regular wanderings inspired great interest and a trove of regional folklore. His legend persists even today, and as recently as 1998 was even the inspiration for a song by Pearl Jam.
He was known as "The Leatherman" for the heavy suit of hand-stitched leather that was his only clothing. His one known photograph was taken by 19-year-old James Frances Rodgers of Branford, Connecticut and while clearly "posed" it is a remarkably candid and disturbing portrait. He looks furtive and uncomfortable before the camera, his hand before his mouth and his body bulky and misshapen within his 60 pounds of patchwork leather. He looks like the subject of a sideshow display, and indeed there was at least one attempt to entice him to join a freak show.
But the Leatherman was a benign and restless spirit, and though a creature of habit he did not remain more than one night in any of the communities he visited. He did return, however, for the other exceptional think about this irregular person was the exceptional regularity of his peregrinations from town to town. Every 34 days, he completed a clockwise circuit of 365 miles between the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. Ghostvillage.com provides a rich trove of Leatherman legends, as well as this wonderful map of the Leatherman's route, which passed through the southern towns of the Litchfield Hills:
There were many vagabonds on the rural roads of America following the Civil War, but the Leatherman was not an ordinary tramp. He supposedly first appeared in 1862 in Harwinton, Connecticut, and was a fixture in the communities he visited until in 1889 he finally succumbed in a cave in Ossining, New York in 1889. Very little is known for certain of his background, for he spoke little but was thought to understand French. The historic marker on his grave at the Sparta Cemetery identifies him as Joules Bourglay although subsequent efforts to confirm his origins have failed. His past was greatly embellished in his own day and in New England folklore and remains largely an enigma today.
Such an unusual person attracted great interest, especially from children who often escorted him in and out of the towns where he appeared. People got so that they could pinpoint the day of his arrival and marked it in their day books and ledgers. As a wonderful piece on the Leatherman at curbstone.org recounts:
"In each community he passed through, the Leatherman had identified a home or two where he knew friendly people would provide food whenever he appeared. A "host" family became accustomed to preparing a simple meal and setting it on the back doorstep for the eccentric tramp, every thirty-four days. For no matter what the season of year or the weather conditions, the Leatherman inevitably showed up -- virtually at the same hour -- according to that precise schedule, for a period of nearly thirty years! Only in his last few years did the schedule vary and the interval between visits increase, sometimes -- as during the famous "Blizzard of '88" -- to as many as forty days. But as late as 1884-1885 he made nineteen consecutive trips of exactly thirty-four days each. It was probably inevitable that such predictable behavior would make a lasting impression on folk living in the 'Land of Steady Habits.'"
He slept in caves, and cut and stored firewood before leaving so it would be dry and ready for his next visit. Some of these "Leatherman caves" are known by that name today, and more than a few were the den sites of rattlesnakes that did not appear to phase him. He was non-verbal - never known to speak a word of English - but made his wants known with gestures. He had a strong appetite - known to consume at one sitting "two cans of sardines, a loaf of bread, a pound of milk crackers, a quarter-pie, two quarts and two cups of coffee, a gill of brandy and a bottle of beer", and sometimes he purchased supplies along his route. This gave rise to the legend that he had a small fortune secreted away in his caves, but fruitless treasure hunting failed to produce any evidence of this following his death. In fact, there were numerous stories in the press after he died of ghostly sightings of the Leatherman, and even some copycat imitators wandering the roads of rural new England clad in leather suits.
With a few recorded exceptions, the Leatherman was not harassed and was generally treated with respect and fondness by the curious townsfolk whose lives he touched. he became part of the fabric of the communities through which he passed, as regular as the seasons and as accepted as the other patterns of village life. When he was found with frozen hands and feet near Hartford during the brutal Blizzard of 1888, the Leatherman was taken to hospital where it was learned that he was also suffering from cancer of the lip. He developed from the institution as soon as he was able but time and age were catching up with him and he died a year later.
As we approach Hallowe'en, there are likely to be stories in our local papers retelling the legend of the Leatherman. His eccentricities may have been madness, but of a comfortable sort to those who marveled at his endurance despite his afflictions and who looked forward to his next visits. No wonder his restless spirit shuffles through our modern imaginations.